Beau Desert’s general manager discusses how the club plans to emerge from the shadow of Covid and the work that’s going on to enhance its position as one of England’s best courses
Tell us a little bit about Beau Desert…
It’s a Herbert Fowler course and one of only 16 courses that is solely Fowler. It is subtle in its design, and both risk and reward is apparent.
The greens are probably its most prominent feature, in the sense that they’re very undulating. They’re also quite big in areas and if you miss in the wrong place, you’re going to struggle to get up and down. We are on the Cannock Chase, which is an area of outstanding natural beauty. It’s just lovely scenery throughout; as you walk round there is a sense of calm and isolation and you’re left to enjoy the challenge of the game.
As we speak, there’s hope regarding the pandemic but it isn’t going away any time soon. How do we keep what has been a ‘golden summer’ going? How do you see Beau Desert moving forward?
We have a full membership with a two-year waiting list. As a team we strive to look after our members, and do the right thing by them, we therefore can still look at 2021 as being positive.
We have to be cautious – we’ve gone down the road of doing a budget, which is based on six months under a Covid scenario, and six months of normal business.
Ultimately, no-one is certain of what is going to happen in 2021, and how clubs will be able to operate.
On that basis, it just means we need to be a little bit more careful about how we spend and being careful with our flexible costs.
It is, however, important not to be too cautious where we stop investing; everyone appreciates that a year not advancing, is a year where you go backwards.
At Beau, we brought in architect Ken Moodie, and at the beginning of last year, he produced a course design plan for us, which is exciting for us all – the team and members alike.
There are some amazing ideas where he can take some of the holes to another level – and those who have played at Beau will know that is some statement!
We’re going to invest in that design over a number of years, which also incorporates the reconstruction of bunkers, which has been the weakest area of the golf course.
Over the last two years, managing the heathland aspect has also been imperative in our plans, particularly in keeping the values of Fowler in his original layout.
Because a heathland is always moving towards becoming a woodland, thinning out of the tree line for all the reasons of light and airflow is a necessity for the playing surfaces, however we are always mindful of what is taken down and what can stay.
We want to remain a heathland. We have to manage that, and that costs money. We have committed a significant amount in the winter to carry on with that and a couple of other winter projects.
What we’ve already done has gone down well with members and visitors. Some are cautious about taking trees out but we recognise that we’re a little bit behind some courses – such as Alwoodley and those in Surrey – that have been managing their heathland for a number of years. I think you’ve got to then illustrate it to people. People buy with their eyes. They buy with the people they talk to and so service around the club is important.
We’ve just recruited into the team a new club professional – Chris Cousins – to develop that side of the business. We’re not increasing subscriptions and it is about managing ourselves through these Covid times.
We have been able to keep the fees exactly the same for 2021; in addition Beau has invested into the golf course and facilities, which we hope conveys a positive message to our members.
Even though 2020 brought a golf boom, I think when the recession arrives people will be looking at their disposable income. They may not be in a position to have a membership, or pay £100 for a green fee, and that’s something that we all need to be conscious of.
But I do think the more premier courses and stronger clubs are in a position where they can get even stronger, if they positively invest in who they are and what they do, and remember they have got their base of 600 loyal members that support the club.
How easy is it to bring members on that journey of tree removal? Restoring original intentions is nice, but it’s difficult to always convince members of the need for that when they may have joined because it was heavily wooded…
It is difficult. We brought in John Nicholson, who did a course woodland report for us, and he presented it to a select group and then to the wider membership.
People often talk about communication but it’s only the way you can do it.
You try and give all the reasons so people can understand what’s going on. To see a living tree be cut down will always understandably create a discussion.
We showed and illustrated what was possible and reasons why – to promote the natural heathland ecosystem and environment. That gave us enough scope to be able to do a sizeable project on our 1st hole, and between the 11th and 12th holes.
Now the members have seen that, the objection is about making sure we’re careful along the way.
So you’ve got to communicate. You’ve got to spend a bit of time. You can’t go in there with a chainsaw and do it without the members knowing. That would be foolish.
How important are rankings to what you’re doing in terms of improvements? You’re very well established in England lists and are in the top 100 in GB&I. Does it make a difference to Beau Desert?
100%. One of the things I’ve worked on is trying to develop relationships with publications and chat to them. At the end of the day, members of a club like to see their club’s name up in lights. They love that association because they are proud of their choice of membership.
We are included in NCG’s Top 100s and Golf World’s Top 100 UK and Ireland. I’ve had quite a number of golfers visit Beau and share how these rankings incentivised them to play the course.
We all like credibility. Word of mouth and referrals are always the number one influence on people buying.
So whether it’s an experience of a visitor playing in an Open, or it’s a member out with friends in their local restaurant, if someone says ‘you’ve got to play there’ it always makes an impression.
When you read it a magazine, you are going to say ‘I’ve heard about that’.
Then you see there’s an NCG Top 100s Tour, or it could be a local Open and that’s your opportunity.
You’ve gone through three stages of hearing about Beau Desert and, all of a sudden, ‘I’m going to play it’.
Fortunately, people who play this golf course tend to really enjoy their experience and that makes us as a staff team all feel good and proud.
People would have traditionally thought of Beau Desert as an archetypal private members’ club. Is that something you’re trying to change and are you having success?
I think so. The board started an idea of a five-year plan before I arrived. In my interview I talked very much about not being a secretary or even an administrator. My attitude now – based on the different roles I have held, is that ultimately it’s about what I am responsible for. I’m a General Manager – I look at the things we need to do to go forward.
The Board are great with me, both in support and shared vision. Decisions can be a bit slower than maybe you’d like, and you have to debate it a little bit but that’s the nature of the beast; we get to where we want to and we’re definitely moving things positively forward.
Being a General Manager at a members’ club can be mentally gruelling, because of the difficulties of getting everybody joined up and pointing in the same direction.
You’ve personal preferences, you’ve got emotive subjects and varied points of view.
So I’d have to say we are changing. That is ultimately down to the fact that the board work collectively and they do support my ethos and me.
Then there is the link between my staff and me. I’m very much a team player. I want people to do their own jobs. I’m not telling the bar manager how to be a bar manager or the pro how to be a pro, but as a General Manger I am there to guide and to support their professional development, and enhance their performance.
In a place like this, we need to have experienced people to do the right job. You need to give them the platform to do the job and just work in the right guidelines.
I’ve promoted a team analogy to help that change. You talk about team, you talk about colleagues and you don’t talk about ‘I’s’.
It’s very simple stuff but it’s whether you’re actually doing it.
You need it because there are always a handful of members in every club ready to challenge the board or staff; they will sit in the bar and say ‘that general manager or that pro or that greenkeeper’. Often staff can end up fuelling these perceptions, so we spend time talking about not allowing that to happen.
I’m looking back to the issue of Tyrrell Hatton’s hoodie at Wentworth. Private members’ clubs can be in a difficult position in this territory and it’s much easier for commercial operations to deal with some of the changes we’re seeing in golf. In a private club, there are lots of different opinions about what the game should look like and they all count. How do you manage a situation like that?
You go head on. We had a board meeting on the Monday and one of the first questions I asked was ‘what do you think about the hoodie at the weekend?
Just by doing that, you are raising the thought process and you’re giving them the opportunity to think about it.
The feeling was quite favourable. Nobody said they didn’t like it. The people that did speak up said they liked it.
Ultimately, for me, it was smart. I do believe in being smart on the golf course and he was smart and I think it was good to see.
Yes, people will put that stigma to a members’ club. But that’s only because of members being of a certain age and it is always going to be harder to change that.
Let me frame the question then in a slightly different way. Are private members’ clubs, and clubs like yours, more progressive than perhaps the wider public give them credit for?
Yes. I don’t think we are far away from jeans and things that like here – obviously not for the golf course, but for the clubhouse. Once I think we are allowed to use our clubhouse more normally, there is a definite appetite on our board to update the dress code and the thinking behind it.
That kind of philosophy extends to other areas of the club. Not getting stuck on dress codes but the idea that the game is changing and we need to move along with it. It’s keeping your history while moving forward at the same time…
Your club’s performance is illustrated by the P&L. Essentially, the things you do right will show up in your accounts. That’s why big businesses always have an accountant in the room.
But you wouldn’t let the accountant run the business because they wouldn’t want to spend any money.
What I mean by that is this: if you look at the way (some) golf clubs are set up, their budgets are often based on not making a profit and increasing the membership to the least amount, which covers their base costs. Instead there are three simple tiers, which need to be incorporated into a budget: there are our operating costs, there are our maintenance costs and there are investments costs.
Once you’ve got that, you will be future proofing.
The biggest thing for me about members’ clubs and dress codes is you’ve often got an out-dated bar area and you’re asking people to dress smarter than the clubhouse itself. It’s not real life. If you make it plush, then you probably will get people dressing to the level you want them to. You can’t forget your audience. Everyone talks about relaxing dress codes to bring people into the bar. I don’t believe that. If your membership’s all drinking at Wetherspoons, you need to make your club and bar look like Wetherspoons.
If they all drink and eat at Michelin star restaurants, you need to make it look like a Michelin star restaurant because they’re your most important people and that will fit into your identity.
But to have an out of date clubhouse and then tell people they can’t wear a jacket, even though it’s cold outside and 8 in the morning, is ridiculous. You have got to get things right.
Are you optimistic about golf’s future, and that of Beau Desert, despite the pandemic?
You’ve got to be. I’m from a sales background so you’ve got to see opportunity.
I am extremely optimistic. The reason why is because we’ve got a waiting list for membership. We’ve introduced a Toro lease machine. We’re revolutionising our setup for the service in the pro shop, with a new team going in there.
We’ve brought in apprenticeships on the green staff and we’re investing in our heathland management project.
We’ve got a five-year plan. We’re now in the UK and Ireland Top 100 in most publications and I’m sure the rest will follow at some stage.
How strong a position do you want to be in? Clubs like Beau Desert can take this forward positively if they’re considering what people look for in a club.
At the moment, being outdoors is a great thing. I don’t see any reason to be negative from my seat looking at this golf club.
Tim Gilpin qualified as a PGA professional at Tenby GC in Wales and went on to teach at La Moye in Jersey (Channel Islands).
Interested in the operations side of golf, Tim worked for the Club Company (Golf & Leisure Club Operator), graduating from Golf Operations Manager to Deputy General Manager and onto the general manager training scheme.
Moving into hotels and resorts, Tim worked with De Vere for three years and spent time at clubs including Wokefield Park and Heythrop Resort. Tim now has the position of General Manager at Beau Desert, which began in March 2018.
Found amid the canopies of Staffordshire’s Cannock Forest, Beau Desert is a Herbert Fowler classic that is well established as one of England’s best courses.
A fast-running inland course, with trademark bunkering and some devilish green complexes, it has been a regular host to Open qualifying and England Golf Championships and poses a stern test to the very best.
While not long by any stretch, a tight par of 70 and the need to negotiate banks of heather and gorse makes it a study in execution.
Consistently strong, with few weaknesses, a sense of isolation and peacefulness makes a round a memorable experience.
Like the name translates, “A Beautiful Wilderness”