59club’s Spotlight on Service Featuring Farleigh’s Award Winning; James Ibbetson

What a year it’s been for James Ibbetson, General Manager of Farleigh Golf Club, having been crowned Golf Manager of The Year in the prestigious 59club service excellence awards, whilst simultaneously leading his team to a second victory, earning the enviable ‘my59 Ultimate Service Excellence’ title, in recognition of the club’s commitment to engage, analyse and enrich their members and guest experience utilising the my59 survey tools. All while dealing with the pressures presented by the pandemic, and after only one year with the Surry club.

Glory aside; Ibbetson explains how satisfaction surveys have become fundamental at Farleigh, and how 59club’s performance management tools are supporting his progressive plans…

I’ve been working with 59club for the best part of 12 years now and, when I joined Farleigh, in November 2019, introducing the survey tool was one of the first things I did. Indeed, I think it was the first members’ survey at Farleigh, and it’s something we have continued to do on an annual basis.

The members were given a month to complete the survey, and subsequently their feedback really helped shape the action plan for future development at the golf club, from a policy and procedure perspective, to managing potential investments, etc…

Working in the business, we don’t play the golf course that often, as much as we would like to get out there and see it from a member’s perspective; so we’re heavily reliant on gaining feedback from the members, who play the course day in, day out.

Delivering surveys is not a tick-box exercise; we use the process as a window to gain as much information from the membership as possible, and then we can start acting upon it. There’s very little point in doing a survey if you’re not going to do anything with the information you collate. We’re an open book with the data and try to communicate the results out to the members in as much detail as possible – from experience, the more invested the members are in the process, the more fruitful the feedback. It’s also important for them to feel as though their voice and opinion has been recognised, and the club are actively doing something about this.

We value our members interaction with the entire process and as such, we send out snapshots of the results: highlighting areas where we performed well, the 59club analytics in terms of where we sit in relation to the ‘industry’ and the ‘best performers’; and then also the areas where we didn’t do so well, outlining the actions we’re going to take to improve, and how we’re going to get there. We call this our ‘You Said, We Did’ action plan.

For the most part, members chose to remain anonymous when completing surveys, for those who were happy to waive anonymity it was straightforward to reach out to those individuals. Myself and the team make a point of calling these individuals to try to arrange sit down meetings to discuss their feedback, and any additional points that they may have since completing the survey, in greater detail. Annually, we probably sit down with 30-40 members in person to run through the results.

The 59club survey tool has developed over time, it’s a very user-friendly experience. Pretty much all the questions you’d want to ask new and existing members are already saved within the various templates, meaning you don’t need to spend hours and hours adding your own questions. Over the years they’ve developed a key list of questions and criteria that all club managers need. Or at least providing information club managers would like to have.

I’ve been guilty in the past, perhaps, of making some surveys too long, which has had a negative impact on the response rate. And that came out in some of the early feedback. Nowadays, we are more succinct, and focus on the specific areas we want to explore, and that naturally flows well from a members’ perspective also.

Feedback has helped us shape the decision making on our offering. It just gives you a well-rounded representation and, yes, some of the feedback you get may be a little bit pipedream-esque, but for the most part you do get real, solid insight that you wouldn’t have achieved otherwise.

Sometimes when you’re in the building six or seven days a week you may miss something that’s right in front of you. And you certainly don’t see it from a member’s perspective. It’s easier to push decisions through if members feel they’ve been actively involved in the process and there’s logic behind what we are trying to achieve.

You need to show the members that you’ve taken onboard some of the feedback and that you’re going to action certain things, even if you can’t action them immediately. Simply sending out a survey and then doing nothing with it is counterproductive. If that’s your intention, you’re better off not sending out the survey at all. Members take the time to submit their feedback, the least a club can do is sit down and analyse the results, communicating actions in the process.

The more information you have, the better – and the more a member feels involved in the decision-making process, the easier it is to get their support and their buy-in, which is, ultimately, what we’re after.

We don’t just survey members, though – we also use it for societies. Twenty-four hours after an event, all event organisers receive an automated survey from the my59 software, requesting their feedback: Communication before the event, quality of the F&B and the golf course on the day… amongst many other areas. So, we rely on the information collated by 59club heavily – one of our very early surveys, identified the need for a tee-time confirmation email which has long since been implemented and well received.

We have also taken this a step further in 2021 tailoring surveys for internal use, specifically for our Employee of the month nominations. In the past the nominees had been put forward by the Heads of Department – we felt however that it was important to open this up to all employees to get their buy in. A simple survey is therefore sent out to all staff each month requesting their nominations.

As a result of our 2021 Membership Satisfaction Survey (Sent out in October, over 240 responses, overall satisfaction score of 80%), the following have been identified as priorities for 2022 and beyond. Important to note that some of these areas have already been actioned:

A horsebox halfway house is now available on site during busy days and has been met with some fantastic feedback from members and guests alike.

Inefficiencies were identified with the current booking platform, and as such we are currently working alongside our software provider to make the online customer journey more fluid and ultimately user friendly.

Members can feel a little bit of an anti-climax around renewal time, with feelings as though you hand your money over and that’s it – and so in response to this, the ever-popular membership renewal booklet (with over £1,000 in additional value) will return for 2022. And, for the first time in the club’s history, all renewing members will receive a personalised bag tag on renewal.

Our member communication came out as excellent – during the lockdown, whilst the club was closed, we sent 2 member round ups each week, which we have now scaled back to once a week.

New tee markers, along with new divot bins and replacement tee caddies will be onsite ready for the season.

Full bunker audit instigated, with the most problematic bunkers being addressed as soon as possible with the remainder works scheduled in order of priority as part of a wider 3-5 year plan.

Additional staff training is currently being undertaken with a view to re-instate table service as of January 2022.

If you’re a club that wants to progress and are looking to focus on the things the members & visitors actually want, it’s a very, very useful tool. But the biggest piece of advice I have for anybody contemplating it is: if you’re going to do it, you’ve GOT to do it properly.

59club universal insight confirms service is on par

If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that Michael Gove MP was wrong when he said: “the people of this country have had enough of experts”. If you require a medical diagnosis, consult a medical professional, don’t Google it; if you want accurate information about a pandemic, listen to a virologist, don’t believe social media; and, if you wish to discuss the challenges and opportunities of the global golf and hospitality industries, few organisations are as well placed to offer comment as 59club.

With unprecedented access to performance data from a wide variety of venues across the globe, 59club, with its seven divisions, is in the perfect position to assess the vagaries of the sector, as well as knowing who’s doing what well, and when. And, who isn’t …

Mark Reed, 59club Director, explained: “When comparing 2021 performance levels with pre-covid 2019, we have witnessed a minor decrease in measured service standards within our golf visitor experience mystery shopping programme.

“Despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, golf clubs have experienced significant increased traffic, often alongside a depleted workforce and amid challenging operating conditions. It is, therefore, remarkable to think that fewer servicers have been servicing more people, but to almost the same levels of 2019, when it comes to ‘customer experience’.”

Available data shows that the global industry average for service standards across 59club clients had decreased by just 5 per cent in 2021, when compared with the pre-Covid 2019, and that visitor and member rounds increased dramatically, whilst staffing levels reduced.

It’s an anomaly, yet, perhaps, part of the reason for that lies in the fact those facilities are clients of 59club. That means, of course, each is routinely visited and rated. Those facilities where such measurement isn’t undertaken will not have access to such knowledge or data, though data suggests a 20 per cent lag across the industry for non-59club venues. (non-contracted venues receiving 59club trial audits).

Reed is prepared to go further, and posited: “Not only are we able to advise clients of performance stats, we are able to see when they invest a higher proportion of capital into 59club resources to develop and educate both new and existing staff and, ultimately, relate that to maintaining the experience afforded to members and guests.”

During the past couple of years, that investment has been made largely in onsite and/or remote training, in tandem with 59club’s virtual education platform; MyMentor, which affords data driven learning directly linking to an individual’s mystery shopper audit, and, as a consequence, filling any learning gaps for employees.

Indeed, a 34 per cent increase in the number of venues being trained – either in person or virtually – by 59club staff in 2021, compared with 2019, might be seen as a direct correlation with the service standards remaining almost the same. What’s more, across the ‘podium’ venues – the best-performing facilities – service standards have remained stable over the two-year period.

This is also reflected in 59club’s own performance in the years in question. It has seen a 200 per cent increase in contracted venues around the globe, in the two years since 2019 – and all this at a time when the globe – and golf in particular – spent large periods of time in both lockdown and shutdown.

A good example of how investment in staff training and data analysis can have a direct effect on satisfaction levels of members and visitors is Hoburne Golf, which operates three venues in the south of England: Crane Valley GC, in Verwood, Hampshire; Bulbury Woods GC, in Poole, Dorset; and Hurtmore GC, near Godalming, in Surrey.

Each has embraced the challenge of mystery shopping and has engaged in a tailored staff training programme that has delivered, not only, a 10 per cent growth in their 59club visitor experience measurement, but also a four per cent increase in membership satisfaction (measured using 59club’s Survey platform; My59, between 2019 and 2021).

That experience is not solely the preserve of Hoburne Golf, either. Harpenden GC, in Hertfordshire, joined the 59club community shortly after reopening following the first English lockdown in early 2020.

The club’s general manager, Tom Scott, explained: “Having worked with 59club in a previous role, I had a good understanding of what it delivers and felt it could support our aim of delivering a better level of service to our members and guests.

“We began a programme of mystery shopping in 2020 to gain a thorough understanding of our strengths and weaknesses and were thrilled to be awarded a Bronze Flag Designation in the 59club annual awards ceremony, based on our year one results, and a year later we increased to Silver; an incredible achievement in such a short time frame, which is testament to the commitment of our staff members.

“59club has supported the development of our team by delivering a number of engaging training sessions at the club, and we are delighted to report we increased our measured service across all operational departments in 2021, by 16 per cent.

“We plan to continue this training alongside the virtual mentor platform, which can be used on a day-to-day basis. The My59 Survey platform also allowed us to gather valuable feedback from our members on a number of important topics in a very user-friendly way, delivering an overall response rate of more than 75 per cent.

“This gave our data further credibility and allowed the club to make confident and informed decisions. The entire team at the club remains fully engaged in the process and we look forward to challenging ourselves further in 2022.”

Other clubs are following the lead of Hoburne Golf and Harpenden GC according to 59club’s own data. The total number of surveys undertaken by member clubs via the My59 Survey Platform showed a huge leap of 268 per cent in 2021 compared with those launched in 2019, across the globe. Positive engagement with members, guests and staff has never before been so prevalent.

Meanwhile, the MyMentor virtual learning experience now supports in excess of 2,250 employees to develop themselves and the team. And, with 59club clients reporting challenges in recruitment – especially with greenkeepers and catering staff – the on-line training platform is expected to further increase its reach in 2022, not least as recent independent data stated that one in eight roles in the hospitality industry remains vacant.

Ironically, the increase in 59club’s client portfolio may, initially, skew the average figures.

Reed added: “In addition to the challenges facing the industry it is important to note that an influx of new clients is likely to create an initial dip in the industry average as managers and their teams often spend time gathering performance data and generating a full understanding of strengths and weaknesses, before undertaking necessary training, reinforcing standards and developing a plan of improvement.

“However, with golf clubs becoming more accustomed to increased footfall, an increase in skills, and an increased sense of ‘business as usual’ – in tandem with a number of clubs moving in to a second year of measurement – we would expect to see a return to pre- pandemic levels or higher this year.

“Of course, clubs not utilising the 59club toolkit won’t be in a position to discover their strengths and weaknesses until much further down the line, by which time, they may have lost disgruntled staff or members, and be back to square one.”

He concluded: “One challenge that will remain this year is that of attracting and retaining great people. It is, however, very gratifying to hear more and more clubs recognising wellbeing, education and a need to invest in their people, and, to assist with this, 59club UK delivered more than 50 days of training and education within clubs between December and March alone.”

Ian Knox, head of European Tour Destinations – a network of world-class venues with a close association to the European Tour – has worked with 59club for over 10 years. Maybe the last word should sit with him – he is an expert, after all.

He said: “In 2020 and even the start of 2021, for a lot of venues it was a case of controlling costs, and there was almost a survival element. Now … they are realising their operational focus needs to be back on the levels it was, in fact, exceeding the levels it was. So now is the time we have been kicking in with mystery shopper visits and working with venues to look for areas where they can continue to improve.

“The biggest area people are now focussing on is human contact again. You’ve missed that through the problems you had with the pandemic, so that personal service, that personal touch is really going to be the key focus. That’s what we’re looking for our venues to be delivering.”

As the great Willie Nelson once sang, “Nobody said it was gonna’ be easy”, but, with experts available to guide one through the metaphorical minefield, it’s a journey that can be made with a lot more confidence.