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February 2020

Sign of the Times

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Royal Norwich picks up stakes, and triples membership

By Scott Kauffman

When Royal Norwich Golf Club removed its club flags for the final time and closed its clubhouse doors last September after being in business for 125 years, the club made history. Not from the mere closure of the place or anything achieved during its storied centuries-long past.

Rather, the private English establishment situated 2½ hours northeast of London, made its memorable mark when it became the world’s first Royal club to close – and relocate. To be sure, these turn of events are extraordinary by any golf terms with such a long rich history.

Yet what makes this story even more remarkable is the resurrection of Royal Norwich into a contemporary private club focused on leisure and hospitality, and one now thriving with a community of newfound customers and members where families, females and millennials are at the forefront. Indeed, modern-day Royal Norwich looks nothing like the stodgy golf club tradition of ye olde.

Sound like a familiar golf club business story? As it turns out, the same revolutionary experiential and demographic changes sweeping up private U.S. clubs from coast-to-coast is not a business phenomenon exclusive to America.

Leading the relocation – and revolutionary changes in Royal Norwich’s club culture – is General Manager and Director Phil Grice. As Grice describes it, the old Royal Norwich business model was in line with England’s golf industry figures, showing 11-12 years of annual declines and not proving to be too “customer focused.”

“The business was unsustainable,” says Grice, who is chairman of the Golf Club Managers Association, a Bristol, England-based organization with some 1,800 members from the United Kingdom. Exacerbating  membership matters was the reality the one-time peaceful and enjoyable heathland course on the edge of the city became a tight layout surrounded by busy sprawl and split in two by an arterial road.

Sadly, the course awarded Royal patronage by the then-Duke of York George (and future King) was no longer in favor and the aging clubhouse, membership and outdated mentality were leaving Royal Norwich “cut adrift,” Grice notes.

So when the opportunity arose to sell the site for residential development and relocate out of town, completely redeveloping an existing course and clubhouse at Weston Estate, Royal Norwich leadership and members made the momentous decision to move. As it turned out, the relocation was far more than just a chance to build a new clubhouse or “Stables” as Royal Norwich calls it, and a world-class course designed by Ross McMurray of European Golf Design.

What’s emerging is an entirely new cutting-edge club, with a bold people-centric vision and innovative marketing strategies that include points-based or “bite-sized” membership levels  designed for the younger generation not so keen on the one-size-fits-all world of old.

Grice says Royal Norwich management is taking the top-down as to what they can do and a “bottom up approach as to what people actually want.”

Grice went on to say: “We’ve looked at the technological world, we’ve looked at the time-based world, we’ve looked at what youngsters and families want and what fits today, more so than telling them what we offer and hoping they want it.”

Grice notes other integral parts of the club’s turnaround, of course, are the exceptional club amenities and facilities the club is committed to building and maintaining, including a Turf Care Centre of Excellence.

“Whilst it’s unusual for a golf club to move, for an older established club to move, it’s incredibly rare,” says Grice, when asked in December how unique is the Royal Norwich business story. “Then, to not only move but to make the step change and move to a new model and outlook, is off the charts rare.

“(Your magazine) getting in touch is evidence of how far the message has traveled. Just last week we hosted a group from Russia who came to look at the new facilities. But the change we are most proud of are the cultural changes the membership has embraced.”

To say it’s being well received is an understatement. Since the new course opened in mid-September and the Stables opened its doors a month later, Royal Norwich now numbers some 1,300 members – more than tripling the club’s membership from under 400 members in a little over two years with a small marketing team, Grice adds.

Interestingly, Grice will tell you the successful cultural changes at Royal Norwich– embracing a more youthful,  inclusive private club membership profile – aren’t being widely embraced at other clubs in Great Britain.

“I see a lot of clubs who are trapped with a poor offering and something they feel they cannot change for fear of the unknown,” Grice says. “It’s my opinion that ‘inclusive memberships’ where you have one fee and play as much as you like are becoming outdated.

“They cater for the large part of the current market, but I do not believe they are fit for purpose for the future. They will always play a part in the customer journey, but they no longer dominate the future needs of golfers.”

One type of membership really resonating at Royal Norwich is the creative points-based membership plan that gives people of all ages the ultimate flexibility.

“Everything we have developed is cross referenced with time,” Grice notes. “Time is the most precious thing we have and never before has this commodity been so precious and so under pressure. No one starts work at 9 and finishes at 5 anymore. The whole family unit shares the workload and have more pressure on quality time so giving more bite-size opportunities to use the facilities or use us for ‘time out’ has been a key cross reference.”

Grice adds flexibility must be fundamental to everything being offered today, and the club’s points-based membership is the “stepping-stone between promiscuous golf and membership.”

“Today golfers are at their desks or with friends and they look online to find a game or a course with a deal for the weekend,” he says. “They have been brought up to be promiscuous golfers. They are part of a generation who wonder why anyone would want to be loyal to one club, and why would you want to play the same course over and over?

“Sounds a bit like the sixties! I believe times are changing and offering the points-based scheme is a halfway house. You get the benefits of membership; you get great value; you get to come into the community, and you start to feel a part of something. … our family/community.”

Perhaps it’s part of yet another long rich history in a club known as Royal Norwich.

Scott Kauffman is a golf business writer and the managing director of Aloha Media Group.

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