It’s still early days, but Thierry Delsol, CEO of The Club Company, is quietly optimistic about the group’s recovery, following the coronavirus pandemic.
There’s no doubt that these last few months have been the toughest of his 23-year career with the company, yet in some strange way, he says that the situation has made him even more determined to make the company as successful as possible.
“The first six weeks post-lockdown were absolutely dreadful,” he says. “We were facing something completely beyond our control and had no idea how long it was going to last. It was hugely frustrating. But as we started to put plans in place, it felt as though we were building a new business. Don’t get me wrong, we could have done without it, but there’s no point in moaning; we just have to embrace the situation and do as much as we can to get the business back to where it was as quickly as possible.”
The company is recovering better than anticipated, says Delsol, but it is going to take time and no one knows when it will fully recover.
“What we do know is that our members have always been, and continue to be, very loyal to our clubs, which gives us optimism about the future,” he explains.
The Club Company started life in 1996 as a public golf operator, with five sites. It quickly grew to 25 golf clubs across Europe. In 1998, the group acquired The Tytherington Club in Cheshire, its first golf and country club. Following the acquisition, the company decided to focus on the golf and country club format and over the next few years disposed of its European assets as well as those sites in the UK with no planning opportunities for health and fitness clubs.
A management buyout took the group into private ownership in 2004, by which time its portfolio consisted of four clubs combining golf with health and fitness facilities, and six golf sites with planning for health and fitness offerings. Today, the company is majority-owned by the private equity firm Epiris – its fourth investor – and has 15 golf and country clubs.
The family-orientated clubs are located in affluent areas across England. All sites offer championship-standard golf courses and premium health and fitness facilities, which include large gyms, extensive group exercise programmes, swimming pools and sauna and steam facilities, along with bars and restaurants. Some sites also offer tennis courts, the company’s health and beauty brand Aura Spa and accommodation.
The group had some 40,000 members as of 1st March 2020, 80 per cent of which were health and fitness members. Almost three-quarters of golf members use the health and fitness facilities regularly.
“Most of our members want to belong to a club, rather than a gym,” says Delsol. “They often join with another member of their family and respond well to the other activities we provide. People spend a lot of time in our club lounges with their friends and family; it’s almost as important to them as the exercise.”
Golf is booming
The golf side of the business has enjoyed something of a revival since reopening on 13th May and has already recovered 1st March levels.
“The combination of the great weather this summer in the UK and the fact that there were so few other leisure activities people could do when golf clubs reopened, has meant that our golf business is doing better than ever,” says Delsol. “We’re attracting younger people to the club and even today, after the other facilities have opened, we’re still joining new members. It’s been really positive to see new people discovering or re-discovering the fun and enjoyable aspect of golf.”
The health and fitness business is also starting to pick up. “Sales are going well, but I expect health and fitness will take longer to recover. I think we’ll see more traction in a few months’ time, when people realise exercising is an important part of the fight against coronavirus; the physical and mental benefits have been explained repeatedly over the last weeks and months,” he says.
Like many operators, The Club Company launched a digital offering in lockdown, which proved very popular. It also communicated with members every week and hosted a Friday night quiz for staff and members to keep engagement high. Prior to reopening, the company invited members to take part in small focus groups to visit the new set-up of local clubs, which provided valuable feedback for the team.
“After the success of the focus groups, we invited members to take a guided tour of their club to see the changes we’d made,” says Delsol. “We did 2,000 tours in 10 days. It really helped to reassure people, and now whenever we talk to members who are unsure about returning, we invite them on a 15-minute tour.
“During lockdown we retained approximately 7 per cent of our workforce,” he says. “They all worked extremely well to maintain the clubs and golf courses, which also made it easier for the sites to reopen quickly.
“Visiting the clubs since reopening has reaffirmed the importance of a quality team. It has been so interesting to see how our team members connect with members. They’re genuinely pleased to be back, to catch up with members after four months of lockdown.”
Entering new markets
The crisis has not stopped the company progressing its plans for growth. Every year it invests in improving its existing facilities and looks to expand its estate through acquisition. In 2019, the company invested £1.5m in the refurbishment of The Tytherington Club and added two new sites to its portfolio: Chesfield Downs Golf and Country Club in Hertfordshire, once part of the Eddie Shah empire, and Cams Hall Estate Golf Club in Hampshire.
This year, the company has invested just over £2m in the revamp of Chesfield Downs and The Essex Golf and Country Club near Colchester, and is due to open a 65-bed hotel at The Tytherington Club before the end of the year. In addition, it’s developed its first collection of luxury holiday lodges in the grounds of The Essex Golf and Country Club. Launched in October 2020, the two and three-bedroom lodges are available for rent, as well as private ownership, and guests have access to all of the club’s facilities.
Meanwhile, planning permission has been secured for a 63-bed hotel at Witney Lakes Resort in Oxford, as well as an 18 holiday lodge development at Benton Hall. Two further sites are currently going through the planning process for more lodge developments.
“Our evolution has been about adding different, but complementary activities to our offering to expand the business and increase the profitability of our sites. From golf clubs we have evolved to include health and fitness, spa, hotels and now luxury lodges. The strategy has worked well for us, but ensuring we have the right skills in place to deliver to a consistent standard across all elements of the business is critical,” says Delsol.
The company embarked on a rebranding exercise earlier this year to reflect its identity as a provider of a diverse range of leisure products and services founded on a legacy of sporting and leisure experiences and expertise.
“We wanted to introduce consistency and familiarity, while pulling all of our clubs under one umbrella,” says Delsol. “While the clubs retain their individual names, collectively we’re looking at renaming the group to better represent the business we’ve become.”
The sector’s challenge
“One thing this pandemic has taught us is that we can’t afford to be complacent. Even if you think you are in a great position, you have to stay focused,” says Delsol.
His immediate priority is bringing member numbers back up to where they should be and developing the hotel and holiday lodge arm of the business.
As the UK health and fitness industry works to return to business as usual, Delsol believes now is the time for the sector to play its trump card.
“ukactive has done a brilliant job of supporting the industry during this crisis,” he says, ”and I’ve been impressed by how the sector has come together over the past five months. We need to continue to work together to show the public that being physically active is the best way of withstanding this pandemic.
“This is not about selling memberships; it’s about starting people on their own personal exercise journey. It could begin with them taking a walk and it may end up with them booking a spin class, a tee time on the golf course or joining the gym. As a society, we all need to make a conscious effort to be more active and our industry is in the best position to help people do that.”