Verulam: How the home of the Ryder Cup has become one of the most forward-thinking clubs in the UK

Verulam has its place locked in golf history and now, as manager Paul Keen tells Steve Carroll, it’s looking to re-established itself at the heart of the local community

Verulam is known as the ‘Home of the Ryder Cup’ – but it’s a claim to fame the club might once have kept a bit more secret.

Samuel Ryder formulated his idea of a biennial bash between nations while a member at the St Albans venue.

And yet, a course that lies in the heart of this cathedral city hasn’t always been the best at getting itself noticed.

“A lot of people in St Albans tell me the club was almost hidden away, and that’s such a prevalent statement in the golf industry,” said Verulam general manager Paul Keen.

“What are the adverts you used to see about golf clubs? A hidden gem. That’s the worst part of advertising – to make yourself hidden.”

But times have been changing in Hertfordshire. Keen, backed by a progressive board, has been working hard to improve service standards and make the club a central point in its surroundings.

“We have done a lot of work with chambers of commerce and other bodies to really put us at the forefront of St Albans and the wider area.

“That has really helped us and given us the platform to build our membership base.

“We are right in the middle of St Albans and are the perfect venue in a lovely setting for parties, dinners, lunches and, sadly, wakes as well. We’ve got onsite free parking and we just had to tap into that market.”

The shift in focus has helped bring significant results. Keen said seven-day memberships are full for the first time in more than a quarter of a century.

And rather than see the coronavirus pandemic as a time of belt tightening, the club have pushed forward and spent the last English lockdown working through winter projects.

“We look at our costs all the time but you have to keep investing in your club to take it forward. We do that on a regular basis,” he explained.

“I’m really buoyant. We’re a very well run club as it is and that’s borne out of the fact we have a small management board.

“We have six dedicated positions that work with myself, and the club captain also sits on the board. There are eight of us in total.

“We’ve got experts in each area – strategy, golf course, finance – and the eight of us drew a five-year strategy plan together. It’s always reviewed and always evolving.

“On the back of that, we make decisions very quickly and they leave me to run the club operationally on a day-to-day basis. That’s why they employed me.

“We’re a forward thinking club. We are not sat there cutting through layers of red tape to make a decision. We are empowered by the members to make those decisions.

“I have worked in other clubs where there are different committees for everything and this is such an easier, smoother, unified board – very much working together to push the club forward.

“Everyone who is on the board is there for the betterment of the club.

“Each member gets a four-year term and then they have to go up for re-election and they can stand again.

“We look at specific roles. When we say we are looking for a potential new board member, it is almost like a job advert.

“There is no point in getting a round peg for a square hole. We look for skill sets rather than someone who wants to come on the board for being on the board’s sake.

“It does work exceptionally well. In the four and a half years I have been here we have pushed the club forward massively.”

It’s a combination that leaves Keen optimistic about Verulam’s position through 2021, even with Covid still set to dominate the first half of the year.

“We see it as another really good solid year for the club and another chance to push us forward.

“While our membership is full, we don’t want to rest on our laurels and there are some people out there that, inevitably and unfortunately, will lose their jobs. So it’s about continuing to market the club and keeping us at the forefront of Hertfordshire golf.

“We engage with our members continually so they feel part of the club. It’s to ensure that when renewals come along in August, it is not a case of ‘shall I renew?’ It’s just a case of them paying their fees and moving on.

“We reassure them that we are an important part of their lives and social scene. We’re constantly investing in our product and staff and continually making sure we are improving our product and making every aspect of the club better.”

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