Part II of our exclusive series on the effects of the pandemic and lockdowns at our golfing establishments focusses on one of the region’s leading hotel and golf resorts, Best Western Ullesthorpe Court in Leicestershire.
Operating a 72-bedroom hotel, restaurant, leisure, conference facilities plus an 18-hole course offered some of the biggest challenges out there during lockdown. We spoke to the man responsible for much of it, golf manager, David Evrall, a regular golfer himself.
Much of the focus was on the hotel which wasn’t allowed to open for longer and led to long furloughs for the staff, this led to what has become a common problem in the catering industry and still affects Ullesthorpe right now as it does at many golfing establishments.
“We’ve seen staff levels across the business fall to around 75-80 from the 100 we had prior to March 2020,” explained David. “Some of that was casual staff not returning which we’ve coped with ok when the hotel got busy again, but it’s in the chef department we’ve struggled. Finding a good chef is like gold dust at the moment and we’re still relying largely on agency staff at the present time. Before furlough we were one or two chefs light anyway, during it we got notices from four more, either finding roles with more sociable hours or leaving the industry entirely. It’s left us very short and as I say it’s been hard to recruit since, but I don’t think we’re alone in that.”
As the hotel bounced back from lockdown and room occupancy returned to something like normal, they’ve noticed the usual booking patterns lasting longer, as the play and stay golf boom has lingered on.
“Normally this time of the year the play and stay business drops right off and every week we think that will be the case but still they are coming through in unseasonably high numbers. The golf and leisure business is increasingly important because the corporate market is still returning but is not to the levels it was before the pandemic began.”
On the golfing side, on the whole golfers were less affected than most as golf courses were amongst the facilities able to remain open more than other sports and leisure pursuits. But members still lost a lot of time to the lockdowns. Existing members were honoured with vouchers to the value of time lost in the first lockdown at annual renewal. Further lockdowns since June 2020 which no-one anticipated back then caused one or two issues but overall, the full-time members remained satisfied in the main. A decent rise in new members for Ullesthorpe over the period, nothing dramatic but numbers need to be carefully monitored in any case.
“We’ve risen by 25 full time and 40 new PlayMoreGolf members too. Enquiries for membership were high & more members could have been taken. But we were conscious of the expected boom in play and stay visitors when the hotel re-opened & the effect of that on the course and the existing members, so we were keen to ensure member numbers were controlled. Even though residential golf didn’t return at the same time as golf re-opened, we were aware they were always going to come back at some point & cause us issues if we overloaded with new members .”
“As a whole during the pandemic, golf has benefitted as we all know from a tremendously difficult situation, with many golfers returning to the game and new players taking it up on a regular basis but I think it’s incumbent on all golf clubs to manage this boom responsibly and not become complacent.”
“We have seen industries implement large price increases but it is a far more sensitive issue with golf clubs. Member satisfaction and retention are the key elements, and we need to concentrate on looking after them during the next period of time, maintaining and improving our relationship with members and all golfers.”
Personally speaking, apart from missing golf himself and grabbing a bout of Covid as well, with many staff on furlough, if anything, David’s workload only grew further.
“The hotel’s closed but you’ve got 400 bookings to look after, a lot of re-scheduling to arrange when we didn’t always exactly know when they could be re-arranged for. Then there’s new customers too, wanting to be the first ones in when we could re-open and plenty of member queries on top.”
Then there was the dreaded electronic tee booking systems for the more, let’s say dyed in the wool members. But once a taboo subject – now thanks ironically to the pandemic it’s hurdle successfully crossed by many clubs and Ullesthorpe are no exception. The future is here. Ullesthorpe were already 80% online booking but in line with England Golf requirements during the pandemic are now fully electronic.
“My dad is the most technophobic person you could ever meet but now he’s been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century he loves it – well at least for his golf. He has always preferred to play golf when the course is quieter, with the whole days tee sheet now viewable online, he can pick his slot, often in the afternoon when the course isn’t so busy and come down then instead or join a group of friends already booked in a 2 or 3-ball. ”
Ullesthorpe have continued to develop their new driving range and short game area and although it was helpful in the early days of lockdown with quieter roads making it easier for the lorries to deliver the ground fill materials, eventually the snags came around.
“If anything has delayed the project it’s the rise in prices in construction have soared and most of the fill for the range comes from construction sites. I think a lot of projects have slowed down a bit while material prices have been through the roof, so it’s affected the development a little as well as a result.”
The overall project remains on schedule although some stages of the development have been delayed to account for the availability and high prices of materials. But ultimately everything will be brought in on schedule even if it means taking a hit if needs must.
That was the loud and clear message from the hotel and the ownership, they’ve run a tight ship since March 2020 and kept everything under a certain amount of control. But the show will go on and Ullesthorpe are coming out of this in greater shape than ever before.