‘There’s an anxiousness about jobs’ - how Covid hit the golf industry in St Andrews

The Links Trust that runs the largest public golf complex in Europe has ‘lost a substantial amount of money’

St Andrews Links Trust chief exectuvie Euan Loudon, left, with Martin Slumbers of the R&A.

Euan Loudon, chief executive of St Andrews Links Trust, has spoken about a “nervousness” in the town as it continues to feel a significant impact from losing out on thousands of foreign visitors this year due to the coronavirus.

In an exclusive interview with The Scotsman, Loudon said the body that runs the largest public golf complex in Europe had “lost a substantial amount of money” over the past few months through cancelled bookings on the Old Course in particular.

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Around 250 full-time staff have been furloughed and the year has already been written off for seasonal staff due to it seeming unlikely that visitors from places like the US and Far East will be making the pilgrimage to the home of golf in the foreseeable future.

Golfers have returned to play the Old Course at St Andrews following the easing of lockdown restrictions. Picture: Robert Perry/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Instead, the Trust’s marketing team has turned its attention to UK and European golfers as the Scottish tourism industry starts up again, with some “exclusive offers” being quickly snapped up after being made available last week.

“It has been a strange few months,” admitted Louden, who was chief executive of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo before being lured to St Andrews just under 10 years ago. “Last year was a cracking year for us. In addition to the normal course of events we go through in any 12-month period, there had been nice little waves on top.

“We had the Scottish Girls Open here in the spring-time, we had wounded servicemen playing in the Simpson Cup and then the centenary of the Eden Tournament, which was an epic event. We also did the Old Course in reverse, numbers were up by six per cent on the previous year and we came out of 2019 on a bit of a high.

The true impact of the virus

“Even in February, I think we were sitting there probably under-estimating what the true impact of this virus was going to be for us. I thought, and I am sure there were lots of people around me who shared this view, that we would still be able to go on producing something. The clubhouses might have had to be closed and that sort of thing, but the idea of total shutdown in February hadn’t even crossed our mind.

“Then you get into March and think, we’d better study what the financial consequences of this might be and work out some scenarios in our head about how things might work out. Then you get to 23 March (when courses in the UK closed) and it’s not keep the show on the road, it’s nothing.”

All seven of the courses managed by the Trust lay eerily empty until the end of May and, for the first weeks of the re-opening, play was restricted to people living within the “broad five miles” suggested by the Scottish Government during the first steps of lockdown restrictions being lifted.

“It’s left an awful lot of people in an altered reality,” added Loudon, a former assistant professional. “We’ve got 250 on furlough and 70 still at work, but not at work as we know it as a lot of people are working from home. We’ve got an absolute minimum of greenkeepers to try and keep the show on the road in the manicured areas.

“We laid off the seasonal workers because it didn’t seem to us that there was any prospect, really, of the volume of activity in the summer of 2020 returning to ‘seasonal norms’.

“What I think is interesting, and it’s not something that is out there, from the phase from the initial opening on 29 May, for the next 33 days, ie until the end of June, the people within the five-mile radius played, guess what, 17,000 rounds of golf. At 12-minute tee times, that’s a special experience, even for a seasoned St Andrean or north Fifer. So, they have had a great time over the opening up period.”

The Castle Course, the newest of the seven layouts, is scheduled to re-open at the end of this month, but, even operating at full capacity in terms of tee times, Loudon is unsure about what lies ahead, not just for the rest of the year but the next few years as well.

A substantial amount of money has been lost

“There’s an anxiousness about people’s jobs,” he said. “There is an anxiousness about the Trust. People will be asking, ‘is it okay?’ Lyall Dochard, who is the financial director, and I have spent a lot of time looking at numbers, having lost a substantial amount of money over the last few months.

“You don’t just have to re-write the existing budget because it was destroyed. You have to produce a credible budget for this year then you need to look at 2021, 2022 and 2023 and say, ‘how, depending on what sensitivity analysis you apply to it, are those years going to pan out and what consequences might be flushed out by that analysis. We are right in the thick of that and the trustees are going to see that at the end of this month.

“Touch wood, I think, provided the assumptions we are making are in the right ballpark, we’ll be fine. But it’s a slightly scary exercise. You don’t know what answers are going to come out. If you put a slightly more doomsday scenario on it, it looks pretty ugly. But, fingers crossed, it should be fine.

“I think (R&A chief executive) Martin Slumbers has been using a phrase over the last year or so about the way people consuming the game is changing. I think there’s an element of that for us because one thing I’ve found, looking back over the last three months, is that the global interest in St Andrews and the “home of golf” is much bigger than I really believed.

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“If you put the Old Course up online on the World Golf Tour as a competition, as we did halfway through lockdown, don’t be surprised if scores of thousands of people around the world jump on it and start playing it. There’s got to be something in that story of digitalisation and technology allowing people to consume things in a different way.

“In fact, we are starting a nine-week project in a couple of weeks’ time looking at how that customer experience in a digitalised world is going to drive things differently in the future. There’s a bit of work for us to do over the next couple of years as an investment in that.”

Plans are being drawn up to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of golf’s greatest pioneer, Old Tom Morris, next summer, with the 150th Open Championship now being staged on the Old Course in 2020 due to this year’s planned event at Royal St George’s being pushed back 12 months by the R&A. In the meantime, though, even at St Andrews it’s about trying to edge back to some sort of normality.

“We are reactiving quite slowly,” said Loudon. “There’s some food and beverage and some retail re-opening, but I think the proof of the pudding about how those other things accelerate is how many visitors we start to see from the middle of this week onwards because I’d be surprised if large number of peoples are going to be able to get on aeroplanes and make transatlantic trips.

“I’ve said to our team, with director of golf John Grant to the fore, how do we market and sell the unique and memorable experience of St Andrews to a UK and a European audience, which we have never consciously done before.

“Interestingly, when we started to identify some opportunities for the second half of this month then August through to October, and put a couple of social media messages out about that, we had 1600 enquiries from the UK to come and play at some stage, either in an Old Course slot plus one other or a three-course opportunity.

“It’s a real balancing act for us. We need to be responsible and open to Americans not travelling, but our tee sheet next year reflects tour operators bringing overseas guests back to St Andrews. We’re fairly confident they will return.”

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