Interview: Gary Favell, CEO of American Golf
Retail Bulletin caught up with Gary Favell, CEO of American Golf, to talk about the company’s experienced based retail strategy, the success of its bricks-and-mortar stores, and its work to widen its customer demographic and to make golf more accessible to all.
Can you tell us a bit about your background prior to joining American Golf?
I started my career as a trained horseman in the Royal Armoured Corps, but an accident cut my military standing short, triggering my move into retail. Throughout my subsequent career I’ve thrived on ensuring customers receive the correct support, advice, and guidance, whatever the sector; never underestimating the power of attention to detail when it comes to the customer experience. This fuelled my desire to head up my own retail consulting business for 12 years before joining American Golf in 2018.
You assumed the role of CEO of the company in 2018. Why was the business attractive to you?
When I joined American Golf, the business was losing £3.9 million (FY19 EBITDA) – this presented a huge challenge, which was very attractive to me. I saw an opportunity to reimagine the customer journey, to build a business around family experiences, making golf more accessible and fun, and allowing for real change within the industry.
How has it developed over the last four years and what have been the main challenges?
Over the last four years American Golf has grown exponentially. Our last trading results demonstrated a sales increase of over 43.8% compared with year ending 2021, making it a record year in the company’s 52-year history.
We have moved from being a sole retail chain, to a full leisure offering. We equip, style, inspire and entertain all golf lovers everywhere. Men, women, and children – all ages, backgrounds, and abilities. We do this via our 90+ retail stores, ecommerce offering and thriving leisure division that includes ranges, golf courses, adventure golf, experienced based retail, and hospitality venues. In doing this we are making great strides in breaking down barriers to play, increasing inclusivity and boosting participation within the sport.
The pandemic brought about huge challenges but also an opportunity for American Golf to drive sustained growth within its bricks-and-mortar shops. The confinement of lockdown left shoppers with a renewed appreciation for life’s simple everyday pleasures, including being able to go to the shops. American Golf took this opportunity to invest in creating tech-led in-store experiences with human interactions at their very heart – something that we have seen pay dividends in bringing more people into the game than ever before.
American Golf has a strong experiential retail proposition which has led to bricks-and-mortar sales outstripping ecommerce by more than 2-to-1. Can you tell us why this is and share with us the initiatives you have introduced?
American Golf is part of International Leisure Group, a European portfolio of businesses which taps into every area of golf, from equipment and apparel to entire golf complexes. As such we understand our role in affecting positive change within the golf industry.
As a business we are committed to making golf accessible to all, regardless of sex, age, race, ability, or socioeconomic standing – the latter is more important than ever, given the increase in cost of living. To break down barriers to play effectively, face-to-face time is needed. We want American Golf to champion inclusivity and therefore our retail stores need to offer exciting surroundings combined with welcoming and knowledgeable staff for people to be inspired to play.
The business has invested heavily in overhauling the in-store customer experience and it has shown in our trading results. The popularity of our physical shops is largely due to the immersive, technologically advanced environments we’ve created. Our Trafford ‘superstore’ which re-opened last year after substantial investment boasts the UK’s first digitally controlled ‘Zen Green Stage’, which simulates real-world putting green slopes, and our new Leeds Crown Point store features three state-of-the-art Custom Fit Bays, each with GC3 technology and a contoured putting green.
Our staff also play a huge role in the success of our retail stores. We combine golf specialist staff – American Golf has a number of PGA Pros working across its stores – with customer service experts to ensure all questions are answered knowledgeably with first-hand experience of the products. For those that are new to the game we also offer private customer consultations within our putting labs so that individuals don’t feel pressure to ‘perform’ in front of other customers.
Finally, alongside free equipment MOTs, we have recently partnered with Golfbidder to allow a more cohesive club trade in service to our customers at our retail stores. Customers can upgrade and recycle a greater selection of old clubs quickly and efficiently, as well as having the option of trading in multiple clubs. This ensures American Golf better supports players’ needs, especially as the cost-of-living rises.
You have been moving into new areas recently with the acquisition of several golf courses and driving ranges with a full hospitality offering. Can you tell us more about that?
We know that since the pandemic, golf has seen a huge resurgence – from those who played already, to people who had never picked up a club before. We’re particularly excited about the increase in women and young people taking up the sport. Golf has evolved beyond the typical 18-hole game, shorter course options and varying entry points mean there’s now something for the whole family.
Last year saw us embark on our first acquisitions of entire golf courses and driving ranges, including Cheshire’s High Legh Golf Club, and Lancashire’s Rossendale Golf Kingdom. This year, we’ve acquired leading family golf and leisure park, Golf Kingdom in Chadwell Heath and Bexleyheath’s Barnehurst Golf Club. Our complexes offer a full leisure experience which hold widespread appeal regardless of age, gender, or background. Whole families can enjoy a full day out, introducing the joy of golf at a grassroots level within exciting course and range environments which is incredibly important to us.
We’re also very proud of ILG’s Italian-American food and beverage concept, Il Corso, which encompasses a full hospitality offering that includes bars, food, outside dining and even lounges that groups can book out for the evening. Golf is very much a lifestyle and by adding Il Corso to our armoury, we ensure that the doors are open to everyone to enjoy.
The company has also been working to widen its customer demographic and to make golf more accessible to all. What is the strategy behind this and what has made it successful?
There are many tangible measures we’re adopting across the business to ensure that we’re not just simply paying lip service to fighting for inclusivity.
We continue to engage communities by providing state-of-the-art facilities that will appeal to everyone, no matter what their age, background or gender. This will include the acquisition of more municipal sites like Barnehurst Golf Club where we can forge strong links with schools and other community groups. We also plan to create more family golf complexes with the addition of an F&B offering, so everyone in the family can enjoy a full day out.
Investing at grassroots level is vitally important to us. In May of this year, we launched the world-class Justin Rose Academy across our key sites, led by a team of highly trained PGA Professional Coaches. The Academy’s aim is to bring 18,000 young people onto the Justin Rose junior programme within the first five years, with more than 5,000 free lessons for school children given away during the first year. As part of our investment in the 152-year-old Leven Gold Medal, this year we also launched the Junior Gold Medal competition, which opened up the historical tournament to young people for the first time. In doing this we hope that more youngsters will be inspired to consider taking their golf hobby into a profession.
Partnerships are a key part of our strategy. We continue to align American Golf with ambassadors of underrepresented groups, such as former world number one disability golfer, Brendan Lawlor; George Blackshaw, an England right leg and right arm amputee golfer, LET and LPGA pro Carly Booth and junior players including Leo Boniface, Mabel Brooks and Fraizer Harris. We’re also looking to widen the appeal of golf by partnering with mainstream sports personalities such as former pro football player Lee Sharpe.
American Golf also takes pride in sponsoring tournaments that support and showcase the full spectrum of golfers out there including ISPS HANDA World Invitational and Rose Ladies Series. This is in addition to aligning with golf’s highest profile tournaments, which this year saw American Golf launch an officially licensed range of products inspired by The Open Championship, in collaboration with our own brand, Stromberg.
When it comes to our stores, we have invested in our own brands, such as Stromberg and Benross, to ensure women have access to a wide choice of apparel and equipment. Every one of our stores now has a women’s range that they can be proud to be sporting. We’re also working with England Deaf Golf to install SignVideo technology at key American Golf sites, to allow British Sign Language interpreters to assist with communication to deaf golfers over a video relay. This is in addition to planning 2023 grassroots events that aim to open golf up to the next generation of deaf and hard of hearing players.
What is next for American Golf and what do you see as the main challenges and opportunities for retail in the next two to three years?
American Golf will continue to drive forwards in its mission to accelerate golf participation, while changing the perception of the sport for good and making sure it’s accessible to all.
The cost-of-living crisis will raise inevitable challenges for retailers as we expect to see a continued trend in downward spending. However, what’s important is how retailers respond to this. Rather than hike up prices, retailers need to listen to their customers and adapt to their needs. For example, our partnership with Golfbidder allows our customers to continue to improve their game by trading in their old equipment for new, significantly reducing the cost outlay for them. It also bolsters the face-to-face in store customer contact, allowing us to personally advise on their next purchases based on their individual needs – something that is very important to us. It’s also about keeping it fun!
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