Covid 19 – Experiences from a club manager in Italy

Brodie MacDonald, General Manager of Royal Golf La Bagnaia in Italy tells us of his experiences managing a club during the Covid 19 pandemic.

In the past few weeks, the Coronavirus (Covid 19) has fast become a worldwide pandemic, with more and more cases of the virus being confirmed daily across much of the world and with many businesses, including clubs, now having little choice but to close their doors to the public. 

Italy is one of the countries which is has been most affected by Covid 19 with the country now on a national quarantine imposed by the Italian government. 

Brodie MacDonald, General Manager of Royal Golf La Bagnaia in Italy tells us of his experiences managing a club during the Covid 19 pandemic. 

How did You hear about the COVID-19?
The first article I read was via social media about one of the first doctors to discover the virus but faced scrutiny for raising alarm bells.

What was the first communication you got about it?
The very first communication I received about COVID-19 was from an peer and IMG colleague in Asia, just before Chinese New Year celebrations. The IMG Asia team were sharing the impact they were seeing on business and changes to daily life.

How was the initial reactions from Board/Owners/Members?
In a slightly fortunate position as our Owner has a newspaper company so they were well across the matter. They took the matter extremely serious and in terms of positive action they always opted to air on the side of caution for everyone’s welfare. As they also had business interests in the north of Italy we would keep in touch every day to stay current on the ever evolving situation and to share ideas of control measures and precautions to take.

What have you been forced to do?
Initially the outbreak in Italy was predominately confined to the northern regions and as Tuscany was not listed as a red zone it was a sense of business as usual while being on high alert. As the cases begun to rise the control measures did too, at times the information was rapid but not consistent as it was dependent on your Clubs location and local Comune. As cases grew and fears descended, we prepared an internal communication to our team regarding the virus, symptoms, what to do and when and issued best hygiene practises.

The next club event was due to be a busy 80 player shotgun start, we changed the starting format from a shotgun to limit the volume of people at the club at a giving time. The following week, after warnings not to host large gatherings, we contacted tournament organizers and sponsors for the month a head to postpone their event. Staff were informed not to shake colleagues or member hands. Locker room control procedures were put in place to minimize usage, duration and amount of people at the same time.

Covid-19 signage was placed in prominent areas of the golf club. To respect the 1-meter rule, we amended our shared golf cart policy to single use golf carts. Restaurant restrictions followed, we removed the quantity of tables and chairs in the Restaurant and changed the seating configuration so that no seats were within one meter of another. In the following days we were instructed to close the Restaurant and locker rooms. Group golf lesson and classes were subsequently postponed. Staff wore face mask and latex gloves, hand sanitizer was used frequently.

We only allowed one guest in the Golf Shop at a given time, ultimately that may controls were now in place the club was heading to a closure as the business could not operate normally and the risk became greater. This was confirmed following the decree on 9th March, Italy became a nationwide red zone, suspending all leisure activities, avoiding non-essential travel and refrain from leaving your town of residency. The message was stay at home and self-isolate therefore the Clubs closure decision was essentially decided for us.

What implications do you see for the club – for Italian Golf – For yourself and your family?
As the current situation is beyond our own control, it’s an extremely frustrating period for many reasons! Most of us have endured a long winter period, the season was just beginning, the weather is nicer, warmer, longer daylight, many nice future bookings filled the tee sheet and hotel. The return of the international market with international guests picking up and Easter holidays were not far away.

Last year at La Bagnaia we built up some nice momentum, it’s a shame to lose that after working so hard to achieve. Loss of revenue and cash flow has become a serious cause for concern as no one knows the period of lockdown and the post pandemic fallout.

Other concerns are local market confidence, how many reservations cannot be relocated timeline for tourism recovery. Despite having a population over 60 million people, in comparison to other European countries, the volume of courses and golf participation levels, golf in Italy was already a challenge. Although Italy ranks 5th in the world for International tourist arrivals (62million international tourist arrivals per year).

I fear the seismic pandemic faced in Italy that was reported worldwide in true dramatic fashion while other European and American countries were yet to encounter such disruption or chaos may prove extremely difficult for the speed of Italy’s tourism recovery.

What do you do right now, during the lockdown?
Most days I work from home however occasionally I do go into the office for various requirements, but the beautiful clubhouse is a quiet and lonely place. Today is day 10 of the lockdown and personally it is already proving challenging as social interaction is non-existent.

On the flip side you do gain perspective and appreciation for freedom of movement. Daily routines you take for granted such as a coffee and croissant at a local café to walking round the public park, member interactions, game of golf or enjoying a nice meal out (thankfully I am blessed to have a wife who is an exceptional cook). If you do go out, it is in fear that you are stopped and questioned by the police on your way.

Imperative to acknowledge that the service people and health workers are doing a fantastic job in horrible times. What is normality these days? Gone are the days of popping into the shop for some groceries, you can queue outside a supermarket for up to 20 – 25 mins waiting your turn to enter the store, avoiding close contact with other patrons, while wearing a face mask and rubber gloves. Siena would normally be vibrant at this time of year, the narrow streets usually bustling of people, local and foreign but they currently resemble something apocalyptic! An eerie silence however that doesn’t break the Italian spirit. Often around 9pm at night you will hear joyful and spirited signing from the windows. #iorestoacasa #andratuttobene 

Any thoughts on any part of the process – what could have been done better, was what really good etc.
While hindsight is a beautiful thing, thankfully until now none of my staff, their families, friends or our members have been directly affected by the virus. The information was ever changing, adaptability was the only course of action.

My owner and IMG were fantastic, I took the opportunity to speak with other Club Managers and Professionals around the region to learn what they were doing and implementing. These waters are unchartered but having to deal with such complexities I would have liked quicker and decisive action from our clubs governing body.

On the golf course the GCM team are taking the opportunity to complete some special projects that we wouldn’t normally be able to conduct during this month. As this year’s budget is already irrelevant the next task will be to prepare some post lockdown scenarios for the remainder of the year, best case and worst case.