Exceeding expectations one sense at a time

When Mike Braidwood CCM was first introduced to the concept of sensual auditing by Dr Ali Poorani at the Club Managers Association of America’s (CMAA’s) annual World Conference last year it got him thinking. How could this be applied to clubs around Europe?

Dr Ali Poorani has studied human behaviour for years. Our different senses, he explained, help us make purchasing decisions. I really sat up and took note, though, when he discussed his sensual auditing work with five star hotel operator the Ritz Carlton group. This really caught my imagination, and following the session I sat down and gave sensual auditing some serious thought, reflecting back on where I had experienced sensual auditing first hand.

My first reflection came from my early years working as a golf professional at the Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland. One day I was assigned to take Sir Jackie Stewart out on the PGA Course for a playing lesson. Sir Jackie was not only a former World F1 Champion and a former World Clay pigeon champion, but a pretty handy golfer as well.

At that time Sir Jackie was also sitting on the Boards of Rolex, Moet Chandon and Ford. In fact he test drove every new vehicle Ford produced, from the tiniest Fiesta to the largest articulated lorry. Such was Sir Jackie’s attention to detail that his services were in great demand; he knew his stuff. As you can imagine racing F1 cars in the mid 1960s / early ‘70s was not the safest of pursuits, so if the vehicle was not spot on then it was a matter of life or death.

During our round I was giving Sir Jackie a few pointers on his golf swing and advice on trimming a few strokes here or there, but to be honest I was learning a whole lot more from him than he was learning from me.

The first key learning for me came as early as the 3rd hole. We were standing on the third green and Sir Jackie shouted across to me, “Mike look at that!” pointing toward the beautiful Glen Devon. I replied “Yes indeed what a stunning view.” “No, no,” he said,“not that. That!” pointing to a field full of sheep.

I wasn’t getting what point he was trying to make,until he quickly made it clear what he was looking at. “Look at that. Guests don’t come to Gleneagles to look at rooves of petrol stations. Ridiculous. We’ll ,need some screening trees planted.”

Sure enough you could see the roof of a Shell filling station about 600 meters from the 3rd hole of the PGA course. It had never crossed my mind – nor that of my bosses or even Jack Nicklaus who designed the course – that guests at the hotel could feel that way. But on reflection you are coming to a world class hotel to stay in luxury and to ‘get away from everything’ so I suppose when you’re in the beautiful surroundings of the golf courses at Gleneagles you don’t want to have any scenic pollution close to your experience.

Later in the round when we reached the 17th green Sir Jackie’s senses picked up again, this time by the sound on the A9. Again his observation was very similar; guests don’t come to play golf at Gleneagles to have to listen to that.

So this was my Lesson number 1 on sensual auditing and it came from way back in 1996. It has made me acutely aware ever since that when dealing with the aesthetics of your club you need to look outward as well as inward, and far afield as well as at close range. It’s amazing how affected people are by visual pollution and noise pollution.

A couple of years later I moved into my first General Managers role in the tiny country of Bahrain. My job was to open up the country’s first grass golf course (they had two sand courses). It was an amazing learning curve for me when, in 2005, the owners were approached by a development bank who wanted to develop the land the club was on and the surrounding area into an integrated residential community offering golf, leisure, a school and shopping. This was a vast project and one that would cause sizeable upheaval to the club.

To cut a long story short, the club was to close for at least 18 months for major redevelopment. The end result would be a brand new course and clubhouse along with a community of 1,000 houses. So in a relatively short space of time I’d gone from opening anew club to now preparing to close it, and then planning the reopening!

One of the many tasks was off-loading the club’s furniture to make way for new. So we photographed it all and sent out an email to our membership base asking them to bid for those pieces we weren’t keeping.

To my great surprise, I was inundated with requests for the brown sofa that sat in the bar. Only then did it strike me that members actually came to the club to sit on that sofa, relax, read a newspaper and chat to their friends. It was one of the many reasons that people came to the club.

Worse was to follow. Not only did I sell that sofa, I didn’t brief the new interior designer to fill the new club with comfy sofas just like it – a school boy error!

Lesson number 2 on sensual auditing then is check out the comfort of the club. Where do your members prefer to sit and why? Touch is a very intimate thing and if the furniture, towels or any other touch points don’t feel good, then the members won’t linger and in turn will not spend as much money at your club.

My next reflection again came from my time in Bahrain. Being an Islamic country pork is forbidden in Bahrain. However the government is happy for it to be sold in certain supermarkets, hotels and restaurants. So as our club was predominantly ex-pat, our menu reflected their tastes. Enter the bacon buttie incident!

My Indian chef couldn’t get his head round the concept of a sandwich that A, did not have salad and onions on it, B, was not served in a baguette or C,came with no garnish. After a few failed attempts I rolled up my sleeves, sourced the soft white bap and shared a culinary lesson on bacon buttie cuisine! Three rashers of quality bacon, served on a fresh, slightly toasted white bap that has been generously buttered (both sides).

Members and guests would come to the club for meetings and a bacon buttie, driving a long way from the city and in the process passing a number of other convenient meeting places on route.

This humble bacon buttie became legendary and quickly became known as the ‘best bacon buttie in the world’. This really hit home when one day a visiting golfer from a neighbouring country asked a waiter to have his bacon buttie wrapped in tin foil. When offered proper take away packing for taking sandwiches out on the course, the guest put me straight. He said: “Don’t worry, it’s not for the course. I’m taking this bacon buttie back to Abu Dhabi to show our club chef what a real one looks like!”

Lesson number 3 then – food and taste are extremely emotive. Make sure you have an ‘anchor’ dish on your menu that will keep the members coming back for more. Something that tastes so good will resonate with people for a long time.

My next sensual discovery happened more recently at my local golf club.

I am friendly with the pro there and popped into his shop one day for a catch up. As soon as I walked in I was struck by the sound of soothing classical music, so much so I passed comment on it to him. He explained that he knew his membership demographics and that it was an aging membership. He wanted to encourage them to stay in the shop longer, feel comfortable and in return hopefully spend more.

This is such an obvious one, and yet so many places never give it any thought.

Certain retail stores and restaurants choose their music accordingly on how quickly or slowly they want their customers to eat. If you’re a fast food joint where you want to turn over your tables multiple times in a night then fast music is what you want. Conversely if you want guests to linger and hang around choose soothing and slow paced music.

Lesson number 4 is take time to listen to your operation. What does it sound like. Do you have any noise pollution – neighbouring road, green keeping equipment etc? Are you in tune with your members’tastes or has the music in the bar been decided by your 19 year old bar tender?

My final reflection is sadly not so good. In Bahrain we had a reverse osmosis plant which purified the very salty ground water so that we could use it for irrigation purposes. The course architect came up with bright idea that our very salty discharge water could be sent to our lakes which were on the course as hazards. This was a great solution, but with one problem. As soon as the discharge water made contact with the outside world and oxidized it let off a terrible smell of sulphur.

These two smells were off putting for the less than avid golfer and certainly put a number of people off coming to play or joining the club.

At the time I didn’t think of any plausible solutions, but I could easily have thought of strong smelling decorative planting or some outdoor strong air fresheners. But at the time I was just thankful of a regular breeze to take these smells away from the course, knowing that on still days the humidity was too high and that not many people would play anyway !

So how does your club smell? Think supermarkets and the smell of freshly made bread. Think coffee shops with their welcoming smell of freshly ground coffee. A lot of clubs smell of old stale beer or fried food from the kitchen none of which are very inviting.

Lesson number 5, don’t under estimate the power of smell and how it influences your customers’ decisions. Take time to smell your club and take the necessary actions. It’s easier than you think and will make a huge difference.

And there’s more…

The first five lessons take care of the traditional senses:sight, touch, taste, hearing and smell, but what about other senses?

Having worked in two extremes the desert of the Middle East and the cold of a Russian winter I know how important temperature is to people. It’s a tough balance to get right but the warmth or coolness of a room will help someone decide on whether or not to enter it.

I recently heard a presentation from an experienced gym operator who said if the temperature of your gym is not between 16-18°C then no-one will visit.

Remember fire places are there to be used in the winter; a roaring fire hits most of the senses and will attract customers to stay longer.

Lesson number 6 – keep an eye on the temperature of your club. Turning the heating off in the winter might be saving you a few pounds but it’s killing your business. Conversely in the summer if it is stuffy people are not going to hang around.

Finally the last sense is emotion. How does your club make your members feel? This is a whole separate topic matter. Do you know your members by name? Do you know something about them? Do they get a warm ‘embrace’ by all staff entering the facility? Are the always made to feel welcome? Do they feel intimidated? All of these need to be considered and many more.

One final related story that’s a bit of fun. I did the pre-opening of a very exclusive private members’ club in Moscow. Russia is a complicated place to operate so simple solutions are always welcome. One such solution was to out-source the cleaning, which is quite typical for a lot of clubs. However, within this contract the club owners made the cleaning company responsible for the procurement of the cleaning materials including the soaps, shampoos and toilet paper. Perhaps you can imagine the results? Not a hit with the members who were expecting a luxurious changing room experience rather than what felt like a cost-cutting exercise!

Article published in Clubhouse Europe magazine issue 8