Twenty years after he joined Goswick Golf Links as a member, Robert Cook was named the new chairman of its board. That raises some questions, such as: Why now? What experience and perspective does he bring to the role? And what is his vision for the club moving forward?
Recently, member Dan Miller connected with Robert via the socially distanced medium of a phone line in search of some answers.
DAN: Thanks for taking the time to chat. As the CEO of TGI Fridays in the UK, and owner of the The Cookie Jar in Alnwick and in the midst of yet another COVID-related national lockdown, I’m sure you’ve got a lot on your plate right now.
ROBERT: Yes, just a bit. These are challenging times in the hospitality industry and more broadly across the consumer sector. But with the distribution of vaccines now underway, there is light at end of this tunnel — even if we don’t know quite how long it is.
DAN: The same can be said for Goswick and golf in England.
ROBERT: Absolutely. As I see it, golf is fundamentally about hospitality. At least that’s my mindset having spent all of my career in hospitality. I was born and brought up in the business in my parents’ hotels and I lived in a hotel bedroom until I was 18 years old before going off to university in Aberdeen. It’s really in my blood.
I was CEO with Malmaison and Hotel du Vin for 11 years, helping it grow from four boutique hotels to 30. After that, I served as CEO of De Vere Hotels & Resorts. We were heavily invested in golf with 18 courses and sponsoring PGA European Tour events, The PGA Cup and the Senior PGA Championship for five years at places such as The Belfry, Mottram Hall and Slaley Hall in Northumberland.
I served as CEO of Virgin Active UK’s health clubs with over 200,000 members and now TGI Fridays UK with 86 stores which has helped to round out my hospitality portfolio.
Additionally, I’ve continued to keep my hand in hotels, as the owner and operator of The Cookie Jar in Alnwick. I live nearby which, fortunately, is only about a 35-minute drive to Goswick.
DAN: A very impressive CV. But it begs the question: Do you really have time to also serve as chairman of this golf club?
ROBERT: It’s a valid concern and one I don’t take lightly. Fact is, there have been other opportunities since I’ve been a member to take this on. In each case, though, I really was too busy to do it justice. But this time, when I was asked, I dwelled on it for 48 hours and said yes. I’m at a point in my life when I think I can give it the time it deserves. And more importantly, I want to give the time. Goswick is very near and dear to my heart. I feel compelled to do what I can to ensure it continues to thrive. It’s one thing to have opinions. It’s quite another to act on them. This was just the right time for me to try to do that.
DAN: What, in your opinion, makes Goswick so special?
ROBERT: It is truly a great links. And it’s an authentic links. I grew up playing golf in Aberdeenshire at courses like Peterhead and Cruden Bay. I’ve had the opportunity to travel the world and play some of the game’s best links courses, such as Royal County Down (my favourite), Portstewart, Royal Portrush and Carne in Ireland — as well as courses like Pine Valley, Pebble Beach and Bandon Dunes in the States. In my opinion, Goswick holds its own with all of them. It just doesn’t have the same profile. At least not yet.
DAN: Is that one of your priorities?
ROBERT: Yes. As chairman, my focus right now is on supporting the course, the greenkeeping staff and Paul (Terras, the head professional). We can’t afford to stand still on any of those fronts. Standing still really means you’re moving backwards. We need to push forward in as prudent a way as possible.
DAN: I know you’ve just started your term as chairman. But can you provide an example of what you mean by that?
ROBERT: More than anything, in the short term, it’s about steering the club through the pandemic and all the challenges that brings. Mid- to long-term it’s about making our great course even greater. You can see that in our decision not to furlough any of our greenkeeping staff during this lockdown. The work that (Head Greenkeeper) Ryan (McCulloch) and his team are doing this winter will make for a better course when play resumes. That’s essential.
A bit further down the road, and post COVID, it could mean exploring incremental improvements to the course to make it the best it can be. Goswick is ranked the 50th best course in England, but it’s very close to ascending to the top 100 in the UK.
DAN: Why is that important?
ROBERT: It goes right to the heart of raising our profile. A top-100 ranking will attract more visitor play. And that revenue can be reinvested in the club to make for an even better experience for our members without necessitating a significant increase in subscriptions. Our members should be so proud to be a part of Goswick that they walk around with their chests puffed out. At the end of the day, that’s what it is all about.
DAN: How does your background as a hotelier factor into this?
ROBERT: It’s about applying the concept of yield management to the tee time inventory. With a hotel, you have a fixed number of rooms and nights. With a golf course, you have a fixed number of tee times and days. Once you book a room or a tee time, it’s gone. We can’t create any more. But we can create more demand by offering a better experience. And as demand rises, so can the price. That leads to more revenue, which can be used to make further improvements and further boost demand. That’s the dynamic I’m hoping to help work towards at Goswick.
DAN: Is that possible?
ROBERT: Yes, but it’s going to take a shift in mindset. I believe we have a very strong and diverse board to help make that happen, with expertise in finance, administration, marketing and hospitality. If we push the aspirational boundary, through improvements to the course as well as the experience in the clubhouse, I think we can capture more of the flow to and from East Lothian. And we can get on the map with in-bound travelers from Europe and the States on their way to Scotland. It starts with the initial interaction on our website, to the first five minutes upon their arrival, to their time on the course, to the bon voyage moment as they pull out of the carpark. The course is key, but it’s also about the total experience. That will be my focus over the next 12-18 months.
DAN: So much potential. It’s just a shame that we’re starting 2021 in lockdown.
ROBERT: The good news, I believe, is that there is going to be a huge pent-up demand for golf generally, and therefore at Goswick, once the vaccination program is further advanced. That’s when the ongoing improvements we’re making in the course now are going to pay off. With a bit of luck with the weather from April going forward, I think we could end up having a great year.
DAN: Better days ahead!