“ The youth is where sustainable golf is.” - with Ben Styles, former Vice president of Hoiana Shores Golf Club.
Hufr has a chance to sit down with Mr. Ben Styles, the former Vice President of Hoiana Shores Golf Club and a member of the Australian GPA to discuss his view and vision for the golf industry and hospitality in Vietnam.
Ben, you are an Australian PGA member and former Vice president of the Hoiana Golf Club. What kept you occupied after leaving Hoiana? Could you share with us some of the projects that you’ve been working on?
Since leaving Hoiana early this year, I am taking my time to observe where things lay. I’m also helping other companies searching for their road map ahead as well as joining in a consulting role with a company that is based in Australia and Vietnam. They are setting up quite an interesting project in Cần Thơ city which is a driving range with an entertaining putt down in the city. You know, my life has really been around developing golf courses for golfers while this is more about establishing driving ranges like a putt-putt, cafe and bar to get new people interested in golf, which I think is really interesting in Vietnam. The corporations realize that it is not sustainable right now with just golfers playing plain golf. They need the youth, new golfers. In order to do that, they need to provide more entertainment to navigate young people around for a bit of fun. Because I think golf has an intimidating side to it. For someone that new, they would think ‘’I don’t even know how to play. I heard it’s expensive. I heard it's a rich man sport.” Therefore, they tend to stay away from it. That’s the reason why I think this idea is fascinating considering it hasn’t been done in Vietnam yet. I think once it’s done and finished, that model can be lifted and put in anywhere such as Saigon, Hanoi or even in Danang. Unfortunately, it is currently put on hold because of Covid.
I personally can confirm that golf isn’t as easy as it seems though I’ve tried. In your opinion, what is important for new golfers to know if they are learning the game?
One thing about golf is that it’s such a mind game and the game of the opposites. You need to be clear on that. In other sports such as tennis, if we want the ball to go up, we hit up and the other way around. However, in golf, if you want it to go up, you got to hit down and vice versa. It should feel like you are swinging and moving your whole body with it. Having taught golf for many years makes me realize that it’s a matter of being able to get the student to absorb the idea of a blank canvas. Don’t think about any other sports you play or whatever is going on in your brain if that makes sense. Then just go with it. And believe me you’re gonna be crap for a long time before you have a hang of it. I’ve seen it over and over, there are some people that just click within a month, some people take 2 to 3 years to click. But once it clicks, that’s when the golf bug bites and it takes a hold of you. If you stop before that bug bites you, you properly won’t come back to golf. It’s always been an uphill battle for golf instructors to get going with beginners.
Do you think there’s an open door for the golf industry in Vietnam on condition that people don’t feel intimidated by golf and are willing to try more?
Since 2007, I’ve been involved in the heart of golf with the Vietnam Golf Association, with the tourism industry and with every council, every committee. There’s no secret to the fact that the youth is where sustainable golf is. You can’t look at keeping golf growing when it’s just for middle aged men and a sprinkling of women. If you go to any golf tournament now in Vietnam, there will be 130 men between the age of 35 and 65 and then a few wives that come along because it’s their chance to spend a day with their husbands. Very rarely an independent decision for a woman to go play golf with a group of friends. It's not uncommon anywhere. What we need to understand is that the golf industry in Vietnam is new. We are on the trajectory and it is the same for every country that has been on at some point. Most establishments like in Australia or England are very much on the top of that trajectory of maturity of golf. Meanwhile, golf in Vietnam is, realistically, 15 years old. I’ve been here almost since the start when golf started to become something. Keep in mind that you can’t change nor reinvent the wheel. It is what it is. You will always start with the middle aged men and then the growth will come from the youth. Perhaps if they play golf early on and learn some of the mechanics, they will come back to it. Otherwise it will be difficult to keep them in. There has to be some focus on the youth, I must say. But it’s only a drop in the ocean where Vietnam needs to be with getting young generations to play golf. Moreover, the hardest part of that uphill battle is the obvious divide when it comes to income and the impactful socioeconomic. Golf, to most people, is quite costly. To them it is something that won’t play off. Especially for parents if it’s something they couldn’t afford.
Why do you think most Vietnamese parents will not encourage their kids to play golf and learn to be professional?
Because the road map is not there for them like it was for me. I started golf and my father could show me how I was going to be a professional as long as I stuck to it. I joined school teams, I represented my county and my state, my country as a junior. I could see there was a system in place for me to be a golf professional regardless of how well I could play golf. At the Tiger Woods level I could play just good enough and I could be a professional. So I entered the PGA in Australia.I did my apprenticeship and I did my study and became a professional golfer. So there was a real road map from the first time I ever hit a golf ball to becoming a golf professional. I could be whatever I wanted to be and I chose to get into business. But that’s not there in Vietnam. It will be. But it’s gonna take a lot of time and it’s gonna take the government to lead that and to put that in place.
You have been living in Vietnam for almost 15 years. What motivated you to start your career here?
I was primarily coaching golf in Singapore which I really enjoyed. There was a need for operations advice in Singapore so I started to get into that. Then I learned that it’s properly a cap for me since there are a lot of smart guys in Singapore already doing it. Eventually, I looked around and talked to some friends that were involved in golf in Vietnam. After some research I realized that there was a big void in the market of having a proper PGA setup in Vietnam with people who have proven certification on golf development. I thought I would take a year and go. That’s when I joined a company which was developing golf somewhere far north up Hanoi, in Chí Linh. Like all of us expats, when we came here, we fell in love with the people, the food, the culture, the lifestyle. Especially for me in golf at that time, I got to take part in setting up handicapping systems, training and writing documents for the government that could be implemented over a bunch of years in the country. I started being ingrained in golf and realized that I could do some good here. Later on in my career, I started involved in building golf courses which was amazing that I was leaving a mark in the industry. Now I’ve got 2 builds that have become properly the best two courses in the country. While being in Australia as a 30 year old, I would never have been given the responsibilities of developing golf courses.
Another reason for staying is my family. I got married here and had a child. I've really enjoyed my time in Vietnam.
For someone who is starting their career and wants to pursue it in the industry, what are the core elements that they need to know? What would the career path be for them?
In my opinion, golf has three core elements:
One is the playing of golf. That is Adam Scott and Tiger Woods whose legacies you see on TV.
The second is coaching, which is a fantastic life for people because it is out of fresh air and coaching people.
The third element being the business side. The business side could be branched off into General Management, Director of golf or could be training, or could be development like what I am in at the moment.
Everywhere now, there are others like me who are proficient people running golf courses. I’ve got former staff from 10-12, 13 years ago that were caddying and couldn’t speak English to now running golf clubs. One of them was a caddy of mine back in 2007. Back then she could just say hello and now she’s the director of golf in one of the best golf clubs in the country, and one day will be the General Manager if she wants that. I’ve got another successful case that was a F&B manager and is now the General manager. It’s properly ultimately starting to do me out of a job which is fine. We know as an expat here, part of our responsibility is to work ourselves out of the role and into a mentoring role. That’s why I take on consulting and potentially will find more of a path there for myself.
Since you write courses, teach, and focus more on the development of the hospitality industry, do you see a lot of changes here in the past 5 years?
I definitely see a huge change. I can fondly look back on the time since ‘07 and recall, in Hanoi there was one bar that was,I wouldn’t say expat friendly, but somewhere you could find a little closer to the comfort at home. Might as well one or two hotels. Da Nang was just starting back then. Nha Trang was basically not existing and Phu Quoc, not at all. Saigon might have a few places although you still had to carry your passport. However, that’s all part of development and growth. For that reason, I’ve seen a huge change to now that all of the big brands are here. Regarding the service back then, from my point of view, could never match the service you got in Thailand or to anywhere else. By service I mean genuine hospitality such as happiness and the culture of serving, understanding what customers want which almost didn’t exist in Vietnam. Nevertheless, now I start to see that in Vietnam. You get that honesty and Thailand feels here which I think is amazing. For sure it’s going to get better and better. There are some thoughts that have been at the back of my mind that Vietnam sometimes doesn’t know what it has despite the fact that it has such great potential as safety, beautiful beaches and its people. Turn back time to when I used to travel to the ITP and different travel shows, Vietnam would have a few stalls and that’s it. Taking up a major area of that show floor would be Thailand and Indonesia. They brought their performers and costumes, ect. They truly got a sense of understanding of what they had. I wondered why Vietnam didn’t do much of this. Personally speaking, it must be the large history of agriculture which has been a key part of global impact. Now that the GDP, a piece of the pie for tourism, is growing, the government and business owners start to see and put some support into that.
Your benchmark of hospitality service was Thailand. Do you think they have the best service in the region and how far off do you think Vietnam is at the moment?
That’s a good question. To be fair, compared within the region, the tourism mega for Vietnam is still Danang. The highest level of service that you could have when you go to places such as Intecon, is pretty comparable to Thailand. I must be fair. When you go to those places, there is honesty, compassion, and empathy for the guests. Unfortunately, if you might go to Hanoi or Saigon, it might not have that much of the resorts, island feel in terms of their hospitality. Don’t get me wrong it is quite proficient enough. Although it won’t be the same as that resort/ leisure feeling that you might get in Thailand or some of the others in the region. Recently, I saw it in Six Senes in Côn Đảo which to my knowledge is the best hotel/ resort in Asia. Their service is as good or even better than some of the other famous places in our region.
How do you feel about the saying that there’s some specificity in Vietnam that might have an impact on the service, in which case makes it harder? Do you see any challenges in the industry?
Maybe I have to go out on a bit of a limb here and say: The main challenge is generally the divide between men and women in the industry. I can see there’s a way of empathetic passive service orientation to Vietnamese women. There’s really been a great culture of service that they provide. I have worked here for a long time and I must say, if I have to give the list of the top ten as a gauge, it would be primarily made up of women in terms of my staff who have been giving high level service to the guests. The men are great and hard workers. Despite the fact that it’s in their bones to work hard, that interaction with guests will properly take some more of the feeding and pulling out of them. Whereas in Thailand and Indonesia it comes from the people freely.
Another challenge is the language barrier. There's a big gap here in learning English. It’s really a hit and miss. There still are people that you encounter in 5 star resorts who may have basic English. Adding more to that are Chinese and Korean. In order to achieve a high level of service, that language barrier needs to be lifted.
Should you give advice to someone who wants to start a career in golf or hospitality, what would it be?
I talk to people all the time about getting into golf or staying in golf. You know lots of my staff, they have moved on from golf and they asked what’s next and so forth. One big thing I need to remind them is that there are about 60 golf courses in the country of 98 million people. Therefore, if you are a manager of a golf course, you are now one of the best in the country. On the other hand, should you be moving to the hotel sector, you’re going to be one of ten thousand. Whereas in golf, you’re still in the 60 or 70.
Hence, my advice for those who are already in golf is to stay considering there’s going to be some places for you to move in golf such as leadership roles. As I said before, I won't be a general manager at a hotel and have a golf course in 5 to 10 years. That’ll be all Vietnamese, which is starting now.
Another piece of advice to those that aren't in golf yet is to really look into golf. I still love the fact that I can get out to the creek, the clean cut grass and be in the sun, just enjoy having an active outdoor job while still being paid. Golf is such a unique and interesting sport that you can learn quite quickly. Besides, golfers can spot golfers. Thus it's crucial that you get into golf and educate yourself about it. Watch it on TV or read books, gain as much knowledge as you can. I have to admit that I’ve given my advice to a lot of people. Those who have really listened to it and done it, are thriving in golf now. For the reason that the golfers want to be around them and talk to them, they've become a valuable asset to the company. Try golf and you will see. Don’t be afraid to get a golf club and drive around in the driving range and see how you are at it. Golf is an addictive sport. That job in my life is a blur line for me. I would live it and work it. It’s the same thing for me. I think that's quite a fun thing. My dad used to tell me many years ago to find a job that I loved and I would never work a day, as the saying goes. So it's sort of been where I'm at. Thanks to that, the hardest day is still manageable for me.
To the best of your knowledge, which is a more effective way of learning about the hospitality service? Should they go to a school or should they learn by doing? Based on your experience in Vietnam, what are your thoughts on the schools in Vietnam?
In my opinion, the vocational schools are fantastic in terms of hospitality. It’s always going to be the backbone of the golf industry. Don't forget the two components of golf. One is golf and purely golf. The other is the hospitality side, where you might be a bartender or an F&B manager or housekeeping or security, front office of a golf course, which has less to do with golf. We developed the first vocational course here in Quảng Nam, Vietnam, which was specific for golf operations and golf course maintenance. It's a vocational college that's supported by Hoiana. It was a fun project and also something intriguing for people to look at and look into. The students graduated with an accreditation, which is crucial for us to develop. Don’t be hesitant to get involved in golf even at a lower level. Young young guys could get into the golf operations section of golf such as the starters and the marshals or the different guys at concierge and so forth. For the girls may be caddies. I've got some really fantastic stories of caddies success because they come to us. Generally speaking, they haven't had training in the past, if they have, some basic high school. Then they came out speaking fantastic English, having excellent deportment. As a result of our teaching on how to do their makeup and hair and how to interact with customers or foreign customs. A large number of them ended up working for their guests somewhere at different companies, or getting to a level in their proficiency that they're able to be a manager at a golf club. That being said, there's some fantastic entry levels in golf for young adults who don't wish to go to college or need to start working after graduation. Especially for a caddy, some of them earn upwards of a thousand dollars a month, which is comparable to a paying job that requires a university degree. It's an opportunistic start that does lead somewhere.
As a means of recruitment, what will be the vital aspects that you would look into?
I always had to hire across, as we spoke about the different levels of golf, for example caddies, those aspects would be health, eye sight. If they've got bad eyesight, the job will be pretty difficult straight away. Apart from health, commitment is also important. Golf operations always require a certain level of understanding in English. Then hospitality, of course, if they've had some hospitality experience, that's great. Overall, I'm looking for a willingness to work, passion, fluency in English and a certain element of fit and health. Needless to say, for someone who doesn't have proper hospitality education, experience will be valued more.
Some research shows that the turnover rates in Vietnam’s hospitality industry is quite high. Is this issue a concern to you? What is your advice, as a vice president, on keeping employees?
Let’s have a look at the golf side of the business, by that I mean, the caddies and the golf operations, the turnover is insignificant. Due to the fact there's such a large investment for the employee in training. Supposing they wish to become caddies, there's a 120 day minimum of training in order to understand golf. I know thousands of caddies in this country and I have to say, the job's kind of fun for them after all. If they're smart and they learn quickly with good English, they will end up getting booked consistently by saying customers. They have a bit of a joke around with the guests and they get involved with the bedding so it’s a bit of fun here and there. Thanks to that, five or six hours of their job just goes like that. Besides, they get tipped. Consequently, they look at other jobs and think: “why would I leave? I mean I'm 19, I'm earning a thousand dollars a month and I'm kind of having fun as well as getting fit.” A lot of the caddies might be new moms so they want to get back to some certain level of healthiness by walking seven, eight kilometers a day. To me, the job of a caddy is fantastic. It's got its hard times when it comes to dealing with difficult customers or working on a hot day. But they're few and far between. Regarding the retention of a caddy, the only factor that ends a caddy's career is age. They get to a point where they think they’re too old for it. Otherwise they move on in the golf clubs if they haven't already been promoted. In terms of clubhouses, there's always going to be retention issues, same as hotels would. However, in the region that I'm most recently in, such as Danang, there's a fairly good pool of talent as Vietnamese know where to go to seek job opportunities. Thus it's fairly easy to find staff. Beyond everything, it eventually comes down to the company, their ethos and the acumen of the management to try to hold on and retain staff. I've always had it as KPI needs as a GM to keep that retention as low or as high as possible.
All things considered, do you think that providing a clear path and the highest salary would help lower the turnover rate?
I've got to say salary is as determined as an incremental increase. If a company decides to resist pay raises, that'll always be a challenge for making people stay because they feel like they're not valued. In addition, a good training program is crucial for new employees. I would often bring in mixologists, baristas or people that we can share knowledge with so as they feel like we're not asking anything in return as to sign a bond or anything, but here's someone to help with your development. I usually tend to be careful of what we can show too clearly in terms of a roadmap to success. Although it may sound strange, if you can't ever do it in terms of keeping your promises, you really end up sometimes as a leader, losing some respect from the staff. Owing to the fact that, with the company, some of the decisions are out of your control, whether it's a centralized HR and they won't let someone that's junior become a supervisor due to the lack in their performance.
From your point of view, what is the most challenging aspect when it comes to HR in the industry?
The most challenging aspect that I've been trying to work on more recently is reference checking. Back in the old days, the recruitment scene used to be the case that as long as they came in, they looked good then everything was okay, they got the job. I would often ask my HR whether we could call their previous employer to check if they're ready or if they're still working there. Quite often the HR would look at me and go: “what? What do you mean?” I would explain that we need to do reference checks on the applicants. The process has become more prevalent than it was some years ago when it was never heard of. I would literally hire someone and some other GMs would call me to ask if I hired that guy. When I answered yes, he told me he just sacked that guy two weeks before for stealing fuel from the reel mower. I turned to my HR and said: “come on HR!” The CV was really just a document that showed facts. It really didn't showcase what we see in real life sometimes. If I could recall, I think the old, funny one where references were just everyone's friends that were going to give. You called and they said: “Oh yeah. Ben's a great guy.” And I said, “okay, well, what's the point of putting this name down. Reference checking requires at least the last three employers that the applicants have worked for. In case they’re currently working, you make a note of discretion. I believe once we start to focus more on backgrounds, we'll probably weed out some of the issues.
Vietnam's strong inbound tourism growth in the past few years has enabled it to boost the demand in hospitality as well as F&B services. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted Vietnam's year-on-year development. Are you optimistic about the future of these industries after COVID?
Based on my knowledge of the industries as given earlier, we’re starting to close the gap with other competitors. Why is that important? The importance is if you're a Chinese businessman or your Korean housewife, or you're an Aussie couple, and you're looking for your next holiday, most people that go, let's go to Asia. Most people prefer Thailand. Because they know about the beaches, the service, they know that they're going to have a great time shopping. There's really a lack of that, or has been a lack of that with Vietnam. Vietnam, in everyone's mind around the world, is still at war. Whether you like it or not, whether it’s right or wrong. If you mentioned Vietnam and were given your first response, most will say: “well, that’s where the war was.” And they don't even know much about that. They start to think: ”hang on, is that unstable? Is there militia? Are there safety concerns?” I had it when I first came here, I wondered where I was, the north or south? There's that element to get over and say: “oh, I post pictures on Facebook” and I'm sure you do. And friends go: “wow, that's Vietnam?” So am I optimistic? Yes. If they continue to say that they've got more than what people think they've got in terms of product. If they keep pushing that and not leave it just to the private sector and the commercial sector to do it, they need to have government support in terms of “look at what we have here. And I think it's getting better. I've got to say it's years of leaps and bounds than what it was some years ago. So yes, I am optimistic about it. I think it will go in the right direction over the years to come. And I think COVID, I suppose It's some possibilities. People got to look at the opportunities that COVID presents. A lot of these hotels, hopefully, are restructuring, rebranding, renovating during this time. So they've got a fresh product when COVID ends and people are going to be looking to spend their money. I know that there's a lot of Aussies looking to get out once vaccination is at a point where everybody's safe with it. And then there's a very small risk of it. They can look for places to go and Vietnam is going to be on that list as long as they're out in the public eye.
Thank you very much for your time and share your thoughts with us. Have a good day!