How a now thriving Thornbury Bowls Club embraced change

by Melanie Allen

About 10 years ago, Thornbury Bowls Club (TBC) was really struggling financially and had dwindling membership numbers – the two obvious drivers to create change. The Club sought assistance from their Regional Bowls Manager, Paul Holtschke, to help document new short and long term plans. Paul also helped the Club apply for some grants which helped to get the ball rolling.

The committee at the time were met with many barriers; a lack of finances, an older membership base whose sole focus was placed on bowling members, and a lack of technical know-how. It became clear to that turning away large groups, who have the potential to go on to become regular patrons, social or bowling members, was detrimental to the Club, whether you like their attire or not! A bar staffed only by older bowling members, that closes at 6pm, is not going to attract much new patronage. Sound familiar?

It took a couple of years, a determined new committee, and good financial management to put their new plans into action. It also took those who wanted change to stand up and volunteer on committees. It was only then that things started to turn around for TBC.

Thirsty Thursdays’ were introduced to attract younger members, followed by a membership drive that included a chance to win a set of bowls with new members receiving a free Club shirt as well as two years membership for the price of one. Membership started to grow!

With function bookings identified as a sure way to drive income, the Club worked on booking live bands, weddings and birthdays – even the Australian pinball championship was held at the Club. Moving towards becoming a community resource rather than just a private members club was key. This in turn led to the current range of community events on offer including an emphasis on music, regular maker’s markets, record fairs, yoga and an annual community day in partnership with a local beer supplier.

Once business got going (that’s right, the Club worked out that they were in fact a business) they were able to hire younger casual staff (tattoos & piercings preferred) to assist with functions and events. They freshened the place up, sanded the floors, a basic spit and polish. They knew that managing a professionally run event (and taking advantage of their unique vintage look), in a personalised function space was a winning combination. A new bar manager introduced local craft beers to appeal to their younger members and visitors. They are proud to now have a newly renovated bar due to the increased bar takings.

Another great initiative was the decision to devote one green to barefoot bowling every day from midday, and on sunny days the beer flowed and so did their income. The Club invested wisely by renovating their grass green and added seating at the end of each rink to cater for their growing barefoot bowlers. The Club’s membership has grown substantially (and organically – nearly all are members who are 1st time bowlers), due in part to the popularity of their barefoot bowls.

A recent online Zoom Trivia Night was testament to the Club’s social media presence. The event was a sell-out with 90 participants making up 37 teams (of which only about a dozen were bowling members). Their 1,000-strong following on Facebook, made up of members, locals and friends enabled this event to be promoted to the wider community.

When asked what advice they’d give other clubs facing hard times, TBC suggested to give people a reason to visit and make them welcome. They noted that many clubs have seating only suitable for watching bowls. Their regular barefoot bowlers wanted a sociable setting, so when they renovated their grass green, they built over a rink to establish a beer garden, with six outdoor picnic tables and umbrellas.

Then give them a reason to stay! Offer craft beer and quality wines at a keen price. Hold BBQs and be accommodating to new trends, like UberEats. Be prepared to try things unrelated to bowls to attract new faces into your club and embrace social media. Be inclusive! Target school parents, hold open days and promote them on social media, add music and food and you’re off to a great start.

Importantly, when facing resistance from club stalwarts, take them on your journey. For Thornbury Bowls Club it was difficult but rewarding to finally get these valued long-time club members on board with new and exciting initiatives.

The journey of change can be daunting, but worth it!