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May 2017

Coming to America

comingtoamerica.jpg‭By David Gould

Capitalizing on a foreign tourism boom growing by the day

A British golfer doing a web search from his home in Liverpool or London comes upon Eagle Golf Tours, a U.K. online golf-vacation company. Scrolling down its list of U.S. destinations, our hypothetical Brit with hopes of teeing it up Stateside clicks on the Washington, D.C., area—he also plans to visit the Capitol and the Smithsonian. Soon he’s reading about Piankatank River Golf Course, a 6,658-yard layout with a top weekend rate of $54. It’s described in the blurb as “one of the most beautiful courses in Virginia,” and next to that blurb is a button that lets him “Make a Booking Enquiry.”

This certainly sounds like valuable no-cost marketing for Piankatank River—and for the dozen other D.C.-area courses Eagle Golf Tours presents to its U.K. audience. But if you call these courses directly and ask the management about British travel websites, you’ll likely discover they don’t know what you’re talking about. Alan Hale, president of GolfThere & Fairways Golf Vacations, has an explanation for why that is.

“Consumers in Europe and the U.K. have a long, unbroken tradition of reliance on travel agencies for vacation bookings,” says Hale, whose Birmingham, Alabama-based company is billed as America’s largest golf-tour and golf-travel fulfillment company. “Whereas in the U.S.—especially since the internet came along—people are much more inclined to self-book.”

According to Hale, websites like Eagle Golf Tours—and there’s a dozen or more of them in Britain alone—are usually part of small travel agencies that feel a need to display expertise in golf, so they list and describe overseas courses basically to give themselves site content. Indeed, the button on the Eagle website that lets someone “Make a Booking Enquiry” opens to a generic contact form, connecting you to the agency and not to an actual booking engine.

So if bolstering annual revenue at your course isn’t as easy as having foreign websites find you and send you business, what options are there for tapping this growing foreign-visitor market? Posed that question, Hale isn’t shy about touting his company’s niche in the U.S. golf travel industry as a valuable one for upscale courses.

“The tour-operator sector can absolutely help the public course owner, if the owner’s product is solid and they’ve got geography working in their favor,” explains Hale. On that latter point, he gives a big edge to year-round Sunbelt courses as a principal go-to, but adds regions like greater Chicago, Ohio, Delaware and Northern Michigan as valuable summer-season destinations. “Tour operators provide the upscale daily-fee course with no-cost revenue, and no money changes hands until we deliver you a customer,” Hale adds. “It’s not a barter round, and it’s not a discount round that hurts your perceived value, because the visiting golfer is paying your rack rate.”

All the golf course has to do, according to Hale, is let the round of golf go at a “wholesale” rate equal to about “80 cents on the dollar.” Most times the credit card merchant fee even gets absorbed by the tour operator. The golfers sent to your course through this portal are often foreign visitors on vacation, although they could also be traveling Americans. In either case, the customer is in that relatively adventurous mindset that leads to a higher spend-per-visit.

“We don’t bring the coupon-book guy and we don’t bring the local golfer who is more interested in a green fee bargain than in buying a logo golf shirt,” Hale says. “That’s a big distinction, one that course operators don’t always recognize, especially in an era when we see so much third-party selling.”

Now, did we mention a growing market? That’s definitely the case, even with the U.S. dollar experiencing such a protracted period of strength. It was in 2014 that industry data began strongly pointing this out—the U.S. showed up as the fastest-growing “inbound” destination for golf travel in statistics released that June by the International Association of Golf Tour Operators (IAGTO). An annual Golf Tourism Report published by the association pulls data from 2,500-plus golf tour operator members, in 94 countries, that control more than 85 percent of the world’s golf holiday packages. Annual sales generated by these tour companies easily exceed $2 billion.

That rapid rise of America-bound foreign golfers brought the U.S. to No. 6 worldwide in golf-travel volume, a lofty spot considering how much U.S. golfers boost the rankings of other countries, through our “outbound” golf touring. The entire picture is highly encouraging, according to Claudio DeMarchi, the Toronto-based director of IAGTO’s North American division.

“Worldwide golf is considerably stronger than golf in North America,” contends DeMarchi, whose annual IAGTO North America conference will be held the last week of June at Trump National Doral. His conference is on pace to register golf tour operators from a record number of countries, all of them looking for golf venues that will appeal to players from Europe, Latin America, Australia and elsewhere.

“Golfers from outside North America go on buddy trips just like we do, or in small groups of couples, or in larger parties of 16 or more,” says DeMarchi. “Our convention in June will have at least 20 Chinese tour operators attending, a reflection of how strong that market has become.” Having taken golf trips to China quite recently, DeMarchi finds himself astounded at all the new affluence there. “My impression is that there are more wealthy people in China than there are people, period, in North America,” he asserts. And traveling to the West holds huge appeal, to Chinese and others. “The U.S. is the No. 1 ‘bucket list’ golf destination and probably always will be,” says DeMarchi.

If you’re feeling shy about promoting yourself to the inbound tour operators that attend the IATGO conference, don’t be—not according to world traveler and former European Tour pro Clint Whitelaw. Born and bred in South Africa, Whitelaw won high-profile events like the Moroccan Open and the South African before settling years ago in Sarasota to pursue a highly successful teaching career. His long years competing on multiple continents have built him a dense network of contacts, many of whom are golf professionals outside the U.S. who conduct the same “go with the pro” trips that your typical U.S.-based PGA member is known for.

“One South African friend of mine has been a multi-course operator in Germany for decades,” notes Whitelaw. “He works with a packager to bring a crew of German golfers over to Florida every winter. To build up excitement for the trip, he’ll put a destination course with a $400 guest fee on the itinerary, but after that he’s looking for a string of very nice $120 to $140 courses—that way he keeps the trip affordable.”

The information circulated in various foreign markets about the U.S. golf scene is prone to misconceptions, so there’s no reason not to step up and aggressively proclaim the strong points of your course or local area. Case in point: A 2015 article in Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper on U.S. golf travel highlighted 10 American destinations for UK golfers to visit. Its segment on New England during foliage season declared that “New England’s best courses are in the mountain resorts of Sugarloaf, Sunday River (both in Maine) and Stowe (Vermont)”—that’s a judgment never stated previously, or since, by anyone. The article then advised “starting at Sugarloaf and working your way south” to Stowe, which on any map can be found due west, an arduous four-hour drive over twisting state roads. Point being, it’s a free marketplace of opinion out there, so don’t fret about minor overstatements as you extol your virtues.

Along with simply contacting so-called “inbound receptive” travel companies like GolfThere, Elite Golf Experiences, Golfpac, Flannagan’s Golf Tours and others, the upscale public golf facility could also consider teaming up with other courses in its geographical market to form a “golf trail”-type cluster. It’s worth noting that the Robert Trent Jones Trail in Alabama gave Alan Hale’s company, GolfThere, its original basis for existence, and sustained it for many years.

In California several years ago, an attempt was made to create a non-profit consortium of golf courses plus convention-and-visitor bureaus that would be able to address the needs of just about any incoming golf group, by covering the entire Golden State region by region. Bob Fagan, a PGA professional who has worn many hats in his career—and is famed for having played more than 2,500 different courses worldwide—was part of that effort.

“The concept made sense because so many good courses were under-utilized, and still are, and research had showed us that foreign visitors spend one-quarter to one-third more than domestic players,” recalls Fagan. “We had a very good reception from California course owners, but in the end we couldn’t structure the organization in a way that covered all the bases we had to cover.”

Despite the failure of that project to get off the ground, there are daily-fee courses in Southern California that pick up incremental revenue of $10,000 to $20,000 and more, during the otherwise slow winter months, by catering to groups of Korean youth and young adults. These golfers, guided by a group leader, descend on the region for stays of eight to 10 weeks and play golf every morning then practice on the range in the afternoon. At least two facilities in the San Diego suburb of Chula Vista are benefitting from this trend: Salt Creek Golf Club and Eastlake Country Club. According to Albert Jauregui, group sales manager at Eastlake, a corps of 30 Koreans age 13 to 22, all of them skilled players, recently came in on a negotiated two-month membership. They were on-property Monday through Friday, playing 18 then hitting balls for hours after their rounds.

“They took the early tee times our regulars aren’t keen on in January and February because it can be cold at that hour,” says Jauregui. “Those times would have mostly gone unsold.”

An influx of 30 players making that much use of the facility calls upon management to stay alert and communicate well with the regular patrons, according to Jauregui, but it’s an adjustment he and his fellow staffers are able to make. At Salt Creek, general manager Armando Najera has five years’ experience with a similar cohort of young Korean players, the majority of whom are female and many of whom shoot under-par rounds routinely.

“We charged them a premium rate, $100 above our normal monthly membership of $300, so that even with just 12 players our revenue bump just for golf was just under $10,000,” Jauregui says. “And that doesn’t include food-and-beverage, which we did discount somewhat, but which still added up significantly.”

One strategic way to gain entry into this specialized market is to find a spot on your golf staff for a foreign-born and/or multi-lingual assistant. Spike Kelley, a PGA pro who’s owner and general manager of Goshen Plantation Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia, hired an assistant from Taiwan who speaks, among other languages, Mandarin Chinese. The clientele of Goshen Plantation, not surprisingly, includes foreign nationals from a dozen or more countries, who pilgrimage to the home of The Masters, peer at the hallowed club from outside its gates then look around for someplace to tee it up. A husband and wife from China did just that, and were warmly surprised that their native tongue was spoken in the golf shop. “It’s a safe bet,” jokes Kelley, “that my assistant and the visiting couple were the only people in Augusta speaking Mandarin Chinese that day.”

Travel to distant lands always produces surprises, many of them very welcome and pleasant, and that’s a major reason people journey afar. Golfers from around the world are traveling to the U.S. with greater enthusiasm than ever these days—you might surprise yourself at how well your business can benefit from this growing trend.

David Gould is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Golf Business.


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