Just back from South Africa, golf specialist Bud Rosenbaum, owner, Unique Golf Adventures in St. Louis, MO, is eagerly setting up a new golf-safari program. “This is not for the same ‘hard-core’ golfer who is going to Ireland or Scotland,” he says, “but rather for couples who are traveling together to South Africa for safari stays in some cases, in private locations, and in homes on some of the more exclusive golf courses in South Africa.
Africa is a huge draw for golf enthusiasts; the Singita Ebony Lodge at the Sabi Sands reserve in Kruger National Park.
“Many golfers might not choose the far-flung journey to South Africa just for golf, although it has magnificent courses,” Rosenbaum notes. “My approach is to instead target a traveling constituency for whom African culture and a safari [are of] interest, and then you get something of added value—a most economical golf destination.”
Over the years, Rosenbaum has created unique golf programs, some involving special departures with an LPGA pro. Commissionable at 10 percent to other agents, this new African program is a good example of the new trend of combining golf with experiential travel. Rosenbaum has another golf business stream, operating a separate golf travel company with Stephanie Turner, president and CEO, Brentwood Travel Service.
Lately, more agents are seeking to emulate Rosenbaum in the game of selling golf. Reportedly, more than $20 billion worldwide is spent on golf travel, a figure cited by GolfAhoy.com, a home-based agency franchise group specializing in golf. The total number of golfers in the U.S. is about 28.7 million, according to a 2007 research study by the USA Sports Participation Study, a research collaboration of four associations, including the National Golf Foundation. Within that, there are 15 million “core golfers”—players who enjoy eight or more rounds annually.
Some golfers are happy to play one day on a community or resort course during their weeklong vacation. Others enjoy short, golf-intensive getaways. Many are upscale, experienced golfers who enjoy collecting high-profile course experiences worldwide. And, increasingly, couples are booking golf trips together, often to exotic locales.
Selling golf is a year-round niche: the Caribbean or Mexico in winter, Europe or Canada in summer, the southeastern and southwestern U.S. most of the year, and Hawaii year-round. For diehard golfers, Scotland and Ireland remain top aspirational golf destinations.
The 15th hole at the Adare Manor Hotel in Ireland.
“People [seeking a golf vacation] are looking for that unique experience. They love to be able to go back home and talk about courses played,” says Gordon Dalgleish, president, PerryGolf, a Wilmington, NC, golf tour operator. An avid golfer, Dalgleish was recently cited by Condé Nast Traveler magazine as a top golf travel specialist.
Our sources say golfers share many common traits. They have camaraderie with other golfers, and love to bring home logo items from overseas courses they’ve played—particularly ones their friends haven’t. They also enjoy combining golf with other travel, such as a safari, wine tasting and golf in South Africa, or perhaps a luxurious barge trip through France with golf, culinary delights and cultural immersion.
“I’m a huge believer in the concept of exclusive,” says Dalgleish. “We can book clients into a 350-year-old castle in Scotland with four bedrooms and top turrets, so four couples can go, play golf and play ‘lord of the manor’ for four days.”
As for incentive golf travel, “it’s huge,” says Gloria Hobbins, president, Global Village Travels, Somerset, NJ, an incentive travel specialist. “The average four-day golf incentive is $4,000 to $7,000 per person and that can go even higher.” Her incentive clients often pick a destination based on the quality of the golf courses.
Golf sales business models vary widely. You might make golf your sole specialty as in Rosenbaum’s case, or instead create a niche golf focus within an agency with a portfolio of vacation options.
Avid golfer Ron Bridge, owner, Carlson-Wagonlit Travel in Paoli, PA, has played more than 400 courses worldwide and escorted incentive groups of up to 200 on golf trips. He books six to eight golf groups per year, and says golf comprises a small, but important, part of his business. “The contacts and relationships also lead to other travel bookings,” he says.
Bridge encourages would-be golf sellers to join a country club or find a way to network with golfers. In selling Scotland golf trips to such renowned destinations as Gleneagles or St. Andrews, his agency also participated in a few golf shows in the past. While current exchange rates make Europe a tougher sell right now, “we still do a lot of golf trips,” he notes. Bridge will escort a group of 12 to Ireland in September.
How to Sell
New golf sellers might start with promoting U.S. resort golf stays. “I just did a foursome down to Hilton Head, which is a very popular spot with golfers,” says Bridge. He also sells many East Coast, California and Arizona golf resort programs.
The Clubhouse at the Westin Turnberry Resort in Scotland.
Valentino Macor, manager, Wyllys Professional Travel, Coral Gables, FL, says cruising is a trend for golf vacations, given that Royal Caribbean and others are packaging a seven-day cruise in Europe with a seven-day golf land trip. “At one time, most of Europe consisted of only private courses, and to get to play on them you had to talk to your local club and then try to get an invitation [to the overseas club],” says Macor, an Ensemble agent and PGA pro who sells many European golf trips. “But that’s passé now, as the cruise lines handle all that for you.”
Is it necessary for an agent to play golf in order to sell it? Our experts say “no.” Although playing can be a plus, Rosenbaum believes agents will succeed if they know where to get good information. “You can’t just say ‘yes, it’s a great place,’” he notes. Macor recommends getting to know a local golf pro and using reliable golf operators. Also, talk to your consortium or membership organizations about training. Cruise Lines International Association offers a search engine for onboard golf facilities/programs and shore trips.
Hobbins, a non-player, agrees that agents don’t need to play golf in order to sell it. “But,” she says, “you must use the services of someone who does. Golfers do not want to deal with someone who does not speak their language or does not understand the game.” She says to rely on a trip operator who is well versed in golf.
Getting to Know Golf
If you’re interested in learning to play, visit www.playgolfamerica.com, a site that gives game rules, etiquette tips and information about free or inexpensive lessons and clinics. Alternatively, you can take a local resort’s golf program manager or golf pro to lunch. Ask about nitty-gritty details. How are golf clubs handled on trips (transported by air/car or rented on site)? What type of rental vehicle works best for a foursome? What should any golf itinerary include? Who handles getting tee times? What features do golfers want in the itinerary?
How did Hobbins learn the ropes? “My first golf trip was a disaster, so I started subscribing to golf magazines, learned where the best courses are worldwide and came up to speed on the terminology,” says Hobbins. She also keeps a two-year calendar of future worldwide golf tournaments, easily obtained from major golf magazines.
Check out www.golftoday.com, www.golf.com, www.pga.com, www.lpga.com and other online golf resources. Develop a golf knowledge base, but “never pretend to know more than you do about the game [when talking to a golfer].” Instead, Hobbins says, “give them the confidence that you can plan the best trip they have ever had,” Hobbins emphasizes. “They usually know where they want to go and depend on me to handle the details.”
Also, understand the client’s vision and the difference between a golf-until-you-drop player who wants 36 holes a day, every day, and the average golf enthusiast who wants bragging rights for a top course or two but also enjoys sightseeing, tennis or spa perks on vacation.
On the course side, Dalgleish tells non-playing agents to educate themselves on a half-dozen top U.S. golf resorts. Learn about such golf-intensive destinations as Sea Island, Pinehurst, Pebble Beach or Ponte Vedra, to name a few. Become educated on the many courses at those destinations.
“Then come to a company like ours for the overseas destinations, showing the client you have an understanding of golfing vacations both domestically and internationally,” says Dalgleish. Commissioning its products to agents at 10 percent, higher for volume, PerryGolf says it’s placing more focus on the agency community as it operates more combination couples/golf/lifestyle trips. “From our perspective, our job is to come up with compelling and interesting programs people can’t put together themselves,” he says.
Other large tour operators, major resorts and some destinations also offer commissionable golf products, so survey your existing supplier partners about options. Most of all, “find the golf supplier who can and will deliver,” says Hobbins. “Most will move mountains to get your clients on their desired courses.”
Whether you play or not, selling golf can help you attract premium and affluent clients, who might be somewhat recession-resistant. Chances are you already have some. For example, you might target clients who you know live in golf communities, particularly if they’ve taken a luxury cruise or tour but haven’t booked a trip with a golf component.
Gordon is amazed that many agencies have not segmented their client lists. By sending a golf marketing piece to your whole list, “you potentially alienate those that don’t play golf, if it’s not relevant to them,” he emphasizes. “The better you can segment your lists by interest level [and market only to golf enthusiasts], it makes it that much easier to sell.”
Add a golf section to your website. Keep clients up to date on golf packages, tours, or course openings. Bridge has a golf icon on his site, clickable to a Scotland itinerary.
In golf marketing, the key is to tap into a client’s dreams. “My favorite course is one—Kauri Cliffs Kerikeri, New Zealand—I didn’t get to play,” notes Bridge. Build anticipation and meet the client’s aspirations, says Dalgleish: “Our job is to paint a picture.”