Daily-fee and semi-private golf is local by nature, typically serving customers within a 20- or 30-mile radius.
That being said, golfers in the U.S travel more than non-golfers do. They also have higher incomes than the average American traveler, according to market research. And sampling lots of layouts—along the way collecting logo balls and scorecards—is a pleasurable part of the golfing life.
From a course owner’s perspective, spend-per-visit can naturally skew higher among players who have come from a distance and thus view their round as a special occasion. For the golf facility that can develop this non-local business segment, even modestly, there’s legitimate payback.
Strength in numbers is a time-honored theme for success in tourism generally, including golf tourism. On its own, a facility can attract a decent amount of add-on business if it hits certain marks—perhaps the online review sites elevate it to “special trip” status, or it has lots of business travelers coming through, or it’s in a state capital or a major university town. In those cases, the best way for the course to market to visiting golfers is through local hotels, including the use of package pricing to add value on the golf side as well as the lodging side.
Mostly, however, out-of-town money flows into courses in a big way once golfers with disposable income decide you and the golf properties around you make up a bona fide destination.
How does this type of marketing work? It starts with the premise that golfers, like a lot of travelers, want a piece of geography defined for them. That’s the view of Mary Williams, who heads up communications and promotions for Louisiana’s Audubon Golf Trail. Males in particular like to follow a map and check the boxes on a golf wish list that’s logically and persuasively organized.
“People travel through Louisiana, and if they’re golfers, our Audubon trail gives them a route to follow, made up of courses we help them find along the way,” says Williams. “We’re acting as a guide to show off the beauty and diversity of our landscape.
“When golfers leave they’re going to feel like they’ve experienced our lowlands, our rolling hills, our culinary culture—everything that makes Louisiana special.”
The travel industry overall thrives on pooled dollars, which get channeled through a Convention and Visitors Bureau (a CVB), an area’s Chamber of Commerce, or some hybrid organization. The initials “DMO” cover many of the latter groups, standing either for destination marketing organization or destination management organization. Most of these DMOs are part of the U.S. Travel Association (USTA) and they currently number over 350.
The combined investment they make promotes indigenous assets like barrier beaches, mountain lakes, mangrove forests and historic battlefields. Commercial attractions also get showcased, whether that’s a theme park, a winery, a riverboat cruise or a zip line over some chasm or gorge.
For any cluster of courses making its case to a DMO, familiarity or even mastery of the relevant travel statistics is advisable. That starts with metrics like average golfer age, geographic areas your prospects come from and configuration of the travel party you’re targeting—buddy trips, traveling spouses, small corporate groups and the like.
For example, in a recent survey conducted by Longitudes Group, 70 percent of male golf travelers ages 18 to 39 had taken their most recent golf trip with male buddies and only 2 percent had gone on the road with their spouse/partner. Of the travelers age 40 and older, 58 percent went with their male buddies and 12 percent with their spouse or partner. Having up-to-date stats on patterns like this will always help the cause.
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Golf, despite generating $26 billion in travel spending each year, has historically struggled for attention from CVBs and DMOs. Increasingly attentive to this blind spot, and aware how strongly “drive market” golf travel has performed under pandemic conditions, the NGCOA undertook an advocacy initiative to champion golf’s value and importance to travel and tourism. That effort has led to membership in the highly influential USTA and a seat on the association’s board.
Robbie Wooten brings a well-informed perspective to golf tourism, through his decades of experience running Impact Golf Marketing. Based in High Point, North Carolina, IGM has led the marketing charge for such standout golf destinations as Pinehurst, Hilton Head Island and Charleston, South Carolina. Wooten’s company champions these famous areas, but it also rolls up its sleeves to develop new golf destinations more or less from scratch, often partnering with DMOs to develop the plan.
Attempting to put a new golf travel destination on the map in the mid-2020s has some factors in its favor, chiefly the game’s revived popularity in the wake of Covid-19. Still, if you tried the same trick 25 years ago, the competitive landscape would have been relatively wide open.
“Every year you’ll see a locality or a small region show up at a tourism convention with a plan to make themselves into a drive market for golf,” says Wooten. “They’ll bring a why-not-us mentality, which is great, but it comes down to having strong assets.”
In other words, does their area have big-name course architects? Have their courses won significant awards? Are the courses in close enough proximity to each other?
“All of those factors matter,” says Wooten, “and the established bucket-list trips destinations have a head start, based on years of investment and a lot of know-how regarding what the traveler wants.”
Still, when a period of economic disruption and change comes along—like the inflationary cycle we’re in now—it can open the door for alternative destinations. The Santee region of inland South Carolina, halfway between Charleston and Columbia, found that the Great Recession of 2008-2010 boosted its business, just as the gas crisis of 1973 helped put Santee on the Southeast’s golf map in the first place. The area’s niche is fine weather and affordability plus a relaxed, hospitable environment that’s easy for Northerners to reach via two interstates. The 150,000 players who come through each year represent a fraction of the vast golfer population churning through Myrtle Beach, but for Santee the economic impact is powerful.
The amount of promotional investment golf courses receive from a local DMO often turns on how well they can document their contribution to “heads in beds” and other tourism metrics. Doing that effectively allows golf assets to maintain their spot in the budgetary pecking order for the season to come.
“Every year on Hilton Head Island,” Wooten explains, “the money from the accommodations tax gets counted up and reallocated. You need to show you helped drive it significantly.”
Among the DMO success stories of the last few decades, Northern Michigan holds a prominent place. Its track record in persuading golfers from southern parts of the Midwest to visit is well documented.
“The tagline was ‘America’s Summer Golf Capital,’ and Northern Michigan has used that as a brand now for over 30 years,” says Kevin Frisch, whose marketing and public-relations group, KFPR, was instrumental in building the destination. “The properties worked independently to create what golfers value—courses by top architects like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Robert Trent Jones Sr., along with high-quality lodgings. Eventually they realized they had a quality and quantity of golf in the summer that could compete with other top destinations.”
Still, there was a need to gather themselves under a promotional umbrella, which meant heeding the guidance of consultants like Frisch. Some of the course operators and resort owners, as Frisch recalls, questioned early on if a destination campaign would work. “The key was to stick together and build awareness over time,” Frisch says. “They did that, and eventually it worked. We could see proof as the out-of-state traffic steadily increased.”
It’s easy for any golf property to become stuck in its own silo, which is why specialists like Frisch and Wooten perform a critical service. They work from the consumer’s point of view, sketching out existing travel patterns and identifying market opportunities. At that point the individual facilities can more easily sense the value of throwing in together.
Part of this team-up involves recognizing that golf can be combined effectively with other high-priority attractions. Impact Golf Marketing has taken that to heart in its work with Surry County, a North Carolina wine-growing region in the state’s southwest corner. The wineries are a bona fide asset—it’s a question of whether golfers in that part of the world mind deviating from their well-established vacation patterns. To compete with destinations like Pinehurst, Wooten points out, requires a long-term marketing commitment.
For the daily-fee or the semi-private course, the traveling golfer they serve has long been a coupon-book warrior—this is especially so in the middle and upper sections of the Eastern Seaboard. Andrew Barbin Jr., part-owner of Chesapeake Bay Golf Club in Rising Sun, Maryland, is a self-made expert in golf travel who—with his father, Andrew Barbin Sr., has built an old-style golf travel business leveraging drive-market golf with no assistance from DMO dollars. Their product is the Victory Golf Pass, which consumers purchase for $60 and present during check-in at some 300 participating courses in the Mid-Atlantic and lower Northeast.
“Courses don’t pay to be in the book, but they each offer some type of promotion, whether it’s four for the price of three, $10 off an individual green fee, or something similar,” says Barbin. “The Victory Pass influences golfers to travel, or to travel more than they otherwise would. We get guys who travel an hour to play on a regular basis, and we get people who do trips with multiple overnight stays along the way. Our own course gets over 5,000 rounds a year from the Victory pass, mainly from Philadelphia, Baltimore, Lancaster and a few other markets.”
The program is attached to a charitable foundation started by Barbin Sr., a journeyman tour pro whose career was cut short by a chronic and fairly severe digestive-tract ailment. Significant portions of annual Victory Golf Pass proceeds go to support medical research as well as golf-related causes, including Folds of Honor.
Foreign golfers are also part of the golf tourism revenue stream for better-quality public facilities. There are daily-fee courses in Southern California that in some years 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 have benefitted from this trend, Salt Creek Golf Club and Eastlake Country Club.
Europe and the U.K. are also good sources of travel-driven incremental revenue for U.S. courses. A course or a consortium of courses will connect to these golfers through golf tour operators and golf-travel fulfillment companies. The foreign-based tour agencies tend to have U.S. affiliates, none more influential than Georgia-based GolfThere, which guides Brits and Europeans to U.S. golf courses in 15 different states.
Terms of the transaction are viewed as highly favorable to the U.S. course operator, who pays nothing to be promoted. No money changes hands until the customer is delivered, and that golfer usually pays rack rate. In areas where no formal group marketing of courses exists, and where a group of course owners is pondering their own destination marketing, job one could be to study how companies like GolfThere package up a similar region and present it to their golfing audience.
Looking beyond one’s own property line at the possibility of group marketing to non-local players costs nothing, at least at the outset. Frisch believes less of this early-stage exploration occurs than properly should because individual owner-operators worry about getting lost in the shuffle—which they rightly shouldn’t.
“I believe groups of courses of any size can benefit by coming together to market their area as a golf destination,” Frisch says. “Maybe it’s not to national golfers, but it can be effective to regional golfers in drive markets.”
Asked years ago to attend a meeting of course owners contemplating a co-op marketing program, Frisch took note as several of the smaller courses questioned the value of being in the group.
“Countering that view,” Frisch recalls, “was another owner who spoke up and said the goal is to get more golfers to our area, and ultimately a rising tide raises all ships. I’ve always remembered that, and I continue to believe it’s the case, regardless of the size of the destination.”