State of the Industry – Golf Travel 2020 – Where We Are and Where We’re Headed

2020 began with great promise for the golf industry. Entering March, the number of rounds played was up 15% year-over-year according to the National Golf Foundation (NGF). Unseasonably warm winter weather was the impetus, with all signs pointing to it being a banner year for the sport.

The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, quickly flipped this narrative on its head. Some 20 million rounds were lost in March and April due to facility shutdowns and general customer anxiety. Golf courses missed out on an estimated $1 billion in tee-sheet revenue alone. This financial hit was even more severe when factoring in lack of food and beverage service, diminished retail sales and rescheduled or cancelled events.

Fortunately, since that time rounds played have rebounded considerably. The NGF reported they were up 6.2% in May, as more than 90% of the nation’s golf courses had reopened by the second week of the month.

“The pandemic created an opportunity for the golf industry to thrive in these difficult times as we welcomed countless new players to the game,” says World Golf Foundation CEO Greg McLaughlin. “After months of quarantining, everyone was ready to be outside and active again. Golf is the perfect sport to achieve that responsibly, when following the industry’s Back2Golf guidelines.”

But while silver linings abound, one area that’s still facing headwinds is the $20 billion golf travel sector. According to the NGF, there could be a 35-to-40% drop in trip volume this year. Thanks to altered consumer behaviors in the wake of COVID-19, many of the world’s most-iconic destinations are adjusting both their traditional marketing practices and onsite guest experiences.

Buffalo Agency | Destination Kohler | Whistling Straits
Hole No. 4, Whistling Straits

NGF research reveals that approximately 75% of the golfers who still have golf trips planned in 2020 will get to their destination of choice by car. This is up some 15% from what’s been seen in prior years. Further, it finds that the average one-way drive time has significantly increased to approximately 6.5 hours.

When paired with TSA airport data showing traveler volume is one quarter what it was last July, it’s logical that Buffalo partners and others have modified their marketing strategies to reflect this new reality.

Destination Kohler – home of the next Ryder Cup in 2021 – is one that has shifted its approach to positively respond to this new landscape.

“We lost rounds that were on the books – people that might have had a trip from Texas, Los Angeles or overseas,” says Mike O’Reilly, director of golf operations for Destination Kohler. “But we’re hoping to get the golf junkie. The groups of four and eight guys looking to do something and they’re willing to drive six hours because we’ve been starved of golf and a lot of entertainment.”

With more than six million golfers within a 500-mile radius of Kohler’s four Pete Dye-designed golf courses, encompassing major out-of-state metros like Chicago, Minneapolis, Indianapolis and St. Louis, Kohler has focused its digital marketing, social media and PR efforts with messaging that highlights both its golf assets and relative accessibility. This tweak is paying major dividends.

“When the announcement about the Ryder Cup postponement was made, our phones started ringing off the hook with calls from golfers looking to scoop up the September tee times that were now open,” adds O’Reilly. “There’s definitely pent-up demand to be had.”

That said, Kohler is fortunate in that it doesn’t have to entirely rely on long-haul travelers. It’s a luxury that overseas destinations, so many of which are heavily dependent on American visitors, simply don’t enjoy. International guests’ impact is highlighted in a 2017 report from Visit Scotland. It states that North Americans dominate the market, comprising 30% of all overnight visitors. Moreover, 63% stayed for seven-plus days and spent 50% more per night than their European counterparts. Given these numbers, it’s safe to say these visitors are the lifeblood of Scottish golf operations, not to mention the network of off-course businesses (pubs, hotels and ground transportation, to name a few) stemming from the steady traffic of links-loving golfers.

To cope with the current situation, many golf tour operators – the linchpin for travel to the United Kingdom and Ireland for a significant percentage of Americans – are offering delayed package payment and 100% future travel credits. Others are going a step further and giving refunds to customers whose tours are cancelled. But across the board, flexibility, empathy and appreciation that this is uncharted territory is paramount.

Buffalo Agency | Casa de Campo | Teeth of the Dog
Teeth of the Dog, Casa de Campo

Although the Caribbean sits much closer to American shores, its resorts are grappling with hurdles similar to those faced in the British Isles. The Dominican Republic’s Casa de Campo Resort & Villas is so beholden to overseas visitors that it closed for more than three months while the country halted all international air traffic. During that time, the resort focused on remaining top-of-mind with travelers by executing a comprehensive content marketing program across its owned-media channels. Campaign messaging carried a purposeful tone of patience and understanding, assuring guests the Casa de Campo team couldn’t wait to welcome them back, but only when the time was right.

The resort also sensed the need to alleviate concerns guests might have about their health and welfare while onsite. In addition to implementing a free cancellation policy, it unveiled the “Casa Cares” program upon re-opening. In tandem with Mallorca, Spain’s HS Consulting Group, the resort developed enhanced health and safety protocols certified to be effective in the prevention of all infectious diseases. These new guidelines include staff training sessions about COVID-19, frequent temperature checks for guests and staff, methodical disinfection of all high-traffic areas, provision of face masks, disinfectant and sanitizing gel to all guests, social-distancing signage across the 7,000-acre property, and much more.

“We’ve heard nothing but positive comments from guests about Casa Cares,” says Jason Kycek, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Casa de Campo. “Our new safety protocols reinforce the importance of our guests and associates alike and makes sure that their safety is our number-one priority. If guests are committing to getting on a plane and coming down to visit us, the least we can do is show how much we appreciate their commitment to travel during these uncertain times.”

Compassion will be key to the golf travel industry successfully navigating today’s rough waters. Complementing this mindset will be an acknowledgment that marketing plans made yesterday may not be worth the paper they’re written on today. The Buffalo Agency team is acutely aware of how COVID-19 has changed golfers’ traveling preferences and habits. Naturally in our data-driven world, empirical evidence should support marketing strategies as destinations adjust to the “new normal.” But in doing so, it’s critical that creative thinking and insights into the larger, $84 billion golf industry retain important seats at the table. Buffalo’s unique fusion of expertise in these areas can help golf resorts and destinations plot a refreshed marketing course. Calling upon this know-how will ensure they’re optimally positioned to not only survive – but thrive – in the post-pandemic travel landscape.