Agents should focus on needs of high-end duffers

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NEW YORK -- Steady growth in golf travel and vacations during the 1990s has spilled over into 2000, creating significant sales opportunity for travel agents and tour operators working in that niche.

An estimated 26 million Americans play golf and, according to the National Golf Foundation, spend in excess of $24 billion a year in that pursuit.

That represents a fertile field from which travel agents can derive commissions on air and ground transportation, lodging and food, entertainment and, in some cases, golf fees.

Macroeconomic factors going forward could conceivably dampen demand or, at least, rein in unbridled consumer confidence brought on by nearly a decade of unprecedented economic prosperity -- the so-called wealth effect.

For now, though, discretionary household dollars remain ample, and travel budgets have yet to feel the pinch of inflation or the bite of recession.

Golf travelers tend to diffuse into a trifurcated market.

At the low end are do-it-yourselfers, golfers looking for the best possible "deals" in transportation, lodging, greens fees and all associated expenses. Price plays the dominant role in their every decision and their likelihood to engage the services of a travel agent is virtually nonexistent.

In the middle tier are golfers seeking a first class experience, although not necessarily a deluxe one.

They might, for example, balk at paying the $200-and-up greens fees that some resorts charge during high season. Price generally is less a consideration to them, however, than perceived value.

Golf travelers in the middle tier are more likely to tap a travel agent's expertise than those in the lower tier, though many opt to make their own plans.

At the high end are golfers motivated by creating memories for themselves and their travelmates (be they spouses, business associates or friends).

For this group, the richness and memorability of the overall experience remain paramount. Or, as one international tour operator explained, "They'll pay the freight, regardless."

Golfers in the high-end tier are most likely to engage agents to set up their travel agenda.

It's the latter two tiers that enable travel agents to cash in on the golf boom.

To maximize revenue potential, agents must identify serious golfers; ascertain their commitment to golf travel; learn the types of courses they prefer to play; gauge expectations for the level of their accommodations, and constantly put before them new and exciting vacation options.

National Golf Foundation research indicates that, by far, the greatest influence on a golfer's decision about golf travel is friends. Therefore, a business strategy based on serving the needs of key clientele will likely generate referrals, bringing new customers into the fold.

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