Lessons for the golf niche

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NEW YORK -- "I don't know that there's any secret to success in selling golf travel," said Jim Mills, owner of Prestonwood Travel in Dallas, Texas, "other than to keep plugging away by adding new destinations and new courses to your inventory and by promoting them to clients and potential clients."

When Mills and his wife, Carla, opened Prestonwood Travel two decades ago, he immediately set up Fore! Golf Tours as a division of the agency to denote expertise in that market niche.

"I focused on golf and golf tours because I play the game and enjoy the game," he recalled.

"There was also a need in the Dallas market because no other travel agency was specializing in golf."

His first foray into golf travel was a package to Hawaii. "We only had five people on that first trip," said Mills, "but out of it grew a working relationship with a member at one of Dallas' most prestigious country clubs. Together, we developed group after group."

Mills also met with the local section of the PGA, setting up tournaments in Las Vegas and Hawaii in which club professionals -- who brought along their members -- took part.

Prestonwood Travel has subsequently sent thousands of golfers on hundreds of golf excursions.

The Mills couple annually escorts clients to destinations ranging from Scotland (Mills has been cited as a special counselor on travel to Scotland) to Scottsdale, Ariz.; Cape Cod, Mass., and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

Golf now represents a healthy 20% of his agency's revenues. "We can't make a living selling golf exclusively, but it is a nice addition to the mix," he said.

His advice to travel agents eager to sell golf is to immerse themselves in the game by learning the rules, etiquette, terminology and how to play.

"It's crucial for agents to know everything they can about destinations," he said. "Who designed the courses? Who controls the tee times? What will the weather be like at a particular time of year? What are the conditions of the courses and how do they play? Are they relatively easy or diabolically difficult?

"An agent has to match the clientele to the type of area or resort," suggested Mills. "The customers interested in a Myrtle Beach experience aren't necessarily the same as those who prefer Pebble Beach."

Fore! Golf Tours keeps its clients updated on golf travel opportunities through a quarterly newsletter, direct mail and a Web site, www.foregolftours.com.

Still, Mills said, the best source of new business is word of mouth. If you take care of current customers, he said, they will bring you new ones.

Like Mills, Joe Williams, principal of The Preferred Travel Group in Columbus, Ohio, saw golf as being an undersold niche in his local market.

After buying a small retail travel agency in 1989, Williams, a classmate of Jack Nicklaus at Ohio State University and a veteran of two decades in the travel industry, called agencies in several Ohio cities inquiring about booking a golf trip.

He received a cool reception.

"I could tell these people weren't comfortable handling my request," he recalled. "That confirmed my idea to specialize in golf."

Williams began his market research by identifying prospects -- avid golfers at Columbus-area private clubs and public courses.

He then developed lists of stay-and-play resorts nationwide and identified wholesalers in golf hotbeds who could assist with "golf around" programs.

Williams also devised a detailed questionnaire that he mailed to more than 1,000 resort destinations.

Receiving a response rate of over 95%, Williams amassed a virtual library of data on everything from accommodations and meeting facilities to golf course policies and procedures to airport shuttles.

He also asked, "Are you 100% commissionable and if not, please elaborate."

"I had all the information necessary to make us look like we were in the fast lane of golf travel agents," he said.

"Many of the resorts had sent scorecards and yardage books, so when I handed our clients their itineraries I'd show them the courses they were going to play. That would further whet their appetite and further differentiate us."

Williams soon after established Preferred Golf Holidays as a division of his agency.

"Working a niche like golf is like starting a whole new business," he said. "You have to have a well-defined marketing plan backed by green dollars."

Part of Williams' marketing plan revolved around publishing a 16-page, two-color quarterly tabloid called Preferred Tee Times, which promoted the agency's expertise in golf travel.

Williams distributed the tabloid to golf pro shops and golf specialty stores throughout central Ohio.

Williams also tapped into his agency's corporate accounts and devised sales incentive programs to build his golf clientele, which accounts for 20% of the agency's revenues.

"There's a creative aspect to this business," he said. "You have to know your clients and identify their needs. I don't want customers who are loyal to me; I want them dependent on me."

Added Williams: "The ultimate goal is to produce a golf package that meets, if not exceeds, their expectations again and again and again."

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