The ABC's of Selling Golf: Earn Your Share of the Green

The 21st century dawns with surging demand for golf travel being matched by an ample supply of prime U.S. golf destinations, market conditions that create unlimited opportunity for travel agents seeking to grow their business in that niche.

"Have clubs will travel" has become a credo for U.S. golfers who, according to a 1999 National Golf Foundation study, number at least 26 million and generate an estimated $24 billion annually in travel revenue. Traveling golfers, either alone or in groups, enjoy testing their mettle on a variety of courses and conditions ranging from mountains and prairies to piney woods and desert oases.

Golf is hot with such diverse demographic segments as Generation Xers, baby boomers and senior citizens. Executive women, juniors and minorities are also increasing the ranks of avid players.

To capitalize on such favorable trends, travel agents must recognize that golf provides a constant, year-round opportunity to sell. Some travel industry segments are limited by geography or season, but golf has no such constraints. Regardless of what day the calendar reads, somewhere in the U.S. the sun is shining, skies are blue, grass is green and people are outdoors playing golf.

Mother Nature is an agent's greatest ally for selling golf. Consider that during winter months snowbound Northeasterners and Upper Midwesterners sick of clearing off sidewalks and driveways are only a plane trip away from teeing off in balmy, tropical conditions down South or out West.

Conversely, Sunbelt golfers tired of feeling their brain cells sizzle during summer heat waves are only a travel agent's prompt away from playing in the cool climes of the Rocky Mountains or Pacific Northwest.

Resourceful travel agents can create over time a golf clientele that generates a meaningful stream of revenue from commissions on air, lodging and food, ground transportation and -- in some instances -- tee times. The depth and diversity of U.S. golf destinations potentially represents big business for agents who specialize in the sport. "Golf has a great demographic profile for people in the travel business to go after," says Jeff Hamilton, president of GolfPac, Inc., a Florida-based golf wholesaler and tour operator. "There is a lot of money to be made."

Elementary Steps

The ABC's of selling golf can be boiled down to these key phrases:

A-Accumulating information about golf destinations;

B-Building a portfolio of avid golfers to sell to;

C-Creating awareness about your agency's golf expertise.

Accumulating information about golf destinations begins with research. To sell effectively, travel agents must become knowledgeable about the game of golf and speak its language. To push their clients' buttons, they must know the difference between a bunker and water hazard, for example, or between bermuda grass and bent. Agents need to become as familiar with traditional destinations like the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, or Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia, and Colorado's Broadmoor and Arizona's Biltmore in the West as they are with such relatively new golf havens like Gaylord, Mich., and Whitefish, Mont. As Mark Serifillippi of Spectrum Golf in Scottsdale succinctly says, "Someone at the travel agency, either the owner or one of the agents, has to become the in-house expert."

Becoming an expert takes time, but shortening the learning curve is a glut of golf literature. News stands are full of national, regional and local consumer publications that devote ample column inches to golf travel. Subscriptions to widely circulated golf magazines like Golf Digest, Golf and Golf for Women, Golf & Travel -- which focuses on destinations and leisure, and is one of the best of the genre -- are easy to obtain.

The Internet, full of Web sites providing specific details about attractive sites for golf travel, is another prime tool for speeding the education process. Beyond that, agents can contact destinations directly by phone or mail and receive enough facts about the variety of courses and accommodations -- and commission policies -- to comfortably field client inquiries.

Building a portfolio of avid golfers to sell golf travel to takes time and legwork. Personal visits to area golf courses, private and public, to establish relationships with head pros and membership directors is imperative. Other leading targets for business development are civic groups, fraternal orders, churches and meeting planners. "Any association where there's a common bond of interest is a good target for building up the business," says Al Gasparri, president of World of Golf Tours in Apopka, Fla.

Besides individuals and associations, another major source sales agents can tap for golf travel are corporations. Many companies establish incentive programs to spur their sales and marketing staff, and rewards frequently take the form of golf trips to luxury resorts.

Beyond the issue of identifying prospects is qualifying them. Agents should elicit from clients and prospects information on types of golf trips they've previously taken, how frequently they travel and what types of golf experiences they would most enjoy -- their "wish list." Agents should also determine if other members of the family (spouses, children) are golfers.

Price is another prime consideration: Some traveling golfers have budget constraints and are value-conscious; others are unfazed by green fees of $175 and higher at tony resorts. Understanding each client's desires and expectations -- and budget -- provides the underpinning for customized golf travel.

Creating awareness about your agency's expertise is also critical to success. An agency can spark interest by sending direct mail pieces to targeted lists or through other written communications like flyers and newsletters. It can generate interest by hosting open houses, or receptions, in which exciting destinations get showcased. Or an agency can set up its own speaker's platform, at which a representative talks up golf travel.

The key is to promote both the myriad of opportunities that exist and the agency's ability to plan and execute memorable golf trips.

Diversity

The domestic golf travel category for years was a no-brainer. All a travel agent had to do was book clients into a handful of golf-rich states: Arizona, California, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Hawaii, and they pretty much had the drill down pat.

While those six states remain among the first-tier for golf travel -- and a short list of prime destinations might be referred to as the five P's: Palm Springs, Pebble Beach, Phoenix, Pinehurst (in North Carolina) and Ponte Vedra (in Florida) -- in recent years a host of new destinations has emerged. As a result, U.S. golf travel now offers a diversity unlike ever before. Diversity represents a boon for sales agents, who can book traveling golfers into a variety of venues, including:

  • Minnesota. Once best known for fishing, hunting and hockey, the Gopher state has become a haven for golfers. It's said Minnesota has more courses (500-plus) per capita than any other state.
  • One hotbed for golf in Minnesota is the lakes region around Brainerd (immortalized in the movie "Fargo"). Outstanding courses found in this forest-rimmed haven include Deacon's Lodge at Pelican Lake (an Arnold Palmer design), the Preserve course at the historic Grand View Lodge and the Classic at Madden's Resort on Gull Lake. Another must-play is Cragun's Golf Resort and Conference Center, which showcases the work of designer Robert Trent Jones, Jr. Contact the Minnesota Office of Tourism at (800) 657-3700.

  • Alabama. Once best known for Bear Bryant and college football, Alabama now boasts the immensely popular Robert Trent Jones Trail, a series of more than 20 daily-fee courses that stretch the length of the state. The Jones Trail has become one ticket that traveling golfers from all over the country want to punch. Contact the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail at (800) 949-4444.
  • Another gem in lower Alabama is the Gulf Shores area, reachable via air service through either Mobile or Pensacola. Gulf Shores features scenic courses like the Peninsula, Kiva Dunes, Orange Beach and Craft Farms juxtaposed next to white beaches and emerald waters of the Gulf. Contact the Alabama Gulf Coast CVB at (800) 745-SAND.

  • Northern Michigan. One of the real plums in the large fruit basket of U.S. golf destinations is Gaylord, Mich. A 90-minute drive from Traverse City airport, Gaylord boasts the Gaylord Golf Mecca, a marketing consortium consisting of more than 20 courses. Outstanding venues found on this heavily forested, gently rolling terrain include the Treetops Sylvan Resort (four courses by Tom Fazio, Rick Smith and Robert Trent Jones, plus a par-3 course called Threetops), Black Forest at Wilderness Valley, the Natural at Beaver Creek, and Elk Ridge. Contact the Gaylord Information Center at (800) 345-8621.
  • St. George, Utah. Located in the state's southwestern corner, St. George offers traveling golfers eight golf courses within a 15-20 mile area, including such gems as Sunbrook, Green Spring and Entrada (a Johnny Miller design). Sky Mountain is another memorable course. Vistas in the High Desert are spectacular and side trips to nearby Zion National Park or Bryce Canyon are unforgettable. Contact the Washington County CVB at (800) 869-6635.
  • Whitefish, Montana. Located in the northwest corner of the state near the Canadian border, Whitefish has been known for other outdoor sports: skiing, hiking, fishing, camping. But now golf has come to the fore as golfers enjoy the lush fairways and crystal-clear air. Among the standout courses in the Flathead Valley, flanked by Glacier National Park, are Eagle Bend (designed by Jack Nicklaus Jr.), Northern Pines and Buffalo Hills. Contact Travel Montana at (800) 847-4868.
  • Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri. Central Missouri offers an array of exceptional places to play, including Osage National Golf Club (an Arnold Palmer design), the Club at Old Kinderhook (by Tom Weiskopf), the Lodge of Four Seasons and the Oaks course at Marriott's Tan-Tar-A resort. Contact Lake of the Ozarks Golf Council at (800) 490-8474.
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