Waikoloa Beach Resort golf courseAlthough Hawaii's tourism industry is showing signs of a gradual recovery, the surge of specials and packages available to savings-conscious golfers certainly doesn't appear to be diminishing. The trick, however, seems to be finding the right fit.

"Golfers are intelligent shoppers, and they look at the various components of a package and they do the math," said Greg Nichols, the general manager and director of golf at Oahu's Ko Olina Golf course. "So it's really important to demonstrate value to anyone looking at a package. Golfers, as a rule, generally tend to be very literate, they typically are more affluent, more intelligent travelers, and you never want to disrespect your customers."

Nichols, a 30-year veteran of the Hawaii golf industry, said that travel agents also need to know what type of golfer they're working with. Highly experienced, regular players will inevitably have different needs than those who play less frequently.

"An avid golfer will bring golf clubs because they're going to play multiple times, so a package that involves [free] rental clubs usually isn't important to them," Nichols said. "But it is important to that person who might only play one round during a visit."

Golfers also often know a great deal about potential vacation destinations before ever having visited. Susan Bluhm, co-owner and co-president of Stellar Travel in Seattle, has been playing golf for more than 20 years -- she's been booking Hawaii vacations for 25 -- and said that her golfing clients are usually particular about where they want to play.

"I find that golfers are pretty knowledgeable even if they haven't been to Hawaii," Bluhm said. "They've done some research themselves or asked a friend. They're often looking to us to confirm what they've heard or provide additional information. So we really need to make sure that we're knowledgeable."

Learning the game

Unlike Bluhm, of course, most agents don't have two decades' worth of playing experience and the course knowledge that often accumulates as result. Even so, Bluhm would advise every agent selling Hawaii vacations to have some familiarity with at least a few of the state's courses that they can then feel comfortable recommending.

"I know a lot of agents don't play," Bluhm said. "But I would still suggest that they try to become more knowledgeable about golf and golf courses because it is important to what people want to do, especially your more affluent clients."

Recognizing flexibility in a golf package also seems key. According to Ross Birch, a PGA professional with 20 years of teaching experience in Hawaii and a longtime member of the Big Island Visitors Bureau board of directors, golfers still want ample time to enjoy the beach and pursue other activities.

"When people come to Hawaii, they like the fact that they have golf available," Birch said. "But Hawaii is still that sun-and-surf destination where they would prefer [during a] five-day stay to play a couple rounds of golf but not be obligated to play a round of golf every single day that they are in the destination."

Greg Bernd, co-president of San Jose, Calif.-based Classic Vacations, agreed that packages offering clients freedom to choose when and how often to play are generally preferable. Bernd said at the moment, Classic is having a great deal of success with one Kauai-based special in particular.

"At the new St. Regis Princeville, they have a package that we are promoting like crazy," he said. "It includes a premium oceanview room with a $1,000 resort credit per room per stay for every fifth night. The credit is applicable for golf, but they can use the credit for spa and dining, as well."

Avid golfers are also more likely to want to play several courses during a visit to Hawaii in order to really sample the best of what the Islands have to offer. And while packages promoting discounts at several locations are currently harder to find, they are often most popular with true golfing fanatics.

"What we are going to start seeing more and more of are packages that combine two and three different facilities," said Nichols, adding that the Ko Olina is currently developing that kind of special. "I think those types of partnerships are going to be very strong in the future."

This report appeared in the Aug. 9 issue of Travel Weekly.

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