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  • John Cockayne

GolfVistaSA: Watersheds or Waterfalls

These remain very uncertain times, but most of those in the ‘know’ are looking for Q4 in regional terms to be the phase when tourism re-opens in a meaningful sense.

However, who or what comes through the door and in what quantity, or whether it will turn out to be a waterfall or watershed moment still remains to be seen.

Some propose the fact that even if we are not all vaccinated by this watershed moment those coming into the region will have been, which should offer some broader protection with continued adherence to what have become the standard protocols of masks, handwashing and social distancing.

Although my personal jury is still ‘out’ over the safety of air-travel, my overall experience is that I am more comfortable and feel ‘safer’ using the hotel sector for meetings, lunches, etc. because they are very aware of the need to stick to the requirements.

This is the case, even if you still see some of the guests sashaying across public areas with no masks and obviously in another kind of bubble altogether!

The counterpoint to this would be some cafes and restaurants, which seem much to be much more laissez faire with the requirements, especially in terms of the numbers of tables and the distances between them!

Allowing for inter-provincial travel, which was then followed by the news that the international borders would also be re-opened, was very welcome news for the beleaguered tourism industry in South Africa.

However, the good news on international travel in general has not been without caveats.

Even a casual observer would have seen the warning signs from Europe in that, with the revolving door of opening and closing borders and countries going on and off sanctions lists, we would be in for a bumpy ride.

It was therefore not surprising that re-opened borders came with conditions and in South Africa’s case these originally excluded travellers from two of the region’s traditional partners – the UK and USA.

Every day this list, which has developed a life of its own, pulses up and down which makes it very difficult to plan any form of travel, outside the shifting schedule of harder lockdown requirements which unfortunately have, by necessity, been introduced almost everywhere.

Regular contact with people in the UK and EU through 2020, has shown that after a number of postponed vacations’ bookings, and countries going on and off the UK’s travel sanctions lists, most have given up on any trips, even into neighbouring near-Europe and are looking for staycation and local holiday opportunities.

My guess has always been that we are in for the long-haul with this virus and that people were never going to pop out of the bottle like a champagne cork, so that we are going to need to get used to social distancing and the wearing of masks for at least another 18 months and if not even longer.

Those who confidently predict that all will be ‘OK’ might do well to remember the old joke about the light at the end of the tunnel, not being a light at all, but just another rain coming or perhaps, they are just whistling Dixie in the Union!

To explore what challenges and opportunities there might be for golf tourism in the current environment, I am joined by two people in the industry who come slightly different, albeit highly complementary, parts of golf’s grass face.

Peter Dros (PD) is head of sales and marketing at the award-winning Fancourt on the Garden Route, which as a venue does significant business with international travellers.
Peter Dros - Sales and Marketing - Fancourt

Peter Dros (PD) is head of sales and marketing at the award-winning Fancourt on the Garden Route, which as a venue does significant business with international travellers.

Our second contributor is Dermot Synnot, who is based in Ireland, is the CEO of the multi award-winning international golf travel publication - Destination Golf Travel.

JC (John Cockayne): Is this a case of there being any silver lining, or is the golf tourism sector, and tourism more generally, just in for another bought of belt tightening.

PD: We live in a global market-place, so I think that the problems we have all seen with travel overseas were going to duplicated here.

Going on vacation and not knowing whether, on your return home, you would be able to go back to work or have to self-isolate for 14 days is a highly problematic factor in anyone’s vacation planning.

However, what this does is offer some potential stimulus to the local markets across the globe where your travel plans will not encounter the same issues. Venues are certainly going to have to be very cautious with their budgeting and revenues’ projections and many, as you have mentioned in previous features and articles, already have rationalised their staff levels and operating protocols.

DS: Tourism, like all business sectors, simply loathes uncertainty and this has been our staple diet for the past 12 months!

The knock-on effects have been palpable, but one unexpected upside, post the first series of lockdowns, has been the renewed interest in golf and in the increase in rounds numbers everywhere.

Perhaps this is the silver lining in the whole mess, but as an industry we shall need work on how to sustain the growth and convert it into a platform to build on going forward.

JC: Yes - the upsurge in rounds’ numbers was a pleasant anomaly, especially as very few clubs had modified their business models to cause the levels of interest shown.

I am tempted to think that it might be a bubble, unless as an industry we work on how to sustain its value.

Of course, given that everyone had been locked up for many weeks, the thought of fresh air and a good walk might have been a case of golf attractions being one akin to a plain girl at the party, becoming the only girl at the party!

The belt-tightening has applied to everyone, so few people have anywhere near the same levels of disposable income that they had before the pandemic. I can see that the money normally spent by the high-end traveller, who ordinarily went to exotic overseas destinations, might be spent locally, but will this gain, at least in South Africa, might not offset the fact that the middle and or lower income vacationer is going to find it hard to justify having a vacation of any kind.

PD: This will certainly be a threat to regional golf travel everywhere.

In south Africa there was also the double edge sword of disposable income being squeezed by an underperforming local economy, well before the pandemic, so the lockdown has seen more pressure put on everyone’s wallets.

DS: My sense, as you have both pointed out, is that ‘value’ will become a key element and with people becoming much more discerning about where they go, what they want and how to get there,

The latter point and with air travel looking about as unattractive as at any time in its relatively short history, may enhance the attractions of a more local getaway, especially where perhaps train travel or using your own vehicle offer viable transport alternatives.

JC: So, outside of the numbers’ increase, do you see any other potential silver linings and what should travellers look for in parting with their limited spend in vacation terms?

PD: Irrespective of the market’s circumstances there are always going to be opportunities.

Venues that have traditionally built their operations around international travel exclusively can use these circumstances as an opportunity to woo and develop their local market connections.

In the same vein, travellers can and should always shop around to see who is offering the best value packages.

DS: Opportunities will abound, especially as golf tourism has been growing at around 12% annually and even with the effects of the pandemic, once we are through its low-point this looks set to continue.

JC: I am also a great a believer in looking for value rather than just price. I often comment that in restaurant terms R 230.00 for a 250 / 300 grams fillet steak, at a 5-star hotel for example, is not a case of it costing R 80.00 more for a steak than the same would cost at a run of the mill steakhouse, but rather a case of my ‘throwing away’ R 150.00 altogether on the cheaper option, as the difference in quality is often so marked.

Dermot – you can convert these prices to Euros 12.75, 4.45 and 8.35 respectively!

However, price is still inevitably the benchmark for many, so do you see any radical changes at a prices level to encourage the tourists back.

PD: My sense is that travellers are going to need maximum value for their spend, especially in Rands where Dermot’s mouth must be watering at the prices’ conversion for a fillet steak!

Our model has always been to offer more value within a package rather than simply discount our bed-night rate for example.

The discerning traveller will see and understand the inherent value and this avoids us getting into a race to the bottom in purely price terms.

DS: We haven’t seen steak prices like that in Ireland since before Cromwell’s occupation!

The only added unknown here will be the effects of BREXIT on travel.

This could prove be an added shot in the arm for UK’s golf as our players might chose staying closer to home and playing the fantastic course here rather than jetting off to Spain instead.

JC: My experience as a tour operator and event manager has shown that packages have always offer better value for any traveller rather them their buying the various elements of a vacation ad hoc, especially when they are included in a defined call to action.

The packaging approach also makes sense from a venue’s revenues’ perspective, especially when these values can also be wrapped up in a defined call to action.

PD: At Fancourt we market ourselves as a family vacation, so that packaging in elements is standard procedure for us.

As I mentioned previously, this type of structure also automatically offers better value to the customer.

One of the elements that appealed to me when you were discussing the international travel market opportunities through Destination Golf Travel with me, was your understanding of this core principle.

We live our marketing, which is why, in a golf sense, we have partnered up with Pearl Valley and St Francis Links to offer a package to play and stay at three of the country’s top ten golf courses!

As you pointed out with the other products which are in the pipeline, the calls to action will appeal to both the international, local and regional golf traveller and a product which can appeal to such a broad public is a win for us.

DS: I have always agreed with your comments John about how sticky events can be as they encourage repeat participation at levels very few tours if any can ever hope to achieve. This is intended to be a major focus for us going forward with DGT and as we have proved with the schedules developed for South Africa with a little imagination an event does not need to ‘trap’ its participants in one place or at a single venue, when they can have the advantages of a tour visiting multiple regions, being rolled up into the event’s structure.

So - some pragmatic and realistic observations from two people steeped in the golf tourism industry.

One has to admit that this balanced optimism might be one of the most effective weapons we have, because without it and the sense that we need to keep planning and moving forward, then we might just as well dig a nice deep hole, get in it and pull the soil down in after us!

GolfVistaSA Business of Golf Discussion: February 2021– Watersheds or Waterfalls.

John Cockayne – Mobile +27 (0) 73 896 7931 / Email

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