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Golf Travel Shows Signs of Roaring Back

The coronavirus pandemic has had unexpected benefits when it comes to the golf world: more play, new (or returning) faces on the golf course, and increased engagement and interest in the sport. But among those sectors most negatively impacted was the golf travel market.

While the vast majority of golf is local – with upwards of 80% of rounds played within an hour of a participant’s home – golf getaways and destination golf properties are a highly visible part of the game’s allure.

Overall, travel was obviously greatly limited throughout 2020. TSA throughput data showed the number of U.S. airline passengers was down 75% (year-over-year) from April through November. Among Americans, golf trips were down about 50% in 2020, and the vast majority of those who did travel for golf from April through the end of the year sought out drive-in destinations. In a typical year, about 60% of golf trips are taken by car, but that figure jumped north of 75% last year for those golfers willing to travel amid the pandemic, with many destination properties shifting their marketing strategy to target drive-in markets given the cutbacks on air travel.

The limitations on golf trips in 2020 have created a bottled-up demand to return to golf travel and, as virus vaccinations continue to roll out, many consumers express heightened interest in golf “vax-cations.” 

Among Core golfers (8+ rounds annually) surveyed by NGF, the average number of expected golf trips is up about 63% compared to last year. It’s also notable that those with travel plans indicate their golf getaways will be almost twice as far – 490 miles vs 265 – as those taken in 2020, a strong indicator that golfers are again heavily leaning into airline travel as an option.

“Our pace reports for the rest of this year show the demand is really off the charts at our destinations, which is exciting,” says Steve Skinner, the CEO of management company KemperSports, which counts prominent golf resorts such as Bandon Dunes (OR), Sand Valley (WI) and Streamsong (FL) in its portfolio. “People have that pent-up demand to get away.”

In a NGF survey of more than 40 resort operators nationwide, almost ¾ indicated their pre-bookings for the rest of 2021 are higher than they were between May and December of 2020, and over 60% noted they’re higher than other recent, non-Covid years.

Mike O’Reilly, the Director of Golf Operations at Destination Kohler in Wisconsin, said he’s seeing increased demand “like never before” to visit the resort, which features five courses, including Whistling Straits, Blackwolf Run and a new par-3 course that opened this year called “The Baths.”

“There are days where our call and online booking volume is almost double what we have seen in the past. It’s wild,” said O’Reilly. “I do believe we will see a lot of domestic travel (in 2021) but not a lot of international travel. This is both helping and hurting. No one is really visiting from other countries but also U.S. travelers are staying and playing domestically.”

Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisconsin, is among those resorts seeing a noteworthy uptick in booking volume.

Pinehurst Resort President Tom Pashley echoed the resurgent demand, saying its nothing like he’s seen in his 25 years at the North Carolina property, which features nine courses, including the iconic No. 2.

“It doesn’t always matter where you go, often it matters who you’re with,” Pashley said. “We’re never going to take being with our friends and family on a golf trip for granted again. I got to go on lots of golf trips every year and it was an automatic assumption that it would continue. So, when folks have the ability to get back together and be with their eight, 12 or 20 buddies and come to a special place like this, it’s going to feel so much better because we weren’t able to for so long. It’s that anticipation of getting together.”

Currently, the signs of golf travel recovery are stronger with bookings of smaller groups. Almost 70% of resort operators indicated an increase in bookings among smaller groups, compared to 43% for larger group or corporate bookings. Approximately half of responding resort operators indicated their larger bookings have returned close to, or back to, fully normal.

“While corporate/group is not recovering as briskly as leisure golf travel, we are seeing groups start to materialize in the fall of 2021 and rebound bookings occurring in popular domestic resort destinations like Hawaii, Las Vegas and the like,” said Kris Strauss, the Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Troon, which is the world’s largest management company and operates destination properties such as the Kapalua Resort on Maui, Princeville Makai Golf Club on Kauai, Gamble Sands in eastern Washington, and Troon North in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Florida and South Carolina may be the biggest beneficiaries of increased golf travel this year, according to Core golfer surveys, with other warm-weather, year-round destinations such asCalifornia and Arizona just behind.   

That may be particularly encouraging for a location like Myrtle Beach, S.C., which has an infrastructure and supply – about 75 courses at 60 facilities in total – built around an influx of tourists in the spring and fall. On the whole, South Carolina was one of only two states (along with Nevada) in the continental U.S. that experienced a year-over-year decline in play last year.

“As golf saw this surge (in 2020), we did not see that here in Myrtle Beach. Our locals and members were out playing more, without question, but when you take out that travel element, it made it very difficult on our golf courses here throughout 2020,” said Steve Mays, the CEO of Founders Group, which operates 21 Myrtle Beach facilities. “Seeing your industry really shooting off and you’re lagging behind was really an unusual position to be in.”

It was a similar situation in Las Vegas, which has 67 courses at 57 facilities in and around Nevada’s most populous metro area.

While 2020 rounds were up 14% YOY nationwide, they were down almost 4% in Nevada. No state outside of Hawaii was down as significantly and almost two-thirds of Nevada’s golf supply falls within the tourist-rich Las Vegas market. What’s notable is that Nevada is among the top expected destinations for traveling golfers this year, even though the number of conventions that frequent Las Vegas may remain limited.

With ongoing vaccinations and commercial air travel coming back, the positive signals are there when it comes to golf travel in 2021.

Outreach to golfers and operators alike confirms both intent and interest, most notably a 90% reported increase in rounds and bookings at responding destination locations. The other signs are there as well, with similar rises in website visits, social media engagement, and inquiries into golf travel packages.

“There are huge numbers in terms of interest. It hasn’t fully translated to people taking those packages, but we anticipate it’s going to happen,” Mays said of his Myrtle Beach courses. “There’s a lot of optimism we’re going to turn that corner, especially as more vaccinations roll out. There definitely is that pent-up demand. Our weekends are still busy with travelers and we’re filling in behind that.”

An overview of the location of golf resort properties in the U.S., per NGF’s Golf Facility Database.
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