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Golf Travel – What’s the Impact?

Most golfers with chronic wanderlust tell us they’ll be driving to their golf destinations this year — and not necessarily close to home.

Three out of four golf travelers (76%) say they’re willing to drive more than four hours each way for a golf getaway, and those with a trip still planned for 2020 indicate they’ll spend an average of six to seven hours in the car just getting to their destination. It’s why U.S. golf resorts and destinations should and are continuing to aggressively target their drive-in markets.

Destination Kohler, which features four Pete Dye-designed courses (including Whistling Straits) at the American Club in Wisconsin, pivoted its marketing efforts in the spring to target golfers in Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio and Indiana. It also expanded the radius for its traditional drive-in market and continues to make that a primary focus. As the below graphic indicates, there are almost 6.5 million golfers within a 500-mile radius of Kohler’s Whistling Straits, which had been scheduled to host this year’s Ryder Cup.

“There have been so many curve balls thrown our way this year but I’m proud of the way the team has handled the ebbs and flow of the pandemic,” said Kohler Golf Operations Manager Mike O’Reilly. “We are certainly seeing more traffic at the resort from our neighboring states and less traffic from the east and west coasts.”

“I have spoken with several groups that drove 8-10 hours to get to our destination and they couldn’t be more excited to be here,” O’Reilly said. “There is limited entertainment options around the country right now and golf is something that can be played safely and people are seeing that as an opportunity to play by us or in their backyard.”

Challenges remain significant for the golf travel market. While equipment sales and play staged a strong comeback during the second quarter in 2020, NGF consumer research indicates that overall trip volume could be down 35% to 40% this year.

That said, almost one-third of core golfers who have a trip planned in 2020 indicate they will spend more than eight hours each way in the car.

Big Cedar Lodge in Branson, Missouri, has been focusing on the drive-in market over the fly-in market for its golf offerings since the start of its season and will continue to do so.

Big Cedar now has five golf courses with the new Tiger Woods-designed Payne’s Valley layout joining 18-hole championship layouts from Tom Fazio and the team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. There’s also a 14-hole course consisting of par 3 and par 4 holes from Gary Player and the par-3, nine-hole Top of the Rock course designed by Jack Nicklaus.

“With golf being one of the few activities people can still do together and safely social distance, it’s been going well,” said Matt McQueary, the resort’s assistant director of golf sales and marketing. “Golfers tend to pack a lot of gear, so we have seen several guests that have rented big SUVs or vans for their party. And we have actually seen more trailers and mobile homes that we ever have. I have spoken with a few guests that are doing cross-country golf trip in their RVs. Seems like now would be the time to do that.”

The Gary Player-designed Mountaintop course is one of five golf offerings at Big Cedar Lodge in the Ozarks.

Erin Hills in Wisconsin, the site of the 2017 U.S. Open, has introduced a “24 Hours” package that highlights the property’s proximity for golfers driving from Milwaukee (one hour) or Chicago (two hours). Guests can arrive midday to play the 2017 U.S. Open site, get a chef-prepared outdoor meal overlooking the course, putt under the lights on the resort’s 12-hole putting course that’s open until 11 p.m., stay in a four-bedroom cottage or the lodge, and play again the next day before hitting the road.

Interest has been strong, said Erin Hills Marketing Manager Steve Pease, noting that the facility is “easily drivable by a large contingent of avid, affluent, destination-minded golfers who reside in the upper Midwest, and greater Chicagoland areas.” At one point, golfers in the Chicago market comprised about one-third of the play at Erin Hills.

“Perhaps not surprisingly, we’ve seen folks drive from Minneapolis, Kansas City and beyond in recent months,” Pease added. “Taking a peek at recent booking sheets since we launched our 24 Hours at Erin Hills campaign, it seems the majority of bookings are coming from drivable destinations.”

Myrtle Beach

For Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, which has more than 6 million golfers within a 500-mile radius, the drive markets have always been a strength, whether it’s golfers in the Northeast, Midwest or points further south. The pandemic has only enhanced that importance, particularly with golfers throughout the Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia and other nearby states, says Founders Group International President Steve Mays, who runs the largest ownership group in Myrtle Beach.

“Golfers within a relatively short drive have the ability to make a late decision to take a trip,” says Mays. “As a result, we have certainly made an effort to target them, not only with offers but also information keeping them informed about the steps Founders Group International is taking to provide a safe environment for players and what’s happening in the area.”

“Our peak fall season is yet to come but there certainly seems to be pent-up demand for golf travel,” Mays added. “The pandemic eliminated the spring season and with the situation on ground here in Myrtle Beach having improved dramatically since mid-July, golfers have exhibited a strong desire to enjoy a trip that allows them to play the game they love and spend time with friends.”

Mays notes seeing increased email and social media engagement from golfers in drive markets, which will remain the focus of marketing efforts in the foreseeable future.

“Myrtle Beach enjoys nonstop flight service from 50 markets — more than any other city in South Carolina — so we are absolutely looking forward to the reemergence of air travel,” Mays said. “But drive markets are our bread and butter, and we will continue to cater to them as the nation reemerges from its battle with COVID-19.”

The par-5 6th hole, nicknamed The Gambler, at Kings North in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
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