To say Alabama’s economy wasn’t going well in 1990 would be an understatement. Unemployment was high, home sales were low, there was little capital investment and a negative image of the state lingered from civil rights issues dating back decades. Then along came the Robert Trent Jones (RTJ) Golf Trail.
Initially funded with $100 million by the Retirement System of Alabama (RSA), the 26-course system spread across hundreds of miles has spurred golf tourism and travel within the state while fostering co-opetition – cooperation across a wide range of competing facilities. The RTJ Trail would also set the standard for the dozens of golf trails, with themes as varied as their geographic locations, which have followed across the country.
There’s the Brew City Golf Trail in metro Milwaukee; the Florida Historic Golf Trail, featuring courses built between 1897 and 1947; Indiana’s Pete Dye Golf Trail, centered around seven courses by the legendary course designer; and New York’s Rip Van Winkle Golf Trail, a nod to a fictional literary character who called the Catskills home. But none have taken the especially unique approach employed by The Robert Trent Jones Trail.
Beyond quality courses and accommodations, a major factor in the trail’s success was the RSA’s $3 billion investment in media companies, including Raycom Media (with 50 television stations) and Community Newspaper Holdings (125 papers). It was a move that generated $50 million annually in free publicity for the RTJ Trail and the state. Up until that point, the state tourism budget was no more than $2 million a year.
More than a quarter century later, the results speak for themselves. In 1990, tourism spending in Alabama totaled $3 billion. By the end of 2016, that spending was up to $13.3 billion.
“It was a pass-through state for people traveling from the Midwest to Florida, or the East Coast to New Orleans,” said Dr. Mark Fagan, author of “The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail: Its History and Economic Impact.”
“The cumulative impact of the Trail is phenomenal,” Fagan added. “We already had attractions like the Bellingrath Gardens south of Mobile, and the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville. The only thing that really changed was the RTJ Golf Trail, adding the hotels and all of the promotion that went with it.”
Of the more than 500,000 rounds played along the Trail annually, half are by out-of-state golfers who helped spread the word, leading to positive change in the state’s image.
“You had people coming to Alabama for the first time,” said Fagan. “The image was moving to ‘This is a nice place to live.’ And industry started to follow.”
“Mercedes Benz built a plant in Tuscaloosa in 1997. Then you had Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai all come in as well. Kia built a plant just over the border in Georgia that had an impact on RTJ’s Grand National facility. In Mobile, Airbus came in with the aerospace industry. The state is now doing so much better in terms of employment, capital funding and revenue. You can’t give all the credit to the Trail, but it was very important piece in all of that. Without the image enhancement, a lot of it wouldn’t have happened.”
While no other golf trail around the country has approached the success experienced in Alabama, many states have seen benefits from a rise in brand awareness through marketing and co-opetition. And that, more than directly driving revenue, is the key to a Trail’s success, according to Gene Brothers, Associate Professor, Equitable and Sustainable Tourism, North Carolina State University.
“It really depends on the objective,” he said. “If it’s to build awareness of golf in the state, then yes, Golf Trails are positive. But the golf courses have to buy in that a Trail is a good thing. And the local community that use the courses also need to buy in.”
Promoting golf in Georgia was never a state tourism priority, leading golf marketing executive Doug Hollandsworth to create the Georgia Golf Trail in 2012.
“Every year 15 million people stop at 11 visitor centers throughout the state, but there was no information about golf,” said Hollandsworth. “I said, let’s take advantage of that. Now we have a banner display with Trail brochures in every one of them. And they can’t get enough brochures to meet the demand. Last year, we helped book $100,000 worth of golf trips through the Trail. It’s helped promote awareness of our product to the world.”
The Audubon Golf Trail in Louisiana, formed in the late 1990s, now groups together 15 public courses in the state’s five main visitor regions.
“For Louisiana, golf is a niche market, but you can play 12 months out of the year,” said Mary Williams, Audubon Golf Trail/Encore Louisiana Commission Coordinator, Louisiana Office of Tourism. “That’s what we have in our favor. We started looking at our courses, and we have some good ones throughout the state. We decided a Trail would be a way to get visitors to travel the state. Food, music and our culture is what really drive people here, so we create itineraries for golfers but include other activities. It’s worked out well.”
North Dakota’s 19-course Lewis & Clark Golf Trail debuted in 2002, the year before the national celebration of the bi-centennial of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.
“It was originally designed to take advantage of the surge of visitors celebrating that event and to promote our strong offerings in golf, especially along the Lewis & Clark Trail,” said Mike Jensen, Outdoor Promotions Manager, North Dakota Department of Commerce Tourism Division. “The overall impact was felt most through some of the stories generated early on. The awareness and popularity of the major courses was greatly influenced by having a printed Trail Guide. Other parts of the state have great courses, but those haven’t gotten as much press as the ones along the Trail.”
Mike Nixon, director of golf operations for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said that state’s trail has nine courses (including three Jack Nicklaus Signature designs) that average a combined 200,000 rounds annually. The state even offers a pass for $1,800 to $2,000 annually that allows golfers to play any of the Tennessee Golf Trail courses as often as they’d like.
“When do you something like a Trail, you have to use metrics other than economic impact to really justify what’s going on,” said Brothers. “The impact on a state’s overall image, promoting the area as a great place to live, and highlighting the other activities you can do there, are all important.”
Tom is an Arizona-based freelance writer and former Senior Editor at GOLF Magazine. He is a frequent contributor to multiple golf publications, including Troon Golf & Travel, The Met Golfer, Golf Monthly UK and the USGA’s website.