Featuring; Mark Siegel (MS) and John Cockayne (JC)
In the introduction to the current discussion topic on golf travel – ‘New Horizons’ – in last week’s edition of Golf Business News, we scoped out in broad terms the importance and value of golf tourism, both to the game itself and to those region’s involved with this market segment of the travel industry.
The discussion will be developed over the next two weeks in conjunction with two very experienced people from this sector:
Mark Siegel is the CEO and Founder of Golf Asian, one of the top golf tour operators based in Asia.
Dermot Synnott is the CEO and Founder of Destination Golf Media.
Significantly both Mark and Dermot’s companies won ‘best of’ awards at the recent prestigious World Golf Awards in Abu Dhabi, as the world’s best golf tour operator and the world’s best golf travel publication respectively, so congratulations to both!
First on the tee with our series moderator, John Cockayne, will be Mark Siegel.
John Cockayne (JC): In my time in the travel business, I have looked on my role as a tour operator as being a multifaceted one.
It has ranged from functioning as a product designer and a marketer and from acting as a safety net to being a firefighter, the latter roles in making sure that if there were any glitches in a tour or event programme that these did not impact on the guests’ experience.
In this, I would often use particular venues because, outside of their suitability, as I became used to their weak points I was able to anticipate problems and to activate a prepared contingency option if necessary.
I believe that a good tour operator, or event manager, is adaptable, agile and a great solution finder, but overall looks a bit like a Swan – all calm on the outside with legs paddling like heck under the water!
Can you explain in simple terms what you see the role of a golf tour operator to be?
Mark Siegel (MS): I like the Swan analogy – all smooth and graceful in appearance, but meanwhile down in the engine room!
I would say all of the above and for a personal summary, as a golf tour operator, would add:
- The promoter of the destination first and then as a marketer to increase awareness about our golf product
- Deliverer of the product
- A proactive fire-fighter – I like to feel that with the right intel to hand and the experience we have, we can head off ‘fires’ before they even have the chance to start
For me, the real key is to understand the product (personally knowing the venues as per your comment, is a great help in this) and then leaving as little to chance as possible by checking, re-checking and checking again.
Take nothing for granted and expect the unexpected are good general rules. I also always have a ‘what if solution’ in place to activate, should something look like it might not be going to work to plan.
JC: The ‘what if’ point is very important, especially when it comes to the weather.
In the main we are blessed with great weather in this part of the World, but not long ago I ran a golf academy programme for a client and we came off the golf course because of lightning.
The South African Highveld could be called lightning central, when the bigger summer storms are brewing, and during the first break off course 700 + strikes to ground were recorded in an hour!
MS: We are equatorial, so generally, the weather is not an issue in the region.
When it rains, it will be a heavy downpour for a couple of hours, then it all clears up and the game can go on!
In the past ten years, I can recall only two occasions on which we have had rainouts.
For many of the visitors, especially those coming from winter seasons, the heat but even more so the humidity can be a ‘surprise,’ so we make sure that our guests understand the need to stay well hydrated.
JC: I think that most of us in the industry agree that we need to market the ‘whole package’ as opposed to golf as the stand-alone message.
Even in my events I will try to include a variety of activities (especially game viewing) such as a balloon safari, boma braai (traditional sitting around a wood fire outdoors Bar-B-Q), or similar into the programme to reinforce the ‘Africaness’ of the venue.
Are there any different challenges in this for you in Asia?
MS: No, it is very similar here as we believe that we need to sell a whole package.
If we can do this, then at the end of his or her trip the guest will have been exposed to a total regional experience in which the golf will only have been one layer of the whole.
Let’s face it, the most anyone is likely to be on course will be half of the day, so there is a lot of time left in which to package in the other attractions that a particular region might offer.
For me the key elements here in Asia are the culture, food, the good weather (especially to our winter visitors coming to escape their own winters) and the fact that with an almost complete absence of any crime a vacationer can really relax.
JC: The golf venues obviously play a crucial role in any tour or golf event.
Apart from your being prepared for the unexpected, what support, if any, do you expect from the golf clubs in your region?
MS: The basic stuff which is largely logistical, so if they get the 101 stuff right we are OK, i.e. don’t double book my dates, or schedule another event on the same day without telling me, etc.
If the clubs do what they need to do and they do it by the numbers and then follow through and execute properly, then this gives me the chance to make any adjustments to the programme as necessary.
Things can and do go wrong logistically with any event or tour, but if we have the full information to hand then we can mitigate the risk that this might have on our guests’ enjoyment of their vacation.
JC: I have to constantly remind golf clubs here that if they want their share in to tourism dollar then they will need to get up off their collective behinds and be proactive in marketing themselves.
So many just sit back and wait for the tourism bodies to get the ball rolling.
I remind clients that many tourism bodies are dealing with either the needs of their region or tourism in national terms and it is rather like they are holding up a large umbrella in which golf is only one, or even only a part of a single rib in the canopy.
To use a golf analogy, some have the expectation that the tourism bodies will pay for the green fees, caddy and hit the shots!
What support do you expect from the tourism bodies in your region?
MS: Honestly, nothing really as we are geared to self-start and I agree with your comments about the tourism bodies.
We have some of the nicest people you could hope to meet, or deal with, in tourism here in Asia, but if golf were to wait for the tourism bodies to focus on golf I would be old and grey!
We need to be proactive and agile as a tourism niche and work together wherever possible.
JC: The need to work together seems to be a key sticking point; perhaps it’s because golf is not a team sport that the idea of pulling together and co-operating with each other, at least at a club level, seems to be such an alien concept.
With the launch of DGT’s Golf Guide here, for some of the clubs I have created a call to action in the form of a series of named tours.
These will offer the clubs the chance to work together as a team and also give an actual platform for a visit to complement the beautiful photos and copy. It will of course also provide the tour operators with something to work with as well.
How creative do you feel we need to be in terms of packaging up a region?
MS: It is a very important element in presenting a region, so I would say that the following are key points in terms of our market:
- Simple is best
- Offer good value for money
- Use only good quality properties
- We are a new market to golf, so ‘history’ in the game is not an element, and we should, therefore, focus on the total experience
JC: What are your greatest challenges in terms of logistics and marketing?
MS: The first would have to be a lack of awareness.
Lack of golfer awareness means that we have to be very active and effective in getting known as a destination and one which offers a great experience.
Price is a key issue for almost everyone: “why should I pay more here than at home” so we need to make sure that our visitors get real value for money and so the whole experience is what we need to package.
Our golf is relatively expensive, we have no golf ‘history,’ and we are also a long haul destination.
To counter this, we have warm weather year round and offer possibly the best value 4 and 5 star hotels to be found anywhere, so these two counter any possibly negative effects of the first two elements.
With logistics: the international flight frequencies are great, and there are no issues with internal flights or transfers.
I guess the only problem might be with traffic congestion, but that is now a global problem, and we can manage around it here most of the time.
JC: Social media has become a fact of life (an unfortunate one some might add and, in many cases, not much better than an electronic graffiti wall!), but it looks as if it is here to stay.
On balance has social media been a help or a hindrance to our industry?
I ask this question because of the tyranny of the soundbite in which people can vent fairly (and unfairly!) about travel experiences!
MS: Social media is a mixed blessing.
On the one hand, it can have a very positive influence on business, but there are times when it can be a real nuisance, especially when people exaggerate their problem experience.
The bottom line is that we have to live with its influence and so it does have the positive elements of keeping us vigilant about service levels and wanting to make sure that we do what we say as described in our brochures.
JC: I am often flabbergasted by the elementary errors event top class hotels make in handling their guests.
These range from forgetting to offer a welcome drink because reception is so busy filling in forms so as to tick their own admin task boxes, to getting simple things like assuming that Mr. Smith and Mrs. Smith are married instead of a male and female who happen to share the same surname.
Even if the Smith’s booking includes a request for a twin room, reinforcing the idea that this ‘couple’ are not necessarily married and might just be brother and sister – the penny still doesn’t drop and they will be shown to a room with a double bed in it!
One year on a 3 week trip to Mauritius, to stay at a very nice 5 star property, I had filled in the forms to detail interests, allergies other preferences, etc. and under ‘other’ had included “please do not locate my room near a family with young children”.
Not only did they get this wrong, which then involved a lengthy process of finding an alternative room (including the ridiculous offer of a room upgrade – ridiculous because I was already in the highest level of accommodation offered) on departure my account included a bill for crèche fees!
How do you match expectations to the reality of the actual experience?
MS: We always are very careful in the selection of our partner hotels and facilities to try to make sure that we are dealing with the best of the breed in a city or region, or for a particular activity.
Rigid selection criteria reinforces the point about the experience in a market and having first-hand knowledge of the hotels and venue that you use.
JC: I have found events to be ‘sticky’, but which work best in your region – tours or events?
MS: Both have their special strengths; events are certainly sticky and can develop a core of repeat business.
The other plus with events is that they can attract media attention, which a tour can never hope to achieve.
In contrast, tours have the advantage that they can be taken year round as they are not subject to particular dates.
A tour programme is also great for first timers to a region, because if they chose the ‘right’ itinerary, they should get to sample a good cross-section of a country’s destinations and special attractions.
JC: Exchange rate watching has become a national past time in South Africa for many who want to travel overseas and the Rand’s performance, against the major international currencies, can have a marked effect on the final booked price of a trip or travel arrangements.
How price sensitive is your market?
MS: Asians are certainly pricing sensitive, and this sensitivity probably affects most travel markets.
The big plus in our region is that our 4 and 5-star hotels are amongst the least expensive in the world and this is backed up by personal service that is on a completely different level to other markets like Europe and the USA.
Mark Siegel is the owner and Managing Director of Golfasian – the largest Asian golf tour company.
During 2018 Golfasian’ handled 23,252 golf tourists, who played 140,791 rounds and the company maintains the most comprehensive website on golf in Asia www.golfasian.com.
Mark is not only operational in golf tourism, but also brings considerable strategic experience to the industry, as evidenced by his being instrumental in the formation of “Golf In A Kingdom; The Thai Golf Experience”. This is the biggest golf destination marketing organisation (DMO) in the world and includes the best golf courses in Thailand and the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
Mark also founded “Golf Coast Vietnam” a DMO which promotes Vietnam’s best golf courses to the world.
Golfasian attends the major golf trade shows and regularly organises educational trips for international tour operators and journalists.
Mark’s multifaceted roles have made him a respected golf tourism industry expert and speaker. He has presented at numerous golf and travel conferences, seminars, and professional events and is regularly called upon by government bodies to assist with their golf tourism strategies and plans.
Mark currently resides in Bangkok together with his wife and 14-year-old son.