Allowing 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, writes John Cockayne CEO of The Business of Golf
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 have come 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 through 2020, has shown that after a number of postponed vacation 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.
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 from 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 in South Africa, which as a venue does significant business with international travellers and Dermot Synnot is the CEO of the multi award-winning golf travel publication – Destination Golf Travel (DGT) – which has its headquarters in Ireland.
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?
Peter Dros: We live in a global marketplace, 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 revenue projections and many, as you have mentioned in previous features and articles, already have rationalised their staff levels and operating protocols.
Dermot Synnot: 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 memberships and participation rates 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, 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 unattractive until vaccines are more rolled out, 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. When you marry the pent-up demand for golf with airline vouchers that need to be used up, there is sure to be a boom in golf tourism once it is safe to do so.
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 price conversions 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: You know me well. I do like to a good steak and would jump at prices like that, but I don’t think I shall ever see rates like that in Europe!
The only added unknown here will be the effects of BREXIT on travel and the hassle that it will cause until the dust settles on passport control etc.
This could prove be an added shot in the arm for UK’s golf as golfers might chose staying closer to home and playing the fantastic courses here, certainly for the early part of 2021 at least.
JC: My experience as a tour operator and event manager has shown that packages have always offered better value for any traveller rather than 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 revenue 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 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.
JC: Gentlemen, thank you very much.