Remember the Golf Trip? It’s back, so start making plans to join the game’s biggest Travel Boom
by Tony Leodora
Does anyone remember when singer/television star Dinah Shore would intone, “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet?” If you do, you either have a few miles on the odometer or you are a trivia buff.
As a reminder, her live commercials were the call to action on her hit television show. They also reflected the travel passion of Americans in the 1950s. We had an insatiable love affair with their automobiles. We packed up the family in tour station wagons and took to the highways of this rapidly expanding country on almost any chance we could get.
Whether it was the two-week family vacation, the weekend getaway, or just a day trip in the country, Americans were mobilized.
Fast-forward to 2020, when Americans were on COVID lockdown. We were afraid to leave our homes, restricted from seeing family and friends, hidden behind masks. We were pandemic prisoners.
Then, thankfully, the gates opened for an escape from hell. In stages.
First, we were allowed to play golf, and we flocked to our local courses. Yes, it was limited play – one person to a cart, widely separated tee times, no touching of rakes or flagsticks. But it was a safe activity, one of few activities allowed out of the house, and it was golf, and we loved it.
The same type of euphoria took place when the travel restrictions were lifted. And people became more comfortable traveling together in a car, eating together in restaurants, staying together in hotels.
Suddenly, the golf industry – which some thought pre-pandemic stood on the brink of extinction – was alive and thriving. And golf travel once again was the lifeblood of the industry.
“To say that golf stood as a symbol of salvation for so many embattled Americans is not really stretching the truth,” said Joel Moore, owner of the Ridge at Back Brook Golf Club in New Jersey and vice president of the New Jersey Golf Course Owners Association. He led the fight to reopen golf courses in his state when draconian lockdowns threatened the entire industry.
He spoke for many when he said, “Golf gave us all hope.”
And golfers seized that hope with an amazing amount of passion.
According to reports from Joe Beditz at the National Golf Foundation, “Based on responses from four dozen resort properties, nearly three-quarters indicated pre-bookings for May-December are higher than last year, and almost two-thirds suggested they’re higher than other recent, non-pandemic years. More broadly, nine of 10 reported increases in rounds and website activity and social media engagement, while eight in 10 reported increases in travel package inquiries.”
In many cases, golf packaging companies proved to be the early contacts for golfers looking to break out of the mandated hibernation. They were on the front lines of the mass invasion of this country’s golf courses and golf resorts.
A typical example is Mid-Atlantic Golf Getaways. Owned by Nick Ciattei and based in Winchester, Virginia, the Mid-Atlantic company has a long history of being on a first-name basis with its clients.
“I’m seeing customers I haven’t heard from in years,” says Ciattei. “They came flocking back. At first, they just wanted to talk golf, because they didn’t have anything else they could do. Then they started playing and looking to re-book their trips. All the ones who cancelled during the shutdown in 2020 – almost to a T – have signed back up.”
Ciattei has benefitted from being so close to the large population centers of the Mid-Atlantic region.
“Golf travel is definitely back,” he says. “Of course, the drive-to vacationers are still the strongest segment. A lot of people are still uncomfortable with the thought of flying. I think air travel, reaching full-strength, is still a year away.”
For Bob Levy, owner and president at Talamore Resort, the timing couldn’t be better.
“The additional golf travel this year widened Talamore’s regular business to include more weekdays and also lengthen the stay of our repeat customers,” says Levy. “The Talamore Resort is coming off a multi-year, multi-million-dollar renovation program for the golf course and clubhouse which included a significant increase in outdoor seating.
“Our goal has been to provide as much ‘normalness’ as possible to a guest’s experience. Talamore’s expanded outdoor decks for hanging out before or aprés golf are just the right ingredient to get things started off on the right foot or provide a great finish to the day.”
Normal is tough to get to these days, but Talamore managed a creative way to handle breakfast. Instead of its outstanding southern buffet, Talamore is now delivering breakfast to their guests’ fully equiped condos so they can roll out of bed to their own buffet.
“Another key to ‘normalness’ was the addition of a new halfway house at Talamore perfectly situated as guests get ready to start their round or on the travel path as they make the turn,” says Levy. “It has been a big hit and a great solution to provide a better guest experience amidst the various indoor restrictions.”
Tim McArthur is the general manager at Royal New Kent GC, an upscale daily-fee course near Williamsburg, Virginia. His course is another that benefits from the new wave of golf travelers on the highways.
And that wave came along just in time. Royal New Kent re-opened in 2019 after a $2 million renovation. The pandemic was a cruel blow to a property that worked so hard to re-invent itself. This year’s increased business has been a godsend.
“In May, at any given time, you could see cars in the parking lot from all over the East Coast,” reported McArthur. “People were feeling more comfortable traveling in the spring and that increased during the summer.
“People are still not that comfortable traveling overseas. That’s where our motto – “Golf Ireland in Virginia” – fills a void for them. We have a unique property – unlike anything in the area. We have seen a big uptick in social media, which indicates that people are looking to travel someplace new and different.”
Caverns Country Club (image above) is nestled in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. It shares a happy coexistence with the nearby Luray Caverns, the historic Mimslyn Inn, and Shenandoah National Park. It is less than two hours driving time from the Washington D.C. metro area, which collectively stands as America’s fifth largest city.
As a result, John Shaffer, the director of marketing at Caverns CC, got a first-hand look at the early exodus out of America’s cities and to the golf areas of the cathartic countryside.
“It was a perfect storm for us,” recalled Shaffer. “We are close to so many people. They were looking to get away from the city. The town of Luray is associated with outdoors and nature, avoiding crowds. We checked all the boxes for them.
“We used to get a lot of international visitors. In 2019, we had visitors from 42 countries. And we used to get a lot of people from Canada. But, even without all of them, we are still breaking records this year. And golf is the most significant part of our increase.”
Cutalong at Lake Anna is about halfway between Fredericksburg and Charlottesville in another picturesque portion of Virginia. While it shares the same natural beauty, it has a vastly different appeal from the area of Luray.
Cutalong is a master planned community, with a new Tom Clark-designed golf course. The plan is for a private club, surrounded by individual homes and a cluster of villas that can be purchased, then put back into a rental pool. Renters would have access to the golf course.
One might think that a pandemic might be the worst time to launch such a project, but general manager Mike Bennett reports differently.
“Interest in Cutalong has been brisk,” says Bennett. “We had 140 members by July 1 and nobody even lives here yet. People have been traveling in to play a preview round. The amount of attention we are receiving has far exceeded our expectations.”
Another example of a unique property that benefitted greatly from the early wave of the golf travel boom is Boar’s Head Resort in Charlottesville, Virginia. Located close to the University of Virginia, it is the city’s only Four-Diamond resort.
While the timing of the pandemic was awful for so many other businesses, it was exceptional for the Boar’s Head Resort. The associated golf course, built in 1984, was closed for a major renovation and redesign by Davis Love III. It re-opened in July this year with an expanded range and a new six-hole par-3 course.
“We re-opened our new course at the same time that the world came back to golf after COVID,” recalls General Manager Ross Cronberg. “The pent-up demand for golf was amazing.
“We are busier than we’ve ever been. We’re looking at a stretch of June through October of this year that shows an 80 percent occupancy rate. We can’t find records in the files that show we ever did that.”
The Boar’s Head Resort is close to the heart of Virginia’s wine country and the University of Virginia. Much of their business is driven by those factors.
“We’ve never really been a big corporate hotel or resort,” adds Cronberg. “We’ve always been kind of a transient tourist destination, as well as a hotel for those traveling to the University. We were shut down April 8, 2020 and re-opened June 23. I’ll remember those dates forever. We were fairly busy, as soon as we re-opened, because people who were looking to travel were looking for places with balconies, areas to walk and, thankfully, places to play golf.”
The larger resorts around America faced a much different, and much more critical challenge – both during the early phases of re-opening and once the travel boom accelerated to warp speed.
The Omni Bedford Springs Resort (image above) is a magnificent historic hotel and golf course, situated in a very rural part of southern Pennsylvania. It was hamstrung by the state’s rigid lockdown mandates but saw business return to normal – and beyond – in stages.
“There were some dark days in the beginning,” admits general manager Dave Nostrand. “Daily-fee golf was the first to come back. Then the two, three, four-day golf trip started to come back. They kept us alive.
“Now the weddings and social functions have come back with a vengeance. A lot of them cancelled in 2020 and re-booked. And we’re seeing more people attending the functions than they were in the past. The room blocks are bigger. I guess people weren’t able to do anything in 2020 and now they are happy to attend.”
But large resorts like Bedford Springs also rely on corporate business.
“The corporate, plus the state and regional association business were the slowest segments to return. It took a while. The group-focused market finally came back in the second half of 2021. Now we have very little meeting space available.”
Nostrand has been a keen observer of all who have returned to Bedford Springs.
“When the first restrictions were lifted in Pennsylvania at the end of May, there was a sense of relief among everyone who walked in the door. They were happy to not be wearing masks anymore – and we were happy to see them.”
Another Omni-managed property, the Omni Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Virginia, found itself in a similar situation. But, as an even larger property, it faced special challenges.
The resort spreads over 1,000 acres of Virginia mountainside. It features two historic golf courses. And the luxury hotel has 483 guest rooms and suites. It has hosted 23 U.S. presidents, as well as hundreds of thousands of wedding guests and corporate visitors during its more-than 200 years in operation.
“We don’t close down as easily, nor re-open as easily as smaller resorts,” says John Hess, director of sales and marketing. “It was a monumental task. It was strange to see such a vibrant, essential area on lockdown.
“Re-opening was exciting. It was great to see a lot of our old friends come back to work. Unfortunately, not enough of them came back to work. Staffing continues to be a struggle to the present day in the hotel industry.”
But Hess was quick to shift to the positive.
“Once we re-opened, we found that our guests were so excited. They were as welcoming as we were,” he stressed. “The number of people who want to get out to a remote area is amazing. We’re seeing a higher number of guests utilizing all our activities, especially the outdoor activities.
“The surge in golf seemed like a blip when we re-opened, but I firmly believe the increased levels of play are here to stay.”
While the individual properties – both large and small – provide interesting narratives on the Great Travel Boom of 2021, it is necessary to talk to the representatives from the major destinations to understand the overall perspective. They are the ones who are crunching the numbers and looking at the big picture.
Phil Werz, president and CEO of the Pinehurst/Southern Pines/Aberdeen Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, is a nationally recognized numbers guru. He was quick to react to the early days of pandemic disaster – and quicker to react when the golf world was breaking out of it.
“When the bad news hit, we were anticipating the worst,” admitted Werz. “On March 20 of 2020 we stopped all advertising. We cut a half-million dollars from our budget. We forecasted a $450,000 shortfall in business. We wondered if we could survive. April of 2020 we were off by 91 percent vs. 2019.”
Fortunately for the Pinehurst area, the travel disaster didn’t last long.
“Our recovery was so fast,” reported Werz. “We recovered financially by end of year because, once we got to the fall, this place exploded. We recovered faster than most because we have an iconic, beloved resort in a state that never closed any of the golf courses.
And the flight to Pinehurst continued throughout 2021.
“Our occupancy in June was 80.5 percent,” said Werz. “We never saw that – ever. April and May also were record months. And it is all driven by golf.”
Will this passion for golf travel wane?
“I just don’t see it happening,” concludes Werz. “Golf equipment sales are setting records. People don’t just spend all that money to play for a few months because they don’t have to wear a mask on the golf course.
“Golf is now cool. Look at all younger people who are playing.
Mid-Atlantic Getaways’ Ciattei agrees with that assessment, as his packaging company is seeing a new demographic.
“I never had any trouble attracting the over-50 set for golf trips,” he says. “A big part of the reason golf is going to continue to grow is because we are getting so many younger golf-trip travelers. They are discovering the magic of the golf trip.
No discussion of the golf trip would be complete without hearing from the golf experts in Myrtle Beach – America’s golf trip capital.
Bill Golden is the CEO of Golf Tourism Solutions, which operates PlayGolfMyrtleBeach.com.
“Tourism brings $7 billion to Myrtle Beach every year,” said Golden, a veteran executive who always has his finger on the pulse of the industry. Golf is $1 billion of that annual total. To say that the pandemic had a disastrous economic impact on the area would be a huge understatement.
“Our courses never closed but, in the beginning, they were getting mostly local play. All the tourism rounds almost completely went away starting in March of 2020. Some packages came back in the fall of 2020 but not a significant number.
“We really didn’t see the tourists coming back until May of 2021. Then the hotel reservation numbers and golf packages spiked heavily for summer and fall. International business, including Canada, has been virtually zero. That’s a significant loss.”
Hearing all of that, one would expect Myrtle Beach to be suffering. Amazingly, that is not the case.
“Year to date, our rounds are up 23 percent over 2020,” reports Golden. “Our revenue is up 66 percent over 2020. The picture for the future is even brighter. Bookings for the second half of this year are up 14 percent over 2019. Talk about a boom.”
Inside the total Myrtle Beach numbers, there is an even bigger story. The World Amateur Handicap Championship, now in its 38th year, went through a tough stretch last year. At its zenith, it attracted 5,000 players in 2000. Those numbers swooned, along with the rest of the industry, to a low of 2,900 in 2009. There have been small advances since those economically challenged times – then, last year, organizers bravely battled through the pandemic. A total of 2,200 players turned out for a watered-down version of the world’s largest golf tournament.
This year it’s a totally different story.
“When we announced that entries were open for 2021, the surge was incredible,” said Golden. “We have more than 3,600 players this year for the World Am. The percentage of new players is significant. This tournament is a cross-section of golf in this country. It’s an indicator that demand for golf is really high. Entries would be even higher if Canadian border was open.”
Golden is the first to agree with the others who claim that golf is getting younger.
“From a marketing standpoint, we’ve seen a much younger demographic in 2021,” he reports. “That is an incredibly positive indicator for the game of golf. It speaks to the mentality that it is OK to play golf – either at home or on a golf vacation. We need to embrace that and continue to remind everybody about the mentally and physically healthy aspects of playing the game.”
The renewed success of golf travel is not just limited to the southern section of the country. BOYNE Golf is a collection of 10 golf courses in Michigan. The pandemic could have been deadly to their short season, but it escaped disaster.
Ken Griffin is BOYNE’s director of golf sales and marketing. The relief in his voice is evident when he tells his story.
“By Memorial Day 2020, we had all 10 courses open,” reported Griffin. “From the middle of June on, things were very good. We finished, from a golf standpoint, ahead of 2019. That was a pleasant surprise.
“And 2021 just picked up where 2020 left off. The first half of 2021 was ahead of 2020. Pre-bookings look even stronger. It’s a different world. More people are working remotely. We know consumer behavior will never be what it was. The challenge is for us to continue to adapt to those changes.”
Nobody understands that mindset better than Mike Bowman, president of the Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board. He has been promoting golf and other aspects of healthy tourism in Montgomery County – an area that is right next to the embattled city of Philadelphia.
Not only did the Valley Forge area have to fight the negative publicity of its neighboring big city throughout the pandemic, but it had to battle through some of the most devastating lockdown laws, mandated by the state government.
Through it all, Bowman and his staff maintained a positive attitude and kept promoting the advantages of tourist activities – including golf – in their area.
“We do know that people are looking for birds and trees. People are looking for space,” said Bowman. “When you have great golf and 100 miles of trails, plus the historic Valley Forge National Park, there is a lot of space for the people who want to get away.
“The second the golf courses opened, they were packed,” Bowman continued. “Even though there were restrictions, it didn’t matter. Golf has done an incredible job of promoting itself as a safe and healthy activity. It has become cool again. Now we are seeing a lot of younger people playing.”
When people started playing golf in Montgomery County, they also started shopping and going to the restaurants again. The huge King of Prussia Mall and the nearby Valley Forge Town Center are hotbeds for both.
“We saw people coming back to the hotels at the start of year,” said Bowman. “When the restrictions were lifted, the social business came back right away. Weddings are backlogged. We are seeing weddings on Thursdays and Fridays. People come in early to play golf. The only thing we are still waiting for is that mid-week corporate business to come back.”
Despite all the challenges, Bowman remains optimistic.
“I feel really positive about 2022 and 2023,” he concluded. “Hopefully, we will see the international travel start to return. So many international business travelers used to come in for meetings and they like to play golf. We look for that to return also.”
Another historic area that depends on travelers from all over – and golf travelers from all over – is Gettysburg.
Fortunately, insulated from the turmoil of the big cities, Gettysburg benefits from sitting among the bucolic rolling hills and farmlands of southern Pennsylvania. Even in such an idyllic setting, the effect of the pandemic was felt.
Karl Pietrzak is the president and CEO of Destination Gettysburg, the marketing arm of the area. He has only been on the job for a few months, tasked with the economic recovery.
“Before COVID, we were getting between 3 to 4 million visitors per year,” reported Pietrzak. “Our hotel occupancy in 2020 was down to half of what we normally would have had done. In March and April of 2020, it was down to 10 percent. That’s a shame because the year started with the best January and February months Gettysburg ever had.”
Although the history behind Gettysburg always has been the biggest driver of tourism dollars, the entire area has been gaining momentum in recent years. Golf is part of it, but so is the burgeoning brewery, distillery and winery businesses. It all seems to go hand-in-together.
“We’re definitely seeing a strong rebound this year coming out of COVID. We’re back pretty close to our figures in 2019, which was a really strong year,” Pietrzak reported. “I played my share of rounds last year and everywhere I went the courses were packed. Our tourists and travelers are back. The golf courses are busier than ever. I really expect we will have record numbers in the fall, and that should carry through to 2022.”
Pietzak puts the finishing touches on his assessment when he says, “There are a lot of people visiting and wearing smiles on their faces instead of masks.”
That’s the American spirit. See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet – or your Ford, or your Buick, or your golf cart. But get out and see it. [END]