The President and Chief Executive of golf’s most popular tourism event is sitting in the captain’s chair.
It should be no surprise that Peter Walton has a secured spot at the top of the class. His conference formula saves companies a substantial amount of cash, provides a friendly format for networking, and takes place in precisely the kind of setting that puts everyone in the mood to make a deal. In fact, and I don’t say this lightly, if I had to choose just one recurring golf industry event to attend each year, the organization’s fall International Golf Tourism Market (IGTM) conference would be at the top of my list.
In its marketing materials, Walton’s International Association of Golf Tour Operators, or IAGTO, brands itself as “the golf trade organization for the golf tourism industry.” Most every journalist views promotional material with a heavy degree of skepticism, but in this case the claims not only ring true, but are probably even refreshingly understated.
Established in 1997, the London-based organization’s membership now comprises 2,189 accredited golf tour operators, golf resorts, hotels, golf courses, receptive operators, airlines, tourist boards, approved media, and business partners in 96 countries including, at its core, 548 specialist golf tour operators in 61 countries. IAGTO estimates that its operators control more than 85 percent of golf holiday packages sold worldwide and turn over more than $1.4 billion per year.
As you might imagine, the globetrotting Walton isn’t easy to track down. We managed to break his stride long enough, however, to get his feel for the state of golf tourism in 2014 and forward.
LinkedGolfers: How has IGTM evolved over the years in order to meet the needs of the golf tourism industry?
Peter Walton: The concept of IGTM came about back in 1996 when I took a group of golf tour operators to visit the sub-tropical island golf destination of Tenerife. I asked an American, British, and German tour operator if there was a single event they could attend each year to meet up with golf resorts, commercial golf courses, hotels, and other golf travel suppliers from the golf destinations they featured. No such event existed but all were unanimously enthusiastic that it should; and IGTM was born!
Now 17 years on, the basic concept has not changed. At IGTM, ten thousand meetings take place between some 1,200 buyers and suppliers every year over three days, which saves everybody time and money.
LG: What in your view are the essential keys to keeping each event “fresh” year after year?
PW: It is important that golf tour operators have the opportunity to meet new and different golf resorts and golf destinations, so a 20 percent change in exhibiting companies each year is ideal. Similarly it is important that suppliers get to meet new buyers and that they are not just exchanging greetings with the operators they already know well. Thankfully the delegation is driven by IAGTO and IAGTO’s membership is continually growing providing an ever increasing pool of potential buyers and suppliers.
LG: Being at the center of the worldwide golf travel industry puts you in a unique position to see “the big picture.” What trends are emerging now and how do they compare to the trends of previous years?
PW: The good news is that 2014 will mark the third year of consecutive growth for the global golf tourism industry. Golf tour operator sales grew by 9.3 percent in 2012 (13.5 percent growth by operators in North America) and by 10.1 percent in 2013.
Bookings taken in January to March this year were already up 14.5 percent over the same period last year. With golf travel a lot of golfers like to travel together in groups with friends or societies. What we see in downtimes are that the group sizes decrease. The latest trend we are seeing is a rapid growth in the number of women participating in golf holidays, with 56 percent of all courses and golf hotels experiencing a significant growth in lady golf visitors over the past three years.
“Generic, bland, and perhaps over-stated publicity from golf destinations or golf resorts no longer has any traction with golf travelers…” —Peter Walton
LG: Speaking of trends, it’s no secret that the golf industry is experiencing a downward adjustment. From all my research I’d call it a natural correction that deserves serious evaluation, but the bulk of the golf and business media is reporting that the sky is falling. What are your observations?
PW: The biggest drop off in golf participation over the past five or six years has been in “occasional” golfers. Twenty-six percent of golfers can be considered “avid players” and at the same time the number of avid golfers, responsible for 76 percent of all rounds played, has hardly dipped at all.
Golf travelers primarily come from the avid golfer category as these are the people who will most enjoy taking a vacation where the primary purpose is to play golf–often every day. So for this reason, whilst golf tourism is totally dependent on buoyant golf participation, it has not been overtly affected by the well-publicized change in headline participation numbers.
LG: For an optimist, a declining market presents increased opportunity. If I were the owner of a golf tourism company, where would you recommend I focus my time and energy to capitalize on current conditions?
PW: Generic, bland, and perhaps over-stated publicity from golf destinations or golf resorts no longer has any traction with golf travelers deciding on where to go for their next golf trip. Messages need to be clear, specific and targeted to particular markets. From the supplier side it is essential to consider what any given category of golfer is looking for and to explain succinctly why their destination or resort is therefore the perfect solution.
And golf courses do not exist in isolation so it is essential for clusters of golf courses to work together. For outbound golf tour operators it is a very competitive marketplace with low margins, so anybody thinking of getting into the business should have a clear idea of how they are going to be different and what unique access they have to a particular market.