Peter Walton, Chief Executive & Founder of IAGTO
I actually have a scientific background having graduated in Zoology from Durham University and worked for two years for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and New York Zoological Society, with one year in the Andean Cordillera of Ecuador. I made the transition in 1986 to tourism, setting up my own travel marketing company and shortly after that a tailor-made tour operation to primarily Egypt and Thailand. In 1989 I took these businesses to Destination Marketing Ltd. (DML), the largest tourism representation, marketing and PR company in the UK at the time and became General Manager in 1993.
While at DML I became UK Director for the Tenerife Tourist Board. One of my responsibilities was to turn Tenerife into a serious golf destination. This was a turning point for me as I saw how important golf tourism was as a niche market, but yet how disparate and uncoordinated it was as an industry. It was on the island of La Gomera, after taking the first ever golf tour operator familiarization trip to Tenerife, that I came up with the idea of setting up both IAGTO (International Association of Golf Tour Operators) and IGTM (International Golf Travel Market). The rest, as they say, is history.
Matt Ward: You occupy a key position and can clearly see the many elements happening within the broader golf travel market. What are some of the positive trends happening?
Peter Walton: The global golf tourism industry has enjoyed four years of consecutive growth, at rates substantially higher than those experienced by general leisure tourism. This trend looks set to continue in 2016 with forward bookings [taken by IAGTO’s 600-plus golf tour operators in 60 countries countries] up 9% year on year as of 1st October 2015. In a recent survey, 56% of IAGTO member golf resorts, golf courses and hotels reported a significant increase in women golf travelers over the past three years, and with this we have seen a growth in couples and groups of couples travelling to play golf.
MW: Conversely, what are the most concerning trends?
PW: Of course, golf travel is not immune to those global events that have a negative impact on tourism, from economic crises to safety concerns, from natural disasters to health scares, but golf tourism time and time again bounces back quicker than any other sector of the travel industry. Quite simply, avid golfers will not be denied their golf travel fix!
MW: Next year marks the return of golf to the Summer Olympics. How much of an impact will that have on the sport?
PW: It is difficult to second-guess what the overall impact will be on global participation levels, but of course it can only be positive. Personally I am keen to see the impact on accessibility to golf in Brazil; the effect of the Ladies Tournament on girls taking up the game in Latin America; the overachievement of underdogs to inspire smaller golfing nations; moments of genius and the clash of titans to stir the imagination of non-golfing Olympic fans; and, looking ahead, the gradual positioning of Japan as a unique and accessible golf destination ahead of the 2020 Olympics.
MW: Given your position and in your individual role as a golfer / consumer — what are the key dimension most travelers are seeking?
PW: Where golf is the primary purpose of travel, then the single most important factor is the delivery of a great golfing experience! With each passing decade, golfers’ expectations are higher with top quality courses essential, especially the farther a golfer travels. Value for money, regardless of price, and a variety of golf courses within an accessible cluster are prerequisites for many. With 70% of golf travelers looking for a new experience, this is an opportunity for new destinations and a challenge for those more established.
MW: Just recently — the Chinese government took the stance that golf is not a game that meshes with their country and its core philosophies. What’s your take on that situation?
PW: We look at countries in terms of them being golf destinations or outbound golf markets. Many, of course, are both. The closure of unlicensed golf courses will have no impact on China’s fascinating golf destinations, from the un-crowded courses of Sanya and Haikou on the tropical island of Hainan, to Spring City, near Kunming, or Mission Hills in Shenzhen. There are already hundreds of thousands of avid golfers in China and their propensity to travel in search of foreign fairways is growing year by year. The rate at which golf participation grows may slow down but the impact to the golf tourism industry is likely to be negligible.
MW: The United States occupies the biggest slice of the golf industry but there has been no real net gain in courses for a number of years since the great recession in ’08. Is it simply a matter of balancing supply and demand in terms of courses available or are there deeper issues involved with the health of the game there?
PW: Again, from a golf tourism angle, we have a slightly different take on headline figures. While the number of golfers in the USA has dropped from highs of 30 to some 26 million [National Golf Foundation] the number of ‘core’ golfers has remained fairly constant, with 26% of golfers responsible for 76% of all rounds played. The majority of golf vacations are taken by avid golfers, which is why we saw outbound golf travel from the U.S. emerge from the economic recession in 2011 and continue apace ever since. Golf travel is focused only on a minority of golf courses nationwide, which is why the overall number of courses does not impact our industry. Brand USA, the U.S. international marketing organization, teamed up with IAGTO last June to help drive golf tourism to the USA. Around 30 states have golf destinations of interest to international golf travelers and we are currently half way through a project to assess the value of golf tourism to the USA and its capacity for growth. Even at this early stage we can say that ‘desirable’ capacity for growth is likely to be close to 20%.
MW: During the IAGTO presentation at the recent International Golf Travel Market convention in Tenerife, it was outlined how 40% of the golfers in Germany are women. Given the need for women to participate in the game in the years ahead what lessons can be learned from the German experience and how can they be applied globally?
PW: It is clear from our own research that women golfers are having a significant financial impact on golf destinations across the globe, with more groups of lady golfers travelling together on golf vacations and a dramatic rise in the number of couples and groups of couples travelling to play golf and enjoy other aspects of their chosen destination. While the responsibility of encouraging greater golf participation by women lies with golf clubs and national golf associations, golf destinations within the USA can definitely play their part by tailoring the experience to women golfers and making the joys and inclusiveness of golf travel an incentive to take up the game.
MW: There are people on the environmental side who see golf as a sport that wastes critical resources – most notably water. What must golf do in the years ahead as critical resources are allocated?
PW: As a zoology graduate and one-time professional ecologist, I have a long-standing interest in this issue. Four years ago, IAGTO entered into a partnership with the Golf Environment Organization (GEO) to help our member golf courses achieve even greater sustainability year on year. We launched the IAGTO Sustainability Awards three years ago to reward some of the incredible achievements of golf courses in this field, to highlight examples of best practice and to inspire change. We place ecological preservation, water conservation, community engagement and the sustainable use of resources at the heart of the integrated Golf Tourism Development and Promotional Strategies that we have been invited to develop in 32 countries and regions worldwide. We are now in the process of encouraging entire golf destinations to become GEO Certified and to take sustainability to another level.
MW: How does golf shift from one generation to the next — much has been written about role of Millennials but thus far they have proven non-responsive in picking up the game in the same manner as their parents did. What must be done to change that dynamic?
PW: While in the United States, Canada and Europe, golf has become openly accessible over the past two decades, this is not necessarily the case in Asia and Latin America. From a global perspective we are still keen to see advancements in accessibility to golf tuition and to golf courses for kids of all backgrounds, where swinging a golf club at a young age becomes as normal as kicking a football. In the U.S. it will be interesting to see the success of Top Golf’s new facility in Las Vegas, where golf is at the heart of, but only one component of, an entertainment complex. Maybe this is one way to draw Millennials into the game in their twenties and thirties.
MW: You have one round to play — where would you play and who would be the members of your foursome and why?
PW: Sorry, I’m too busy to play golf. (Laughter)WHAT'S YOUR REACTION?