GULLANE, SCOTLAND | Ahead of, during and after Scotland hosted the 2014 Ryder Cup and 2019 Solheim Cup, a Scottish Golf Tourism strategy was produced with the clear aim of reaping the profits of the world’s gaze being focussed on the home of the sport.
With a growth in impact from £286 million to more than £300 million (about $325 million to more than $340 million), the figures satisfied those responsible about the success of the initiative, but they were also acutely aware of the programme’s limitations.
Led by the Scottish Golf Tourism Development Group, in consultation with golf’s tourism industry and developed by marketing agency platform77, a second Scottish Golf Tourism and Visitor Strategy was launched in August charged with, in its own words, “meeting the demands of the small and micro operators as well as the big players.”
The latter (the famous courses and golf towns) had been the focus of the original strategy, and it was a little as if Italy had sold itself to the world’s tourists as Venice, Florence and Rome alone, forgetting that so much else in that land deserves to be discovered (and also to benefit).
“The previous strategy focussed very much on promotion of tier-one courses and, after undertaking research with the industry, we became aware the positive trickle-down effect to lesser-known courses had been limited. We wanted the new strategy to have relevance to as many courses as possible.” – Liam Barn
Much as Ireland has succeeded in doing, Scotland now hopes to make the most of its entire golfing treasure trove while also having a visitor focus beyond the recognised golfing tourist.
Speaking to Global Golf Post, report author and managing director of platform77 Liam Barn explained: “The previous strategy focussed very much on promotion of tier-one courses and, after undertaking research with the industry, we became aware the positive trickle-down effect to lesser-known courses had been limited. We wanted the new strategy to have relevance to as many courses as possible.”
It was also, of course, impossible to avoid the reality that the status quo had been COVID affected, with the report noting that the pandemic saw two trends emerge. The first was that it arrested a 20-year slide in membership numbers. The second saw revenue descend across the board.
“The pay-as-you-play courses, like Kingsbarns and Castle Stuart, saw their customer base pretty much disappear overnight,” Barn said. “They were heavily reliant on high-season overseas visitor numbers, so had to change models and pricing structures to attract a more local audience.
“But a lot of clubs thrived with rising membership, as folk who previously played other sports fished the clubs out of the attic. That massive spike sustained a lot of clubs, but now more assistance is needed in building on that and also expanding into new areas.”
A key element of the new programme is its breadth of scope.
“This is about sustaining the entire industry and helping to build strong foundations through a number of channels like education and experience development,” Barn said. “And we’ve used the word ‘visitor’ on purpose because we’re not just looking at international or over-the-border visitors but also local visitors. We want to stress that there’s a golf course close-by pretty much wherever you are in Scotland.
“That represents a massive opportunity to add value to the traditional golf trip but also the potential to engage with other tourism sectors like walking, cycling and culture.”
On the one hand, that is about tapping into Scotland’s rich heritage of courses designed by legends, courses in stunning locations, courses with great historical links and courses that are just a lot of fun to play.
On the other, there are courses clearly not taking advantage of the tourist whose travel is not golf specific.
“We’ve worked with island, Highland and nine-holes courses,” Barn said. “Because engaging with the general tourist is essential for them. We can really help support them with simple suggestions about increasing the availability of hire sets, providing easy and flexible booking systems and improving awareness – just letting tourists know the courses are there, that they welcome visitors and they can cater for a quick round.”
With its long summer days, Scotland is ripe for the tourist to spend morning and afternoons sightseeing before playing nine or 18 holes, possible even after an evening meal.
Barn is also keen to stress the reverse option of golfers venturing beyond the course. “Because they will always want great places to eat and drink,” he said. “But what about distillery tours, castles, walking and cycling trails?”
There are other elements to the strategy. As Ivan McKee, the minister for business, trade, tourism and enterprise in Scotland, highlighted, it will also aim to “deliver on community engagement, developing opportunities for young people, improving health, well-being and skills development.”
But essentially these aspects all lead to the same aim: to celebrate the whole, not just the highlights.
A final point cannot be ignored. For all the high aims, Scottish tourism, and golf tourism in particular, was hit by a low blow in the summer when luggage (and golf bags) went missing at alarming rates in the nation’s airports.
In the middle of a bumper season of tour golf in the country, not to mention the 150th Open, it was a PR disaster, but one which Barn believes is now in the past.
“The skills shortage was the initial problem, followed by the comprehensive security checks required for new employees,” he said. “My understanding, backed up from talking to tour operators, is that there has been an improvement and that things are not where they were midsummer.”
Top: Facilities such as Elie Golf Club, with its par-4 12th shown here, fit into the category of Scottish courses being promoted by Scottish Golf Tourism’s campaign. Photo: David Cannon, Getty Images
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