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Q&A with Mr Peter Walton, CEO of IAGTO

Peter Walton, Chief Executive of global golf tourism organisation IAGTO, talks to Destination Golfs Peter Ellegard

DG: What prompted to you to set IAGTO up?

PW: IAGTO is 20 years old this year... For three years to 1996 I was UK Director of the Tenerife Tourist Office, during which time one of my goals was to turn this popular tourism destination into a successful golf destination, even though it only had three courses then, not the eight that it has now. In researching the market within the UK and beyond, the enormity of this niche travel sector became apparent, but so did its disparate nature and the lack of any coordination or support structure. I decided to have a go at changing that and dived headfirst into establishing the International Association of Golf Tour Operators (IAGTO) and the International Golf Travel Market in 1997.

DG: How has IAGTO grown since then?

PW: In September of 1997 I think we had about 20 golf tour operators, predominantly in the UK. Today we have just shy of 2,500 member companies in 96 countries, of which 641 are outbound golf tour operators carrying some 1.9 million golfers on golf vacations last year alone. The larger part of our membership now comprises golf resorts, golf courses, hotels, tourist boards and other golf tourism suppliers from virtually every golf destination on the planet.

DG: What does IAGTO do to help its members?

PW: Similar to most industries, ours comprises buyers and suppliers– the buyers in our case being golf tour operators and the suppliers being the golf destinations, their golf courses and hotels. So as a trade association our remit has always been to make it easier, less costly and more effective for our buyers and suppliers to work together. Right from the beginning I set IAGTO the target of creating at least three new dynamic services every year that our members could take advantage of, so that the value of our organisation to our membership grows rapidly year by year. Here are just a few examples: We established the first golf tourism trade show, the International Golf Travel Market, now in its 19th year (owned and operated by Reed Travel Exhibitions) We created the largest golf tourism photo library in the world for the benefit of our members We have been engaged by governments and tourist boards to produce the golf tourism promotional and development strategies for some 33 countries and regions, helping position destinations to deliver the best possible experience to visiting golf travellers We take over 300 golf tour operators to more than 30 golf destinations each year on familiarisation trips each year

DG: Has the golf travel industry changed much since IAGTO’s formation? And have people’s golf vacation habits changed?

PW: We define a golf holiday as being a vacation where golf is the primary purpose of travel, so in many ways the basics have remained the same in that avid golfers are just looking for a great golfing experience at a price they can afford. Where they go, how long they go for and who they travel with of course changes with age and changing circumstances of each individual golfer. However, in a recent survey, 56% of
IAGTO member golf resorts, golf courses and hotels reported a significant increase in women golf travellers over the past three years, and with this we have seen a growth in couples and groups of couples travelling to play golf. How people book holidays has, of course, been the biggest change over the past 20 years. Golf tour operators have immersed themselves in online technologies and emerged with at least as great a market share as they had in the brochure age, which was a surprise to many. On average, 52% of golf vacations are booked through golf tour operators, and this percentage increases the farther a golfer travels and the less familiar the golfer is with their chosen destination. Golf tour operators themselves have impacted the market dramatically by offering great short-break deals that are easy to book and encourage people to take many more golf holidays than perhaps they would have done previously, due to the ease of booking and great value on offer.

DG: How is the global golf holiday sales market faring in the face of all the current economic uncertainty? Have terrorism fears affected the market much?

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! What we have seen reported now over two downturns during the past 16 years is that while the number of bookings may not drop significantly during difficult economic times, the group size does get smaller and is therefore a good indicator of the state of the market.

DG: How does 2016 compare to previous years? Is the industry in robust health?

PW: The global golf tourism industry has enjoyed four years of consecutive growth (2012-2015), at rates substantially higher than those experienced by general leisure tourism. This trend has continued through the first six months of 2016 but after some really significant strides that saw golf tour operator sales grow by 30-40% since 2011, we expect the rate of growth to slow somewhat but remain consistent and sustainable

DG: What is 2017 looking like? Are there any noticeable trends emerging?

PW: Forward bookings as of 1st July were up again year on year so the coming winter-sun golf travel season of the Northern Hemisphere, which runs from October to April, is looking good. It is too early to judge next years summer season but we expect long-haul bookings to be very strong and short-haul will depend on many factors including both the weather and exchange rates. We expect Spain, Portugal, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Thailand, Vietnam and South Africa to perform strongly, with the USA seeing a strong growth in Asian golf visitors and the UK attracting more visitors from all markets due to attractive exchange rates, while Ireland should hold its own and maintain its recent gains.

DG: Are golfers travelling longer distances to take golf-based holidays?

PW: Ease of travel with golf clubs is an important factor in the growth of long-haul golf travel. A change of aircraft is always a worry for the golf traveller as it is presents an increased risk of a golf bag not arriving at the final destination in time for the first round of golf. So the growth of long-haul golf destinations is probably more impacted by the availability of direct flights than many other travel sectors. But the desire to play new golf destinations as seen across the pages of golf publications or websites is an enormous draw to avid golfers, which is one of the reasons golf tourism appeals to so many tourist boards.
We have already started to see a rapid increase in long-haul travel from Asian markets whose golf vacations have predominantly remained within the region.

DG: Bearing in mind that nearby destinations for some are long-haul places for others, are the traditional favourite golf holiday hotspots maintaining their popularity?

PW: 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 travellers looking for a new experience, this is an opportunity for new destinations and a challenge for those more established. Traditional favourite golf destination hotspots can be rejuvenated with even just one additional or renovated golf course.

DG: How about the new kids on the block? Which previously little-known golf destinations have established themselves in recent years?

PW: There is a natural synergy between the work of golf travel writers and that of golf tour operators who, together, are instrumental in opening up new golf destinations to golf travellers. There are many new golf destinations now on offer, including Slovenia and Bulgaria in Eastern Europe, Malmo in Sweden (wonderful links courses once deemed the bastion of Swedish club members) and even within Spain you can find intriguing new golf destinations such as Logroño in Rioja country, or even Costa Dourada which is doubling its golf visitors by the year. Oman, as a golf destination, has emerged from the desert, while the once-sleepy coastal town of Danang in central Vietnam is now a golfers haven in a lively beach resort and fantastic city – and will host the 2017 IAGTO Asia Golf Tourism Convention. The construction of new highways between Punta Cana and La Romana in the Dominican Republic has, in effect, created one brand new destination combining all the courses from both destinations, as you can now drive from one to the other within 45 minutes. In the USA, golfers are discovering great golf, awe-inspiring mountain views and fly-fishing in Oregon and, farther south, there is now a virtual Central American Golf Trail with some tremendous golf resorts from Guatemala through Honduras, Nicaragua, established Costa Rica and Panama (now with seven courses) to Colombias Cartagena on the Caribbean coast.

DG: New golf courses are continuing to be built in some countries. Do you see that trend continuing or will we see saturation point being reached at some point?

PW: The decision to construct golf courses should never be taken purely as a response to a perceived trend. From a tourism perspective, planning is paramount and golf development should take place where it has been assessed that courses will be both environmentally sustainable and economically viable in the long term, generating incremental revenue for the destination together with employment and opportunity for the local community. Where all these factors coincide then the establishment of golf tourism development zones which support the constructions of the right courses in the right places at the right time will lead to all round sustainability. Every destination must be treated on its own merits. In 2003 we participated in the preparation of a golf tourism strategy for Mauritius, together with an environmental ecologist, an agronomist and a golf course architect. We were asked to consider plans to build 14 courses in addition to the three that were already in operation. Our recommendations, on the contrary, were to build only three more courses in the first phase, doubling capacity, then adding two further courses once the six courses were operating close to 75% capacity. The advice was followed, a Cabinet memo submitted, and Mauritius has enjoyed sustainable growth in golf tourism in every year since, throughout the economic crisis, to a point now where golf tourism generated by just eight golf courses represents 9% of the islands tourism revenue.

DG: A number of courses have closed in traditional golf destinations, including the USA, Ireland, Spain and the UK. Were there simply too many golf facilities for the number of golfers?

PW: In the USA, for example, golf travel is focused only on a minority of golf courses nationwide, which is why the overall number of courses does not really impact our industry. The same applies in Ireland and the UK. Golf courses that appeal to both domestic and international golf travellers are always going to be in the strongest position economically, but of course some businesses have failed due to a lack of real estate sales. There are many examples worldwide where a golf course or golf resort runs a healthy profit, but is hamstrung by the burden of unsold plots or properties.

DG: The number of golfers is said to be falling in several countries, with middle-aged men taking up cycling touted as one reason. Do you see that as a threat to the golf travel industry?

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 million to some 26 million, according to the 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 US emerge from the economic recession in 2011 and continue apace ever since.

DG: Does golf need to change to address people’s changing habits and available leisure time?

PW: This is a question that the leaders of the golf industry tackle every day. From a golf tourism perspective, there is an indelible link between golf participation on a regular basis and the number of golf vacations taken each year. So we all want to see a continued growth in avid golfers in all markets.

DG: Do footgolf, speedgolf and shorter courses threaten the traditional 18-hole game?

PW: All versions of the game are beneficial in that they get people engaged with golf, which leads to more people choosing to go on holidays with their friends or family where golf is the focus. On vacations where golf is more than just a one-time amenity, golf will remain an 18-hole activity. Many golf travellers even try to squeeze in an extra nine holes or even a second round on the same day, light permitting!

DG: Are enough young people taking up the game? And are enough efforts are being made to woo them to the sport?

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 US it will be interesting to see the success of Top Golfs 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.

DG: Will there be a positive Olympic effect for golf, do you think? The return of golf at the Rio Olympics resulted in the biggest-ever global TV audience for both the men’s and women’s competitions. Can it help boost the game’s popularity going forward?

PW: I watched both tournaments from my sofa in London, but was constantly receiving messages from colleagues either spectating or working as volunteers in Rio. There is no doubt that the return of golf to the Olympics was a great success with an electric atmosphere that was palpable to the millions of viewers, so that of course can only be positive. Personally, I am keen to see the impact on accessibility to golf in Brazil; the growth of the game among both girls and boys throughout Latin America; and, looking ahead, the gradual positioning of Japan as a unique and accessible golf destination ahead of the 2020 Olympics.

DG: The annual IAGTO Awards are the highlight of the International Golf Travel Market, the golf travel industry’s largest marketplace event which you established and which IAGTO is still involved in as a major sponsor. With this year’s IGTM happening in Palma, Mallorca, in November what are their significance?

PW: As the global trade association of the golf tourism industry we have taken great care and immense pride over the past 16 years to ensure that our annual Awards represent the pinnacle of achievement for golf destinations and golf resorts, reflecting accurately the opinions of golf tour operators, golf travel writers and, ultimately, the golf traveller. With only nine Awards presented each year, the impact on the winners is tangible and we expect the 17th edition this November in Palma to be no different!

DG: Sustainability is now a key element of the IAGTO Awards with the recent introduction of the IAGTO Sustainability Awards. Why were they added?

PW: As a zoology graduate and one-time professional ecologist, I have a long-standing interest in sustainability. 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 have demonstrated how our Awards can act as a catalyst for best practice as well as showcasing existing excellence. More than 120 IAGTO golf courses have now enrolled with GEOs On Course Sustainability programme and are pursuing full GEO Certification.

DG: Golf has often had a bad rap over its environmental credentials. Is that still justified or is it cleaning up its act?

PW: We began looking at how entire destinations plan the development of golf courses in 2005, and by that time sustainability was firmly on everyones agenda. I cannot imagine a situation now where the requirements for a new golf development do not include a positive sustainability outcome. From our own perspective, 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 33 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.

DG: Four quick-fire questions about your own experiences:

*1.What’s the difference between a Golf Professional and a Golf Tourism Professional? *

PW: About 24 strokes in my case! Ask any Golf Director at golf resorts around the world and nine times out of 10 they are lucky if they get to play 18 holes more than once a month. Golf tour operators usually play more but generally not as well!

*2.What’s the most unusual golf travel request you have received? *

PW: A few years ago I got a call from Iron Maidens manager asking if we could arrange a round of golf for the band in Santiago, Chile, at the end of a gruelling South American tour. Unfortunately, most courses are closed on Mondays in that part of the world, but a couple of back-stage passes for the granddaughters of a golf club president and the course was duly opened!

*3.What’s the best advice you have been given on a golf course? *

PW: Without doubt it was a while back in Madeira, when one of our IAGTO members recommended I switch to the claw grip. I have never looked back! Whats more, my game improved even further last month when it was suggested to me that I use it only with the putter...

*4.What is your most memorable moment on a golf course? *

PW: I would have to say that it was playing in the company of Colin Montgomerie at the inaugural Star Trophy at Mission Hills Haikou in China. Being able to watch a top pro prepare for a tournament with his caddy at such close quarters was a real privilege. It was almost as good as being mistaken for a celebrity by Chinese school kids from Hainan Island who were lining the fairways in droves!

DG: On a final note, in the age of the internet there is a mountain of information about golf destinations and courses but it can often be hard to sort the chaff from the wheat. How important are golf travel publications in disseminating that information and helping readers to decide where to take their golf holidays?

PW: Some 70% of golf travellers are on the lookout for a new destination to visit but this brings with it the uncertainly of knowing whether or not the golf experience on offer is right for them. Golfers therefore seek out inspiration, information and reassurance before they book and this is what friends, fellow golfers, golf tour operators and golf publications can provide. An unbiased view of how a golf course or golf destination is today incredibly important to golfers planning a golf vacation, and that is why the work of golf travel writers and the publications, like Destination Golf, dedicated to telling their stories are a corner stone of the golf tourism industry!

Read the full issue here: http://www.destinationgolf.travel/dg35/

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