Golf resorts optimistic about quick return to greens

The Mauna Lani resort on the Island of Hawaii had been
reopened less than three months after a $200 million renovation when the
Covid-19 outbreak forced the shutdown of its hotel and amenities, including its
two 18-hole, oceanside golf courses. 

“We were off to an amazing start,” said Chris White, the
resort’s executive director of marketing and brand experience. 

Now, like other destination golf resorts in the U.S. and
around the world, Mauna Lani can do little but wait for the crisis to pass.

“Golf is the natural social distancing sport,” White said. “We’re
pretty optimistic that we’re going to be able to get people back on the course.”

The Covid-19 crisis arrived just as many courses were
preparing to launch their 2020 seasons. Now, the combination of stay-at-home
orders, travel restrictions and individual concerns about personal health have
all but killed at least the first half of the summer season. 

But for all the losses that will surely afflict the
destination golf industry, the nature of the game itself — noncontact, individual and played on broad,
outdoor landscapes — is giving many industry participants reason
for cautious optimism. 

“Golf is an activity that is played outside,” said Joe
Cerino, owner of the West Palm Beach, Fla.-based Sophisticated Golfer, a tour
operator that sells upscale golf vacations with a focus on the Caribbean,
Europe and Florida. “You don’t have to be close to anybody unless you want to
be. But you still have to get on a plane and stay in a hotel.”

Reinforcing golf’s natural advantages during this strangest
of times are the raw numbers. While most other recreational activities have
come to a near halt in the U.S., 48% of U.S. golf courses remained open for
play as of April 12, according to the National Golf Foundation. 

Among them are the large majority of courses in the
Southeastern states other than Florida. Fifteen states, mostly in the Northeast
and Midwest, had mandated course closures. But elsewhere, play continues,
generally with safety measures in place, such as the removal of sand trap rakes
and not allowing players to touch flagsticks. Some courses have gone to walking
only. Those that haven’t are generally allowing only one person per cart. 

Some resort golf courses are among those that remain open.
For example, the nine courses at the famed Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina
are open for play, though lodging operations are shuttered. 

At the Lodge of Four Seasons in Lake Ozark, Mo., the
358-room hotel and one of its two golf courses are open. 

COO Jim Cleary said occupancy at the hotel has been running
at 20 rooms or less, with most of the customers in the area on medical
business. But the lodge’s Cove golf course has been getting 40 to 80 players
per day, which is about a quarter of the business the resort would expect for
its golf operation at this time of year. 

“Golf has become a much bigger and more prominent draw for
the business we have right now,” Cleary said. 

Of course, that’s not to suggest that the destination golf
industry isn’t in a deep pause right now. The damage is likely to be especially
acute in destinations that receive a heavy load of spring and summer
international visitors, such as Scotland, Ireland and Portugal. Golf tour
operators whose business relies on international bookings will also suffer

In an attempt to help industry players manage the crisis,
the International Association of Golf Tour Operators, which has members in 101
countries, recently released eight pages of recommendations related to the
handling of cancellations, trip postponements and new bookings. One
recommendation: that golf courses and tour operators agree that trips can be
postponed for up to 18 months. The association also recommended that booked
prices for 2020 be honored for 2021, as long as the trip is rebooked for the
same season. 

Cerino said that he was able to rebook most of his March and
April clients for the fall. If life begins to open up by June, he said, he
expects he and most of his colleagues will get through the crisis. But a major
concern will be both the availability of air travel and the willingness of
clients to get on a plane. 

Indeed, said Stuart Lindsay, owner of the Milwaukee-based
golf industry research company Edgehill Golf Advisors, golf resorts near major
drive markets will be the best positioned to rebound from the Covid-19 pause.
That means resort areas such as Kohler, Wis., which is 150 miles from Chicago
and features prestigious Whistling Straits as well as three other acclaimed
resort courses, could fare well. 

Conversely, said Lindsay, regaining business is likely to be
more challenging for a place such as Bandon Dunes, which is a bucket list
destination for U.S. golfers but is located along the remote southern Oregon

Steve Skinner, CEO of KemperSports, which counts the five
Bandon courses among the more than 130 courses it manages nationwide, said he
does expect early marketing efforts after the reopening to focus on the drive
market. But Skinner also said he expects demand to be high through the fall,
enough so that no discounting will be necessary.

He added that the nature of the Covid-19 crisis has the potential to boost the popularity of
the sport.

“I think there’s a real opportunity for golf to be one of
the first businesses to be opened up,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll get some
people who haven’t played for a while, and they’ll fall in love with it.”

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