PORTUGAL (eTN) – A new partnership between the International Association of Golf Tour Operators (IAGTO) and the Golf Environmental Organization (GEO) was announced during the 15th edition of the International Golf Travel Market (IGTM).
The IGTM is the annual golf trade show for the golf tourism industry, which is organized by Reed Travel Exhibitions. IAGTO is the official association partner. The Tivoli Marina Vilamoura Hotel, in southern Portugal’s Algarve province, staged this year’s event.
IAGTO President and Chief Executive Peter Walton unveiled the partnership during his opening address to delegates. He stressed the direct correlation between environmental sustainability and social responsibility and the experience that a golfer enjoys, and added: “You might not immediately see the connection between environmental sustainability and customer satisfaction, but any golfer enjoys a game more if they are walking through a preserved natural habitat.
“Water conservation is not an environmental nicety, it is an economic necessity. We can also talk about the wider role of social responsibility and employment and the effect it has on the community.”
Eco and ethical tourism is growing as a percentage of the overall tourism industry, leading Travel Weekly to project that by the end of 2012 around 25% of the world’s travel market could belong to sustainable tourism. Positive environmental and social actions are, therefore, directly relevant to a growing number of consumers.
“Sustainability is a great fit for golf and a potentially valuable innovation for the golf tourism industry,” said GEO Chief Executive Jonathan Smith, who was also in Portugal, “Golf is about an outdoor lifestyle, a leisure pursuit very much connected with the environment. It’s also closely connected with communities and culture. So golf, environmental, and social issues are very relevant and closely linked with the quality of the product and the experience you can offer.
“There are challenges, but in terms of things you can control, sustainability is also an exciting opportunity as it is about finding efficiencies, cost savings, wise investment, improved playing experiences, profile and reputation, and business-to-business openings and sponsorships, which go right through your supply chain.”
GEO is an international non-profit organization dedicated entirely to supporting sustainability in and through the sport of golf, working with stakeholders across the golfing, government, environmental, and academic communities. Collaborators include The European Tour, United Nations Environmental Program, and a growing number of national golf organizations such as golf federations throughout Europe and the club managers associations of America, China, and Europe.
IAGTO and GEO will work to integrate sustainability into golf tourism by implementing a program of strategic planning, including guidance and advice to governments, and raising awareness of the GEO Certified ecolabel as a credible way to recognize sustainability in golf management, new development, and renovations.
“What I like about GEO’s approach is that we can take any golf course at any stage [of development] and see how it can be improved,” elaborated Walton, “We are not out to judge. Instead, I want to see all 725 IAGTO golf course and golf resort members improving on a year-on-year basis.”
A core aim will be to support IAGTO member facilities and resorts by promoting the guidance and programming designed to help them achieve a range of business benefits, and which lead to the GEO Certified ecolabel. “We now have a mechanism and the guidelines in place to enable them to achieve that.”
As the global trade organization for the golf tourism industry, IAGTO’s membership comprises more than 2,000 members in 88 countries, including 500 golf tour operators in 60 countries.
Established in 1997, it’s estimated that IAGTO’s operators control over 85% of golf holiday packages sold worldwide and turnover of more than 1 billion euro per year.
Over the last decade, IAGTO has worked on the golf tourism promotional and development strategies for more than 25 countries and regions, during which the organization has performed golf tourism audits with more than 200 courses. The aim is to assess the strengths and weaknesses of golf course striving to attract more visitors. “Our job is to look at a golf course through the eyes of the first-time golf visitor,” explained Walton as he revealed that from 2013, IAGTO will conduct golf tourism audits for individual IAGTO members.
More than 1,200 golf buyers and suppliers took part in IGTM 2012, representing 45 countries. The Algarve is one of only two destinations to have hosted the IGTM more than once in its 15-year history, having hosted the event in 1999. Then, only 400 delegates took part in the fledgling initiative. The subsequent increase in numbers underlines the fact that the international golf travel industry has grown considerably over the past fourteen years. In the same period, the number of Algarve golf courses has risen from 20 to 40, a figure not lost on Walton.
The Algarve got a number of things right as a burgeoning golf destination, he acknowledged. The region had built some great golf courses in the right locations, and subsequently upheld high standards of customer service and course maintenance.
“Right from the early days, [the Algarve] forged very strong alliances with golf tour operators and took pride in delivering the best possible experience for visiting golf travelers,” he said, “There is no substitute for having a high quality of product and services on the one hand, and great relationships between business – buyers and suppliers – on the other.”
The IGTM also provided a platform for the US Department of Commerce to announce the launch of an ambitious golf initiative into Europe.
Robert Stackpole, Senior International Trade Specialist with the US Commercial Service, unveiled the plan during a briefing with delegates representing nine US golf destinations who were attending the event to encourage more Europeans to tee-off in America.
Borne out of President Barack Obama’s 2010 US National Export Initiative and implemented through coordination with the US Department of Commerce Travel & Tourism Team, the strategy is to leverage the department’s network of Export Assistance Centers throughout the United States and offices around the world to identify export ready golf courses, golf associations, and state tourism agency golf representatives to target the European market.
“One of the most important industry sectors, and a specific focus of the national export initiative is travel and tourism,” confirmed Stackpole, “We realize there’s great potential within the sports travel sector, specifically golf.”
US States, destinations, and resorts have been successfully marketing themselves individually for several years but the initiative represents the first time the US has been marketed as an entire country for playing golf.
According to the United States World Golf Foundation, golf in the US is valued at US$76 billion dollars, and there are over 16,000 golf courses, 11,000 of which are open to the general public. Golf Digest notes that of the top 75 courses in the world, 44 are located in America.
Coastal South Carolina, Doral Golf Resort & Spa (Florida), Fairways Golf Vacations (Alabama), Florida’s First Coast of Golf, NBC – Golf Channel, Pebble Beach (California), The American Club (Wisconsin), Charleston and Resort Islands Golf (South Carolina), and Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday (South Carolina) were all represented at the briefing.
“The international market is very important to us,” commented David Reese, president of Florida’s First Coast of Golf, “The IGTM is a great show, with great people. The US should have a branded presence here [in Europe] where we can support our tour operators.”
Tim Ryan, Vice President, Sales, of Pebble Beach Resorts, agreed. “Our business is very much an experience business,” he said, “We are always looking for the right tour operators to create those experiences. The structure of IGTM facilitates this.”
Ultimately, the initiative will see a more robust American presence at future IGTMs, said Stackpole, “The idea is to have more stands with more destinations promoting ‘Brand USA’ and where US and foreign tour operators can meet and do business.”
Without doubt, IGTM 2012 provided a much-needed boost to the local economy. The old adage that when the Algarve sneezes Portugal catches a cold has become more poignant in recent years, with visitor numbers dwindling and hotel occupancy plummeting across the region, particularly during the low season.
The Algarve represents 60% of the country’s hotel supply so when there’s a slump in the south, the rest of Portugal tends to suffer.
Golf, however, is providing just the tonic for Europe’s south-westernmost tourist destination. Indeed, this mainstay winter remedy helps generate business and restores confidence in an increasingly beleaguered Portuguese tourism market.
“Golf is very important to the Algarve. It reduces seasonality and helps stabilize winter demand,” explained Frederico Costa, President of Turismo de Portugal.
The hosting by Turismo de Portugal of high-profile international events such as the IGTM is paramount to the image of a country currently struggling to turn things around. And with domestic tourism still in a downward spiral, Costa is relying on external markets to get the country back on track.
“Two-thirds of tourism business in Portugal is generated by international markets, which are starting to grow. Our 2012 figures are up a bit on last year and we’re expecting a better year in 2013, with sustained growth based on the performance of key external markets.”
With its ochre cliffs and honey-colored sands, the Algarve stretches for 200 kilometers from the Spanish frontier in the east to the western shores of the Alentejo region. There’s much to lure the modern traveler besides golf, such as the natural spa town of Monchique located high in the mountains and the Ria Formosa wetlands, a popular stopover for many rare species of migratory bird.
“People should look beyond the beaches and try to experience something different in the Algarve,” suggested Jorge Beldade, Regional Operations Director for Tivoli Hotels & Resorts and General Manager of the five-star Tivoli Marina Vilamoura Hotel.
Tivoli is one of the largest chains in the Algarve with six properties across the region, including another five-star property in Vilamoura, Tivoli Victoria (replete with Elements Spa by Banyan Tree) that overlooks the Arnold Palmer-designed Victoria Golf Course. The group operates a further six units variously located in Lisbon, Sintra and Coimbra, plus two hotels in the Brazilian cities of Salvador da Bahia and Sao Paulo.
Despite the recession, golf is a growing segment and provides an essential source of tourism revenue, not only for the Tivoli group but for the Algarve, too.
Indeed, the four key markets of France, Germany, UK & Ireland, and Scandinavia alone accounted for more than 300 million euro of Portugal’s golf receipts in the past twelve months, which has provided a positive knock-on effect for Tivoli’s Algarve operation.
“Our year-round occupancies are up 1 percent on last year and we’re forecasting a rise of between 2.5 and 3 percent in revenue next year,” revealed Beldade.
Having one of the Algarve’s landmark hotel properties in his regional portfolio certainly helps. Besides being fully renovated, the Tivoli Marina Vilamoura Hotel recently unveiled a new entertainment facility sewn into the hotel’s gardens called Puro Beach. The leisure zone (which can be covered in winter) surrounds a swimming pool and proved a popular after-hours venue for delegates. It can cater for sit-down meals for up to 1,800 guests and provided the ideal setting for the IAGTO Awards Gala Dinner.
“The IGTM couldn’t have been held anywhere else in the Algarve,” noted Beldade, citing the hotel’s impressive conference facilities and clearly proud to have staged such a prestigious event that involved the cream of the international golf travel industry.
The 16th edition of IGTM will take place in the Costa Daurada region of Spain in November 2013.