Monday, June 17, 2024

U.S. Golf Travel Approaches Record Territory, In Pinehurst And Beyond

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Golf tourism is enjoying quite the journey.

Post-pandemic demand remains exceptionally strong at golf destinations like the Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina, the site of this week’s U.S. Open championship.

The property recently opened its 10th regulation-length course in response to ballooning competition for tee times since 2020, both from Pinehurst’s nearly 4,500 members and the guests the resort brings in from around the world. This heightened demand and resulting tee time compaction had become a major challenge, emboldening Pinehurst to not only add more golf but more lodging – with nine new golf cottages at Pinehurst No. 8 along with another restaurant.

“Our leisure business segment, which comprises 65% to 70% of resort room nights annually, has seen year-over-year growth since Covid,” said Eric Kuester, Pinehurst Resort’s Vice President of Sales and Marketing. “These leisure guests are here on a golf package playing 2-3 rounds of golf over three days. They are avid golfers, and this customer market shows no signs of slowing.”

By comparison, this leisure business segment accounted for 40% to 45% of resort room nights compared to pre-pandemic years, and it’s not the only significant change Pinehurst is seeing amid increased demand for getaway golf experiences.

“We’ve also seen seasonality of demand extend into the summer months,” Kuester added. “We used to be primarily a two-season destination. Now we are a four-season destination.”

Pinehurst isn’t alone in the positive momentum category.

Golf tourism is big business in the U.S., to the tune of over $40 billion annually – approximately 40% of the game’s overall economic impact.

More than 12 million Americans have traveled to play golf each of the past two years, up about 20% over the historical average, per the National Golf Foundation. And consumer surveys indicate that could climb into record territory this year, eclipsing the previous high of 12.4 million golf travelers in 2022.

“The outlook is still very positive,” said Spencer Cody, Corporate Director of Club and Golf for Omni Hotels & Resorts, which operates 13 golf-focused resorts across its portfolio, from the Omni Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Virginia, and the Omni Amelia Island Resort in Florida to the new Omni PGA Frisco Resort in Texas that’s also the new home of the PGA of America.

“We all did see a little bit of what I would classify as revenge travel. People were just fired up to get out there, but I do see sustainability there,” Cody said. “For us, what we’re really seeing and what we’re really leveraging and leaning into is experiences in and around golf at our resort destinations. They of course include golf but include some non-traditional activities as well; a little bit more bespoke and curated experiences. More turnkey, more luxury and communal accommodations such as the ranch houses at PGA Frisco which have been a huge hit.”

Some prominent golf resorts – especially a new one like PGA Frisco or a popular destination like Bandon Dunes on the Oregon coast that this year is celebrating its 25th anniversary — are seeing bookings well into 2025 and 2026.

“Our booking window has increased to where our peak season leisure guests are now booking 10 to 12 months and more in advance,” notes Kohler Golf Operations Manager Mike O’Reilly, who oversees four championship courses at the Wisconsin resort including Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run.

“We continue to see an increase in length of stay recently by offering new and interactive golf packages that include experiences like The Baths of Blackwolf Run – a fun par 3, 10-hole course and putting course that we opened in 2021,” added O’Reilly. “We’re also seeing growing interest in areas outside of our golf experiences, such as visiting Kohler Waters Spa, our wellness offerings including Yoga On the Lake and Bold Cycle, River Wildlife and partaking in outdoor activities, as well as art and culinary experiences.”

Short courses aren’t just a popular add at top golf resorts, they’re also boosting overall guest engagement. Bandon Dunes this year opened its second par 3 course, Shorty’s, while Streamsong Resort in Florida late last year debuted The Chain – a 19-hole par 3 layout — as a complement to its three 18-hole championship courses.

“Our length of stay is up, as are the number of rounds played per trip,” said Streamsong Director of Sales and Marketing Craig Falanga. “That increase is driven by the opening of The Chain and the increased popularity of the resort overall.”

In addition to golfer surveys and guest data from resorts, another broad indicator for golf tourism demand is the golf travel bag market.

Sun Mountain, one of the leaders in the category with products like the ClubGlider with its rolling, retractable legs or the foldable Kube, has seen sales of golf travel bags quadruple since 2020.

Consider that many golf fans won’t just be visiting Pinehurst to watch the pros play at No. 2 this week, they’ll be traveling with their clubs and playing at other courses on and off resort property in the Sandhills region of North Carolina. For a getaway like Pinehurst in particular, having the validation of a USGA anchor site for the U.S. Open and having the World Golf Hall of Fame relocate to the area, it only contributes to the resort’s awareness and increases the golfer and guest funnel.

“We celebrate the amateur game at Pinehurst,” resort president Tom Pashley said in advance of this year’s U.S. Open, “and we get to witness the professional game.”

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