According to a report by Deloitte & Touche, the Irish economy benefitted to the tune of €143 million from the 2006 Ryder Cup at The K Club but less than two years on, Ireland is facing massive new challenges in the battle to attract overseas golfers to these shores.
The weak dollar and the perception that golf in Ireland is expensive has sent visitor numbers tumbling at an alarming rate. The forecast for 2009 is that we will continue to struggle and with that kind of scenario, there has been much burning of midnight oil at Fáilte Ireland to come up with a plan to get back on track again.
At the height of the golf boom, Ireland attracted more than 225,000 golfers annually but with the world economic situation conspiring to make life even more difficult for golf course owners around the country, posting similar numbers will be tougher than hitting a two-iron off a hanging lie.
Showcasing Ireland’s golfing product abroad has been made easier in recent years thanks to the television coverage generated by events such as the Ryder Cup, two WGC - American Express Championships, 13 successive Smurfit European Opens and even the Irish Open.
Thanks to the global achievements of Pádraig Harrington, Paul McGinley and Darren Clarke, the world is well aware of who and where we are and what we have to offer the golfers of the world.
But getting those golfers to part with their hard earned dollars, krona, euro and sterling is the next challenge and it will require an imaginative and innovative approach from everyone in ‘Ireland Inc’ to make things work.
“If you are standing on the burning bridge, you are feeling the pinch because of competitiveness issues, because of the way the currency is moving. The Irish Open is not going to save you.” Paul Keeley, Failte Ireland
Speaking to Paul Keeley, Marketing Director at Fáilte Ireland, it is apparent that pumping millions of tax-payer’s money into major golfing events is not the number one objective right now, though a thriving Irish Open can only be of benefit to golfing Ireland as a whole.
“Event strategy is not the overall priority at the moment,” Keeley explains. “If you are standing on the burning bridge, you are feeling the pinch because of competitiveness issues, because of the way the currency is moving. The Irish Open is not going to save you.
“The real issues revolve around targeting the right courses at the right markets, getting our business processes right and making sure the experience on the ground is second to none.”
Intelligent marketing is key and Keeley and his co-workers will be concentrating as much of their effort on the quality of the supply side of the equation as they already do on creating demand.
He explains: “Take the US market. What you have there is a high value customer who has a particular interest in the links product or the trophy parkland courses. And there is less price sensitivity there, although with the dollar weakening that is becoming an issue as well.
“They are looking for the gun notches on the belt, looking to play the big name courses and tick another one off the list of places you simply have to play. They are interested in links golf and by and large, that means the Atlantic coast.
“Our other key markets, the visitors from the UK and the nordic countries, think of links as too challenging and many of the courses are outside their budget. So what they are more interested in is parkland and value for money. The challenge, therefore, is to make sure you put the right courses and the right product in front of them.
“If I am pitching links golf into the British market or into the Nordics, then Irish golf will appear expensive because it is not what they are looking for. Value for money for the Nordics and the British means paying a green fee of €40 a round.”
Fáilte Ireland offers trade support to get the likes of SWING (Southwest Ireland Golf Ltd) or the North & West Coast Links and other tour operators so that they can knock on doors and convert awareness of Ireland into sales.
“What we try and do is create opportunities for the industry to get in front of people and ask for the business,” Keeley says. “All of the signs are that this will be a tough year and the trends tells is that ‘09 will be even more tricky.
“In terms of legacy from Ryder Cup, the numbers are back where they were at the start of the decade but we are listening to feedback from trade that the whole dollar issue is impacting quite hard and what you are seeing is some migration from the southwest to the west and northwest, where the courses are a little more competitive on a dollar basis.”
The downturn in the property market has made life tough for a string of new resorts built with homes sales in mind but the common or garden Irish club is also suffering as zero tolerance with drink driving severely reduces revenue.
Making it easy for people to find good golf at a competitive price is the challenge and Keeley sees our poor on-line booking service as a major issue that must be tackled.
He explains: “Around 76 percent of the people who golfed here last year were independent travellers. They could go on-line and and book their flights and book their accommodation. But try booking a round of golf. There are a couple of booking engines out there, but the stock on them is quite limited.
“Ireland’s on-line presence has to be a big deliverable for us and that requires a combined effort of agencies and the sector itself. It needs to make stock (tee-times) available.”
Fáilte Ireland will continue to invest in the Irish Open as well as the irish Seniors Open, Irish Ladies Open and the 2011 Solheim Cup - but they want a better return on their investment of taxpayer's money.
“Post Ryder Cup we know that 42 percent of people say that their first prompt to take a golf holiday in Ireland is seeing a televised event here,” he explains. “So we are going to continue to invest in an event strategy and we will be sponsoring the Irish Seniors Open in Ballyliffin and we will be sponsoring the Irish Open in Adare.
"The ideal model for us is something like the American Express. We pay a destination fee but you have a blue chip sponsor in there that leads out on it.
"From our perspective the value is in having good Irish golf courses being showcased across the globe. We don’t need Failte Ireland’s name up in lights because we are a B to B business. There is probably another story in that. I would prefer to focus on the big job at hand, which is to stay competitive.
“We are involved in conversations with the European Tour at the moment about a longer term strategy for the Irish Open. With the loss of the European Open we really would want to see if we can re-invigorate the Irish Open going forward and again and that is not going to happen overnight.
“It requires a long-term vision for what we can do with the event and that conversation is on-going. Right now, the issue is we need to see where the Irish Open in going. We need a picture. We need to see a development plan for it.”
These are major challenges for Irish golf but Keeley and Co are confident that they can get the job done.
Putting it in a nutshell, Keeley says: “The challenge is to go and close the sale. That means making sure that the product is right and the business process is right and we get our message right.
“We have to be in the right places and that is about working in partnership with the trade. The reality is that no single organisation has all the answers here. It is a cliché, but it has to be an ‘Ireland Inc.’ approach.”