Organizers hope to snare traveling golfers with new golf trailFebruary 28, 2011 6:00 AM
by Doug Childers
In “The Swimmer,” short story writer John Cheever describes a suburban man’s attempt to return home by swimming through his neighbors’ pools. Golf enthusiasts can attempt a similar journey across Virginia, now that the Virginia Golf Trail is open.
The trail currently links 25 top-ranked golf courses across the commonwealth with nearby hotels, restaurants, wineries and historic sites. Trail organizers hope the eclectic mix of offerings will attract travelers from the Northeast who would otherwise travel farther south in search of golf holidays.
“We’re not focusing on somebody who plays golf nonstop for six days,” says Gary Schaal, president of the Virginia Golf Trail and managing partner of Stafford-based Cannon Ridge Golf Club. “We’re placing golf in a bigger venue.” Visitors can use the trail’s website to book reservations for hotels, restaurants, winery tours and even kayaking trips as well as golf outings, he adds. Cannon Ridge Golf Club offers packages with the Potomac Point Vineyard and Winery, for example. (The website’s address is http://www.virginiagolftrail.com.)
The trail, which received support from Stafford County (the trail’s headquarters) as well as from the state government, could add as many as 11 more golf courses in the next year, by which time trail organizers expect to have 70 hotels and 60 wineries participating as well. Seventy golf courses in Virginia meet the trail organizers’ requirement that the course should have received a three-and-a-half star rating from Golf Digest magazine.
Historically, golf hasn’t been an especially powerful player in Virginia’s $19 billion-a-year tourism industry, especially compared with the role it has played in Alabama, which launched the successful Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in 1992. But the Virginia Golf Trail’s organizers project the trail could generate $66 million annually when it’s fully developed.
“Golfers who travel spend more on travel and entertainment than non-golfers,” Schaal says. “We think they’ll be interested in spending money on non-golf events.”
The trail also could create 652 jobs and add 140,400 rounds of golf to the trail’s courses when it has reached full capacity.
The golfing industry could use the help. With high unemployment and a housing market that is still trying to find its bottom, golf remains one of those leisure-time activities many have decided to forgo. “As many as a third of golfers are delaying equipment purchases and going on fewer golf trips,” says Jim Kass, director of member research and communications for the Jupiter, Fla.-based National Golf Foundation (NGF).
Club membership has declined, too, nationally as well as in Virginia. “Membership in the VSGA has declined approximately 8 percent over the last five years across our 300 member clubs,” says Jamie Conkling, executive director of the Virginia State Golf Association (VSGA).
Facility closings are outpacing facility openings, as well. Nationally, about 50 l8-hole golf courses have opened annually in the last three years while about 600 18-hole courses have closed in the last five years, according to the NGF. Five of Virginia’s golf facilities closed last year, while three facilities opened nine-hole courses in the commonwealth. Currently, Virginia has 336 facilities.
Still, Schaal sees a bright future for the Virginia Golf Trail. And he has the numbers to back his vision. An economic impact study commissioned by the Virginia Golf Trail and Stafford County in July projected that in its first year each of the trail’s golf courses could see “1,000 new rounds of golf, with increases in the number of golfers as the trail becomes better known,” says Christine Chmura, president and chief economist for Richmond-based Chmura Economics & Analytics, which conducted the study. The study also estimated that out-of-state golfers who visit the Virginia Golf Trail this year would spend $9.5 million in the commonwealth.
The study’s potential growth scenario is even more impressive. Assuming the trail competes successfully with other golf trails and attracts golfers from the Northeast, Chmura’s firm estimated that total visitor spending on the trail would rise to $37.2 million per year. “The largest amount of spending is golf course greens fees, followed by lodging and food,” Chmura says.
In calculating numbers for the potential growth scenario, Chmura’s firm used the 25-course Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail as a model. The Alabama trail “has 780,000 rounds of golf per year, with 60 percent of them coming from out-of-state,” she says. “If the Virginia Golf Trail captures 30 percent of [Alabama’s] out-of-state market” — a realistic number, given travel patterns from the Northeast, she says — “that would translate into an addition of 3,900 rounds per year for each course on the Virginia Golf Trail.”
To attract those out-of-state golfers, trail organizers have launched a marketing campaign that includes print ads in national publications such as Golf Magazine, Golf Digest and Links. They’re also planning to run commercials on the Golf Channel. Rather than focusing exclusively on golf, the campaign emphasizes the range of attractions Virginia offers.
“It’s a first for marketing golf in the commonwealth,” Schaal says. “We have tended to advertise individual properties or clusters of them.” The trail should have national sponsors in place in the next few months, including an official hotel, car and beer, he adds.
The trail is still in its infancy, of course, and Schaal says organizers will track each course’s attendance numbers. “We may find out people are playing in Northern Virginia, and we’ll add a course or two there,” he says. “Or maybe we’ll see more activity in Virginia Beach.”
He’s sure of one thing, though: “This trail will have a significant economic impact on the commonwealth.”
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