As important as golf is to Hawaii’s travel industry, it is one activity that has largely bypassed the travel agent. Although more tour operators are offering golf packages to Hawaii these days, island tourism organizations and golf resorts say that the vast majority of travelers are still making their own arrangements for golf.
Should travel agents be going after a bigger chunk of this market? Those who have found success with selling Hawaii golf vacations say the benefits are many. However, they also caution that selling golf travel is much like the game itself: It may look easy, but it requires a surprising amount of skill and knowledge to master.
Agent Success Story
Among those agents profiting by the Hawaii, golf market is Randy Harmon, a former Pan Am marketing executive who founded Travel Edge in Lake Oswego, Ore. Harmon has developed Hawaii golf vacations as a specialty, offering off-the-shelf packages from wholesalers as well as his own customized packages for clients.
Though Harmon does some direct mail promotion, he says much of his golf-related business has been built up through referrals. “People talk to each other on the golf courses anti the word spreads about good deals and sources for golf vacations,” he says. “I’ve also had some of my leisure clients ask me to arrange golf incentive trips for their companies.”
Among the reasons that Harmon likes the golf travel niche is the high-end nature of the business. “People who play golf tend to be relatively affluent, and even if they are staying at mid-level hotels, it’s a premium product,” he says. “Some people will pay $7,000 to $9,000 for a weeklong, all-inclusive golf vacation.”
Although golfers tend to be high-income, Harmon finds that many are motivated to buy a golf package to Hawaii because it saves them money over booking on their own.
Harmon also notes that repeat business is high. “People get hooked on Hawaii and they want to try the different islands,” he says.
Jeff Walters, president of Golf Travel Center in San Rafael, Calif., cites length of stay as another factor that can make Hawaii golf travel profitable for agents. “Typically, golfers will spend at least five nights in Hawaii, more than they will on vacations on the mainland,” says Walters, a wholesaler, and retailer of golf packages to Hawaii and other destinations.
Despite these advantages, Walters and Harmon both say that selling a golf vacation takes a different set of skills than selling a general tour. “Our clients are avid golfers,” says Walters. “If the golf component is not done right, then the vacation has gone down the drain for them.”
Walters and Harmon believe it is essential for agents to understand the game of golf and to know as much as possible about the golf courses in Hawaii. “Customers will call me up and ask very specific questions about a certain course, [like] how challenging is the ninth hole?” says Harmon.
Knowing the dates of major tournaments is also important. “You don’t want to book a client who wants to play golf at Kaanapali all in October, only to find out later that the courses are tied up with a tournament,” says Walters.
Fortunately, learning to sell golf in Hawaii does not require the skill level of Tiger Woods. “Agents can learn a lot by talking to their golf customers,” says George Thompson, director of sales for Runaway Tours, a San Francisco-based wholesaler.
In fact golf wholesalers, island visitors bureaus and resort sales staffers are also good sources. “If they want help, we’ll walk travel agents through what they need to know,” says Walters. “A lot of agents are intimidated by golf, but once they get over the fear they come back.”