“We’ll be ready!”
A very simple and heartfelt message at a time of so much uncertainty living in this COVID-19 pandemic-stricken world.
Arranging to play a round of golf is the least of our priorities but then in saying that, there’s no questioning how the crisis has affected thousands who work in the golf industry.
Not just the likes of Ireland’s greats in Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry, Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell along with Leona Maguire, Stephanie Meadow and James Sugrue but anyone who plays the ancient game.
Also being affected is Ireland’s many marketing and tour operators, among them John McLaughlin who, as CEO, has been at the helm of North & West Coast Links Golf Ireland for 20 years. The company is very proudly now in its 31st year of marketing the championship courses in the region.
North & West Coast Links represents many of the gems of Irish Links golf including Carne Golf Links, Enniscrone Golf Club, Donegal Golf Club, Portsalon Golf Club, Ballyliffin Golf Club, Castlerock Golf Club, Portstewart Golf Club and Royal Portrush Golf Club.
Associate course members include: Westport Golf Club, Lough Erne Resort Lough Erne Resort and County Louth Golf Club (Baltray).
The courses are always high on the list of overseas visitors and John and his team work tirelessly to ensure everyone travelling to the region not only enjoys the experience but that they and their friends return again and again.
And John’s message, very much mirrored by all in the ‘industry’, is that Irish golf “will be ready” once the current Coronavirus restrictions are lifted.
I’ve been very fortunate in recent years to get to know John better, especially in attending the Honda Classic at Palm Beach Gardens in Florida where after only chatting with John five minutes, a few hundred fans would have walked by, stopping and gazing at Ireland’s wondrous golf offering.
Indeed, John’s company is present at some 30 locations during a given year such as the prestigious PGA Show in January at Orlando along with a presence at the LPGA’s ShopRite Championship (New date – July 30 – Aug 2) while attending many other trade shows including in Canada, Germany and in Scandinavia.
North & West Coast Links is also a member of IAGTO – The International Association of Golf Tour Operators – with the Association hosting two big conferences in a year, one normally in the US in June that has been postponed for 2020 and one in October at Celtic Manor in Wales.
The company’s heart and soul goes 200% into promoting golf in Ireland and knowing this, I felt I could approach John in getting a full and honest assessment of how this crisis is affecting his own marketing and visitor activities.
“There are two aspects to our business as we are a marketing company representing the golf courses in our membership and then we are a DMC (Destination Management Company) booking trips,” he said.
“However, from a marketing perspective we presently are back to basics. It means we are not travelling to tournaments and trade shows and instead it has been a lot of time spent on social media and undertaking a lot of phone calls, and also speaking to journalists like yourself in striving to keep Ireland’s golf in the spotlight.
“So, from the DMC side of our company we have been working with the tour operators as 50% of our business comes in through the tour operators while the other 50% is direct from customers.
“We are being as pro-active as we can in contacting all our customers and firstly contacting our April customers and then our May and June customers, and we’re now communicating with our July customers.
“Basically, we are trying to help them re-plan with rescheduling with that aspect being the big part of what we are trying to do, so the vast majority of our rescheduling work has been for 2021.
“The good thing is that the golf courses have been very accommodating and not just our own membership golf courses but golf courses throughout Ireland, as we do have some bookings throughout Ireland.
“So, most of the golf courses have given 24-months during which the customer can reschedule their trip. If you have paid a deposit for a trip then that deposit will now go towards your 2021 trip or 2022 trip depending on what way you want to do.
“The very good news is that everyone – the golf courses, the hotels and the transport operators and ourselves – are working together during this crisis.
“Also, of all those who made bookings to travel to Ireland to play golf and have been affected by the crisis, the good news is that around 70% have sought to rebook for next year. As for our own company? Well, 72% of our business is from North America and that means coordination of the rescheduling of the trip is the main priority.
“The tour operators have been excellent and they know their clients well, so the big message is that when the travel bans and the ban on golf is lifted, we will all be ready to look after our overseas visitors.”
Closer to home, one of the events to disappoint all Irish golf fans was in learning that next month’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Mount Juliet had been postponed by the European Tour.
“There was to be a huge tented village at Mount Juliet set to accommodate a whole host of Irish businesses, including ourselves, and all set to be working at promotional stands,” said John.
“Importantly, there was to be so many thousands of customers, not just from Ireland but the UK, Europe, America, Canada and other countries who were set to be coming to Mount Juliet.
“The reception when the Irish Open was hosted at Portstewart and then at Ballyliffin, and the crowds we saw at The Open last year at Royal Portrush was just amazing and the spin offs from these events have been enormous and will continue to impact visitor-wise for many years to come.
“We’ve had thousands and thousands of golfers come to Ireland since these three events and you only have to look at the tee sheets at golf courses in our region alone and you’re looking at around 200 golfers a day teeing-up.
“It represents a lot of golfers and while we would be responsible for some of them, some Tour Operators book direct and individual consumers also book direct, so it is not always easy to track where the business comes from.
“Suffice to say that if you are not out there selling then it does not happen automatically. It is important that we remain strong in the Marketplace and keep Ireland to the forefront.
“So, when you learn news the Irish Open at Mount Juliet has been postponed, then there is a bigger picture for organisations like ourselves. We’ve not had any word from Dubai Duty Free, the European Tour or anyone in relation to when, or if, the Irish Open will still go ahead so all we can do is wait.
“It’s still going to be a huge loss to the industry this year but we all have to stay positive. As I’ve mentioned, we’re not sitting idle as we are also planning different things in working with Failte Ireland along with Tourism Ireland, so that once the restrictions are lifted, we will be ready to go and ready to get back into the market stronger than ever.
“Fortunately, the golf market is a market that can rebound strongly given that the majority of customers would be a bit more robust from an income perspective, so we would hope that once the restrictions are lifted, they will immediately make plans for the following year.
“I am very positive that the bigger golf industry picture we will rebound. The golf customers will have the ability to move on and there will be a pent-up appetite to get back out playing golf.
“Maybe we have all learnt a bit of a lesson in the course of this current crisis that perhaps people are working a little too hard and as they practice ‘self isolation’ that maybe they should go ahead and book that overseas golfing vacation that they have been so long talking about and dreaming about.
“It’s why I believe there will be a pent-up demand to travel to places like here in Ireland and come to play the country’s many fantastic golf courses.
“Another a huge bonus is that the golf courses in Ireland have undertaken a lot of work over the winter, so before the bans and lockdown, there are golf courses like Castlerock who have undertaken an enormous lot of work including phase two of their course redevelopment work under Martin Hawtree while Portsalon has been working on their clubhouse and their course and Baltray have re-seeded all their fairways and have undertaken a lot of general works on their tee boxes and bunkers.
“The big thing also is that because growth is coming in now all of that work carried out over the winter will now be starting to take shape.
“There’s been other works undertaken including Carne who are integrating the 9-hole course with the Hackett course and now there are new options. The new 18-hole course called the ‘Wild Atlantic Dunes’ routing will be open this summer which is very exciting.
“In addition, Ballyliffin has built a new 9-hole par 3 course – The Pollen Links, and Pat Ruddy has ensured that is as impressive and challenging as the two existing courses. Other works have also taken place with new tee boxes and bunkering maintenance. Also, Portstewart has seen the removal of the Sea Buckthorn from the course along with new bunkering.
“All of these works on the courses took place prior to the lockdown so these projects are coming to fruition with the natural Spring growth and the essential maintenance of the greenkeepers will make sure that they will all be in pristine condition when we get back on them.
“There’s been plenty exciting work undertaken over the winter months and the message, once again, to everyone is that Ireland will be ready, and a huge welcome awaits our International visitors.”