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Mon 5 May 2008 04:00 AM

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Competing courses

With more signature golf courses planned for the region, operators must innovate with new training, pricing and marketing strategies to avoid supply outweighing demand.

With more signature golf courses planned for the region, operators must innovate with new training, pricing and marketing strategies to avoid supply outweighing demand.

Golf club operators in the UAE are currently in a luxurious position. Spoilt even some might say.

The reason for this is simple. Demand for golf in the country far exceeds supply, with the 48-hour sell-out of Dubai Sports City's The Els Club's AED 90,000 (US$ 24,500) membership being testament to this.

Indeed, the most expensive course in Dubai already has a waiting list, despite opening for play just last month.

The opening of new courses will dilute the business in three to four years time.

Developers of golf clubs are benefiting from mixed-use models that help keep down the exorbitant costs of running a golf course. Gone are the days of standalone courses - now they are being built within large residential and commercial communities.

This trend may be following a global model, but in the Middle East one thing is for sure - golf courses are expected to be endorsed by international players of excellence. Tiger Woods, Gary Player, Ernie Els, Greg Norman and Robert Trent Junior II are just some of the autographs being assigned to new projects.

Not only does the influence of these experts lead to innovative design and improved academy facilities, but reputations sell property, fuelling an industry that otherwise must work hard to profit because of the vast sums of money spent on maintenance.

At the moment, then, golf is a big-money business. The Els Club director of golf Chris Brown even says that were he to launch it again, he would double the amount of money charged for memberships.

There is little doubt that this would have changed the remarkable sell-out at Ernie Els' signature course, but there is a big question mark over whether these sorts of prices will be sustainable in the future.

This is because, with several golf courses planned for Dubai, plus signature projects in Abu Dhabi, Ras Al Khaimah, Bahrain and Oman among others, the demand versus supply ratio could well be on the reverse.

"The opening of these new courses will dilute the business in three to four years time," says Brown. "There's not going to be as much demand, they'll be more supply and the rates will certainly fall.

A drop in rates may not necessarily be a bad thing for the golf industry, as long as it starts to open up to a wider range of players over the coming years. While the high prices are being met now, they are only affordable to a small percentage of the population.

Brown continues: "At the moment, we're all priced very high, so golf only attracts a certain bracket in the market and that's the high-end bracket. But that will change without a doubt, it's only a matter of time.

The general manager of The Montgomerie, Dubai Ray Metz takes a somewhat different view on the growth of the golf industry.

"The demand for golf in Dubai is booming, with various golf tournaments placing the city in the global spotlight. New courses have a complementary role in further boosting the profile of golf in Dubai," he says.

Whichever side of the fence one sits on, golf does not just have to be a leisure pastime for the rich, but a sport that may appeal to those turned off by football or rugby, swimming or the gym. For this reason, a priority is to open it up at a grass roots level. Grassroots golf

Golf experts agree that there's a desire to get more people into golf, but that the green fees prevent this from happening.

For golf legend Gary Player, the hands-on designer behind the planned Saadiyat Beach Golf Course on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, this needs to change.

Golf in the UAEThere are 15 golf clubs in UAE at present. The following are just some of the golf courses in the planning:

• Saadiyat Beach Golf Course

• The Tiger Woods Dubai

• Two golf courses on Yas Island

• Jumeirah Golf Estates

• Meydan Golf Course, Dubai

"The costs will always keep people away, which is why it is imperative for any region that wants to nurture golf to have some public golf courses. It's the government's job to do that," says Player.

"At the same time, in building a golf course it is creating a green belt area. That's where Britain was so visionary in building so many golf courses to keep high areas of population in a green belt," he continues.

"The UAE must get a public golf course - look at all the people who come to work in Dubai and Abu Dhabi who can't afford to pay the high membership fees.

Costs will always keep people away, so it’s imperative for any region that wants to nurture golf to have some public golf courses.

"I have this idea for a public golf course, where you build it and surround the course with a jogging track, Then you have a clubhouse with a sports facility - tennis courts, football and a cricket pitch, screen it off with trees and have your public golf course offering affordable rounds.

You can still build houses around it, and the profit could go into maintaining the golf course," suggests Player.

While there are no plans as yet for such a visionary project, senior operators are at least trying to open up their courses through improved training academies.

Abu Dhabi Golf Club has enhanced its training facilities since its management was taken over by Troon Golf - also responsible for The Els Club and The Montgomerie, Dubai.

The Golf Institute features a 17-acre floodlit driving range, V1 pro swing analysis system, fitting centre, two short game practice areas and an Explanar Training System.

A unique addition is the club's Fore Fitness brand, which it developed last year.

A personal trainer is available to observe golf lessons and recommend appropriate exercises to improve elements of the player's game.

The club's director of sales and marketing Nik Robinson says the facility is also in talks with Etihad Airways, sponsor of the Abu Dhabi Golf Championships, regarding the creation of introductory and junior golf training programmes.

"We also want to drive more Emiratis playing," he adds.

Robinson echoes Player's views, saying he doesn't think that golf is accessible enough to the average person.

"There's a worry of golf being priced out of the market for the general public and I think there is a big need for a municipal golf course," he says.

Director of instruction at The Golf Institute by Troon Golf at ADGC, Esmond Clouthier, agrees that at present, the golf offer in the region meets the needs of only a small percentage of the population.

"I think you see that in any of the newer markets. Golf is brought out in more of an elitist type of environment at the beginning.

But we all know that we need to have that grassroots where the average person does have access to go and practise or to play a nine-hole course or a small Par 3 golf course, especially where kids are concerned," he says.

"We're trying to get away from the stigma that we are a private golf course. It is a public open facility," he adds.

Meanwhile, The Els Club will feature the first Butch Harmon School of Golf outside the US, currently in the building phase.

FACTS & FIGURES: Abu Dhabi Golf Club• Voted Best Golf Club in the Middle East and Best 18 holes in the Middle East in the 2008 Middle East Golfer Awards

• Designed by Peter Harradine

• Home to the European PGA Tour Abu Dhabi Golf Championship

• 148-room hotel and spa under construction

• 1100 more rounds per month recently

"When the Butch Harmon School of Golf comes on line then that's going to open up a whole new window for beginners all the way up to an elite level i.e. tour professionals, and that's something that you don't find in very many facilities," says Brown.

"Training is a huge part of the club and a huge part of my philosophy for golf itself is to get people in from a grassroots level, the kids especially," he continues.

"Women is a massive untapped market back in the UK,s but here, because of the time some of the women have and the money that they've got, it's something that we can really tap into very hard.

"We want to use the Butch Harmon school to get beginners established and then put them on the golf course, rather than having people go onto the golf course as a beginner where they risk having a terrible day and being put off golf for life," says Brown.

"I think with the school coming on line it will make a big difference in Dubai.

"By the end of this year/beginning of 2009, we'll be one of the most prestigious clubs in the world from a training point of view," says Brown.

In the meantime, Brown - a PGA Pro and former director of instruction at The Colin Montogmerie Links Golf Academy at Westin Turnberry Resort in Scotland - says he will be able to offer instruction along with the club's golf operations manager.

Pricing strategy

The Els Club has adopted a fairly unique pricing strategy for its memberships. Known as a transferable membership, it works by demanding an up-front, in advance fee of AED 90,000 ($24,500) plus an AED 22,000 ($6000) annual subscription, explains Brown.

"Once a member decides to leave for whatever reason, they then sell that membership back to the golf club and receive 80% off the market value at the time of selling.

So essentially, they can make money off it if our waiting list continues and there's a demand for the Els Club and similarly they could lose money - it's a gamble," he says.

Importantly though, the members do not own a share in the golf club, which is managed solely by Troon Golf.

"Here the members do as the management has dictated. We'll listen to comments from members and change accordingly if we have to," says Brown.

One of the strategies The Els Club has taken in taking care of its members is fixing specific days for corporate events.

Brown explains: "With corporate days, what we need to do is shut down the golf course for either a morning or an afternoon to allow the corporate day to actually take place.

"In Dubai, there's a corporate golf day almost every day, meaning members take very much a back seat and don't manage to get a tee time.

"We decided to restrict the amount of corporate days we do at The Els Club and we're holding them on a Sunday, a Wednesday and a Thursday only, so if the course needs to be shut down for a morning or an afternoon the members will know it's on one of those three days.

They have the freedom of the rest of week but they know to expect that there's a chance they may not get a tee time on those particular days," he says.

FACTS & FIGURES: The Montgomerie, Dubai• Membership capped at 500 members since 2003

• Golf membership: AED 7000 ($1900) joining fee, plus annual fee of AED 45,000 ($12,260) for corporate, AED 32,000 ($8717) for family and AED 20,000 ($5448) for single

• Social membership: AED 2000 ($545) for family and single memberships with an additional fee of AED 10,500 ($2860) and AED 7,500 ($2043) respectively

• Each member plays on average 50 rounds a year

"We encourage general play from Sunday to Thursday, with an introductory rate until the end of May of AED 695 ($ 190)," he adds.

The Montgomerie, Dubai also encourages play from non-members, but cites its major revenue driver as being from food and beverage, which brings in 40% of revenue compared with 20% for membership. It even offers a separate social membership option.

"In addition to its elegant architecture, The Clubhouse at The Montgomerie, Dubai offers extensive lodging and food and beverage facilities including 21 luxurious guest rooms, five restaurants, a spa and two meeting rooms," says Metz.

"Food and beverage plays a major role in providing a total lifestyle experience to visitors to The Montgomerie, Dubai. Apart from offering golfers a venue to socialise, the restaurants also appeal to the local community thus enhancing its footfall to the club," he continues.

Abu Dhabi Golf Club is also focused on generating more revenue from guests and corporates compared to previous years.

Membership numbers were previously at 750, but there have been efforts to reduce that through natural attrition and an increase in fees from AED 12,000 ($3270) to AED 16,000 ($4360).

"What we're trying to do is still enhance the membership experience by not inviting any more members in so that at the weekend and when there is a competition, there's no restrictions to the member being able to get on to the golf course," says Robinson.

"There's been an increase in rounds on average of about 1100 rounds per month and that includes outside and membership rounds. That's down to a mixture of new business and a new tee times booking system."

A golfing destination?

For those looking for a golfing holiday, the quality of both the golf course itself and the leisure facilities are both important considerations in the mind of the consumer.

Meeting the needs of tourists and corporate visitors will be key, as in order to maximise revenues from the golf industry, the region needs to establish itself as a true golfing destination. It has some way to go to achieve this, however.

"At the moment it is expensive to play golf in Dubai and that does scare a lot of people away from coming into Dubai for a golf trip.

They're not going to be able to come and play four or five rounds at a reasonably priced course and then one at a good course in terms of price point because they're all priced very, very high," says Brown.

"Dubai is the attraction for golfers at the moment, I wouldn't say Abu Dhabi or Ras Al Khaimah because they're not heard of back in the UK or Europe, but if Dubai was to have another 10 courses at a medium price point you would find it would go absolutely bananas with golf trips," he continues.

Robinson says that golf in Abu Dhabi will be promoted thanks to the appointment of Troon Golf by the Tourism Development and Investment Company to manage the new courses under development.

The big issue, however, is to create more of a UAE golf offering, he adds.

"I think price is an issue but everyone wants an alternative. People want to play two or three different courses if they go on a golf holiday and that's the problem we've got at the moment," he says.

To help drive tourism, ADGC has implemented concierge programmes with all the hotels in Abu Dhabi and set up contracts with 50 tour operators on a global scale.

Golfing holidays, training academies, leisure facilities and pricing innovations aside, attracting people to your golf club relies on one fundamental feature, according to Brown.

"The clubhouse is a major factor, but guys don't come to a golf club for a clubhouse, they come for the golf course," he says.

FACTS & FIGURES: The Els club• The most expensive club to have launched in the Middle East

• 60,000ft² Mediterranean-themed clubhouse facility and Butch Harmon School of Golf under development

• Currently capped at 125 members; will grow to 250 maximum

• 75% of revenue expected to come directly from members

• Aiming to average around 100 rounds per month in total

• USPs: Quality; attention to detail and a personal experience, plus access to Next Generation Health Club and David Lloyd Tennis Academy within Dubai Sports City

RELATED LINKS:Healthy staff equals healthy profits, Grassroots approach to boost participation, Getting to the grassroots

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