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Mon 13 Oct 2008 04:00 AM

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Driving in the droves

It's through more choice, not cheaper costs, that Dubai's golf sector will attract the next generation. Leisurecorp's Golf CEO David Spencer explains how to make the game more accessible.

It's through more choice, not cheaper costs, that Dubai's golf sector will attract the next generation. Leisurecorp's Golf CEO David Spencer explains how to make the game more accessible.

Here is no doubt that golf is a big money business. The latest research from KPMG, which estimates that golf in the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMA) region is worth US $76 billion is testament to that. But is it a big people business too? Or rather, in the Middle East specifically, is it a sport for a small, elite golfing community only?

Too many people in this region view the game of golf as being out of their league , costly and intimidating. Leisurecorp's Golf CEO David Spencer, who is responsible for delivering on the company's extensive Jumeirah Golf Estates project in Dubai, has other ideas.

The four Jumeirah Golf Estates courses are going to form a very integral part of leisure activity in Dubai.

"What everyone thinks, which is quite interesting, is that the barrier to golf is price. Actually, the barrier level to golf is its marketability," asserts Spencer, whose previous achievements in Dubai include the development of The Montgomerie course at Emirates Hills and The Desert Course at Arabian Ranches with Troon Golf. Prior to that, he was a director of Troon Golf in Australia.

The aim of Jumeirah Golf Estates, therefore, is not only to meet the needs of an under-supplied market, says Spencer, but to open up the game of golf to the next generation of golfers.

"We know it's a growing market and we know golf is very high as a residential and tourism priority for people. And the market currently faces under supply," he says.

"We did our business planning, looked at sites and we know that with the demand that we have generated, plus the demand in our group [Leisurecorp is a Dubai World Company], we can fill our four courses, and make them a sustainable business with profitable recurring income streams."

Phase one of Jumeirah Golf Estates due for completion by November next year comprises Greg Norman's first eco signature courses, Fire and Earth, with Water by Vijay Singh and Wind, designed by a team of Sergio Garcia, Greg Norman and Pete Dye, coming on line later.

"The four courses themselves are going to form a very integral part of leisure activity in Dubai," asserts Spencer.

"In regard to Leisurecorp and golf," he continues, "we see golf very much as a business that has been fuelled by the baby boomer generation and I'm part of that generation, so part of my responsibility in this particular industry is how to translate that growth into the next generation.

"We're looking at new ways of doing that, whether it be through making golf more prominent in electronic games and electronic art, finding touch points in different generations that will make golf cool to them, making golf less intimidating to outsiders , putting golf simulators into our facilities, and/or making certain parts of golf quicker - such as putting in some Par 3 shorter golf alternatives," explains Spencer.

As part of its aim to reach out to the next generation, Leisurecorp has developed good relationships with some of the younger players on the European Tour, which has its international office located at Jumeirah Golf Estates.

"By having interaction with younger players and younger people we're seeing needs and what they think is wrong with golf. We also have some workshops with younger people, where we ask ‘what would you like to see'," says Spencer.

The simplest response to how to make golf cooler is to make it cheaper, he says.

" But that's actually not the answer," continues Spencer. "The answer is how do you create more demand."

He asserts that with the final prize for a young golfer being to play 18 holes on a championship course, the first issue is to help them grow this interest.

"It's finding ways of making golf more interactive," says Spencer, suggesting options using shorter courses or electronic games such as the Wii.

The next responsibility is to help non-golfers know where to start, in terms of choosing golf clubs and booking a lesson.

"It's hard, particularly if you're in a city like Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Muscat, where golf is not the first choice for either our national or expat children," says Spencer.They have a lot more exposure to games like soccer, and to things other than golf, so it really comes back to a lot of grassroots marketing, which is a particularly applicable term when you're talking about golf.

While these measures will help take golf to a younger generation, the current criticism of golf courses in the region, particularly in Dubai, is that they automatically price a lot of people out of the market.

Spencer agrees that the price of golf in the region is still a big issue, but he says that is because of the lack of options available at the moment.

Everyone thinks that the barrier to golf is price. Actually, the barrier level to golf its marketability.

" The bulk of the alternative is to play 18 holes of golf," he says. "There are other things to do, whether it be golf simulators, which can be done indoors, or golf training camps or a golf boot camp for young people on a par three or putting course."

Ensuring that every interaction point at a golf club is user-friendly will be essential in growing participation, adds Spencer, and this philosophy has been integral to the design of the clubhouses at Jumeirah Golf Estates. For example, he says there will not be a fine-dining experience because the aim is to use F&B venues more as meeting points than for dinner as an event.

Other core components will be swimming, tennis, spa and retail experiences.

"The overall feel of Jumeirah Golf Estates is quite friendly, bright and cheerful, funky and modern. We have a young team and we want to be challenged by new ways of thinking and new approaches," adds Spencer.

As a result, a key aim is clearly to dispel the notion that golf is too expensive.

"There's a lot of ways of getting potential clients interested in golf that doesn't mean they have to pay AED 1000 (US $272) to play," says Spencer.

He stresses the importance of preparation: "If you pay AED 1000 (US $272) to play golf and you're not well prepared, you're not going to enjoy it".

It's the responsibility of golf course operators, therefore, to find out the goals of its players and help them to meet those aims.

"If my goal is to take up golf to learn about the sport and in my mind my aspiration is to learn to play the Dubai World Championship course, then I've set myself an aspirational goal. The huge difference between golf and literally any other sport in the world, is that you can learn to play golf, you can learn to love golf and you can learn to walk in the same piece of grass that Sergio Garcia or Greg Norman did. You can almost relive the history," says Spencer, adding that he thinks this will be key to changing golf globally.

Guillotine date: Dubai World ChampionshipAs well as reinventing the image of golf in Dubai, Spencer has the high-pressure task of ensuring that Jumeirah Golf Estates is ready to host the inaugural Dubai World Championship in November 2009. Although he admits that it's a "guillotine date", Spencer says that phase one is very advanced and "extremely well on time to meet our deadline".

As well as being the first Dubai World Championship, the event will be the culmination of the first Race to Dubai - the new season-long event set up by Leisurecorp and the European Tour to replace the Order of Merit.

"All the professional golfers will be ‘racing to Dubai' for the final event, which is the richest golf tournament in the world," says Spencer, revealing it has a US $10 million prize purse plus a $10 million prize fund for The Race to Dubai.

"Coupled with what we're already doing with the golf courses, our alliance with the European Tour, the Dubai World Championship and the Race to Dubai will very much drive tourism and the golf market in Dubai," says Spencer.

"Every week, Dubai will be in front of spectators of the European tour throughout the world; that will spark intrigue from all parts of the globe - what is the Race to Dubai actually to?"

Next year, Leisurecorp will also host the second oldest golf tournament in history at Pearl Valley Golf Estates in South Africa and the oldest Open at Turnberry, UK.

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