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Golf business reflects shift to regional market

Deep recession in U.S. felt by Whistler courses

The shift from destination visitors to a regional market has taken its toll on another side of Whistler business: golf.

Roger Soane, general manager of the Chateau Whistler and chair of Tourism Whistler, says that appealing to the regional market has reduced the rates for golf courses in Whistler. Like most of the hotels, the golf courses have been offering deals to woo customers.

"It's very similar to hotels," Soane said. "As the destination traveler has reduced because of the economics and the times we're in, we've gone to a regional model, so we're attracting more people from the region - which is great but chances are they're not going to pay the same type of rates as the international guests."

Soane says there hasn't been a drop in the number of golfers but the number of people willing to pay resort course fees has fallen.

For the Chateau Whistler, the drop in group business has had a negative impact on the golf course, which was built as an amenity to the hotel. The course is facing what the entire resort is facing: short end bookings and a failing American economy.

"When everyone is going through reduced business, as we have for the last two years, everyone is going to suffer, whether it be golf, restaurants (or) bike rentals. Anything that needs people has seen a downfall. Golf is no different to any other business," Soane said.

A recession that is particularly deep in the United States and a rising Canadian dollar slowed American visitors considerably, a market the resort had depended on. Destination travelers are sticking closer to home.

Earlier this year, Garibaldi Springs Golf Resort shut down after only six years of operation.

"Tourism was so high. The rates that were built around the resort area especially were created to reflect the popularity of Whistler. People came and they didn't really hesitate to pay a premium green fee for a premium product," says Paul Nijjer, general manager of Furry Creek Golf Club.

"While the product is still premium up there, people have tightened up the wallets since then.

He says his course is flat in rounds played to last year, and that "good news" is due largely to the completed Sea to Sky Highway expansion. Golf courses across B.C. haven't fared as well, and many of the courses he knows about are down compared to last year.

"That's not just golf, it's resort visitation in general," said Alan Kristmanson, general manager and director of golf at the Whistler Golf Club. "Corporations are more careful with their dollars and golf as an activity in a resort has definitely suffered from that, for sure."

Ro Davies, manager at Whistler Golf Club, says that while the customer base has changed over the years the Whistler golf club has been doing virtually the same number of rounds year after year.

He also says that the golf club fared better than others during the recession. According to statistics provided by Tourism Whistler, Whistler golfers tend to be affluent and avid players who take leisure golf trips frequently, even during economic downturns.

"People still play golf. We're a great golf course and there's still a bunch of people with money, so they're spending it here," he said. "We have a lot of loyal golfers that support our club and continue to support our club. You hear about courses in the States shutting down but we don't have as much product. You get a small percentage of hotel visitors coming to Whistler so if you get five per cent of those people interested in golf, all the courses in Whistler are full."

"We have minimum inventory a day," Kristmanson said. "It's not like the mountain where you put 18,000 people on the hill... If golf courses are managing their business properly you're going to target the mix of clientele that are coming, and for us that's regional."

Nijjer says there has been a noticeable boost in American tourists playing Furry Creek since the Olympics. The numbers are nowhere near the hey-day levels of the late 1990s and early 2000s, but any increase is good news.

"The rounds came down, there was a decrease, but if you were proactive enough in creating opportunities for people to play, they still came," he said. "It's such a sport that people absolutely love to play... it's consistently going to be at the forefront of activities that people will like to do," he said.

The economy is only part of the problem. The other problem, according to Soane, is that golf has become too big to sustain itself. In the U.S. in particular, where the real estate market drove the development of golf courses, there's a surplus of courses versus golfers. This isn't as much of an issue in Canada, which has the highest player rate per capita in the world, but it has affected business in Whistler.

"Golf, I think, as a product is over built, and I think the sport itself in its evolution has reached a peak," Soane said. "For the longest time, there was more and more golfers added every year and there was a great growth in golf. I'm not sure that's the case any more.

"I honestly believe golf as an industry has become too expensive," he added.

"A golf course will set its rate based on the times," Nijjer said. "When the economy is strong, it's easy to raise a rate and because of all the things that go in to the daily operation of a golf course you need to maintain a daily rate in order to have a successful operation. What ends up happening is you have to build opportunities for golfers of all types to come and enjoy your facility."

But with all the challenges facing the golf business in the Sea-to-Sky, there is optimism for the future of the sport. The four courses - Whistler Golf Club, Chateau Whistler, Nicklaus North Golf Course and Big Sky Golf and Country Club in Pemberton, have worked together to focus attention on the growing interest of women and junior golfers, offering a junior golf camp and ladies night. Targeting the younger demographic is of particular concern, as many have feared that as the baby boomers grow older the younger generations may not play in the numbers needed to keep the industry afloat.

Nijjer says that's not the case, noting that Furry Creek has a high proportion of players 21 to 35 years old.

"(The shift from older to younger players) will deplete the average amount spent per person, as with the baby boomers because they were spending the money, whereas the youth are a bit tighter with it. Then again, when you create the opportunities, you'll get them to your facility," he said.

"There's no reason to tell me that this won't turn around," Soane said. "As corporate business comes back, you'll see the golf courses becoming more prosperous again, but I also believe as an industry golf has to take a close look at itself and say, 'Are we priced in comparison to other activities?'"