Haversham chief: Travelers ‘tired of putting it off’

Carne Golf Links in Ireland.

Sam Baker founded Cincinnati-based Haversham & Baker Golfing Expeditions in 1991, and in the past 21 years has sent more than 10,000 golfers on trips to Great Britain and Ireland. Much of his business is built through relationships formed with club professionals. Ninety-seven percent of Haversham’s customers are members of private clubs, and the company has provided travel services for more than 1,200 golf clubs.

Baker sat down with Golfweek during the PGA Merchandise Show to discuss the state of golf travel.

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Sam Baker

Golfweek: How was business in 2011?

Sam Baker: We got back last year pretty close to what we were doing before the recession. We finished December with the biggest pre-sell (for 2012) that we’ve ever had, by a lot. The high end of the travel market is back, just like high-end retail is back. The people who shop at Tiffany’s, the people who buy at Burberry’s, those people are back buying. And those are the same people who travel with us.

Golfweek: Did you find that customers who put off taking golf trips the past few years are now coming back?

Baker: The old political science term was slack in the system. Economists would call it pent-up demand. What we have now are a lot of people who travel every year, but have not traveled during the period of uncertainty. They’re now saying, “You know what, I’m not going to wait any longer.” They’re still pretty uncertain about their business, but they’re just tired of putting it off.

Golfweek: Where is Scotland golf tourism relative to, say, five years ago?

Baker: Stronger. But the interesting thing that happened, before the two Open victories by Rory (McIlroy) and Darren (Clarke), 65 percent of our new inquiries were for Scotland, 30 percent Ireland and 5 percent the rest of the world. Since Darren’s victory, it has changed to 60-36-4. So Scotland continues to dominate, but a 6 percent increase for Ireland on a 30 percent base is a 20 percent increase. I think there’s some merit in the way they’re promoting their major winners.

Golfweek: How about Ireland?

Baker: The Southwest continues to be weak, which is one reason why Killarney has formed a golf marketing alliance. The Northwest continues to grow – the Carnes and the Enniscrones. They’ve managed to get trial, and now they’re getting follow-on – people telling friends that they went and it was great. Who would ever have thought in 1995 that our company would have a year when he sent more people to Carne than to Ballybunion? That’s amazing. . . . For a company like ours that has a huge amount of repeat business, if you’ve been to Ireland with us, you’ve probably already played Ballybunion. Now, does Carne get more visitors than Ballybunion? No. But we have a mature customer base. It’s easier for us to produce traffic into the Machrihanishes and the new hot spots.

GW: What are the new hot spots?

Baker: For the American market, if it isn’t Great Britain or Ireland, it doesn’t register. You would think that New Zealand would start tracking. I’ve never read a single bad story about New Zealand. Everybody I know who goes to New Zealand says, “You’ve gotta go; it’s fabulous.” Here’s the problem: our private club surveys show that 75 percent of all country club members report they will not take a golf trip of longer than eight days. (New Zealand) is a two-week golf trip. That’s why Castle Stuart (in Scotland), which is now entering its third full year, along with the Trump course (in Aberdeen, Scotland) coming on line, all of a sudden changes the center of gravity for Scottish golf. Now, the best new course in the world in 2009 is in Scotland, but it’s not down in the Lowlands. So there’s no question that over the next five years you’ll see more travel to the Highlands, especially if the Trump course is as good as I’ve been told.

GW: What about Machrihanish and Machrihanish Dunes in southwest Scotland?

Baker: The new course has not received the type of reviews that we had hoped it would. It’s turned out to be like Prestwick – you either love it or you don’t like it all. Nonetheless, they’re building transportation systems to the Mull of Kintyre, there’s a new investor for The Machrie, and they’re solving the accommodations with the two (renovated) hotels. Eventually that will become a very desirable destination for a certain niche because it’s very traditional and it’s very rugged, and it has the appeal that the Highlands had 15 years ago. . . . Great golf courses don’t get the pilgrimage until they have access.

GW: What are your two or three best travel tips for people going to Scotland and Ireland?

Baker: First, choose your travel companions wisely. More golf trips have been spoiled by who you travel with than any other single factor. You’re gong to have to put together a trip overseas that has loads of moving parts. It takes 30 to 40 reservations and arrangements to make a week overseas work. You don’t want any compromises. Your group needs to be fairly homogenous. More trips also get ruined because some people say, “We’ve decided to stay in these cheap accommodations and we’re not going to play some really good golf courses because we have one guy who doesn’t want to spend as much as the rest of us do.”

The second is to realize that the marginal difference between doing a trip the cheapest way you can do it and doing it without cutting corners isn’t very much. So don’t get held up with the notion that you’re saving $200. You’re still going to pay $1,200 if you take the cheapest flight. When you look at it at the end of the day, if you save $200 or even $500 on a week overseas that’s going to cost you $6,000 to $8,000, that’s nothing. You get what you pay for. When you see a low price (from a tour operator), it isn’t because they love you, it’s because they cut corners. Be discerning and realize you’re buying an experience.

Finally, be sure to leave enough time in your travel plan to smell the roses. In all my years of planning overseas trips, no one has ever returned to say he wished he had played more golf. On the other hand, lots of folks have said they wished they’d taken our advice and played less. They didn’t leave themselves enough time to really enjoy the good life that surrounds the great courses of Great Britain and Ireland.

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