Another week, another commitment of public funds to a professional golf tournament — all in the name of securing some portion of the US$2 billion international golf tourism market. The latest example of this time-honored gambit centers on Fiji, whose government will reportedly commit 12 million Fijian dollars (about US$6 million) to the year-old Fiji International, an event that debuted in August 2014 as a joint stop on the Australasian and One Asia tours. The second incarnation is planned for October 2015 — strategically scheduled to make it easier for marquee players to pop down to Fiji direct from the Presidents Cup competition, slated for the prior week in South Korea.
Where to begin…
Conventional wisdom in golf circles holds that professional golf tournaments are key to the effective marketing of golf destinations. There’s no arguing that television coverage effectively showcases the host course itself. In Fiji, this benefit will accrue to Natadola Bay GC, a David Kidd design which, by all accounts, is a lovely track. But the other courses in this island nation? This is a very difficult case to make.
Mandarin Media has been involved with dozens of international tournament events in our 17-plus years handling golf-specific media and destination-marketing efforts on behalf of individual properties and destination clients in North America, Asia-Pacific and Europe/UK. It’s clear to us the connection between hosting a professional event and the growth of golf tourism in the larger hosting destination is surprisingly slight.
Golf tour operators will tell you the same — and these are the outfits whose businesses are based on the attraction and servicing of incoming golf holidaymakers. Surely, hosting tour stops in country doesn’t hurt the cause. But does it help? Will attempts to build a viable Fijian golf destination be buttressed in a way commensurate with the outlay of F$12 million public funds? We’re dubious.
There are several systemic explanations for why this presumed destination benefit amounts to magical thinking:
• The media who cover professional golf tournaments are, in the main, not the media who typically write the big, fat, high-value feature/travel stories that truly sell a destination to readers. They are, instead, golf writers who are more concerned with Vijay Singh’s scoring average on par-5s vs. where to play, eat, lodge and party across a region.
• What’s more, with editorial budgets tighter and tighter, media outlets are sending fewer and fewer people to cover these events in person. Media Centres at these tournaments are veritable ghost towns, save the local media who, again, do not have any destination-marketing mission. Most international/regional outlets are content to get reports off the wire and run those alongside wire-derived imagery. These barely tell the story of the host course, much less the destination.
• Media events funded by some combination of host club, tournament organizer and state tourism entity can work around the above concerns — by bringing in media that will write the broad, destination-oriented stories. However, if the host course has shelled out millions to host the event (which is normally the case), that course/club is often loathe to share the spotlight with other venues comprising the golf destination, which are viewed domestically as competitors and probably didn’t shell out to make the event happen.
• Oftentimes the host course is putting up the money to host a prestigious, professional event because it’s seeking international cachet (for the purposes of selling memberships or associated real estate). This makes them even less likely to enable the sharing of media coverage with other courses.
Those are the general reasons. Let’s get specific to Fiji:
• For starters, Fiji only boasts two international-standard courses (some snobs would argue there is only one: Natadola Bay). They say it takes only two courses to make a golf destination, but Fiji’s case pushes the limits of the axiom.
• The Australasian and OneAsia tours are minor-league tours. Telecasts of these events simply do not reach the number of golfers who tune into European Tour, U.S. PGA Tour or even Asian Tour events.
• If more than 1-2 President Cup participants make their way to Fiji for the International, we’ll be surprised. To divert 3-4 top names from Korea, nearly all of the F$12 million would be required.
There’s another amorphous, ill-conceived bit of conventional wisdom at play here — that 1) golfers themselves will travel internationally in order to watch a tournament; and 2) thereafter (or perhaps before), they will take a spin around the region to play other courses. While this dynamic doesn’t apply to Fiji, where there are so few courses, it can happen elsewhere. However, these tournaments put a sizable strain on hotels, restaurants and other amenities the week before and after the fact. Hotels are way more expensive during this time; courses are more crowded and charge a premium; transportation is more expensive and harder to come by. In short, it’s a madhouse and not at all conducive to accommodating golf holidaymakers looking for value and ease. The host course is busy hosting the tournament and is thus off-limits, naturally. The further one travels from the tournament site, the more this situation is eased — but that makes it harder to attend the tournament, which predicated the trip.
State tourism agencies often use local tournament telecasts to promote the destination aspects of an in-country region — via TV promos aired during broadcast coverage. This makes sense. Viewers fit the golf holidaymaking demographic to a T. But then, they make sense during any tournament telecast that reaches target markets. You don’t have to host a tournament in country to accrue this benefit. Think of the impact that sort of campaign could have around Asia-Pacific, during multiple tournament telecasts, in concert with a proper print/online media campaign. A great deal could be accomplished for a fraction of F$12 million.
Indeed, the outlay of that sort of cash for such ultimately narrow purposes only invites backlash, something already stirring in Fiji. Early in December, opposition member and shadow tourism minister Viliame Gavoka pointedly questioned the need for government to grant $12 million to next fall’s Fiji International — and he minced no words: “Why is that money being spent on the tournament when just metres away from the hotel is a village where they are pumping water from a borehole full of tadpoles?” he told the Fiji Times. “The nearby Emuri Village lost the bridge connecting them to the road in the recent floods and to date, they still don't have a bridge. Fiji can not compete at the PGA level. We are not Malaysia. We should instead spend just $2m on various local tournaments and invite overseas players.”