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Grand Strand golf courses sees bump in play

Coming off a terrible winter and a 2009 in which rounds played on the Grand Strand fell 12.4 percent compared to 2008, Myrtle Beach area golf courses were in dire need of some positive news this spring.

They got some.

According to statistics compiled by marketing cooperative Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday based on the collection of a per-round transaction fee, rounds increased 5.5 percent in the combined spring golf season months of March, April and May.

"It was extremely important," said Tommy Smothers, general manger of Classic Golf Group, which manages four Grand Strand courses. "I heard there were some courses struggling as we all were with the difficult winter, and the revenue that was brought in certainly helped to remedy those problems we endured over the winter. It was definitely important that our rounds were up. ... We were up a little bit. Our package rounds were definitely up."

Golf Holiday numbers last spring showed decreases in rounds played of between 13.8 percent and 18.3 percent in the three spring months, and the 12.4 percent drop for the entire year followed an 8.4 percent decrease in 2009 compared to 2008.

"We have a long road to get back to where the industry was before the recession, but to have rounds increase during our key golf season this spring is definitely a positive step in that direction," Golf Holiday president Bill Golden said.

Transaction fees are affixed to golf package and walk-on rounds and are not charged for rounds played by course members, replay rounds and complimentary rounds. Package and walk-on rounds played on Golf Holiday's 77 member courses or booked by about 90 member package providers and/or hotels increased from 670,434 to approximately 707,339, with the totals for May projected because not all members have reported figures.

Increased marketing, bargains and sensational weather from March through May likely all contributed to the increase in rounds. But because of the bargains, revenue in the market increased little, if any.

"There was a lot of aggressive pricing," Golden said. "The market had to and has reacted to the recession, has reacted to the fact that we needed to re-establish demand, increase demand, steal market share, as well as get people off their couch so to speak and motivate them to take a golf trip. Rates can't stabilize until we re-establish demand, and I think we've taken that step."

Rich Jacobs, the owner of Myrtle Beach Golf Desk package company, said he booked about 15 percent to 20 percent more rounds this spring compared to 2008. But he estimates 10 percent of his bookings were free rounds that were part of specials offering a free round for every four or five paid rounds.

"The rates were lower when you look at the revenue, but the bottom line is up because of the volume," Jacobs said. "I'm quite encouraged, and frankly the fall looks like it's going to be up proportionally. The fall in my opinion has been weakening every year, even before our economy slipped, but there seems to be more excitement for the fall. We have a lot of advance booking."

With the help of some matching funds from the state, Golf Holiday's budget increased about 40 percent over 2009, allowing the cooperative to allocate $5.6 million to the 2010 marketing campaign, according to Golf Holiday marketing director Steve Mays. It's not known if matching funds will be available next year.

Mays said Golf Holiday bought 560 national broadcast commercial spots for the spring season after not having any in 2009, increased national print ads from six to 13, had marketing campaigns in 12 cities with direct flights to Myrtle Beach compared to three in 2009, and increased its web presence with programs that included exclusive destination sponsorships of the travel section and Golf Digest Buddy Golf Trip section.

"Our budget this year allowed us to be aggressive like that," Mays said. "If you look at the magazines, look at Golf Channel, look at the online presence of the other destinations, we feel we were the most aggressive destination out there as far as golf."

Golden said web traffic on the Golf Holiday site is up 11 percent for the year and was up 19 percent from March through May. "All the ways in which we can gauge the success of our advertising, all of that stuff jumped - user sessions, quick quotes and member referrals," Golden said.

Golf Holiday has made an effort to support an increased number of direct flights to Myrtle Beach on airlines including Spirit, Direct Air and Allegiant. Mays said traffic on the Golf Holiday website emanating from the 12 targeted markets was up 25 percent. "We've got a good formula with regional markets right now that's working well for us, and our airline partners seem to be very happy with the sales they are getting," Mays said.

Golf Holiday is receiving an additional boost this year from the Sports Illustrated Golf Group's marketing of late August's World Amateur Handicap Championship. The new World Am title sponsor operates/publishes, Golf Magazine and Sports Illustrated. "Through all of their assets it's going to be a big boost for not only the event but also for the area, and that's one of the reasons they were such an attractive sponsor for us," Mays said.

Golf Holiday officials are In the process of finalizing the marketing plan for the fall season, which this year will also receive more funding than recent years. The plan will have a similar strategy to the spring campaign. "I think there are encouraging signs out there," Mays said. "Revenue is probably not where we want it to be, but you have to start somewhere and with demand [for golf travel] increasing and rounds increasing that's a good start, and hopefully we can build momentum."