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War's impact felt at Phoenix-area golf courses

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Jay Haffner, director of golf at SunRidge Canyon in Fountain Hills, is as optimistic a golf director as you'll find in the Valley. He is also a realist. That is why Haffner eyes a war with Iraq the same way Tiger Woods eyes photographers with itchy trigger fingers.

"In the short term, it will be disastrous for golf in the Valley," says Haffner. "A war [is] about the worst thing that could happen right now. We haven't recovered from 9-11, especially the corporate dollar. Right now we are just in a state of wait and see."

The Phoenix/Scottsdale area is one of the most popular and visited golf destinations in the U.S. However, it relies almost exclusively on a fly-in market for its golf tourism. Some courses plan on focusing their marketing efforts on locals in order to make up for a potential slide in out of town business.

Count the Whirlwind Golf Club on the Gila River Indian Reservation in the South Valley among them.

"[With the outbreak of war], what we'll do is try to offset the group and tourism markets with the local market," says Whirlwind general manager Rich Carter. "From a travel standpoint, the Phoenix market is a little better off than some destinations because we have a huge base of people who live here year around. From a tourism standpoint, we are almost totally a fly-in market."

Golf courses at least have the option of pursuing the local market. Stand-alone resort hotels walk an even finer line. Occupancy has suffered at a number of the Valley's upscale properties where golf doesn't always help to pay the bills.

"It is impacting us right now, just the anticipation of war," says Dan Morn, a spokesperson for Tiburon Hospitality, operators of the Carefree Resort in Carefree. "We were down for February and we are down so far in March. I think it is that way at most resorts."

Morn believes that golf courses relying too much on local play won't be able to balance the books.

"The golf courses are going to suffer without the group sales they usually get this winter and spring," Morn says. And that is their bread and butter, not local play. They can't just rely on local play. There's just not enough of it (local play) and to provide an incentive you have to discount play."

It may be business as usual at Whirlwind's two Gary Panks designed golf courses, but occupancy rates have dipped at Whirlwind's sister resort, the $125 million Sheraton Resort at Wild Horse Pass. The Sheraton was one of three mega-resort hotels to open in the Valley last year. A total of 2,200 rooms and $600 million in hotel investments saturated the market in 2002, the largest influx of resort development in the region in more than 15 years.

"Obviously, our resort would continue to be more impacted more than our golf courses," says Carter. "We'd have to look to more drive-in markets to help fill up rooms."

The Phoenix area experienced a similar glut of new luxury prior to Desert Storm. Over 2,700 new rooms came online from from 1986-1988. The vacancy rate, which had gone as high as 74 percent in 1984, plummeted to 61 percent by 1988 and did not return to the 70th percentile until well after the war in 1993.

"That is all we really have as a comparison," Morn says. "This time we have about the same number of new rooms but we have the threat of violence on U.S. soil. It would be a few years before we all fully recover."

With the U.S. now at war, Valley golf and travel officials - like most Americans - are hoping for brief, decisive victory.

"In the long term, if the war is short and we restore national confidence in the economy, if could be a good thing for golf travel," Haffner says. "If a victory leads to a feeling of safety from terrorism and that in turn leads to an upturn in moods and the stockmarket we would benefit from it. That is the positive way we have to look at it right now."

Scottsdale prepares for 'uphill battle' in wake of war

One-on-one with Laura McMurchie of the Scottsdale Convention and Visitors Bureau

Q. What impact will the war with Iraq have on golf travel in Scottsdale?

Like the entire tourism industry, our golf partners will have an uphill battle if war breaks out in Iraq. Immediately following 9-11 our golf industry saw a decrease in business of nearly 50 percent, however, without knowing the specifics on this war, it is impossible to predict what it will do to our golf business.

The majority of Scottsdale's golf business is comprised of visitation from drive markets; however, fly-in business from the Midwest (i.e.Chicago) and Eastern states is very important.

We're certainly braced to see some fallout of group business. However, we are lucky to have a good core base of luxury leisure travelers who frequent Scottsdale's golf courses; after 9-11 statistics showed that these high-end leisure travelers' travel patterns were least altered and they returned to normal relatively quickly.

Q. Will the Scottsdale golf market focus more attention on short-haul fly-in markets?

Actually, our golf community already focuses the majority of its marketing efforts on in-state and neighboring states' residents. In the summer Scottsdale's golf marketing efforts are primarily focused on these drive markets, and we anticipate that these would also be the focus [during and immediately after] the war. While we would anticipate and miss the loss of international business, we are more concerned with the loss of fly-in visitors from our strong long-haul domestic markets, as these visitors make up a larger base of our business and they historically visit in peak season and pay premium rates.

Over the past few years our golf community has really come together under the Scottsdale CVB's umbrella to form a cohesive and collaborative marketing organization, so I wouldn't be surprised to see them working together to stretch their budgets with cooperative advertising buys and consumer promotions to our drive-in markets.

Scottsdale by the numbers

• Percent of Scottsdale's visitors who play golf: 31
• Average spending on golf vacations: $1,500 per two-person party
• Total courses: 28
• Average rounds per course: 50,000
• Annual rounds: 1,400,000
• Average price for a round of golf: $75

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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