Swing Time

June, 2000

According to the Dept. of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, the game of golf accounts for approximately $400 million in direct expenditures in the state of Hawaii. Add indirect monies and that number jumps to near $1 billion.

No wonder when you take into account that Hawaii has one of the highest rates of golfers per capita in the country and it is one of the premier golf destinations around.

Last year, eight of Golf Magazine’s top 20 golf resorts in the country called Hawaii home: Kapalua, Wailea, Mauna Kea, Princeville, the list is as long as a par 5.

Great for the tourists but sometimes for kamaaina, with some greens fees hovering around the triple digits, these world-class courses may seem a world away and not just a short flight away. There are kamaaina rates, but still somewhat pricey.

Since the mid 1980s, small travel agents have been eeking out an existence by offering golf packages especially designed for locals. The packages usually include airfare, room, rental car and greens fees. The agents even make customers’ starting times.

“People in local golf clubs used to do it for themselves for years,” says Norm Guenther. “They’d call the hotels and the courses and set it all up. But we make it easier and a little cheaper for them.”

Guenther, who also publishes Hawaii Golf News and Travel, a monthly newspaper, has been selling kamaaina golf packages since 1985, one of the first to specialize in the locals-only trips. Small operators, such as Guenther, negotiate greens fees with the golf courses, usually on a year-to-year basis, and purchase fly-drive packages from larger travel wholesalers. He says that the business evolved with the resorts’ desire to keep their courses busy after the winter-time crunch of tourists.

“Most of the larger travel agencies don’t do too many golf packages because you don’t make a whole lot of money,” says Guenther. “My gross sales were only in neighborhood of $40,000 last year. But I just enjoy the game and sending people off to these great places.”

Over the years, Guenther’s sales have been pretty consistent, thanks to a small but loyal following. He says that most local golfers put the emphasis on the golf, electing to play at a five-star course but stay at a two-star hotel. The biggest growth that he has noticed of late is the presence of an increasing number of new operators who are marketing themselves more aggressively.

Tats Kobayashi of Kamaaina Golf & Ski Travel is one of those young turks, having just started to sell golf packages last April. Kobayashi builds most of his packages to order, generally ranging from a high of $500 per person for a weekend of golf to as little as $240. According to Kobayashi, his customers are very value conscious and 1999 featured some especially good deals, which translated to robust sales for him.

“People are surprised to find out that there are some very good deals out there, better than what they would be able to get themselves,” says Kobayashi. “For instance, Kauai is very popular right now because the resorts there are offering a package in which you can play three top courses for $50 a piece. The kamaaina rates for those courses normally range from $65 to $75.”

Last July, Lanai’s Manele Bay Resort slashed its normal kamaaina rate in half, enabling Kobayashi to offer a deal of air, ground transportation, a two-night stay at the hotel and a round at both the Manele Bay Golf Course and the nearby Koele Golf Course for just $271. Kobayashi sent about 120 people to Lanai that month.

“It’s all economics,” says Kobayashi. “If the courses can get tourists to come and pay $140 dollars for a round, the more power to them. But if they can’t, well, the local people can benefit.”

The symbiotic relationship between golf course and local golfer illustrates just how tough Kobayashi’s business can be. For local people to get the best deals, the courses have to be empty (i.e. a soft mainland economy) but, on the other hand, Hawaii’s economy must be strong so that locals feel confident about spending money. It’s an equation that will probably never add up to huge numbers.

“It’s not a whole lot of money,” says Kobayashi. “I do it because I like to get people good deals. The local people are what make Hawaii special. You can’t forget them.”

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David K. Choo