INTERVIEW WITH THE CHAIR OF SIGTOA, GARY WILKINSON

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Destination Golf talks to Gary Wilkinson, Chair of the Scottish Inbound Golf Tour Operators’ Association, about the association’s work and influence.

 

Scotland has been the destination of choice for golfers from around the world for decades. It is little wonder when you consider what the ‘home of golf’ has to offer. The quality, the history, the beauty. The reputation and the acclaim. No one would disagree with any of these and golf has for many years been a major driver of Scottish tourism. Steering the ship, so to speak, is therefore an important task.

Pic of Kingsbarns Golf Course, by Kingdom Drones

The Scottish Inbound Golf Tour Operators’ Association (SIGTOA) was formed in 1993, with the goal of becoming the voice of the country’s inbound golf tour operators. When called upon to do so it could provide invaluable insights and important advice on issues affecting Scottish golf tourism.

It is no surprise that the past two years have been the most challenging for Scottish golf, never mind the people and government of Scotland. The uncertainty of Covid worldwide left everyone wondering what was to come so SIGTOA’s solid hand at the rudder has helped Scottish golf navigate those choppy waters.

The positive news is that 2022 looks like a year for bouncing back and bookings have made that abundantly clear. Destination Golf talks to Gary Wilkinson, SIGTOA’s Chair, about the organisation’s set-up, its work… and how it has handled the difficulties of Covid. He also discusses SIGTOA’s brand new three-year strategy to commit to zero-carbon golf vacations.

Destination Golf (DG): Who was behind the formation of SIGTOA?

Gary Wilkinson (GW): The Scottish Inbound Golf Tour Operators’ Association was formed at the request of both the then Scottish Tourist Board and St Andrews Links Trust, in order to bring an accepted code of conduct to the industry.

DG: What is your purpose?

GW: Our purpose is two-fold: internally, it’s to be a forum to disseminate information to our members and discuss any issues we may have; externally, we strive to be recognised as the voice of inbound tour operators providing advice and opinion on issues affecting Scottish golf tourism. The most obvious and recent example is the impact of Covid.

DG: What is the current make up of SIGTOA?

GW: We have 11 Members (inbound tour operators). There are three categories of member: Full, Associate and International. The International category was only introduced this year.

Our members are operators who have seen the benefit of collective discussions on issues as they apply to us all. When a tour operator asks me, “what will I get out of it?”, my reply is always a polite, “what can you bring to us?” We’re not looking for people who just want a logo to add to their website: we want people who can help make a difference to they way our members work.

DG: And who are your ‘Partners’?

GW: Our small group of 14 Key Partners are the courses and hotels that our members use the most. They were selected based on the levels of business our members give them and then invited to become recognised Key Partners through our promotions and on our website.

We have nine course partners (comprising 16 golf courses) and five accommodation partners: Fairmont St Andrews, Links House at Royal Dornoch, Ness Walk Hotel, Old Course Hotel, and The Chester Hotel.

DG: Are you looking for more tour operators, hotels and/or courses to expand SIGTOA’s reach?

GW: We certainly are. We have just re-constituted the joining criteria to make changes to the way companies can join us, including the new category for International Members – essentially any golf tour operator based outside Scotland.

Gary Wilkinson receiving an award for Scotland’s Best Inbound Golf Tour Operator, at the 8th World Golf Awards 

DG: What is your individual managing role for the year?

GW: As Chair of SIGTOA, I will represent the Association as required, be it on panels, lobbying groups etc., but these tasks are also delegated amongst the members such is the commitment of them all.

On a day-to-day basis it’s more about encouraging and facilitating our members to highlight issues and concerns as they apply to our group. Making full use of web apps means we can filter out gut reaction to formulate proper plans and strategies.  

We have already identified that Scotland seems to be lagging behind our main competitors when it comes to international marketing and that is something we are presently discussing.

DG: How successful has SIGTOA been in recent years?

GW: The last two years have seen our profile increase massively. We have been at the top table in discussing grant support for Inbound Tour Operators and that fund has now reached just under £19 million.

DG: How do you see 2022 shaping up for Scottish Golf?

GW: Very busy, but it includes a huge number of clients who have rescheduled from 2020 and 2021. We are already seeing massive price hikes this summer across the tourism sector and some of us can remember how quickly currency changes, markets and other external factors can affect travel so we have to be careful. SIGTOA offers a barometer in these instances as we see enquiries long before they materialise into bookings.

DG: The Scottish Government have been highly supportive of the Scottish Golf Industry during the pandemic. Why is that?

GW: They have been made to understand the true value of inbound tourism. It’s not just the money spent on the package, it’s also the out-of-pocket spend when golfers are here. They spend significant amounts on caddies, in restaurants, pubs, pro shops etc. The supply chain is long, and we estimate USA clients easily spend £400+ per day out-of-pocket.

But the most significant thing about overseas visitors is that it’s all foreign currency flowing into Scotland, not just Sterling being recirculated by staycationers.

DG: Why should travelling golfers choose a SIGTOA member?

 

GW: Our members fully understand that there are many ways golfers can book a package to Scotland. Booking with a Tour Operator, however, comes with many advantages: local knowledge, preferential rates, and the fact that we have the interests of the client at heart. We are not a booking engine, we do not sell off the shelf packages as every tour is designed in consultation with the golfer and their group.

 

And for those golfers looking for a GUARANTEED Old Course tee time most of our members receive an allocation of times from St Andrews as Authorised Providers.

DG: Tell us how SIGTOA tackled Covid over the past two years. 

GW: SIGTOA members have always pooled our annual sales figures, including turnover and how that relates to number of rounds and hotel bed nights for the hotels and courses. These are very detailed and also confidential. They are, however, used selectively in discussions with the tourist board and the Scottish Government, which played an important role during Covid.

When Covid struck, these stats became a source for monitoring the effects of the pandemic on the Scottish golf business. Our members’ commitment to compiling stats was invaluable as we were able to turnaround specific issue questionnaires in a matter of hours. Collectively, this put SIGTOA in a position where we could report on the immediate effect that Government restrictions were having on inbound trade. Everyone else was reporting apocryphal information or reporting as it was based on their own single business. Ours was collective and was a barometer on how the industry was faring.

As soon as Covid took hold, SIGTOA was invited to be part of a lobbying group of all Inbound Tour Operators to put the case of support funding for our industry. Dialogue has continued for over 18 months with numerous Zoom meetings with the Scottish Government, at Ministerial level, to discuss and then design the support package that was eventually awarded in early  2021. These meetings were ongoing until late February, when a top up fund was agreed to cover further losses sustained throughout 2021.

In total the tour operator support fund, that is for all types of Inbound Tour Operators, not just golf, has totalled around £19 million, money that was paid directly to Scottish-based Inbound Tour Operators.

DG: Finally, do you have any new initiatives in play this year?

GW: Absolutely. While all this has been going on our membership has agreed to a three-year strategy to commit to ‘zero-carbon golf vacations’. The first stage of this is through a partnership with the Woodland Trust, where we have donated £7500 to absorb 300 tonnes of carbon dioxide, through the planting of 1,280 trees. This amount will mitigate all the emissions generated by our clients in 2022, when travelling around the UK on vacation.

Such is our commitment to this that any potential new member wanting to join SIGTOA has to agree to join our scheme to mitigate their own clients carbon dioxide emissions.

For more information, visit: www.sigtoa.com