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South Africa

Your world in one place

Text: John Botha. Article from the February 2012 issue of Compleat Golfer Magazine.

South Africa has long claimed to be an attractive option for the golf tourist, and although the country can boast some exceptional resorts and traditional facilities, we often fall short of foreigners’expectations.

Every facility in the Fancourt estate features excellent service with a smile, which has set the benchmark for every other estate in the country.

The golf tourist, whether from the United States, Europe or Asia, is generally a discerning individual who expects the best and is happy to pay top dollar for it. It is encouraging to hear many of these tourists speak of our golf courses in glowing terms, but all too often they are disappointed with the levels of service they receive.

Clearly this is something that not only the golf industry, but the hospitality business in general will have to address.

Compleat Golfer’s 5-Star Golf Experience Awards proudly brought to you by Mercedes-Benz is not just about impressing foreign tourists – and indeed it is travelling South Africans that make up the largest percentage of revenue for many clubs. It is also worth noting that membership retention even in a tough economy is higher at clubs that go the extra mile to ensure that the golf experience they offer is remarkable.

But when it comes to marketing our facilities to the international golf tourist, we have to accept that South Africa is a tough sell – we are far from the most important markets, and our image abroad leaves something to be desired. As skewed as the foreign media’s coverage of our crime statistics may be, there is a perception that South Africa is a dangerous destination. Of course we, and tourists that have experienced the best we have to offer, know that the crime rate is exaggerated, certainly in the areas the typical tourist will frequent. Fortunately the majority of golf tourists that visit South Africa return home having had a great experience and we would hope that they not only return, but become good ambassadors for our country. But there is no question that we could do more to make these visitors feel welcome, and to raise the levels of our service.

In an effort to establish our country as a golf destination that can be taken seriously, perhaps we have to raise our own expectations, and to demand bang for our buck. All too often we accept second best, and South Africans are renowned as easy-going types that seldom complain.

It is easy to shrug and when things go pear-shaped, we often fall back on the old expression: This is Africa suggesting that we are perhaps expecting too much in a Third World country that can never hope to match the organisation, punctuality or effectiveness of developed countries where things work and work well.

We certainly have a lot going for us as a golf destination, because once the tourist arrives here, they will find excellent weather, golf courses that do compare with the best in the world, and most are pleasantly surprised at the prices – particularly of food and beverage.

As an overall package, we cannot claim to be the cheapest golf destination – facilities in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world still offer better value – but compared to northern hemisphere countries we are still an attractive proposition. So where do we get it wrong?

First impressions set the tone, and starting at a security gate, a local or foreign tourist may often find a shabby, disinterested guard in a rather tatty shed. This hardly inspires confidence, and golfers are likely to feel that their safety is not in good hands, nor does it bode well for what might be inside the property. Then there is the over-zealous security guard found at some golf estates, whose sole purpose seems to be to prevent anyone from entering. Anyone can appreciate the importance of this function, but when golfers have pre-booked, and in some cases, pre-paid, they take exception to being treated as an unwelcome criminal that is up to no good. Finally arriving in the car park, being accosted by a noisy, unruly group of caddies, who immediately engage in a game of tug of war with the visitors’ golf bags, is also far from the warm welcome some expect.

At some traditional clubs, poor sign-posting sees the first-time visitor wandering around trying to find out where to go, and without anyone taking charge, welcoming visitors and explaining the process of checking in, the golfer does not exactly feel like a valued customer.

Generally the staff in the pro shop is made up of helpful people, but not always. The nature of this business is that there are peaks and troughs in terms of traffic, and when it is busy it is then that one can judge just how well systems work. Ever found yourself in a queue in a pro shop trying to pay your greenfee, while the sole assistant in the shop is trying to sell someone a glove? Listening to the patter as the assistant explains the virtues of leather versus synthetic, and the customer tries on every glove in stock, will mean there is a good chance of you missing your tee time.

A blaring loudspeaker announcing tee times may have its uses, but this is an alien concept to someone used to the tranquil setting of a top course abroad where members and visitors speak in hushed tones. I cringed once when I took a foreign visitor to one of Johannesburg’s premier clubs, and we had been allocated a tee time following a group that formed part of a corporate day. The putting green and surround was festooned with advertising banners, the starter was in full voice on the public address system, golfers were bellowing at each other, and my guest was accosted by one of the ‘PR’ ladies who tried to sell him a raffle ticket to raise money for a school. When it came time for us to head to the tee, his caddie with his clubs could not be found – OK, so this is Africa? We can surely do better than this.

Of course when we finally did tee off, the pace of play was abysmal, and there was no sign of a course marshal or anyone else trying to get things moving.

There were, of course, the obligatory short-hole diversions in the form of young ladies handing out shooters and marketing the latest concentrated caffeine drink. After we had finally finished our round, the water in the showers was tepid, what towels were left were threadbare, and, of course, after patiently waiting for our post-round libation, the waiter got our order hopelessly wrong.

Where we do most often get it right is at the resorts, which are not only geared to accommodate visitors, but which understand what is expected. Sun City in the early days set the standards, and although over the years the service has been erratic, when it works it works well.

Pecanwood's opulent clubhouse is well stocked, and offers great service and a chance to relax after your round.Pecanwood also showed that with a few added extras and some willing and attentive individuals, a great experience could be guaranteed, but after starting with a ‘bang’, standards did slide. Fancourt certainly raised the bar, and everyone involved in the golf operations is friendly and unfailingly helpful.

Everyone seems to know what to do, and besides being a beautiful place, management is visible and keeps things running smoothly.

Of course there are other facilities that understand that the attention to detail and the little extras make for a great experience, and it is also appreciated that it is more difficult for the traditional clubs and estates that are not geared to handle groups of tourists to shine, but some do.

The Gary Player Country Club at Sun City is renowned for its service that set the mark in the early days. It is still a great experience today.During our most recent round of assessments for the 5 Star Golf Experience Awards, Serengeti fared well – this estate proves that even during busy periods, the systems work. The entry via code (sent via cell phone) is slick.The collection of the golfer with his or her clubs from the car park is effective, and one is made to feel that playing here is rather special, and it is. As we have discovered on so many occasions, it is not about having a large, opulent clubhouse (which Serengeti has), but it is all about the people in the front line. Smiling faces, a determination to please, is what the 5-Star Experience is all about. Of course, having a well-groomed golf course is part of it, and we have no shortage of those.

As usual there will be the customary debates when our 5-Star clubs are announced; some will feel hard done by, believing that their performance was harshly judged. Some of our readers might feel that they have thoroughly enjoyed their golf experience at a club that was not chosen, more than at a facility that made the grade. We will, however, feel confident that when the award-winners are announced, any tourist visiting any of these clubs will feel that they have experienced the best, which does indeed compare very favourably with the best in the world.




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