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Issue 15 - Making golf a family affair

Scotland Magazine Issue 15
July 2004


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Making golf a family affair

Scotland's leading golf hotels are now going to considerable lengths to be more family-friendly. Dominic Roskrow visited four of the best-known.

Their reputation precedes them; the sort of Scottish destination hotels so famous for their golf that the mere mention of their names evokes images of sun-stroked championships or stimulates a frisson of excitement among those that dream of not just playing them but taming them, too.

But for that handful of hotels with names synonymous with the very pinnacle of the sport, world fame can be a double-edged sword. For while great names such as Gleneagles, the Old Course and Turnberry are magnets to golfers from across the world, they inspire awe in others; the sort of awe that borders on fear and drives many to conclude that such places just aren’t for them.

Perception is all here, and for every sportsman confident enough to pit his wits against the world’s finest courses there are probably another nine too modest of fearful to go anywhere near. And more pertinently for the hotels themselves, thousands of potential customers rule out such hotels because they make the assumption that a golf hotel can’t possibly welcome families.

But if there is one single factor that defines Scottish hospitality over the last two decades, it’s the change in attitudes towards families. Scotland has undergone a revolution in the way it caters for children in recent years and rather than dragging their heels and reluctantly being forced to accept families, the big name golf hotels have led from the front.

Nobody would deny that economic realities have played their part in the change in attitude, but it’s as much about reading the market correctly and responding to what the traveller wants in this day and age.

With families enjoying less leisure time it has become less acceptable for the golfer to abandon his or her family entirely. You want golf during your break, fine. But after a round or two, you come back to your kin and spend the evening with them. Together.

“And if you think about it, golfing hotels were better placed to read the signs a few years back,” commented the general manager of one of the hotels. “The big golf hotels have been internationally focused for many years, much more so than many outlets. We relied on overseas visitors all along, and we were well placed to understand what an overseas visitor might want from a hotel in Scotland.

“The big issue for us was not catering properly for families, but getting the message over that we weren’t an elitist outlet only to be enjoyed by a select few and the very best golfers.

Nor were we just about business parties.” A classic example of just how much can be achieved in the family sphere is Gleneagles. As a golfing name it just doesn’t get any bigger, and yet the hotel itself has pulled itself back from a period of decline when in the hands of the state railway network British Rail and has now reinvented itself as a complete leisure centre.

It offers a children’s crèche, has family swimming facilities and has an informal dining area where children are encouraged to be children and can help create their own pizzas. The nature of the hotel, immense and sprawling as it is, means that the family focused areas are well separated from the two fine dining restaurants.

Not that there is any conscious effort to separate guests from each other, not at all. And where Gleneagles really scores highly is in the provision of a range of activities that can potentially stimulate an interest in a child that might last a lifetime. Including golf.

“Even from a very young age an interest can develop for the sport, and where better for a child to develop it than here?” says public relations executive Simon Brown.

“We can offer an introductory lesson and the golf centre’s facilities include a video system where we can show the youngster his swing and impose him next to Tiger Woods. It’s very impressive and youngsters love it.”

Nor does it end there. Falconry, off-road driving in specially designed mini Land Rovers and riding facilities are all aimed firmly at the whole family.

But if Gleneagles has succeeded in repositioning itself, the battle is somewhat tougher at the Old Course Hotel in St Andrews, and the hotel has in some ways gone even further to address the issue.

It’s a funny place, the Old Course. On the one hand there are all the symbols of golf’s home and heart, and the hotel is suitably respectful to the tradition. But the course lies in the heart of the town, is fully integrated between the coast and the shops, and makes a crucial contribution to the daily life of the local population.

Take access to playing at the Old Course itself. None, right? Wrong. Tee times are balloted on a daily basis and it doesn’t always follow that every time is taken.

“We had a situation recently where many of the tee times bought by American tour operators weren’t take up because it was too early in the season,” says Jonathan Stapleton, general manager at the Old Course. ”On those days you could just walk on and play.”

The hotel shares the Gleneagles view that introducing youngsters to golf at such iconic courses is the way to go.

“They do start young here,” Jonathan says, “and why not? It’s not like with some English clubs where there is an elitist thing involved. Golf is such a part of Scotland that the whole attitude is much more relaxed and natural even on the most formal courses.”

For the hotel there is certainly a balancing act going on between the needs of families and the demands of the serious golfer having his once-in-a-lifetime experience. As a result, the hotel will make financial sacrifices in the short term to makes sure the equilibrium is maintained.

“There have been times when we could have filled rooms with families but have decided to leave them empty instead,” says Jonathan. “We have a set allocation of family places and stick to it – otherwise all we so is build a problem for the future.”

With a beach at hand there is ample opportunity to provide a range of family facilities. Kite flying, for instance, is just one activity that the hotel offers by linking up to a local small business.

Quite how important families have become is realised from a statistic offered by one hotel showing that despite its reputation for golf, only about 40 per cent of guests staying at the hotel actually play.

The hotel with arguably the toughest task changing its reputation as a purely golf hotel is the Westin Turnberry. With its two championship courses, the addition of a links course and its relatively isolated position, it has had to work hard to encourage non-golfers through its doors.

But the figures suggest that it has succeeded remarkably well, and since it opened its outdoor activity centre some three years ago, it has attracted a new type of customer.

“It is hard moving forward when you have such a strong reputation for one specific thing,” says their director of sales and marketing. But with an offering that includes mountain biking, off-road jeep driving, falconry and quad biking the hotel has moved a long way from its sedate golfing roots without sacrificing them entirely.

And with children catered for with woodland walks, owl watching and archery, Turnberry is opening the door to a new generation.

Across all the hotels, holiday periods in particular are being catered for through children’s clubs, and the sort of activities which were traditionally confined to the local fun factory; face painting, painting, activities and visits from an array of larger than life characters.

It is the way forward, says Stephen Carter, general manager of St Andrews Bay Golf Resort and Spa, a more modern golfing hotel that has pioneered the modern approach to family catering in a golfing environment.

“We have been able to cater for all types of customer from the outset because our hotel was built specifically to do so. But even in the older hotels we are seeing a great deal of thought going in to making sure that children from even a very young age feel welcome.

“And that approach has to be good for Scotland as a whole.”


Auchterarder, Perthshire
Tel +44 (0) 1764 662231
Freephone: +44(0)800 704705 (UK)
+1 866 463 8734 (USA)

The Old Course Hotel
St Andrews, Fife
Tel: +44 (0)1334 474 371

St Andrews Bay Golf Resort and Spa
St Andrews, Fife
Tel: +44 (0)1334 837 000

The Westin Turnberry Resort
Turnberry, Ayrshire
Tel: +44(0)1655 331000

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