Bangkok, January 23 — Apart from a handful of tour pros, few golfers get the chance to turn their hobby and passion into a business, let alone make it a market leader.
Unintentionally and to his own surprise, Mark Siegel did just that. Only six years after he bought Golfasian, a fledgling Bangkok-based golf tour operator, the New York-raised entrepreneur has turned the company into the largest and most successful dedicated inbound golf tourism business in South-East Asia.
Unlike the superstars of tournament golf – Nicklaus, Norman, Player, Crenshaw, Montgomerie et al – who have capitalised on their names and status to develop multi-million dollar golf-related businesses, Siegel’s only previous connection to golf was as an enthusiastic mid-handicap player.
In fact, he had come to Thailand in 2005 “to live in peace and to work on my golf game” after taking early retirement from a career in the electronics industry that began in California and for 15 years embedded him in Japan and, after a stint back in California, in Singapore.
Golfasian, which was launched in 1997 as an adjunct to a golf book highlighting 200-plus courses in Thailand, was bringing just 600 golf tourists to the kingdom a year when Mark Siegel bought the company.
“The business had no employees, no assets and the owner didn’t want to be in the golf tourism business. He had gone down that path only because people who read the golf book began asking to come to Thailand to play golf,” he explains.
The rest is history.
Just two months after his purchase, a former golf pro who he engaged to run the business decided to quit, leaving Siegel between a rock and a hard place. He initially ran the business from his apartment, acting as owner, driver, marketer and general dogsbody.
Just six years later, in 2011, Golfasian brought 5300 golf tourists, who played 25,000 rounds, to South-East Asia. Current projections suggest numbers will reach 6000 this year and perhaps 10,000 in the not-too-distant future.
Perhaps of greater importance is that Golfasian has played a major part in Thailand’s surge to become the world’s third major inbound golf tourism market and the clear leader in Asia. Along the way the kingdom has become a premium – in terms of quality rather than price – international golf destination
Mark Siegel’s success in marketing golf tourism defies the maxim that successful businesses are usually only developed by those whose career was forged in the same industry. Not only did he not have a background in golf, he had no marketing experience.
Despite this, a focused and highly effective marketing emphasis has been the engine that has propelled Golfasian to the top of its game.
Siegel was instrumental in the formation in 2009 of Golf In A Kingdom (www.golfinakingdom.com) a destination-marketing group of which the top golf courses, hotels and resorts are members and that handles an estimated one-third of all foreign golfers who visit Thailand.
He attends major golf trade shows around the world – including the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando in late January – regularly organises trips for international journalists and editors, is an active member of the International Association of Golf Tourism Operators, personally assesses and reports on courses and destinations in his monthly e-newsletter Asian Golf Nation and has perhaps the most comprehensive website of any golf tourism operator anywhere.
“Marketing is the key to our success,” he observes. “Most people involved in golf tourism know us, government tourist bodies in the countries where we send golfers know us and we have invested heavily in our own staff [now totaling 25 in Thailand and Vietnam with another 10 expected to be hired in the next year].
“We have our own vehicles and our own drivers who speak good English. We don’t contract any of this work outside the company. If a group wants to stay longer at a course, have a few drinks afterwards or whatever else, our drivers will wait and make sure they get back to their hotel or where they need to go.
Because of this, we are able to give personal guarantees to customers. It’s what differentiates Golfasian from broad-based tour companies.”
The internet has also been important. “We decided at the outset to develop a web presence on our own and at one point had three people developing websites,” he explains. “Now, we have the Golfasian website (www.golfasian.com) and 24 feeder websites alerting golfers to hundreds of courses in five [soon to be eight] countries. The time and money we invested in the internet has really paid off. Now, a search for ‘Thailand golf’ ranks Golfasian as number one – without any advertising.”
A trend towards multi-country golf trips has resulted in Golfasian this year adding southern China, Laos and Myanmar to its already-tantalising menu of destinations.
“Myanmar [Burma] is especially attractive. On one course there are 1000-year-old stupas [Buddhist religious sites] and the status of golf there has been enhanced by an Asian Tour event held each year in Yangon,” he says.
Two or three different destinations can actually be less expensive than going to one destination. “Usually, the second destination is cheaper than the main destination, so the total cost of the trip is less,” he explains.
Despite economic woes in Europe and the United States, Mark Siegel is upbeat about the future of golf tourism to Asia. “The recession is working to our advantage,” he notes. “When times are good, wealthy people go to the most luxurious locations.
When things get tighter, they go to less premium locations that may not be as glamorous at first sight as other places, but offer great value for money and a memorable experience. Thailand is such a place.”
Siegel also believes South-East Asia is benefitting from the so-called ‘Arab spring’ because snow-bound European golf tourists, “who have to go somewhere,” are by-passing emerging, competitive golf destinations like Morocco and Turkey and turning to known established alternatives, especially Thailand.
Visit www.golfasian.com for more details.
Note to Editors: Mark Siegel will attend the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Florida from January 26-28 and is available for interviews at the Tourism Thailand booth #1881.
For more information, contact:
Paul Myers, Asian Travel Media, Bangkok
Tel: +66 (0) 84 125 1894 (Thailand) or +61 407 738 453 (Australia)