I am the CEO of North & West Coast Links Golf Ireland, established 31 years ago by the clubs in the region. It was initially set up as an International Marketing Company with the task of increasing the profile of the courses in this region of Ireland and we now offer packages and itineraries to include golf, accommodation, luxury transport, dinners, fishing, whiskey tasting, Game of Thrones tours and other activities along the Wild Atlantic Way. So added to our marketing arm, we now put the full package together for golfers visiting Ireland.
THE MCLAUGHLIN STORY
I believe this region of Ireland is the unknown quantity for Golf in Ireland. While Golf Courses all over Ireland are outstanding, the courses in this region are especially high end, but in a very natural way. We have a great stable of Championship Links Courses, set in dramatic locations along the Wild Atlantic Way. These courses always make you feel like you are playing something special, with the sounds and the smells of the sea always with you. Take a look at the course designers and you will get a feel for what we have – Hackett, Ruddy, Hawtree, Doak, Hanse, Craddock – all legends in what they do.
The experience in this region only begins with the courses by the way. When you add the accommodations, restaurants, pubs, music and other activities to your golfing holiday, then your senses truly come alive. We are well known for our quality food and also our legendary Guinness and Whiskey’s, but our greatest asset is our people, and it is important to engage with us as much as possible during your time in Ireland. We like to enjoy ourselves and have some fun and this comes through when we are dealing with our golfing visitors.
While you are here it in important to take time, do not rush around too much, take a day away from the courses and do some exploring. Our rugged coastline is worth checking out and there are many other activities to engage in on a non-golfing day. I really enjoy a visit to The Ceide Fields in Co Mayo which is an incredible Cultural experience – and there are many more along the coastline.
Overall, how did the 2019 golf season go for the North & West Coast Links of Ireland?
We had a very busy season in 2019. There has been a build up to 2019 ever since it was announced Royal Portrush would host The Open. This was also helped with the success of The Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Portstewart in 2017 and Ballyliffin 2018. All of these great courses are in our group so the publicity generated has helped with demand. I believe 2020 will be an equally busy season and bookings are already strong.
The biggest challenge — short and long term — facing your efforts is what?
Availability of tee times on our trophy courses. Of course we have availability on our other great courses but people tend to want to include certain courses in their itinerary – we say “trust us and we will give you great courses and a great golf vacation”. In the long term we worry about political instability around the world and, of course. Brexit.
Ballyliffin hosted the 2018 Irish Open. How significant was the overall economic impact and is there a desire for the event to return either to Ballyliffin or another location in the region?
Ballyliffin hosted a great tournament in 2018 and it received rave reviews from around the world. Portstewart in 2017 also was a great tournament and both of there have helped grow the green fee income for their respective clubs but also more significantly for the clubs nearby and for the hotels and other tourism based entities. Portstewart is hoping to host again in 2021 and Ballyliffin too in the not to distant future.
It appears likely the United Kingdom will be leaving the European Union shortly — given Northern Ireland is part of the UK – do you see any impact on tourism specifically on the golf side for the courses that are part of your efforts?
We have some of our member courses in Northern Ireland, as you have mentioned, but given the huge emphasis that both governments have given to the border area, we would hope that the free flow of people will continue, as they have promised. Tourism is too valuable for both the Republic of Ireland and for Northern Ireland to have any obstacles to travel.
You’ve been in the golf industry for quite some time — what roles does customer feedback play in how future outreach efforts are carried out?
We talk to all of our customers, either during or after their holiday, and we get a feel for what they experienced and if we need to change anything going forward. Like all good business’s we base our marketing efforts on what our customers are looking for. This year during 2019 we visited some new cities in the US to spread the good word.
Ireland is know for its world class customer service — what makes that possible and what valuable lessons have you learned in your efforts when dealing with golfers coming from all over the world?
I think the Irish just have a way with people and we are able to transfer that to our customer service efforts. Most establishments have training in place but I think it comes naturally to the Irish to help people and go the extra mile. Our people are our greatest asset.
If you could change one thing in golf unilaterally — what would it be and why?
For me slow play is a no no – I play my best golf in a 2.5 hour round !
The major golf organizations — R&A, USGA, PGA of America, PGA and European Tours, LPGA — are all seeking ways to attract Millennials, women and minorities into the sport. What grade would you give their collective efforts and what advice would you share with them to put into motion in 2020 and beyond?
Growing the game of golf is a difficult one and I see it with my own family. I probably don’t play as much as I used to, I spend more time going to football matches and training teams. I try to make sure that we all still play golf as a family and I think that is an important message for the bodies to put out there. Again, speed on the course would help keep the young golfers interested .
One of the more interesting developments comes from the involvement of architect Tom Doak in creating his first 18-hole layout in Ireland. His efforts at Rosapenna will mean either a possible opening in late 2020 or early 2021. How impactful do you see this being in terms of driving more golfers to the region?
As I mentioned earlier, we have a great variety of golf architects working in Ireland and certainly Tom Doak is world famous. I think his work will help publicize the region and will be another great course in this area, bringing the Rosapenna complex up to 63 holes. Gil Hanse is working close by, Pat Ruddy is building another nine holes in Ballyliffin, giving them 45 holes so all of this will help attract more golfers to the area.
For those either coming to the North and West for a repeat visit or for those coming for the first time — what’s the best advice you can share in maximizing their stay?
For whomever you are booking your golf vacation with, please make sure they have local knowledge. It is important that the correct accommodations, restaurants, bars, tours are recommended and booked. Also, don’t get hung up on the big names, we have a fantastic array of great courses just waiting for you.