Travel Stories – Madrid

Wednesday evening in Madrid. What to do? The first rule of traveling is never to eat in the hotel – if you eat there, all you ever see is airport, golf course and hotel. So, taxi to Plaza Mayor. Stroll around for several hours. Stop in several bars. The great thing about Spain is that if you order a beer, you get a small plate of olives, or salad, or vegetables, meat or fish. In Italy it would be called Antipasti. In Spain, it’s tapas or, for the really hungry, ‘raciones’. So, you can wander, stop at a bar, have a drink and something to nibble on; then wander off again, only to repeat the process when you find another bar that looks interesting. Hours later, it’s time to go back to the hotel, not having sat down to a meal, but having eaten more than enough. And having seen a lot of a beautiful city. Perfect.

  • Palacio Real, Madrid - at dusk
  • Beer and olives, Madrid.

Santiago – Cape Verde Islands

A trip to a new project is always something to look forward to, especially if it’s located somewhere new. So, last week’s visit to Cape Verde islands was one I had been looking forward to for a while.

We’ve been invited by a developer there to design the golf courses to be included in a huge development on Santiago. With a land area in excess of 3000Ha, there’s plenty of space. More importantly, the development team want to achieve a resort development that is inclusive – no guard gates/fences/exclusions here – the land is part of the local economy and community now; the brief is that it should remain so after we’ve all left. With a design team including master planners, economic planners and environmental consultants, we spent several days on site trying to get a feel for the land, and the island as a whole, in order that when the planning starts we can give the resort some authenticity. The last thing any of us want is yet another themed, Disney-esque, plastic resort.

Getting a feel for the island included visiting Praia, the main town, as well as eating out at some of the local restaurants. All serve really good, simple, food with local fish and meat high on the menu. The beer (Strela) is local too. And not bad at all. The wine is better than good and the local population very friendly.

While the islands have great history (the first European settlement outside Europe, the first ‘African’ town to have a paved street, the centre for west African slave trading to the new world), they are incredibly undeveloped and ‘native’ (in the best sense of the word). So, there’s an added responsibility to make sure that whatever we do is appropriate.

On the last evening, we went to the top of the mountain. The day had become quite cloudy at sea level, so it was quite a sight as we climbed through the cloud to view the top, which is the view in the image.

  • On the last evening, we went to the top of the mountain. The day had become quite cloudy at sea level, so it was quite a sight as we climbed through the cloud to view the top

Environmental Certification Programme

Good things are always worth waiting for. The industry has long needed a verifiable method of demonstrating to those within and, more importantly, to those outside golf the environmental value that well planned, well constructed and well managed golf courses can bring to communities. In short, the industry has needed a credible environmental certification programme.

And now Golf Environment Organisation has delivered just that. Launched last week, the GEO Certification programme has the one thing that all previous attempts have not had – independence. No longer will the golf industry be involved in self-policing. Now, with GEO Certification, golf courses will be verified by independent experts from outside the industry. It will be transparent. It will have credibility. It will have legitimacy. Registration is free and simple – start by clicking on http://www.golfenvironment.org/

It may be slightly melodramatic to suggest that the future of the golf industry depends on programmes such as this, but what is undeniable is that the industry is greatly strengthened by this. What kind of message would it send if every club in Europe was registered?

  • Flowers on and around the course at The Dutch
  • Flowers on and around the course at The Dutch
  • Flowers on and around the course at The Dutch

Big Thinking

If you always look at the same kind of problem in the same way, you’ll always come up with the same answer or, worse still, no answer at all. If, on the other hand, you are forced to look at that same problem from a very different perspective, it is possible to achieve the extraordinary.

Ross and I took part in a brain-storming session over the past couple of days to try to explore ways around what had been, for a long time, a situation apparently fatal to one of our client’s strategic plans. A room full of creative, energetic and intelligent people (and us) broke down the problem into it’s constituent parts and then, from a completely different angle, we were able to come up with ideas that took each of the situation’s negatives and turned them into incredibly strong positives.

Industry Observations

Having spent a large part of the past month visiting and speaking at conferences, I’ve learned a few things:

Observation 1 – Golf Inc. Conference, Florida USA
If you think things are bad where you are, go to the US. It might be an exaggeration to suggest that nothing is happening in the golf development world at the moment, but there doesn’t appear to be much happening at all. There are a lot of gloomy faces. And Gary Player, at 73, has more energy than people more than half his age. Remarkable.

Observation 2 – International Golf Conference, Denmark
The Danes are a clever lot. They managed to get the whole of the golf business together and spent a day discussing the challenges that they all face and how to deal with them. It was fascinating to hear how the national Federation, golf course owners, operators, professionals and suppliers plan to work together to grow and develop the game.

Observation 3 – Golf and the Environment Conference, Spain
No matter how much talk about “the environment” and “sustainability” there might be, there is still an incredible amount of head-in-the-sand thinking about golf’s wider impact and the need for the golf industry as a whole to stand up for itself when there is a good story to be told, but equally to stand up to bad practice when necessary. Remaining silent when it’s clear that rules/guidelines are being ignored does the industry no favours at all. We MUST speak up.

Observation 4 – Golf Environment Organisation – European Industry Forum, Scotland
The Golf Environment Organisation (GEO) is dragging us, in some cases not as willingly as we should be, into the right frame of mind for the future of the industry. They DO speak out when they see bad practice. They are giving the industry the tools to demonstrate future sustainability, through the Certification programme and the Development Guidelines, both of which are soon to be launched. But, as with every other not-for-profit organisation, funding is a constant source of concern. We cannot allow that to limit the work that they can do for the betterment of the game, and the environment, in the future.

  • Taken by Jeremy Slessor while in Edinburgh for the Golf Environment Organisation conference. North Berwick Links is a true links with commanding views of the sea, over great wide sandy beaches, across the dark rocky islets of the Forth estuary to the green hilly Fife coast, the volcanic grey and white streaked hump of the Bass Rock and distant May Island on the horizon.

Hot in Istanbul

Spending two days stuck in a hotel reviewing project plans with investors, master planners, financial analysts and other consultants is part of the job, but not always the most fun way to spend time. But, when that hotel is in Istanbul, on the bank of the Bosphorus, and the project team just happens to be red hot, then there are certain benefits.

Istanbul is one of the most vibrant cities in Europe although, technically, less than half of it is actually in Europe – the city itself straddles the divide between east and west, between Europe and Asia. As a result, the mix of culture, food, people and architecture makes for an amazing experience every time. The weather this week was cold and rainy, which meant that we weren’t really missing anything during our daily meetings, but we did get out a little at night.

If you need a great business hotel in Istanbul, then try the Radission Bosphorus in the Ortokay district – very modern, very comfortable and perfectly located. And if you like live music, there’s a great Jazz club right next door.

  • Istanbul - The view from the Hotel
  • Istanbul - This bridge is the link between Europe and Asia

EGD Sign New Design Agreement in Sharm el Sheikh

We’ve recently reached agreement with a developer to design the golf course and academy for a new resort project in Egypt. Stan and I spent most of last week in Cairo and Sharm el Sheikh for design meetings. We can’t be too specific at the moment about the nature of the project, but it is a very large scale resort development that will include multiple hotels, residential units and leisure, including golf. The golf course will be designed in association with one of our Signature Designers.

The developers are Cairo based. Among other properties, they own an extraordinary development in Cairo, close to the airport. This project is now completed, but includes hotels, apartments, office space and a shopping centre. The shopping centre attracts an average of 80,000 people per day. That’s an annual amount of over 29 million people. To put that into context, that is more than twice the number of visitors each year that go to Euro Disney! We’ll keep the Blog updated regularly as the project moves forward.

A Bright Start to the Year

Despite the economic doom and gloom that continues to surround us all, the new year has started brightly for us with, perhaps, encouraging signs that the inherent optimism of developers has not been completely lost.

Since the start of the year, we’ve reached agreements with developers in Turkey, Portugal and Morocco to assist with the master planning of new integrated resorts. The consensus among these groups is the thought that now is the perfect time to start planning the master planning process, together with the subsequent submission for planning approvals, will take 12-18 months by which time it would be reasonable to expect that we’ll have reached the bottom of the market and the graph of economic indicators will be climbing again. And, the logic further goes, if that’s not the case and we’re still mired in recession, then that will be a great time to start construction because build costs will be as low as they’re going to get.

The other common threads through each of these developments is that they are well funded, well located and are being developed by groups with solid track records of delivering returns on investment, all of which helps to ease the concerns of investors.

Out On the Road with EGD

Having attended two conferences over the past couple of weeks, it has been interesting gauging various reactions to the current trends. Some of the points of interest are as follows:

European Golf Course Owners Association, Berlin
– Traditional 7-day membership programmes are dying. People want more flexibility and wise operators are increasingly adopting membership structures similar to those in the health and leisure industries (ie no joining fees and monthly – as opposed to annual – fees).

– There is very little growth in the number of players.

– The national federations appear to be representing a decreasing minority of the golfers in Europe and have little, or no, success in attracting new people to the game which raises the question as to what they do with all of the revenue generated from the subscriptions.

– The slowing pace of play is killing participation.

– An increasing number of people are playing 9 holes rather than 18, to the point where some courses are now marketing themselves as having two 9 hole courses instead of an 18 hole course.

– Golf courses need to become mini-resorts with diverse leisure facilities catering for as wide a range of users as possible.

OPP Live, London
– Projects that are well located, well funded and well planned are moving ahead, despite the economic crisis.

– Developers with proven track records of delivering these type of projects are still able to source investment.

– Sales are slower than in recent years, but there is still interest for the right residential product(s).

– The economic situation is acting as an “idiot-filter” in that the speculative gambler attracted to property development by tales of easy money has disappeared from the marketplace, leaving only serious players, on all sides of the property development spectrum (investment, development, design and implementation).

Carbon Offsetting

As we launch our Environmental Policy (which can be found on the Environment Page), it seemed a good time to bring you up to date with our thinking on the whole carbon emission/zero carbon debate.

For a long time, we’ve wrestled with the dilemma that in order to visit our projects to ensure that the design and construction achieves environmental enhancement, we need to get on a plane and fly – with all of the inherent problems that creates with regard to our carbon footprint. So, we’ve been looking for some time at various schemes that could reduce that footprint. The one thing we’ve learned over the past few months is that there are a lot of snake-oil schemes that achieve nothing.

Half of the problem is trying to determine what kind of offsetting (actually, the better term for it is ‘mitigation’ as real one-to-one offsetting is very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve) any programme is contributing to – it’s all too easy to say that planting trees, or giving low-emission light bulbs out in third world countries, will “offset carbon footprints” but it is just not that easy to work out – offsets are an imaginary commodity created by deducting what you hope happens from what you guess would have happened.

We’re now investigating various schemes, with the assistance of Golf Environment Europe which might, in the long term, be a better ‘green pound’ spend than anything else.

We’re working on it, and will update the Blog once we’ve reached some conclusions. In the meantime, do take a look at our Environmental Policy Statement.