He is president of Villa Padierna Hotels & Resorts, a pensive man who infuses a soothing tone into his observations. Always with a restless mind, in this interview Ricardo Arranz de Miguel expresses his ideas about how – in his view – the Costa del Sol golf business should evolve.
If there is one thing that defines this native of Burgos (born in Aranda de Duero mid last century), with his eminently elegant demeanour, it is that he does not mince his words.
“I think we need to regain the Marbella brand,” he declares straight away, before explaining… “During the period when we held the Ryder Cup, we had the idea of creating the Costa del Golf brand, which later we were unable to consolidate or sell – neither the authorities nor the private sector. Now, as the Costa del Sol or Costa del Golf is not uniform, I believe we should start to create specialised brands.
“At the time when I arrived in Málaga as a student (he studied economics) I recall that Torremolinos was an absolutely key brand, perhaps even more so than the Marbella brand, but we became a victim of our own success and we wrecked it.”
Arranz is convinced that the most important tourism brand in Andalucía is Marbella, “and now, copying the Marbella model, we should be creating or developing brands in the surrounding areas, especially in provinces competing with Marbella such as Cádiz, Granada and Almería”.
In his opinion, a study should be initiated “to create new brands that are destination brands.
“Having said that, bearing in mind the current circumstances around the world, from a tourist and also a golf business viewpoint, Andalucía is Europe’s premier destination because at the moment it has something that we haven’t had before: impressive infrastructure quality.”
In this respect, among others, he cites Málaga airport, “which is in a position to grow more than double when previously the opposite was the case and we had more passengers than we could receive, and the highways and tollways, “which link all the golf courses in a very convenient manner”. For Arranz, among “our greatest strengths”, climate is first; security, second; and infrastructure, third.
Against these positive aspects, he points to the “quite problematical weaknesses” of this tourist destination. “Focusing on the world of golf, I believe we have been incapable of creating a true golf destination, a top-drawer destination, a golf destination set up like a ski destination, where the client who comes here can have access, in a clear and convenient way, to different options.
“In the first place, it was a success that we designed all the golf courses – including those I developed – to be sold by shares; and maybe that is what has led to a lack of vision in creating much more saleable golf destinations.”
In his opinion, “We have perhaps lacked two important things: on the one hand, marketing and sales professionals to bring this to fruition; and on the other, in particular, a level of quality service that can attract and provide security to high-end tourists who visit us.”
According to Arranz, “We have become accustomed to courses being built by a developer; the immense majority have been developed to create more value for the land, in the urbanisation, and thus sell more real estate assets. However, in the end, these developers have disappeared and – this is logical and normal – committees with their presidents and managers have arrived with the mission of, in one way or another, providing services to their group of members.
“The big mistake,” he says, “is that we haven’t been able to ensure that golf clubs create a marketing and sales process that, together with the authorities and private enterprise, makes us a first-class or high-quality golf destination.”
If it was in your hands, what would you do to achieve better promotion of the destination and attract more golfers with high spending power?
That’s a reflection for all of us to make . Perhaps it’s a problem for those of us who own 100 per cent of our golf courses, representing two or three per cent of the courses here. What I would ask is that the immense majority of other clubs feel the need to create a high to mid-level clientele, which is really what we have in Europe. We are always boasting about being a destination with loads of golf courses, but if you travel to such countries as Germany, Britain, Italy and northern Europe you see that they have a lot more courses closed than we have open. Germany has nearly 1,000 golf courses, 80 per cent of them developed over the past 20 years, with between 1,500 and 2,000 members and a member’s share costing nearly €200,000. That is, a priority clientele for us. And above all else, for most of winter the courses are closed because of snow and horrible cold weather. So we haven’t been able to attract these clients. I remember going to Germany, near Munich, to one of Europe’s leading academies, with seven golf courses for people to learn to play, and in the practice area the balls were being hit out into the snow – and there were more than 100 coaches.
While this has been developed in Germany, we – with the benefit of all the right conditions – have been unable to do the same. We have not been able to set up top international golf academies here, for seniors, women, children. We are lacking something in the private sector, or public sector. That’s the constructive criticism I would like to make. Until now, what we’ve done is like the real estate sector: sell bread. People came here, we sold to them, we raised prices… In the future I believe it’s all about knowing how to sell the bread; that is, knowing how to do the right marketing and PR, and attracting a high to mid-level clientele which in a way will be what gives us continuity and eases the seasonality of the golf business.
The problem is determining the magic formula to attract them…
The magic formula is hard work. It needs to be done like it was in the Dolomites, with skiing, where it went from being an unexplored and unknown place to creating 1,200 kilometres of ski pistes and an industry that now attracts a large proportion of Europeans to ski there. And also offering them amazing amenities while being a protected destination from the point of view of the environment. The Italians responded and have succeeded: from being the most depressed area in Italy, it is now the region with the highest revenue and income per capita in the country.
We can copy all of that in the world of golf, because we have the clients in Europe. In the UK alone, there are more than 1,500 golf courses; we have clients in the Middle East because we’re going to have one or two daily flights from Doha or Dubai to Málaga. And there are many expatriates in the Emirates of very high economic levels, and there are quite a few golf courses where they play regularly and where, unlike in central and northern Europe, over there the courses close in summer because the temperature is 45 or 50 degrees. And here we can offer them climate, security and transport communications.
Nevertheless, to repeat, we are lacking something: professionalism when it comes to marketing and developing an image, and we are especially also lacking professionalism in offering service and looking after clients well. It is not acceptable that in Portugal, Morocco or the United States, if you want to play golf at one of the thousands of courses they have there, they don’t only insist that with your green fee you take a golf cart but it is also obligatory to hire a caddie. Because the caddie is not someone who carries your bag, now in the golf cart, but someone who can offer advice and help you with your game. Why in a place where we have the highest unemployment rate in all of Europe is there no caddie academy, or no caddies? Because we have a complex about this, because we don’t know this reality, we don’t know that all of Spain’s legendary golfers began as caddies. Why should we be ashamed about this if the United States, Portugal and Morocco are not ashamed?
Do you believe there would be demand here for caddies?
If we have a medium to high-level clientele and we know that in these destinations, which are not cheaper than us, it works, why wouldn’t it work here, when it has already worked for us and we have such huge unemployment? It’s something we should analyse in greater depth. I believe we need to offer clients a personalised service, looking after the specific demands of each person. To return to the Dolomites, if I want to ski on certain pistes, the hotel arranges my transfer there at no additional cost. We need to foster the mentality here, at golf courses, including members’ clubs, that clients should receive the best treatment possible. And it should always be taken into account that a client – especially one of a medium to high economic status – might go to another destination if they don’t receive the right treatment here.