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International golf tour operators pose in front of the clubhouse at Whistling Straits. Jason Kauflin (kneeling), owner of Wisconsin Golf Trips, organized a FAM trip to generate exposure and interest in foreign markets for Wisconsin's high-end golf resorts and courses.

STEVENS POINT – Wine and stories flowed and laughter punctuated the conversation as a group of golfers dined at Muse at Sentry, the upscale restaurant on the Sentry Insurance campus, after a chilly mid-May round at SentryWorld.

The golfers were from far-flung locales such as China, Canada, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Sweden. This was not unusual in and of itself, given that Sentry regularly hosts international clients at its worldwide headquarters.

What made this gathering unique was that everyone in the group was a member of the International Association of Golf Tour Operators. According to its website, IAGTO has 2,716 accredited members in 103 countries, including 706 specialist golf tour operators. It is estimated that IAGTO controls 87 percent of golf travel packages sold worldwide.

Though most of the visitors had played destination golf in the United States, this was their first visit to Wisconsin. The ambitious itinerary included rounds at Whistling Straits, the Meadow Valleys Course at Blackwolf Run, SentryWorld, Sand Valley Resort, Erin Hills, the Palmer Course at Geneva National and the Brute and Highlands courses at Grand Geneva Resort.

There were meals at restaurants such as Muse and Bacchus and overnight stays at Hyatt Place Milwaukee, the Inn on Woodlake in Kohler, Sand Valley, Erin Hills and Grand Geneva.

Visit Milwaukee also took the group on a tour of the city. Johan Kullenberg of Swedish-based Golf Plaisir AB said he was surprised by all the things to see and do.

“To be honest, I thought Milwaukee would be more like an industrial town, like boring,” said Kullenberg, who lives in Stockholm. “I found it charming, with a lot more art and restaurants and everything. And along the lake you have these beaches. I’ve been to other areas in the United States where the towns are a little bit more industrial. Even though Milwaukee is an industrial town, it has a lot of charm.”

The FAM (familiarization) trip was organized by Jason Kauflin, who owns Wauwatosa-based Wisconsin Golf Trips, and was funded in large part by a Joint Effort Marketing (JEM) Grant from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.

“This group is the first concrete sign of the state coming together to promote, internationally, Wisconsin as a golf destination,” Kauflin said. “This FAM trip is intended so that these operators will see the full product and go back to their respective customer bases and say, ‘If you’re thinking about going to the States, you’ve got to consider Wisconsin. It’s as good as anything we can send you to.’”

Wisconsin as an international golf destination?

Perhaps we don’t fully appreciate the quality of golf our state has to offer. According to Golf Digest, Wisconsin has four of the top 18 public courses in America – No. 3 Whistling Straits, No. 9 Erin Hills, No. 15 Blackwolf Run (River) and No. 18 Sand Valley – and 10 of the top 100.

“Wisconsin is fantastic,” said Giles Greenwood of Seventy2 Golf, a U.K.-based trade sales agency specializing in golf tourism. “When you live in the state, you’re like, ‘Is it?’ You take it for granted. But it is stunning, stunning, stunning.

“It’s not often you come across an internationally undiscovered golf destination. This is like a blank piece of paper. The golf is really, really good.”

Zoe Fitz-Costa of U.K.-based Your Golf Travel was especially impressed with Whistling Straits.

“It’s up there in the top courses I’ve played,” she said. “It felt quite European. I loved it. It was brilliant.”

Your Golf Travel is the biggest golf tour operator in the world. The company has 300 employees and sent 1,000 clients to the Masters in April. It will bring 400 to Whistling Straits for the 2020 Ryder Cup.

Now that Fitz-Costa has seen first-hand the other top resorts and courses Wisconsin has to offer, she said she would be able to put together packages for Ryder Cup attendees from Europe who want to extend their stay and play golf.

“They know about Whistling Straits and they know about Erin Hills (the 2017 U.S. Open venue), but I think some of the other places and how you can make a whole tour of it, perhaps the knowledge isn’t quite there yet,” she said. “With the Ryder Cup coming, it’s definitely something that we’re keen to make the most of.”

Kauflin said the tour operators were surprised by the different types of courses relatively close to one another: SentryWorld and the Meadow Valleys Course are parkland gems, Whistling Straits is a faithful links imitation on Lake Michigan, Erin Hills was laid over rugged glacial terrain in the Kettle Moraine and Sand Valley was built in the state's central sand barrens.

“The general impression was they could not believe the variety,” Kauflin said. “It’s really unmatched, is the way they described it, in such a small area.”

That variety is in contrast to more well-known U.S. golf destinations such as Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama, where there is a sameness to the courses that can border on monotony.

The knock on Wisconsin, of course, is winter. But Greenwood said the state’s relatively short golf season would not be a deterrent to international golfers looking to play “trophy” courses.

“People are not coming for 90-degree heat,” he said. “They’re coming to play great golf courses. Golfers are trophy hunters. They want to tick off the courses: I’ve played Sand Valley, Whistling Straits, Erin Hills. Tick, tick, tick. They go home and tell all their mates, ‘I’ve played all these great golf courses.’ Job done.

“This place can capture every market: Europeans, Asians, South Americans, Canadians. There’s no reason why you can’t capture every market. It’s just an awareness.”

Greenwood noted that tour operators Jessie Yang and Kai Xuan, who represent Beijing Unitour International Travel Service and Shanghai Ever Bright Town International Travel Service, respectively, asked numerous questions of their hosts.

“So you know they’re really interested,” he said.

The high-end golf resorts in Wisconsin have in the past resisted working together; each has its own marketing plan and competes for rounds and dollars from traveling golfers. That will have to change in order for international tour operators to put together attractive packages.

“On the international scene it makes way more sense to come together and say, ‘Hey, we are one product that can compete with any other destination in the world right now,’” Kauflin said.

Logistics such as rates, discounts and how profits are shared would have to be worked out before tour operators in Asia and Europe start sending masses of golfers to Wisconsin. But this FAM trip, all agreed, was an important first step.

“This is the very start of international golf tourism in Wisconsin,” Greenwood said. “These guys in the room here, they will be selling it. Once they start selling it, their competitors will start selling it as well. It’s just going to snowball. I cannot see why Wisconsin cannot be one of the top three golf destinations in North America.”

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