Golf Monthly’s Rob Smith was at the Royal Golf Club in Bahrain recently for the launch of the Volvo Champions, an exciting new event that will launch the European Tour’s season in style. Whilst there, he spent some time with Per Ericsson, president of Volvo Event Management.

RS
Volvo has had a very long-term relationship with golf, tell me a little about that and how you see it going forward.

PE
We are the longest-standing sponsor on the European Tour; it started in 1988. When we started with my predecessor Mel Pyatt, the Tour was not yet a full tour in the way that it is now. Mel invented the concept of courtesy cars, special players’ lounges and many other things that are taken for granted now. So in those days it was ‘what can Volvo do for golf?’ The difference now is that it is ‘what can golf actually bring to Volvo?’ Golf has grown dramatically over those 20 years in terms of media coverage, the number of tournaments, the prize funds and in all areas. So now it is the other way round and we use golf for two reasons. We have a pretty good sponsorship portfolio with three tournaments. One in Europe, the World Matchplay; the Volvo China Open; and now this new tournament in Bahrain. And combined with that, we have this client/customer, perhaps corporate element, call it what you will, a tournament that we have been running for many, many years which is going to grow even further now in terms of actually making use of the way we communicate with our clients. Many of our customers are into golf, and that is why we are into golf. We are now going to give the golfer who is a client or a prospective customer of ours a great opportunity. This is the guy who plays in your own home town; he can win his regional final, win his national final, and he ends up here in Bahrain. Not only that, but he will play with the Pros in the tournament – not in a Pro-Am, but in the tournament itself where for the Pro, a putt may be worth 20 or 30 thousand Euros! It’s real golf! So to build that dream for the local club golfer is what this is all about for me. We care equally for our golfing clients as we do for the Professionals who play in our tournaments and this seems to be a very obvious way of demonstrating that.

RS
Focussing in on this very strong relationship between Volvo and golf – quite simply, why golf?

PE
That is a good question and one that we look at internally as well, and the simple answer is that our clients play golf! This is both on the car side of the business, but also in our other businesses especially the truck companies that we have. But there is a lot more to it than that. Golfers are passionate people, and to be able to reach a client, get under the skin when he is doing what he enjoys the most, is a fascinating opportunity. Golfers are loyal and we have good relationships with them. We are also fortunate that the growth of golf in the world coincides with where we as a company are growing – China, India, Brazil – so it makes sense for that reason as well. It is also about our watchwords such as quality. If you look at the demographics of the golfing population all over the world, it is pretty consistent and reflects our brand in a good way. That is why we were first to take this route – although we are now not alone – but we feel that we have an advantage.

RS
Tell me a little about the new Volvo Champions tournament and your hopes for it going forward.

PE
Well obviously this year we are starting with a kind of a celebration of this concept. It’s not a new idea as there has been a tournament of champions on the US Tour now for many years. I wanted a similar event in Europe and since we want it to be the first of the year, the schedule for the whole European Tour has to be changed which we cannot do until 2012. That is why we will have a full field for the first one but from then on it will be just the winners from the previous year. If you look at what we have done in the past, such as the Volvo Masters, then that was not just a normal tournament, it was for the top 64. This is the same as it is not just another tournament. The Volvo World Matchplay at Finca Cortesin is again just the top players. And that is what we want to do, something different.

RS
Can you see this being a long-term commitment/event?

PE
Definitely. We did Valderrama for 21 years, Wentworth for 17 years, we are doing the China Open for 16 years. We are in it for the long-term not the short. If you do go for short, that sponsorship becomes expensive. If you are long-term, and you are in there when things are tough as well as when it is good, then it becomes cheap.

RS
Why Bahrain?

PE
The simple reason would be the weather – if you want to run the first tournament in Europe it can’t be in Europe! But there are other reasons. First of all was the welcome here. I travel all around the world, and they are extremely happy to have us here. The Economic Development Board here has a slogan which is ‘business friendly’ and it is more than just a slogan, they are very good to work with. It is also about the course, the club and the facilities – but you need more than that, you need good hotels close by. Here you have the Formula One track which means that we will be able to do a couple of things with our cars. The entire infrastructure is very good. In the end, business-wise, the middle east makes sense for us. It is a growing market, especially for trucks and construction equipment, but it is also geographically in between our biggest market, Europe, and our fastest-growing market which is Asia. It is possible to bring people here without them having to travel the entire width of the world.

RS
Your enthusiasm for amateur golf is clear, tell me why you are so keen on this.

PE
I don’t really like the word amateur in relation to golf, because to me this implies the possibility of becoming a pro next year. I am an average golfer and I play in my leisure time – I don’t play so much this way as I would like, but I feel I can understand their way of thinking and the passion that they put into golf. Being able to tap into this as a business force – and it is a force – is a very good relationship-building and marketing tool. We could support just the amateur game, but we are also involved in the professional game because we feel that doing both creates the best relationships with our customers.

RS
Please can you tell us a little about your personal golfing background.

PE
My handicap is 15 – although I really think my main handicap is my swing. My short game is good. I mainly only get to play when I travel, perhaps nine holes but not often. I am a member of a course in Sweden, Fjallbacka, which is on the west coast close to my summer home. I only get to play three or four full rounds a year, but I do hope to play more in the future.

RS
Do you have favourite courses around the world?

PE
There are two. Obviously there are many in China, but it was a great experience to play Leopard Creek in South Africa – amazing with all the wild animals, I hadn’t realised how famous it was until I played it. And then there is Kapalua in Hawaii where they actually play the US season opener and which is a marvellous resort course.

RS
When you have had the chance to play golf and for it not to be business-related, what have you personally got out of it?

PE
Relaxation! I have been a CEO for a long time. To play golf, if you want to play well, you have to concentrate and cannot be thinking about anything else. For me, that is relaxation itself. And although I have been a sportsman and have a competitive mind, for me it is the camaraderie. I’ve played my own version of the Ryder Cup with my closest friends for many years and that is something I wouldn’t want to miss. I really think it’s about playing the game and also the camaraderie.

RS
Going off at a tangent, you are a very successful businessman and golf clubs are struggling both in the UK and I believe in Sweden with falling membership levels and income. Have you any ideas about making golf more appealing?

PE
It’s true that it is struggling in the Nordic countries and the UK, but in the rest of the world it is doing well. I think that in our countries you don’t have to be extremely rich to play golf; you don’t have to be dressed in a certain way at most of the courses in Scandinavia and the UK, but I think it is the time that you have to spend that is the real problem. It takes too long and golf needs to speed up. I don’t really think it’s about green fees and subscription costs. We have discussed this a little with the European Tour and I don’t know about cricket but I have heard about 20-20 which is designed to make it quicker. Maybe we need something like that in golf?! When will we invent the penalty shootout version of golf? Here at the Royal Club in Bahrain they have floodlights so you can play nine holes in total darkness. You could then show that on live television when people are at home. Some new developments will come. I did make a lot of changes with the World Matchplay, with the way it worked, and I had a lot of people saying “you can’t do that”, but I am prepared to challenge and I will continue to do so. This idea of a penalty shootout at golf, I have some ideas and will find a solution because I think it makes for good television.