When a planner looks to stage an engaging recreational activity for internal meeting attendees, he or she can be in the more advantageous position of knowing specifically what would appeal to the group, through personal acquaintance with many participants and the corporate culture. But when the attendees are external to the company, such as clients, vendors or sponsors, it is typically best to look for an activity that has broad appeal, and in corporate America, golf has always been that “safe bet.” A tournament, as opposed to a casual outing, can make the time on the greens even more alluring with the prospect of prizes, or at least bragging rights. It’s a more intense, competitive experience that often serves as a meeting’s recreational highlight.
The first step is to select a resort that is not only a capable tournament host, but a real draw for the external audience. Golfers will often look to play an exceptional course, and any non-golfers in the group will want a good selection of free-time options, whether spa, tennis or fine dining. Katie Malone, senior director of marketing for the Greater DC Region of Brookfield, one of the country’s largest commercial real estate companies, found such a destination in Kiawah Island Golf Resort, located on a barrier island a few miles from Charleston, South Carolina. Brookfield’s annual corporate client event draws about 65 attendees, nearly all of whom participate in the tournament. Having teed-off at renowned courses such as Whistling Straits and Pebble Beach Resorts, attendees would not be impressed with just any course, but “they love golfing at Kiawah, and they particularly love the Ocean Course because the scenery is hard to beat,” Malone observes.
One of only four courses to have hosted each major PGA championship, the Ocean Course boasts more seaside holes than any other course in the Northern Hemisphere, with 10 right along the Atlantic. “I look at what our resort options are every year, and I pick a few that I think would fit our clientele and the way we’re trying to entertain them,” Malone explains, “and (Kiawah Island) definitely fit the bill.”
Course quality and status are naturally criteria for the Golf Channel Amateur Tour (GCAT), which features one-day tournaments for members (currently totaling about 7,000). “A named course or resort with prestige certainly has a better chance of doing well (in terms of drawing attendance),” says Frederick (Drake) Schunck, regional director of GCAT events. Part of the tour’s “selling point” is the many “great golf courses that we can get players on, such as La Cantera, Pinehurst, Homestead or Barton Creek,” Schunck says. A second aspect is to ensure the course is in top condition, and Schunck suggests relaying that desire to the resort. “The communication between the host golf course and the meeting planner or tournament coordinator is probably the most important thing. The local pro or director of golf helps make sure the course is in good shape,” he says. “That to me is what players really enjoy. It’s paramount to people having a really good time.”
This summer, the GCAT was held at La Cantera Hill Country Resort, in San Antonio, Texas, where players teed-off on the world-class Resort Course, a PGA Tour stop for 15 years. La Cantera is also home to the 18-hole Palmer Course, designed by the legendary Arnold Palmer.
Also key to GCAT participants having a good time is that they play their own ball all the way through. Participants compete in flights composed of players within about four handicap points of each other. Overall, they vary widely in experience level, from 20-plus handicap to 10-plus handicap to scratch golfers (those whose average score for a round is par or better). Nonetheless, a scramble format is eschewed in favor of individual stroke play. “That’s very unique when it comes to tours of this level,” Schunck says. “If you’re a mid-90s shooter you don’t expect to be counting every single stroke.” But the idea is to approximate a PGA tour experience. “We announce everybody on the first tee. They exchange scorecards, just like you would do at a PGA tour event. They go out in threesomes, and they’re battling it out to see if a guy who’s a 20 handicapper can perhaps shoot a 95.”
An advantage to individual stroke play, one that corporate planners might well consider, is that players get a feeling of personally facing the challenges of a renowned course. “We find that if somebody’s going to play a really nice or prestigious course like Pinehurst No. 2, they like to play their own ball,” Schunck explains. Corporate golf events are typically about building camaraderie, and that can certainly arise with a scramble where everyone places his or her ball where the best ball is. “Our event’s a little different because we think of those scramble events as outings; ours we consider tournaments.” Individual stroke play can of course make the pace of play slower than a meeting schedule can accommodate. Thus, some groups opt for a modified scramble (or shamble), where each player hits a tee shot, the best one is selected, and the hole is played out from that position individually. The best of the four scores is kept.
Participants of a charity golf tournament held by Fort Worth, Texas-based Range Resources play a shorter version of a scramble due to the number of golfers: 144 on each course at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. Mystic Rock is a PGA Tour tested, par 72 course high atop the Pennsylvania Alleghenies, and The Links is a par 70 course with views of Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands. Customers and vendors of oil and gas company Range Resource Appalachia have participated in the tournament at Nemacolin for five years in a row, and well more than 100 participate in clay shooting at the same event, notes Merilee Domanick, executive assistant with Range Resources, who plans the event. Attendees are grouped into two foursomes on each hole, creating a convivial atmosphere. “The vendors want to network with our people,” says Domanick. “They bring three people with them, and they pay for a fourth person from our company to play with them; they put on the registration form who they would like to golf with,” she explains. “And we do our best to match them with that person. So let’s say someone who does production gas marketing wants to golf with someone from production gas marketing here; he’ll put that name on the registration form. Oftentimes they’ve already talked to each other and they want to golf with that person, and we match them up if at all possible. If not, we at least try to match them up with someone from the department they’re doing business with.”
“With five hours on a golf course, you get to know someone pretty well,” remarks Malone. “We bring clients and Brookfield colleagues from all over the country, and you’re not always able to see them (in person), so it’s a great time to form those relationships and continue them. We have at least one Brookfield person in each foursome so they can get time with their clients.”
Similarly, the Green Bay Packers place one current or alumni player in each foursome at the annual Golf Invitational for the team’s corporate sponsors, creating a five-person scramble. “We try to mix it up so the same group isn’t getting the same player every year,” explains Tammi Schroeder, the Packers’ partnership services coordinator. The event has been hosted for 12 years at Blackwolf Run, a 36-hole, Pete Dye-designed golf complex in Kohler, Wisconsin. “We have two premier players every year at the golf outing, and each of those premier players receives a donation to a charity of their choice,” says Schroeder. “We have registration at 8 a.m., and we do a VIP autograph session with the two premier players for all of our clients who are golfing, so each person can come through with an item to get autographed. And Goodwill, who is our presenting nonprofit sponsor, also receives a donation toward their nonprofit.”
Branding has always been integral to corporate golf tournaments, and the Green Bay Packers Golf Invitational features the event logo at each hole along with sponsor branding, e.g., “this hole presented by American Family Insurance.” The leaderboard presents another branding opportunity.
At Mystic Rock, “they have a huge leaderboard because this is a championship golf course,” notes Domanick, “and we bring a very large banner and they hang it up for us on the leaderboard. We offer our registrants the opportunity to get their name up on the leaderboard if they’re one of the first eight to get their registrations in. So we have eight companies that get their name up there, and they like that.”
Gift branding is yet another option. Kiawah Island Golf Resort is “more than willing to co-brand any item I want to purchase,” Malone says. “The Kiawah logo or Ocean Course logo would be in one place, and our Brookfield logo in another place, whether it’s a hat, shirt, sweater or accessory.”
Brookfield de-emphasizes the competitive aspect to tournament play by not keeping score or offering skills contests with prizes. “What happens on the course stays on the course,” Malone quips. “It’s not your traditional tournament. We just want them to have fun.”
Yet this approach is also founded in an understanding of what motivates participants. “They really just want to play the course,” she says. “And when you implement some of those (competitive elements like scoring and prizes) it might be a little distracting for them. To be out there on a beautiful, challenging course is their enjoyment.”
In contrast, the Green Bay Packers Golf Invitational is steeped in the competitive environment of professional sports and includes numerous skills contests, offering raffle prizes for the two longest putts and two longest drive holes, a closest to the pin, and a “beat the pro” contest.
At the end of the day, planners want a golf tournament to be a memorable experience, and scores and prizes tend to create that experience only for the winning players and teams. A simple way to promote lasting memories for all players is through photography. Since the opportunity to tee off with a Packers player is one of the main attractions of the Invitational, the commemorative photography highlights that aspect. “We have a photographer that goes around and takes photos of each foursome with their current or alumni player,” Schroeder says. “We get those done as soon as we can and then go get them printed right away and put it in a photo frame. Prior to the players going out, each Packers player will sign four frames. So whatever foursome they join, we put that photo in the frame, and the participants get that as a keepsake.”
“Each Packers player will sign four frames. So whatever foursome they join, we put that photo in the frame, and the participants get that as a keepsake.” — Tammi Schroeder
The Range Resources tournament is complemented by more extensive photography. “We take pictures all day, put them into a PowerPoint presentation that we run at dinner,” where the prizewinners are also announced, Domanick explains. Just like all aspects of a tournament, the approach to keepsake photography is tweaked over the years. “Two years ago I had a photographer come in to take shots of each foursome and frame them. And I found that some participants liked it and some didn’t; some didn’t even pick up their pictures,” she relates. “So we stopped doing that and instead started putting their pictures on slides and downloading all the PowerPoints onto flash drives. And then as soon as we get clear on the money that we’ve raised for charity, I have thank-you letters sent out to each company, giving them receipts of what they spent for tax purposes, and I include the flash drive with all the pictures. They love it because they get to see their friends and random shots throughout the day of them taking swings and putting.”
When tournament participants are external to the host company, it is often especially important to impress them with a great experience. A top-level course, a tournament format suited to their skills and preferences, branded gifts and event photography all factor into creating that experience.
But there is a much more fundamental factor that determines the quality of the time on the greens, Malone suggests. “I think the key to having a successful golf tournament is to have golfers. I know that sounds odd, but when you have people who play sporadically, they don’t enjoy it as much. And when someone’s not enjoying it, it can make it a little frustrating for that player and those around them. But when everyone plays golf and enjoys it, and you give them a good course, they’re in heaven. It makes an impression that lasts a long time.”
Malone’s observation is an astute one from the perspective of ROI: Staging a tournament is an investment of money and time, particularly if done properly on an upscale course. And if attendees are not that serious about the sport, it’s best to think twice about whether to make that investment. There is no doubt that golf will appeal to a wide swath of attendees, but an elaborate tournament should arguably be reserved for groups who, like Brookfield’s clients, are true aficionados. C&IT