Despite their outward appearance as a luxury event or high-end amenity, golf programs and tournaments have not only weathered the financial crisis, but also grown and expanded their scope in recent years because they play a critical relationship-building role for insurance and financial firms.
“Golf is probably one of the best ways to network,” says Lawrence A. Weitzen, senior vice president for Newport Beach, California-based Alliant Insurance Services Inc. “You spend an afternoon with some very important people whether they’re your clients or company reps. Insurance is a people business, and there’s no better way to find out about someone than on the golf course,” he explains. He would know. Weitzen is in his 10th year of organizing a now 144-golfer tournament in San Diego that draws agents both from his firm and other local insurance agencies and brokerages, as well as carriers and clients.
While the financial crisis affected many aspects of financial and insurance company meetings, planners are finding that with this crowd, golf springs eternal for the unique networking environment it provides.
Optics aside, changes in the way the financial and insurance industries conduct their business have had a marked effect on meetings. Employees are increasingly anxious about spending time outside of the office, either because they’re worried about job stability and internal optics or simply need the time to get deals done, so meetings are becoming highly focused and compact, and often moving closer to attendees so they have less time out of the office.
Roger Caldwell, owner, founder and golf entertainer of Kansas City-based Great Golf Events Inc., found that golf events mirror some larger trends, particularly in terms of size. He says he’s observing “trending to smaller, 40- to 52-player events where having the right guests — decision-makers — is the focus, along with pairing a specific employee, existing client and potential new client in the same group.” Many of his clients also use resort hotels with meeting space to incorporate a meeting into their event before or after the golf tournament to further maximize the time and expenditure of gathering together such a group of people.
The economy — dipping or rebounding — has not affected his clients’ golf events, because many have added a charity element to mix CSR (corporate social responsibility) with pleasure. “We added six new events in the insurance sector in 2014, and all of them had a charity spin to them,” he explains. “The economy has not been a factor, given the charity spin most of them incorporate. They simply offset the fees by charging their guests a nominal fee.
“The companies that hired us to organize and manage these events are taking advantage of the five hours of face time during play,” he continues. “You get to know someone pretty well after five hours of face time. The charity spin allows these groups to offset their costs and also give back to charity at the same time.”
Weitzen’s San Diego tournament has thrived with its charity undercurrent, and though he says that some attendees do come just because of that affiliation, it is, as Caldwell believes, the face time that keeps the tournament relevant.
“One reason we sell out so soon is that both the agents and insurance company reps recognize that golf is probably one of the best ways to network, and the feedback is just all positive,” he says. “Carriers love being able to be with a broker for a day. It improves their relationship, which will then improve that business flow. It’s a time for our agents to be with our carriers, and this includes both property and casualty.”
Not all golf meetings need to wrap themselves with a CSR bow to be an easy sell to higher-ups, however. Maximizing the value of bringing together important internal and external stakeholders for some good old-fashioned, get-to-know-you time is a powerful draw, and bucket-list golf courses cinch the deal.
By focusing even more keenly on the relationship-building aspect of golf, many planners have been able to grow their golf-related events even in the light of cuts to other types of meetings.
“I think in the financial industry, a lot of clients are golfers, and it’s part of the way of the industry,” says a meeting planner with a major bank who prefers to remain anonymous. “The thing with golf, why it works so well, is that you have to force them to team up, and you pair up two internal bankers and two clients, and they’re stuck together for five hours, so you get so much face time. It’s harder to have a business conversation playing tennis. We like that time, we like to have our clients’ attention for four or five hours, so for us it’s a great option.
“Similarly, we used to actually host client ski events. You can’t take everyone because obviously not everyone skis, and when you’re going down the hill you don’t talk, but those lifts are not short, and like on the golf course, it gives you concentrated time to connect with clients. They were so beneficial, but it does knock out some attendees.”
At a recent meeting in South Carolina near Charleston at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, the planner brought a group of 170 together for a client event. “We brought them together for a couple of days to do meetings and presentations with a business component in the morning, and in the afternoon, they had the opportunity to choose between different activities: group kayaking, golf and tennis. Most people chose golf.”
And it’s no surprise given the reputation of golf at Kiawah. Though the resort includes five courses, the best known is the Ocean Course, which was added in 1991 and has hosted the Ryder Cup, two World Cups, the PGA Championship, and the PGA Club Professional Championship.
Designed by Pete and Alice Dye, the Ocean Course offers views of the Atlantic Ocean throughout — a pleasant compensation for the strong winds that make the 7,873-yard course one of the toughest in America. In addition to the namesake ocean views, the course includes Kiawah’s protected wildlife and has been certified as an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary. Though the Ocean Course is the big draw, groups also love the 7,061-yard Turtle Point Golf Course designed by Jack Nicklaus, and the 6,932-yard Osprey Point Golf Club designed by Tom Fazio reopened on October 1 after renovations.
The resort includes six different buildings with event spaces, including the 255-room Sanctuary Hotel, a conference center, three clubhouses and an outdoor venue at Mingo Point. The meeting spaces feature fiber-optic videoconferencing technology and wireless and land-based, high-speed Internet access.
Like other companies that rely on golf events for their most important relationship-building, the planner has found that using a bucket-list course is a huge draw for attendees. “Specifically at the Sanctuary, the Ocean Course is on a lot of golfers’ bucket lists,” says the planner. “It’s hard, and people still want to have the option to play it. They think it’s beautiful, and they all thought they got their butts kicked, but they loved it, and we were lucky with weather. I have probably done four or five events there, and it’s a well-oiled machine.”
Jami P. Forbes, director of events and sales promotions for Scottsdale, Arizona-based retirement advisor group Annexus, has even found using a resort with a premier golf course has the unexpected perk of encouraging valuable partners to extend their networking time past the original meeting dates. “I don’t know that we have had an event at Talking Stick Resort that didn’t result in having some of our partners or agents stay an extra day or two to go hit a couple of rounds,” she says about her biannual event that gathers an exclusive group of around 10 attendees from Annexus’ partners, the owners or heads of independent marketing organizations that have exclusive distribution rights.
“We bring our partners out twice a year for two half days of discussion about the state of our company, upcoming product launches, and general information and discussions on anything that is currently relevant, and we spend so much time talking numbers, the market, statistics and dollar signs that it’s nice to have some down time to catch up on other aspects of each other’s lives,” she explains. “And having some friendly competition thrown in doesn’t hurt either. It gives the Annexus co-owners Ron Shurts and Don Dady a chance to spend some extra down time with our partners.”
Forbes discovered Talking Stick in Scottsdale, Arizona, through an event the company sponsored and has held most of her meetings there ever since, in part because of the golf course next door. The resort spreads over 55.6 acres with its 98,000-sf casino, 13,000-sf spa and 496 guest rooms, including 30 suites in several configurations. But the meeting space is one of the biggest draws for planners. Talking Stick has more than 36 meeting rooms and 100,000 sf of indoor and outdoor space between the resort and its dedicated conference center, including a 25,000-sf ballroom.
The adjacent Talking Stick Golf Club features two courses designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, which incorporate the rich scenery of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian lands to create a relaxing environment that feels worlds away from the resort’s casino next door. Groups can book rounds at Scottsdale’s top-rated golf club as part of a package with or without a spa treatment.
“These are guys who have had the chance to golf all over the world, who attend many financial summits, and some of them have even played in the Annexus ProAm with us, yet they still loved playing at Talking Stick, not only because of the course itself but also because of the staff there,” says Forbes. “The service they received was impeccable.”
As golf tournaments follow a highly standardized format, it can be a challenge for planners to continue to top themselves every year. A change of venue is a quick way to shake things up, especially to a destination or bucket list course, and Caldwell says most of his clients change venues every two to three years. There also are schedule updates planners can incorporate into events, if you don’t already, that offer attendees different opportunities to interact with their peers outside of the basic foursome.
At his tournament, Weitzen has two individual contests in the morning between check-in and lunch, a long drive contest and a putting contest. By keeping two hours in the morning open to either compete or mingle, then serving lunch followed by tee-off and a dinner event, he also offers a variety of different times for people to interact and opportunities to change who you’re interacting with — not always an easy option when you’re in the same foursome for five hours on the course — to get quality face time with more attendees.
“For us, it’s just become part of the event, but it’s a little more individual,” he explains. “You may have only one person in a group that wants to be in the long drive, but most people want to be in the putting contest. For the long drive, you get a group of people out on the driving range, but there might be three people rather than 144, so there’s a lot of heckling going on, and it adds to the fun and creates more winners. It brings people together in a different way, like we’ve brought in trick shot artists.”
Once you’ve hit the limit on how many contests and networking hours you can comfortably introduce, there are some new ways to spice things up thanks to, surprisingly, reality television. Caldwell has long recommended that his clients include a trick shot artist, particularly as an entertainment piece at the beginning or end of the day, but the meeting planner from the bank has found another interesting take.
“We always do the contest with the winning foursome, longest drive and closest to the hole, but now we’re trying to be more strategic as planners,” she says. “We’re trying to incorporate cool things like having golfers out on a certain hole so people can get tips from a pro.
“I haven’t done this yet, but I’ve vetted it. There’s this (Golf Channel) show ‘Big Break’ with young golfers who are trying to make the LPGA. As far as honorarium, they’re pretty inexpensive, because they’re not pro yet, and I’ve found a partner in the industry who works with golf talent, and he had the idea to get a few of the women golfers and have them on every other hole.”
Another premier golf resort in Arizona boasting a bucket-list golf course and innovative teambuilding programs is the Enchantment Resort in Sedona, which recently raised the bar for meetings, groups and events, by providing guests with exclusive access to Seven Canyons golf club — ranked among America’s top golf retreats. Designed by golf champion Tom Weiskopf, Seven Canyons offers a beautiful setting spread across 200 acres that border the national forest and red rock canyons. The course, which is touted as a throwback to some of the great courses of the early 1900s, features classic-style bunkering, natural water features and frequent changes in elevation.
New for next spring is an amenity-rich clubhouse, which will include a restaurant, bar and grill with spacious outdoor seating and spectacular views of the red rock canyon; a full-service golf shop; and a fully equipped fitness center and locker facilities with showers and steam rooms.
In addition, the par-70, 6,746-yard championship course offers groups the opportunity for innovative teambuilding events designed by the resort’s golf pro to strengthen group dynamics; customized golf tournaments or putting competitions complete with company-branded materials; professional instruction to improve skills; and a fun and productive way to spend face time with business associates.
Seven Canyons’ Range House is located on a knoll overlooking the two-level Practice Park and offers an ideal setting for banquets. Outdoor space allows for a multitude of catering options including a cocktail terrace backed by an incredible view of Seven Canyons. Additionally, The Meeting Village at Enchantment Resort offers more than 13,000 sf of dedicated, flexible indoor meeting space, including a 24-person executive boardroom with a fireplace, ballrooms and breakout rooms.
Pre- and post-golf, attendees head to Mii amo, the award-winning destination spa at Enchantment Resort, to partake in Seven Treatments for Seven Canyons Golfers. Pre-game treatments include Yoga for Golfers to loosen the body, Mindful Golf Meditation to focus the mind, and Golf & the Law of Attraction to set intentions. To relax post-game, the spa offers the Seven Canyons Champion (a winning combo of hydrotherapy, massage and reflexology), the Competitor’s Facial, Reflexology and the Herbal Detox Poultice Treatment.
Most qualifiers would certainly agree that an incentive program held in the sunny and warm isles of the Caribbean is not complete without a golf program. As such, planners should consider those properties that offer an all-inclusive arrangement. For example, Sandals Resorts offers all-inclusive Caribbean golf resorts on some of the most challenging and prestigious golf courses in Jamaica, St. Lucia and the Bahamas. Designed by golf legend Greg Norman, the award-winning course at Sandals Emerald Reef Golf Club is recognized as one of the most scenic oceanside golf courses in the Caribbean and renowned for its challenging fairways.
As one of the leaders in the all-inclusive segment, Sandals Resorts’ Luxury Meetings & Incentives Collection offers groups a comprehensive, all-inclusive program called Luxury Included, which is comprised of 15 resort locations.
Another budget-friendly advantage of meeting at a Sandals Resort is that most activities also are included, such as unlimited golf (excluding Sandals Emerald Bay), waterskiing, wakeboarding and scuba diving.
Baha Mar, opening in the spring of 2015 in Nassau, The Bahamas, has partnered with the PGA Tour’s TPC Network to announce TPC at Baha Mar. The Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course is the TPC Network’s first Caribbean golf course and will be a complement to the resort’s collection of hotel brands.
Under the personal attention of legendary golf course designer Jack Nicklaus, the 7,189-yard TPC at Baha Mar blends beauty, challenge, playability and memorable aesthetics.
Attendees at Blue Harbor Resort, the No. 1 resort on Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan Coast, will delight in playing The Bull golf course, Wisconsin’s only Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course. Ranked as the No. 77 Public Golf Course in America (Golf Digest 2013-2014), The Bull has hosted numerous local, state and national events.
The first area glow-in-the-dark mini golf is a sure winner for groups seeking a fun time during downtime. Blue Harbor Resort also recently announced the opening of its new, expanded Reflections Spa.
The Sea Pines Resort, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, announced the redesign of the historic Ocean Course by Love Golf Design, founded and headed by PGA Tour star Davis Love III and his brother Mark. The Ocean Course is steeped in Hilton Head golf history as the first course built on the famed island in 1925. Love Golf Design will perform and oversee a total renovation of the entire layout. The course will close for play October 2015 and reopen in September 2016.
One of the newest golf options is Streamsong Resort in Central Florida. They recently opened a 216-room main Lodge, which includes a 14,000-sf conference center, bringing the property’s total meeting space to 24,600 sf, as well as 40,000 sf of distinctive outdoor venues. Streamsong is home to two nationally ranked golf courses, Streamsong Red and Streamsong Blue, which have been named to Golfweek’s list of Best Resort Courses for 2015. In only its second year of operation, Streamsong Red was ranked No. 12 and Streamsong Blue ranked No.14.
Golfers pressed for time can take advantage of the “partial loop” option and play just six or 12 holes. Scott Wilson, Streamsong’s director of golf, says, “The 6- and 12-hole partial golf rounds at Streamsong are the perfect complement to a full day of traditional meetings. Walking and staying active throughout a day of seminars can provide a much-needed mental break for your audience. The 6- and 12-hole golf loops at Streamsong are a great option for beginners and avid golfers alike. It’s a creative way to break up a full day of meetings and provide a fun, social activity for the group when time is limited.”
Other Streamsong options include guided bass fishing excursions, a sporting clay shooting range, trails for hiking and bird watching, tennis and more.
Five more golf courses attendees will want to add to their bucket-list are all located at one magnificent golf resort: Trump National Doral in Miami, which was recently restored to its past grandeur by the new owner, Donald J. Trump, and the talented Gil Hanse design team.
The famous Blue Monster at Trump National Doral is tougher, significantly longer, and more dramatic than ever before. The truest test of golf for PGA Tour players for more than 50 years, the Blue Monster remains an exhilarating experience for those who relish a strong challenge.
Beyond the Blue Monster, golfers will delight in playing the spectacular Red Tiger golf course, the stunning Great White golf course — a Greg Norman Signature Course — and the Silver Fox, which is set to open soon, and is one of the most demanding tests of golf in the country. The Silver Fox is home to the Bermuda Triangle, the nickname for holes 6, 7 and 8 because so many balls go missing.
Currently under renovation, the new Golden Palm, named after the species of tree found throughout the golf course, will offer yet another challenging golf experience at Trump National Doral. It is set to open at the start of 2015.
Though in many cases the formats are shifting, either with smaller or larger groups, a charity bottom line or new forms of entertainment, many parts of planning a golf tournament are still the same, particularly the expectation for a seamless, high-quality event on the part of planners.
When it comes to golf, bringing in outside help is more important than with many other types of events. “My most important piece of advice: ask the golf pro any and all questions. They’ve heard it all,” says the bank planner. Consulting an expert is even more important if you are new to planning golf tournaments, or golf in general.
“I would recommend that you hire an outside consultant to help you,” Weitzen agrees. “It’s so important to get that input, especially if you’ve never put on a golf tournament. Most people who put them on have at least played, because you don’t put one on without an understanding of the game and the way it works.”
Whether you have personal experience with golf or not, the most crucial aspect is to maximize golf’s unique relationship-building opportunities. “Golf is a perfect avenue for this demographic, says Forbes. “Meeting planners should embrace it. Golf is a great chance for people in a very competitive industry to have some fun and catch up, while still playing on the personality types of the attendees at their events. These are people who like to win but also want to have a good time. It’s time for camaraderie and fun.” I&FMM