Insurance and financial meeting attendees have long prized their time on the greens. Even those who are not golf aficionados can appreciate the vistas, the relaxation, the networking opportunities and the camaraderie afforded by a golf experience. Fortunately, safe corporate golf outings have remained very practicable during the pandemic. And post-pandemic, meetings that showcase golf events are sure to return in full force, as there is no way to virtually replicate such an experience for a group.
For now, golf resorts and third parties, such as San Diego, California-based Signature Golf Events, are more or less in a holding pattern when it comes to corporate group business. “The big corporate outings are on hold because of travel restrictions,” says Dan Walker, principal and founder of Signature Golf Events. Understandably, many clients are waiting on more positive signs of COVID-19 recovery before they commit to gathering.
Never Before Seen
It has been an unprecedented situation for Gary Brielmayer, general manager of the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa, who has been with the property for 23 years. “Now, we’re extremely slow,” he says. “We booked groups and started having good signs, but now that we’ve gotten into [late winter], groups booked for [spring] have postponed to late summer/fall. There is a lot of hesitation on their part.” Small-group business is seeing some traction, however. “We find ourselves booking a lot more small, last-minute groups, 50-75 attendees, and we see ourselves having to cancel or reschedule our larger groups of 300-plus,” Brielmayer says.
Kingsmill Resort, a venerable golf venue in Williamsburg, Virginia, is seeing a similar trend. “We’re experiencing smaller group requests: 25-60 rooms a night. But nothing like [the amount of meetings business] we were used to, and certainly right now it’s [about] getting people back to meeting more so than playing golf,” says James Gelfand, vice president of sales and revenue for Kingsmill Resort. He adds that the drive market has also been viable, since groups aren’t flying. “We’ve been spending time and energy [prospecting clients] within a 400-mile radius. That’s a good drive to us and it handles most of the major metropolitan areas that we interact with, such as New York, D.C., Philadelphia, and some cities in Ohio and North Carolina.” As far as a return to pre-pandemic levels of group business, Gelfand does not expect that to happen until “well into 2023.” Still, a significant ramp up in bookings should begin sooner.
According to Walker, “We’re seeing [booking] trends toward Q4 of 2021 and Q1-Q2 of next year.” Those planners who are organizing golf programs in the near term can take a certain comfort in the fact that social distancing is fairly easy to practice on the golf course. Players can walk to holes while staying at least 6 feet apart or, if they use carts, observe a one-player-per-cart rule; indeed, the course itself may have such rules in place.
“It’s easy to stay away from your buddies when you’re playing golf,” Gelfand says. And golf course staff take their own measures, which parallel those taken inside the resort. “We deep clean carts in between uses, and all of our staff is wearing masks, whether inside or out. So we’re doing everything we need to do to help ease personal fear,” he says. In some cases, courses have even added staff to deliver the same level of service under these conditions.
“I know golf courses that have increased their work staff by 50% in order to handle the new ways of golf, not only to protect themselves but also to service the golfers,” Walker says. “With social distancing, you’re limited in how many people you can help out at one time. One person can’t really address 12 people like they have in the past.”
Golf is a Major Draw
While corporate golf business is currently in a slump simply as a byproduct of the decline in meetings, resorts haven’t forgotten the value that a great golf product represents in a healthy meetings industry. It’s a major draw for insurance and financial groups, and with that in mind, Kingsmill has been “spending energy and effort reimagining the golf experience,” Gelfand says. “We are really focusing on our golf DNA, more so than in the past. It’s been terrific, but we want to make it even better and we want to drive more golf business. I like the idea of being a golf resort that does group business and retreats, more so than being a convention hotel that just happens to have golf.”
The AAA Four Diamond Kingsmill — home to a 16,000-sf IACC-certified conference center — is already well positioned in the corporate golf market, thanks to the River Course and Plantation Course, ranked No. 4 and 8, respectively, in Virginia. The former is a Pete Dye design that is well known to both PGA and LPGA competitors. The latter is an Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay design with views of Richard Kingsmill’s 1736 plantation. “The River is more challenging for sure; it’s tighter, you need to be more accurate,” Gelfand says. “You can’t go wrong with either in terms of quality or condition; it just depends on skill level.”
For the avid golfer, challenging, high-profile courses are naturally very important, perhaps more so than the resort itself. Thus, planners working with a high percentage of avid golfers do well to rank the golf course high on their list of site criteria. And the presence of an elite golf academy is also increasingly desirable. “One, because of time allocation. You’re asking someone to make a one- to two-hour commitment [at the academy] versus a five-hour commitment [at a golf tournament],” Walker says. “Another reason academies are doing better is that for those who are afraid to golf in front of others, this is their opportunity to improve their game.”
James Paige, Kingsmill’s director of golf operations, oversees everything from traditional tournaments to creative golf events, such as glow-in-the-dark putting challenges for groups that want to fill an evening time slot. There are also numerous non-golf team building and recreational opportunities on Kingsmill’s expansive grounds, including geocaching and watercraft activities. “We’re not your traditional hotel tower; we’re spread out over hundreds of acres,” Gelfand says. “Every guest room has its own outdoor entrance and/or balcony or patio, so there is lots of fresh air surrounding our units. And all of our meeting space has an outdoor component as well, so you can meet inside and then go outside for lunch or breaks. People are seeking that open space and safety. I like to say we’ve been socially distancing since our inception.”
Many Florida golf resorts are known for their easy access to pristine beaches. The Hilton Sandestin, located on the Northwest Gulf Coast, is a case in point. A 20,000-sf beachfront deck allows for socially distanced, scenic gatherings. “The beach is the No. 1 draw, but the spa at the hotel is also pretty fantastic. Fine dining at Seagar’s is also a must when staying at this hotel,” says Shane Watkins, director, meetings & incentives with The ALFA Companies. The organization hosted its All Star Family Incentive at the Hilton Sandestin prior to the pandemic for more than 800 attendees.
Apart from beach, spa, dining and shopping at Baytowne Wharf, a golf tournament was among the program highlights. “Our last group golf outing was held on The Raven,” Watkins says. The Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed Raven is complemented by the Rees Jones-designed Burnt Pine Golf Club, featuring panoramic views of Choctawhatchee Bay; Baytowne Golf Club, extending from the Gulf of Mexico to the bay; and The Links Golf Club, the shortest of Sandestin’s four courses. All have received accolades from publications such as Golf Magazine and Golf Digest.
At The Raven, “we used a modified scramble format,” Watkins says. “Prizes included new golf equipment [bags, putters, balls], as well as gift certificates for clubhouse merchandise. Staging of carts beforehand and scoring afterward were seamless.” Even though the meeting was a “pure” incentive, the golf event yielded some business-relevant ROI. “We like to place agents together on teams from different districts on these outings so that we not only provide recreation, but give an opportunity for shared best practices, etc.,” he says.
The outlook for ALFA’s return to the Hilton Sandestin is promising, he adds. “We certainly will end up back at this hotel as soon as 2022, perhaps with multiple programs.” Looking further into the future, the resort will please its leisure and business guests with a major guest room renovation and enhanced dining. “The pandemic has stalled our capital projects, but in the next two to three years we will be renovating our Emerald Tower,” Brielmayer says. “There will be a kitchen renovation next year, and the following year a new lounge and dining room venue that’s more conducive to group business.”
The Hilton Sandestin’s 602 guest rooms are divided among the Emerald and Spa Towers. Indoor meeting space totals 40,000 sf and is serviced by Hilton EventReady, the brand’s COVID safety protocols specific to meetings. “Whether it’s a breakout session or a new meeting, we will clean and disinfect [the space],” Brielmayer says. “Everything is individualized, such as pens in cellophane bags with hand sanitizers. We have hand-sanitizing stations and offer complimentary masks. We also seal the [meeting room] door with an EventReady seal once it’s been sanitized, so that when the meeting planner comes, they’ll break the seal on the door, knowing they’re the first ones in that room for the event.”
The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs is celebrated as a preeminent golf resort — providing the opportunity for meeting planners to customize the golf experience for attendees. Situated in the Cheyenne Mountains, The Broadmoor offers a wealth of convention and meeting amenities for golfers. The Broadmoor Golf Club offers two courses for players of all skill levels — the East Course and the West Course — as well as professional instruction.
With the recent addition of the 125,000-sf Bartolin Hall to the existing Broadmoor Hall, International Center and Colorado Hall, The Broadmoor now offers the Convention Center at The Broadmoor, which boasts more than 200,000 sf of flexible, prime exhibit space. The new space can service large conferences and trade shows. With the Italian Renaissance-style Bartolin Hall, the combined square footage of the entire center will be more than 300,000 sf. The facility also provide 32 breakout rooms, providing additional areas to hold smaller sessions.
At JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa, golfing at Wildfire Golf Club is an absolute pleasure for avid players. Its two courses, designed by Arnold Palmer and Nick Faldo, highlight Arizona’s incredible natural beauty. Players can enjoy a round among mountain views as well as desert flora and fauna. The club features a complete practice facility, including an all-grass driving range, putting and chipping greens, a green-side practice bunker and GPS in each golf cart. The resort also offers 240,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meetings and event space that can accommodate as few as 10 attendees to as many as 500.
Both Kingsmill and the Hilton Sandestin have long-range plans to renovate and augment their facilities. One of the few golf resorts that introduced enhancements after the pandemic began is the Forbes Five-Star, AAA Five-Diamond The American Club. The property is located in Kohler, Wisconsin, just south of Whistling Straits golf course, which will host the Ryder Cup later this year. It houses 241 guest rooms — 186 at the main building and 55 at the Carriage House. Among its largest event venues are the 7,519-sf Grand Hall of the Great Lakes, the 2,427-sf Great Bay Ballroom and the 2,103-sf Appley Theatre.
Last summer, Destination Kohler added Lake and Pond to its portfolio of private lodging offerings. The two new cabins are situated 10 minutes away from The American Club, and can serve as retreats for small meeting groups. Each is set across 1,200 sf and includes features such as wrap-around porches, firepits, fireplaces and tapestries.
Looking ahead to this summer, Destination Kohler will introduce The Baths of Blackwolf Run, which features a 10-hole, par-3 course, 2-acre putting course, food and beverage service, as well as special event capability. “As a global leader in golf and prominent member of the Wisconsin golf community, it is our responsibility to support the growth of the game,” says Dirk Willis, vice president of golf for Kohler Co., in a press statement. “The Baths of Blackwolf Run is focused on fun. The par-3 course, putting course and stone food and beverage terrace with firepit overlooking the north Bath are designed for playing, learning, hanging out and refreshing in The Baths after a game.” The main courses at Blackwolf Run are the Pete Dye-designed River, which challenges players with water or gorges, and Meadow Valleys, replete with meadows and ravines.
Resorts such as Kingsmill, the Hilton Sandestin, The Broadmoor and The American Club are just a few examples of properties that are forging ahead with plans to enhance their offerings despite the major setback brought on by COVID. Their executives know that once the pandemic subsides, their properties will be even better positioned to draw group business. Attendees will not only be keen to revisit the great courses, but also to experience new and renovated facilities.
As far as the new health and safety protocols, Brielmayer expects them to continue in some measure immediately post-COVID. “I think there’s going to be a hybridization of the way we originally were and how we have to be now to ensure everyone’s safety,” he says. “I think masks are going to be here for a while, and sanitation is always going to be pressing. It’s going to have to make economical sense also, being that we have costs to ensure all these safety measures that we would never have fathomed before.”
While some protocols will surely linger for some time post-pandemic, the golf experience for groups has not been and will not be compromised by these measures. For all the same reasons that existed pre-pandemic, these events will continue to be key components of many insurance and financial meetings. I&FMM.