There’s no question that the business of golf — along with the rest of American economy — hit the doldrums in the years following the recession.
In 2011, for example, the National Golf Foundation (NGF) reported that just 463 million rounds of golf were played in the United States, down from the 500 million played in 2005.
But things seem to be turning around. According to NGF, the number of rounds played through September of 2012 against the same period in 2011 increased by 7.4 percent, with every state experiencing an increase versus the year before. That represented, the NGF said, “the largest single-year jump since the turn of the century.”
Golf resorts, particularly in select locations, seem to be thriving as well. For example, in a recent article in the Orange County Register, the manager of real estate giant Irvine Co.’s golf operations in Orange County, CA, which include the two courses at The Resort at Pelican Hill, said the Orange County courses were performing “at pre-recession levels.”
And there continues to be a strong association among the insurance and financial services industries, the game of golf, and those resorts that provide the facilities golfers and non-golfers alike want to visit and play on.
Danielle Hinesley Bishop, principal and founder of Durham, NC-based HB Hospitality, organizes an annual insurance and financial summit designed to foster and strengthen relationships between insurance and financial services planners and independent resorts. The Independent Resort & Hotel Insurance & Financial Summit began at 2010 at the award-winning Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina and specifically focused on golf resorts. While the participating resorts no longer include only golf resorts, the importance of that kind of venue to planners is demonstrated by the participation of resorts such as Florida’s PGA National Resort and Spa, the legendary Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, WV, and this year’s host, the Sea Island Resort, located in Sea Island, GA. In organizing this event over the last four years, Bishop has found that as the trauma of the financial meltdown dissipates, planners “are much more confident that their programs are going to take place, and are also more confident in their buying power.”
Bishop also notes that she no longer hears discussions regarding the “AIG Effect” and the necessity of completely avoiding any hint of extravagance associated with meetings, conventions and incentives. “But, we’re not in a place where we’re talking about how we can hold events that are more lavish than the year before,” she says. “So there is a fine line, but planners still want to pick destinations that adequately reflect the contributions that their workers and agents have made, so they can genuinely reward them.” And those destinations are, by popular demand, usually going to include golf.
Golf is a top requirement for Farmer’s Union Mutual Insurance Co., in Great Falls, MT, when it holds its board of directors and regional manager meetings. It has held seven of those meetings at the Omni Tucson National Resort over the years.
The 650-acre Arizona desert resort has 128 guest rooms, a 13,000-sf spa and eight meeting rooms totaling 10,500 sf of space. The resort also features two golf courses — the Catalina Course, which has hosted a number of PGA Tour events, and the Sonoran Course, a new desert-style target course designed by tour golf professional Tom Lehman.
“What I like about the Omni is the fact that you get a great atmosphere, they are always so easy to work with, and they really understand what our needs are,” says Larry Trainor, the former CEO and president of Farmer’s Union, who has been to all seven meetings the company has taken to Tucson over the years. “It’s also convenient for those of us out of Montana because we have easy airline access to Tucson.”
Trainor, who retired in January, says golf is always a significant part of Farmer’s Union’s meetings at the Omni Tucson National. “It has great facilities and is well maintained with a nice layout,” he says. “And you can tell it’s a great course based on the number of tournaments it’s hosted over the years. It’s a quality course.”
While some smaller meetings risk getting “lost” at some resorts, that “is certainly not an issue at the Omni,” says Trainor. “In fact, it’s quite the opposite.” He points out there are several informal meeting spots around the property where attendees can gather, and that the Omni does a good job of always grouping his attendees in one general location “so that they’re always running into each other.”
Because Farmer’s Union is based in Montana, Trainor says the company usually schedules its meetings at the Omni in February or March, “so that we get a jump on spring. It’s certainly one of our favorite destinations.”
Golf also is a definite requirement for independent broker dealer Securities America Inc., of Omaha, NE, which held its annual top producer incentive conference called the “Masters Forum” at The Resort at Pelican Hill, located in Newport Beach, CA, in March 2012.
Pelican Hill offers groups 204 bungalow guest rooms and 128 villas, along with a 22-room, 23,000-sf spa. It has about 20,000 sf of indoor and outdoor space, much of which comes with panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. It also has two Tom Fazio-designed championship golf courses, and five restaurants with ocean and golf course views.
Becky Sankey, senior corporate event planner for La Vista, NE-based Securities America Inc., says the company took its top producers to Pelican Hill because the resort “creates a category of its own” as an incentive destination.
“We have had wonderful conferences at upscale chain hotels but Pelican Hill brought our meeting to another tier,” says Sankey. For one thing, Sankey points out that as an independent property Pelican Hill was more willing to relax some of its more stringent rules and “seemed more willing to move mountains to give me what I asked for.”
In addition, like the rest of Newport Beach, Pelican Hill is very close to John Wayne Airport, with an airlift more than adequate to quickly get her 371 attendees to Pelican Hill. “You can literally be at the resort within 15 minutes of getting into your rental car,” she says. “And then when you get there, just by walking into the lobby and gazing at the ocean, you literally sweep away any of the tension from the day. Pelican Hill is a very unique property that most people don’t know exists. It literally takes your breath away, and I wanted that experience for our top producers.”
The top producer conference included morning meetings and free time in the afternoon and some evenings. “We have discovered that our top producers prefer relaxing experiences, as opposed to rigorous scheduled activities,” Sankey says, adding that most days consisted of meetings in the morning, followed up by an afternoon at the beach or on one of Pelican Hill’s two golf courses.
The two Fazio courses — the Ocean North and Ocean South courses — were a prime consideration for Securities America in choosing Pelican Hill, says Sankey. “We wouldn’t select a resort without a golf course on property, since it’s the No. 1 amenity asked for (by attendees). And there’s only a handful of golf resorts that boast ocean views on every hole.”
The par 71, 7,000-yard Ocean North Course has beautiful ocean views from every tee and was opened in 1993, while the par 70, 6,580-yard Ocean South Course, which opened in 1991, has several holes that run along the ocean’s edge. Sankey points out that the pro shop’s setup is “flawless,” as well
Sankey says that golf remains the great “equalizer” in the sense that regardless of age or sex the attendees are able to come together on the golf course. In addition, she says that her attendees really appreciated the beauty of the two courses because of the ocean views and the fact that the courses were quiet and secluded.
“There aren’t too many golf courses within 15 minutes of an airport that make you feel miles removed from the hustle and bustle of everyday life,” Sankey says, adding that her attendees always returned from their afternoons of golf “sunburned, but refreshed.”
The response from the attendees to the Pelican Hill incentive was universally positive. “We had our hospitality desk in the lobby area so we could see the expression on people’s faces when they arrived,” she says. “Everyone was so enthusiastic and genuinely enthralled, and that was just in seeing the lobby. This was the first property where attendees asked to return, so we’ve contracted for at least three additional top producer conferences.”
While golf remains a staple of incentive programs for insurance and financial companies, it also continues to hold a central place in other events, particularly those designed to build business relationships with customers, clients and business partners.
The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass, located in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL, is, says Matt Rapp, the tournament’s executive director, comparable to the Kentucky Derby or Super Bowl in the number of parties, events and functions held by the PGA Tour, as well as by corporate partners and attendees.
PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) is the largest of the Players Championship corporate partners, says Rapp, and views the tournament as its “CEO Summit.”
“They will bring in 500 CFOs, CEOs, and audit board chairs from all over the world,” Rapp says. “It’s their No. 1 client entertainment, retention, and business growth opportunity during the year.”
One of the world’s most famous and recognizable golf courses — TPC (Tournament Players Club) Sawgrass’ Stadium Course was built in 1982 and features one of the most notorious holes in golf — the 17th hole, with its iconic island green. The Stadium Course, as befits its name, was designed to enhance the overall onsite spectator experience.
“That’s what lends itself to being such a great event for companies like PwC,” says Rapp. “The course was built for this kind of thing — it’s very friendly from a user perspective in the sense that you can put hospitality tents in places where people can actually watch golf, which isn’t something you usually get at any tournament.”
In addition, TPC Sawgrass is in Ponte Vedra Beach, a prime golfing destination near Jacksonville that is home to many resorts, including TPC Sawgrass’ partner, the Sawgrass Marriott Resort and Spa, and the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club. “You have a lot of people who watch golf who also want to play, so you can always play golf, or go fishing or go to the beach, as well as watch the tournament,” says Rapp.
Corporate hospitality packages run the gamut in size, says Rapp, ranging anywhere from two persons to the large groups like PwC. According to Rapp, PwC will bring its group to the tournament on Thursday, which is the first day of the tournament, and they will stay through Monday morning, after the tournament has ended. Other companies might bring in their people in waves.
These corporate hospitality events are “mainly driven by the people who are important to their business — clients, prospects and business partners,” Rapp says. Some companies also will use it as a sales incentive to reward top producers (as well as their best customers). But, in the end, Rapp says, the tournament is “a hook to get people here and to help companies grow their businesses.”
Roger Caldwell, owner and founder of Great Golf Events in Prairie Village, KS, says too many planners take the easy way out when it comes to planning golf events. “They’ll call the golf course and tell them they have 40 guys and ask the course to take care of them,” Caldwell says. “But there’s so much more involved.
“Golf may not be boring, but sometimes it’s nice to have a little variety,” Caldwell points out. Too many times a golf event looks no different than any other — the groups just get in their golf carts and start playing.
“Why not do something that’s different?” he asks. “They’ll remember playing at TPC Sawgrass, but what do they remember that was unique to the event? How can you make the event within the event better?”
Caldwell says that could involve hiring an entertainer or a trick-shot artist as part of the whole golf experience. For example, he says that Dan Boever, who he calls the “best golf entertainer on the planet,” can liven up any event.
Boever is a former long-drive champion who has turned into a trick-shot artist. But he’s more than that, Caldwell says. “He’s very funny, cordial, has a great golf swing, and never misses (any of his trick shots).” Caldwell describes one event in which Boever used a driver on a 185-yard par 3 in which he aimed 90 degrees to the left of the green and proceeded to hit high, arcing cut shots towards the pin.
“He hit the green 24 out of 25 times,” Caldwell recalls. “It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. If you’re a golfer, it’s the best show you’ll ever see — not only is he hitting these incredible shots, but he’ll also spin stories and engage the group. Attendees will remember something like that.”
Planners also can use golf-related activities at meetings in which the attendees don’t actually play golf. For example, Caldwell says, he’ll bring in portable greens at cocktail parties, or stage a golf skills challenge during a one-hour break at a sales meeting. One of his favorite events is the break-the-glass challenge similar to the glass break challenge on Golf Channel’s “The Big Break.”
“I have a break-the-glass unit similar to what you see on “The Big Break,” Caldwell says. The glass panel measures 2 feet by 2 feet, he says, and a planner doesn’t really need a golf course to do the challenge, just some open space behind the unit and to its left and right.
“If you have a break in a sales meeting, and you have the right kind of environment in which to bring everybody out and have a little bit of fun, this is great,” he says, adding that you can create challenges and have competitions. “It’s a blast. Seeing a ball whiz by or break the glass — that’s exciting. And guys really do like breaking stuff.”
Tom M. Borba Jr., golf professional and owner of Premier Golf Solutions in Ontario, CA says that most of the time golf events stick to the tried and true — the typical four in a group scramble with a shotgun start, for example. What he has noticed however is that planners are becoming more aggressive in giving sponsors marketing opportunities.
“I’m seeing an effort to give sponsors more recognition and more signage,” Borba says. “And I’m seeing an increase in hole sponsorships, and instead of just having your basic set-up of golf carts, balls and tees, using a sponsor’s logo on some of these things, like the front of the scorecard.”
While giving sponsors more bang for the buck is always a good idea, Caldwell says companies should be doing more to turn their golf meetings into business opportunities. “You’ve got your salesforce, or your potential customers or existing customers right there in front of you,” he says. “How can you make them remember you more when they leave? I bet that most corporate events at the end of the day give away gift cards — it won’t be anything branded that they give as an award or as a welcome gift.”
One thing he frequently does, Caldwell says, is give tournament winners a photograph of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods walking down a fairway at Augusta, in a frame that sits on a plate with the company logo engraved on the plate, along with the golf course or resort name and date.
“They don’t cost a lot of money, but we know these things aren’t going in the closet when the winners take them home,” he says. “They’re going to take them home and put them on the wall and see the name of your company there every day. And they’ll remember that event.” I&FMM