by Matt Alderton | February 09, 2018
There's a reason so many businesspeople play golf. Unlike many other sports -- football, for instance, or basketball and tennis -- it's slow, steady, and social. Thanks to its measured pace and casual character, one can spend as much time engrossed in conversation as in gameplay. In between strokes and afterward at the clubhouse, it's easy to get to know the people with whom you're playing. An added plus: it's easy on the body, which means men and women of almost any age and ability can play. All of that makes golf not only a fun sport, but also an effective networking tool.
What you might not realize about golf, however, is that it can be just as powerful a business medium for those who watch as it is for those who play. Which is why many meeting and incentive professionals are turning to golf tournaments like the U.S. Open Championship at Pebble Beach to host their corporate events. To find out what attracts corporate groups to such events, and how those groups can maximize the return on their golf-tournament investment, Successful Meetings spoke with Pebble Beach Resorts Vice President of Sales & Global Business Development Tim Ryan, chairman of corporate sales for the forthcoming 2019 U.S. Open Championship at Pebble Beach.

Pebble Beach already has hosted the U.S. Open five times -- in 1972, 1982, 1992, 2000, and 2010 -- and will host it a sixth time in 2019. Based on your experience selling corporate hospitality for three of those tournaments: Why should meeting and incentive planners consider bringing groups to a golf event?
We expect about 220 companies to buy hospitality for the U.S. Open in 2019 to entertain their customers or prospects. Those companies will be able to give the people that are most important to their business something they might not be able to obtain on their own. When the Super Bowl was in San Francisco two years ago, we put together a really great Super Bowl package that allowed people to go to the Super Bowl, but also come down to experience Pebble Beach. The Super Bowl is one of the premier sporting events in the country, right? Well, I look at the U.S. Open as being the Super Bowl of golf.

And what's so special about golf? Meeting planners who want to give groups the thrill of attending a mega sporting event have lots of choices. Why a golf tournament?
It's true: There's a lot of competition out there for events. But there's also a lot of competition for prospects' time. Golf at Pebble Beach seems to be an event and a place that resonates with a lot of people -- especially people from the San Francisco Bay area. It's not so much that you're coming to a golf event; it's that you're coming to one of the most beautiful places on the planet. It's not an event where you have to watch a football game for three hours sitting in your seat. Although you can watch the golf event, you also can get some exercise and socialize: You can walk the course, walk along the ocean, and take in a great event, all at the same time.

Speaking of what goes on there: What does corporate hospitality look like at an event such as the U.S. Open?

The packages we offer are for anywhere from 15 to 200 people. Depending on what you're trying to accomplish, you can have a high-end experience in The Lodge at Pebble Beach -- with a place to sit in the lobby or in the restaurant watching golf from your hospitality area -- or you can be out on the course in what we call a "chalet," which is basically a tent structure where you can be adjacent to the hole, looking at the golf course or the ocean with your colleagues. Many of our customers go very high-end with their food-and-beverage offerings, and all of them definitely incorporate a business aspect into the event, such as one-on-one meetings with their salespeople or their marketing people. Finally, a golf event is a very social event; you're going to run into people you know because it's the type of place where you want to be seen.

Speaking of business: How do your customers create and maintain that business focus at such a social event?

Our customers are very strategic about who they invite, who extends the invitation, and how guests secure their tickets. For example, many people hand guests their tickets when they arrive so they can be guaranteed one-on-one time with them. Many companies set up appointments with their customers within their hospitality areas, and some will do defined business sessions one or two days before the event to update customers on their products or their sales plans. Many of them also measure the return that they get. We have one customer, for example, who can tell you at any point in time where in the buying process each of the people he invited is and what that means to his business. He builds a strategy around that and knows who he has to get in front of his top salespeople to close a deal.

What about people who aren't into golf? How do you make an event like the U.S. Open appeal to them, as well?

Honestly, you can't make it appeal to everyone. Sometimes it just doesn't. We have a customer we're working with, for example, who said, "If you were U.S. Open Tennis I'd buy a huge package with you, but I can only buy a small package with you because the culture in our company is light on golf." So you really can't appeal to everyone. You can, however, promote other aspects of the event beyond golf. One of the things that works in our favor, for example, is our location adjacent to Carmel, which is known for its wine tasting rooms and wineries. If we're working with a customer who's building an incentive program around the U.S. Open, there's a number of other activities in the area that we can tie into that in order to take the focus off of golf.

For people who do, in fact, love golf, is there an opportunity to play the sport as well as watch it?

For the 2000 U.S. Open, a much higher percentage of our customers offered golf to their guests. In 2010, our customers made golf available to their guests, but they didn't pay for it. In 2019, the trend seems to be mirroring what happened in 2010: Customers are making golf available to their guests, but usually at their guests' expense. Still, it is one of the features that we sell. Unlike a Super Bowl, which is a spectator event, coming to the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach is a mix of spectator and participation. You can't participate on the same course as the pros, but you can play golf on one of our other courses in the morning and watch the championship in the afternoon, or vice-versa.

You've highlighted the benefits of hosting groups at the U.S. Open, but what are some of the challenges?

There are a couple of challenges. One is that you could view a trip to a major event like this as a boondoggle. Because you don't want to be perceived that way, you've got to have that strong business purpose behind your investment.

The second thing is: At an event like the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where there's 35,000 tickets available per day, you have to plan in advance to make sure you've secured the hotel rooms and transportation that you need. We try to create urgency with our customers to secure guest rooms on the Monterey Peninsula as soon as possible, but when we tell someone who's bought hospitality with us two years out that they really need to secure their hotel rooms, they usually say, "But I only need 25 rooms," or, "I only need 50 rooms." Being a meeting and event planner, they're used to dealing with blocks of 100, 200, or thousands of rooms a night. What they don't realize is that 25 rooms here is just important as thousands of rooms somewhere else, so you need to secure them early.

Finally, and similarly: What's the one thing groups can do to make their presence at mega sporting events like the U.S. Open successful?

The one thing I suggest to our customers is to lean on us. Because while they may be successful meeting and incentive professionals, we have a good handle on the local infrastructure, the local knowledge, how to get things done locally, and what you can do with an event like this. If you lean on us, it will increase your chances of being successful.