A Hazardous Course

To hear golf event planners talk about it, 2002 will be a year that tests every bit of their professional mettle. "It's been a real cold slap in the face," says Randy Robertson, president of RB Robertson & Company in Orlando. "We had hoped that this business would recover fairly quickly this year from last year's recession, but it seems like the events of September 11 were a justification for companies not to proceed even with golf programs they perceive as prudent for business development. September 11 ruined almost an entire year's worth of planning activity. In the fall of 2001, when planning should have begun for spring and summer events, nobody wanted to talk." As a result, he will create programs for just 10 clients throughout the year, instead of the usual 20.

Walt Galanty, president of Accurate Image Marketing in Alexandria, Virginia, and executive director of the National Association of Golf Tournament Directors, is in the same boat. "We're almost to the point of simply throwing out this year," he says. "All we're trying to do is get through it, and focus on building business for 2003."

For purposes of entertaining potential and existing clients and rewarding top employees, the use of golf outings at resorts and upscale courses is down. What's more, for the outings that will take place, budgets are slimmer -- a situation that's only compounded by the fact that financial commitments from sponsors are much harder to come by. Finally, many companies are also scaling back their use of professional golf events for hospitality and entertainment purposes.

While Robertson understands many of the reasons why corporate and association cash spigots are not flowing towards golf events, he hopes that the popular sentiment is not that golf is less effective than other means of marketing and relationship-building. "Companies I've worked with have seen the results in the past," says Robertson, whose firm creates hospitality programs at pro golf's four major championships for Fortune 100 firms, and organizes playing events for other clients. "The problem is that there's a perception that partaking in this seemingly frivolous activity is out of character with the times. But we've done quantitative research over the years for corporate clients on how well these events work, and how deals do get done either at an event or shortly thereafter."

The New Blueprint

If your organization is sold on the prudence of holding a business golf event this year, your most important task is to create an event that meets the organization's goals and its standard of quality, all while keeping costs to a minimum.

Galanty is finding that meetings with incentive components involving golf are being scaled back in ways that do not sacrifice quality. "Basically, companies moved their events from international destinations to domestic ones," he says. "They are still going to higher-end properties, but for both budgetary and security reasons, keeping it closer to home makes sense."

Specifically, he suggests that planners look more closely at using gaming destinations for such events. "You're trying to make a great impression, so use the many distractions of gaming destinations to your advantage," he says. For instance, instead of having a formal function each night, let attendees have a free night or two to explore the town. "People will be happy that the schedule isn't overwhelming and that they have downtime, plus your organization saves the entire cost of a meal function," he adds.

Another consideration planners must take seriously this year is cutting the number of participants rather than cutting the quality of an event, which will help boost the event's return on investment. "Yes, you have to consider what it will take to push a potential client over to becoming a buyer, but right now there's only so much money a company can spend on potential clients," Galanty notes. "Instead, companies are deciding to dance with the partners that brought them to the prom. Those existing clients, the people who are sticking by you in this tough economy, are the ones you want to thank and do things for."

Robertson agrees. "Companies still want an impressive high-end deliverable, but there's increased scrutiny of client lists to make sure they are getting the right customers out there -- the ones that will surely bring you additional business," he says.

With the list of invitees pared down, event planners can then focus on persuading folks that the event will be a worthy business endeavor, and not simply a day away from the office. Galanty cites that the hardest-hit golf events thus far have been those hosted by nonprofit associations and charities. Their best hope for success, then, may be to provide more value to attendees.

"There definitely needs to be more meat to these outings," adds Robertson. "An educational component helps people justify their participation to management. So maybe the golf takes up just half of the event's schedule, and you have a roundtable discussion at breakfast and a keynote speaker at dinner."

Nearly as important as selling attendees on coming to your event is convincing other companies that exposure to your attendees before, during, and after the event is worthwhile. Sponsors can offset a great deal of an event's cost, and bring additional educational and networking opportunities to your attendees.

Galanty urges planners to think through a sponsorship strategy well before their events so that exposure possibilities are maximized, including space in pre- and post-event literature and on the event's Web site. "These days, sponsors aren't content with having just one opportunity to be in front of your attendees," he says. "It has to be an ongoing marketing program that uses all media. The key is to broaden the sponsorship menu as widely as you can."

The Nitty-Gritty

When it comes to a business golf event's line-item budget, there are many places where a planner can trim without creating a perceptible drop in quality.

To start, consult with the pro shop staff at the golf course that's hosting your event; they can help you scrutinize every expenditure to see where lower-cost alternatives can be implemented. In fact, using the pro shop to purchase gifts for on-course contests (longest drive, straightest drive, closest to the pin, etc.) often results in a discount, and always generates good will among the pro shop staff.

For items such as welcome-bag amenities, the emphasis should again be on the quality of each item, not the sheer quantity of goodies. With less to spend on each participant, it's best to go with one or two classy gifts that will be remembered -- and not simply discarded -- after the event. If those gifts include embroidered golf shirts or towels, engraved crystal, or other customized items, ordering early will keep down costs and eliminate last-minute problems that are costly to rectify.

With food and beverage, there are many ways to satisfy attendees at reduced cost. Placing box lunches in each golf cart can substitute for a buffet lunch, and also speed up the process of getting folks onto the golf course. Around the course, the number of beverage carts serving players can be cut (to a minimum of two -- one for each nine holes), and might serve only beer and soft drinks rather than hard liquor. And for dinner, a barbecue or buffet rather than a sit-down affair is not only less expensive, but is often preferred by those who have just come off the golf course and have little time to freshen up or change clothes.

Don't overlook even the smallest things in your budget. For instance, many companies create customized flags to put on every pin on the golf course. The alternative: Use last year's flags, get sponsors to print them, or simply don't do it this year. Either way, it saves you several hundred dollars.

Galanty adds that given the unique situation companies are facing in 2002, "People will understand if you say, 'We need to make this year's program different than past ones. We may not give you all the amenities we've had before, but we want to thank you and show you a good time nonetheless.' I think people are expecting that this year."

It would be a mistake, however, to use a sluggish economy as the sole reason to rule out hosting a golf event. "It's been said that recessions are the best time to shine, because you're zigging when everyone else is zagging," Robertson concludes. "If you are looking to make an impact in your marketplace, there is a huge opportunity right now to distinguish yourself with the targeted use of business golf."

Shopping for discounts
Despite the reduced budgets everyone must contend with this year, planners can still land big-name talent to show up at their golf events by being creative. One option: Book a resort that is affiliated with a touring professional. Why? Because these pros are more amenable to coming to their home resort in order to be part of a group event. Even better, the group will likely receive a discount on the pro's appearance fee -- the difference is either swallowed by the pro or subsidized by the resort, provided that the meeting is big enough.

For instance, Rocco Mediate, one of the top 30 players in the world, represents The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colorado. His fee is roughly $25,000 per day, plus travel expenses, when he appears at events around the country. But Russ Miller, director of golf operations for The Broadmoor, says that figure would be considerably lower for a meeting group at his property. He adds, however, that "you're probably only going to get him to come in for a Monday or Tuesday event, since pro tournaments have practice rounds on Wednesday and then competitive play from Thursday through Sunday." This is true for the women on the Ladies' PGA Tour as well.

A second option is to use a member of the Buy.Com or Golden Bear Tours, which are minor-league versions of the pro tours. These guys are not among the top 125 players in the world, but they aren't far off -- in fact, they might be the best golfers many attendees will ever encounter in person. Their fees range anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 per day, and because they are up-and-comers, most players are eager to make appearances that include a group lesson, time spent playing with each foursome, and lots of friendly mingling with your guests.

Finally, don't overlook the head pro at the host property. After all, they are or were at one time competitive golfers. For little or no additional cost, they can give a pre-round group lesson, and even partake in a "Beat the Pro" contest versus each foursome on a par-3 hole.

Helpful Hints
A few tips on landing golf-event sponsors in this difficult environment:

Offer levels of sponsorship so that companies looking to spend less can still have a presence. Create a menu that outlines the features of each package.

To offer more sponsor opportunities, create contests that take place during the round or beforehand on the driving range and practice green. Also remember that sponsors can create their own contests on whichever holes they sponsor, and those need not be golf-related (a bean-bag toss, a quiz game, etc.). Where that's the case, find out beforehand what the theme of each sponsor's hole presence will be, to be sure it matches the event's atmosphere.

Offer to your biggest sponsors several playing spots in the event. This gives them an opportunity to entertain their own clients, and often cements their commitment to being part of your event.