Back in the Swing

If only forecasts for the entire economy were as consistently robust as those offered recently by sales and marketing personnel for hotels and resorts that host golf-inclusive meetings and conferences. With near unanimity, these folks report that both bookings and spending levels are up—there's been a noticeable "loosening of the purse strings," as more than one respondent put it—from the previous three or four years.

For business groups, "I think golf is definitely coming back," says Perry Goodbar, vice president of sales and marketing at PGA National Resort & Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. "Not only am I hearing the same thing from counterparts at other golf properties, but there's been an uptick in organized business-related golf events here, as opposed to conference attendees who happen to choose golf when they get an afternoon free."

The reasons for this are both temporal and ongoing. Regarding the latter reason, golf remains the ideal game for organizational bonding among a population that is, across the board, getting older and less likely to stage more strenuous activities such as beach Olympics. In fact, a golf event can be as competitive or as casual as the meeting planner chooses; golf etiquette helps keep social interaction on an even keel; and the leisurely pace of a four-hour-plus round of golf provides unmatched opportunity for networking and the exchange of ideas.

The Price is Nice

On a purely pragmatic level, the first decade of the 21st century hasn't yet been a boon to the golf industry. Total number of rounds per year has been flat; the average number of rounds per year by those calling themselves "frequent golfers" are down a bit; and a course-building boom during the 1990s has left many areas with a surplus of facilities. And all of these factors tip the negotiating scales in favor of the meeting planner. "Our prices haven't really changed since last year," confirms Goodbar, "and of course we're still negotiating as necessary."

Still, golf is an industry that demands resourcefulness, and the operators of properties catering to business golfers have responded with ingenuity. So innovations designed to bolster their appeal to meeting groups are aimed as much at non-golfing conference participants as at the hard-core golf nut. One result: social events that center around the practice range and putting green so that beginners can learn while experienced players can compete in skills contests, and thus the whole group enjoys the activity together. "Recently, the golf-specific emphasis has manifested itself through the importance that groups place on the practice facilities," notes Jeff Homad, director of sales and marketing for Daufuskie Island Resort & Breathe Spa, adjacent to Hilton Head Island, SC. The best part: receptions in such areas allow people to get a dose of golf at far less cost than actually playing full rounds.

Keeping Everyone Involved

PGA's Goodbar agrees that finding the proper balance for golf-crazy and golf-lazy guests is crucial. To accommodate the former, PGA National has doubled the size of the ladies' locker room and adjacent lounge areas. And for conference attendees who have a budding interest in golf but feel they are not ready to play one of the resort's five courses, the on-site Golf Digest school will devise a clinic commensurate with both the level of interest and the desired cost.

"A lot of people would like to try to get onto the course, thinking, "What the heck, I'm at a golf resort—when else will I get such a good opportunity?" says Goodbar. "But many are self-conscious about perhaps embarrassing themselves if they play with others, and they're concerned that the experience won't justify the expense. So instead, we try to tailor a teaching program, from an hour to up to half a day, that will improve their performance and confidence."

Arthur Berg, director of marketing for La Quinta, CA-based KSL Resorts, notes that with the popularity of spas in recent years, golf-lazy attendees can be eased into the atmosphere of the game by creating a group spa program that focuses on the parts of the body most affected by playing golf. Such a recreational diversion is educational for the novice player, much-needed rehab for the frequent player, or simply a nice stretching routine and rubdown for those uninterested in golf.

Then again, Daufuskie's Homad sees that "A sizable segment of our clientele has returned to wanting to play 18 holes, not just nine—and if their meeting schedules must be adapted somehow to accomplish that, so be it." He also observes that smaller groups in particular value service, comfortable accommodations—and, even more than nightlife opportunities, the overall golf experience.

PGA's nod to the avowed golf enthusiast is the establishment of a caddie program, a feature that many golfers otherwise never have the chance to enjoy. Groups can choose between caddies (who carry clubs alongside the walking players) or forecaddies (who walk ahead of each cart-driving group to observe where players' shots land). "It really elevates the level of the experience," Goodbar notes.

Like the five-course PGA National, Turning Stone Casino Resort, in Verona, NY, has scrambled to add not only two additional courses, but also other means of providing flexibility and adaptability to accommodate groups that have golf on the agenda. "The usual pattern is to schedule morning meetings lasting three or four hours, followed by a quick lunch buffet or a pickup of box lunches," says Bob O'Brian, the resort's director of golf. "We can then schedule an afternoon shotgun start on one of our courses, with up to 144 attendees able to play on each course. With this scheduling, we can keep both the conference people and the other resort guests happy."


Welcome to the club(house)

Meeting planners may sometimes overlook the potential of a property's golf clubhouse to add a special touch to their events, perhaps because they assume such a setting would appeal primarily to golfers or be unsuited to handle business-related events—both of which are often untrue.

For instance, Turning Stone Casino Resort in Verona, NY, outside Syracuse, has a 27,000-sf clubhouse with dedicated conference rooms as well as dining areas for up to 300 attendees. Most of the space is on the second floor along with a balcony, all overlooking the two courses on property. A third course is roughly three miles off property, and the clubhouse there has smaller meeting rooms suited for groups wanting to escape the bustle of the main property.

And at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville, TN, the 43,000-sf antebellum-style clubhouse at the Springhouse Golf Club regularly hosts small to mid-sized meetings, banquets, and awards programs. Like Turning Stone, most of the group space is on the second floor along with a wraparound balcony, so that much of the rolling terrain of the golf course is in view.

On a different note, Dana Schmid, director of golf at The Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hallandale, FL, stresses that there's not only strictly business-related meetings and events happening at a property's golf abode. A favorite, especially for bringing golfers and the golf-averse together, is the evening "mixer" she often sets up for groups within and surrounding the Diplomat Country Club's clubhouse. Basically a cocktail party with lighted balls and "holes" delineated with light sticks, the festivities include full-shot opportunities for avid golfers and putting contests for novices.

"People who wouldn't think of going to a golf tournament or playing a regulation round themselves still have a great time on the practice green," says Schmid. "A mixer is also great for groups whose schedule might be too tight to include a full 18-hole round during the day."

Schmid's other clubhouse-oriented group event involves collaboration with one or more of the equipment and apparel vendors inside the pro shop. Conference attendees can be custom-fit for a set of clubs, a pair of shoes, or other golf accoutrements, by representatives of several manufacturers. It is a win-win situation: Participants receive a tangible reminder of the event, while the equipment representative makes a volume sale, albeit at a discount rate, and gains instant exposure for the product line.