Bring Back Golf!

Four ways to broaden the appeal of the sport that meshes best with meetings.

Recently, Jacy Russell, CMP, senior meeting manager at Spear One, a Dallas-based meeting, incentive, and event company, took an incentive group of 200 to the Big Island of Hawaii. Back in the day, her biggest problem would have been getting enough tee times for everyone. On this trip only 12 attendees out of the 200 signed up for golf — 6 percent of the group.

“There was a time when golf would have been the attendees’ main activity choice. Not anymore,” says Russell. “Those who do choose this activity now are golf fanatics who play every day.”

But those numbers are dwindling as well. According to the National Golf Foundation, the number of U.S. adults who play golf has dropped from 30 million in 2005 to 25.3 million in 2012 (the last year for which statistics are available). The decline in the number of core American golfers (those playing eight rounds or more per year) has been gradual but steady; it’s fallen between 3 and 4 percent every year since 2006.

Over the past decade, the leisure activity that has traditionally been most closely associated with corporate success in America has been in a recession. And that’s a shame, because golf is fun, it’s good exercise, people of all skill levels can enjoy the sport, its pace is conducive to bonding and brainstorming between business associates, and it’s a natural teambuilding event. Here’s what the meetings industry can do to get attendees to embrace the sport again.

1. Reach Out to Female Attendees

Over the last few decades, the demographics of meeting attendees have shifted. There are more women in the workplace and in management and executive roles than ever before. “But despite the growing enthusiasm and engagement of women players on the fairways and greens, golf still tends to be a man’s game,” notes Michael Travis, group sales manager for the Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa and Wolfdancer Golf Club, just outside of Austin, TX. “To that end, as meetings have become more balanced in the gender of the attendees, the percentage decrease of male attendees is likely a reason for golf diminishing in its appeal as a conference activity.”

Mike Sprouse, president and CEO of Chicago-based Sprouse Marketing Group, agrees. “In the past, I have really leaned on full-blown golf outings for corporate retreats and client entertainment, but I am now seeing a drop-off in golf as the central activity of these events,” he says. “From my own experience, I think part of it is gender-based. At my firm, the majority of our staff are women, and they just simply care less about golf than men tend to.”

That’s true throughout the United States. Only 19 percent of golfers in this country are women, points out Jon Last, president of White Plains, NY-based Sports & Leisure Research Group, a custom research and market analysis company for the sports and leisure industries. “But the industry is taking steps to make the game more attractive to women,” says Last. “Nine-hole rounds, golf social events, and shorter holes are being created with the needs of women golfers in mind.”

One facility that is seizing on the idea of combining golf with social events is the ANNIKA Academy. Nestled along the 18th hole of the Tom Watson course at the Reunion Resort in Orlando, the 5,400-square-foot, group-friendly academy is run by LPGA legend and namesake Annika Sörenstam.

During her 15-year Hall of Fame career, Sörenstam rewrote the LPGA and Ladies European Tour record books, won countless awards, and changed the way women’s golf was played, viewed, and covered. She amassed 89 worldwide victories, including 72 on the LPGA, 10 of which are Major Championships. Today, she is a businesswoman and philanthropist, and a proponent of getting women more interested in golf. “Most of the female executives that I know love to play golf, so there is an opportunity for the game to expand its appeal to all women in the workforce,” she says. “We need to build on that base of upper-level female executives and encourage them to include golf activities during meetings where they are the final decision makers.”

One of the most popular corporate programs at the ANNIKA Academy is a half-day event where guests break into groups to learn about the short game, long game, and physical fitness, followed by a clinic run by Sörenstam or another staff member. “That leaves the rest of the day for meetings, golf on the course, or whatever else the companies would like,” says Sörenstam. “We also do cooking and wine events outside with our guests, which makes it fun.”

For some would-be women golfers, however, there could be an intimidation factor. Jacy Russell of Spear One feels that those who just play occasionally may not want to be grouped with those — often men — who golf all the time.

Sörenstam concurs. “While there are certainly more female executives with management roles in business today than ever before, I think women could possibly be intimidated by playing with the men in outings and on business trips, so they may sign up for other offerings. But what we have seen at my golf school at Reunion Resort is that women love to come and learn in smaller groups, and I think there is still a great market for that. There is still no better place to learn somebody’s true character than on the golf course.”

2. Speed Up the Game

Four to five hours is a big block of time to take out of a meeting for an extracurricular activity, and this is what 18 holes take to play. “The general trend today is toward people being more careful with how they spend their time during a conference,” says London-based Rohit Talwar, a global futurist and the founder of Fast Future Research. “This is an austere and nervous era, and people are worried about their jobs. They want to use their time at conferences to get the skills they’ll need to keep up at the office, and that’s tough to do when you’re spending so much time on a golf course.”

According to researcher Jon Last, the industry has initiated a number of coordinated efforts to address the time factor of golf. “Many resorts and golf clubs are offering speed golf — a four- to six-hole course that is attractive to meeting groups,” he says. “So are group clinics, glow-in-the-dark night golf, and scrambles, where each player tees off on each hole, the best of the tee shots is selected and all players take their second shots from there.”

3. Broaden the Appeal for Younger Attendees

It is important to today’s younger generations that they spend their free time in a meaningful way, says Talwar, which is why corporate social responsibility has been challenging golf as a favored extracurricular activity on meeting agendas. To meet this challenge, many organizations are combining their golf activities with sponsorships that raise money for charitable causes.

Younger meeting and incentive attendees are also more drawn to adventurous activities particular to the destination they are visiting. During the Hawaiian incentive trip Russell planned, catamaran rides and ATV tours were extremely popular. “Younger attendees are more apt to want to do something they can’t do when they’re at home,” says Russell.

That’s why a lot of resorts and courses are offering more introductory, “golf-lite” activities as a way to expose the game to a wider array of meeting attendees and put a novel twist on an old sport. “The core game of golf has been around for a very long time and is still quite appealing to some, but there are other ways to deliver a golf experience,” says Last. “It’s the industry’s job to bring people along that learning curve in ways that are different than in the past. Today, there is a broader array of comfortable entry points.”

Crystal Springs Resort in Hamburg, NJ, home to seven golf courses just one hour from New York City, has a unique way to attract new players: FootGolf, a cross between golf and soccer. Players “tee off” (or in this case, kick off) with a small soccer ball, kicking it down fairways with the objective of getting the ball in a 21-inch-diameter hole in the fewest number of kicks. As one of the few available places to play the game in the United States, Crystal Springs Resort is the first facility of its kind in the Northeast, pioneering a sport that’s already extremely popular in South America and parts of Europe. The resort also features a new conference center and can handle meetings and conventions for up to 2,000 attendees.

4. Promote Golf’s Unique Advantages

Many organizations have been formed to help promote the sport, such as We Are Golf, an industry lobbying consortium that is trying to help the game shed its elitist image.

The PGA of America has an initiative in place called Golf 2.0, with the goal to make the sport “more relevant” to lapsed golfers and others, especially women and minorities.

The organization has been sending PGA staff members across the country to teach course operators how to address a wide range of issues, from retaining best customers to courting women. In a nutshell, 2.0 aims to retain core golfers, re-engage those who have left, and create new players. It plans to achieve these goals by tailoring messages and delivering customized programs to each of nine consumer groups identified by the Boston Consulting Group, which was retained by the PGA during the formation of 2.0. These groups represent a broad demographic: core golfers making at least $150,000 annually; occasional men and women golfers with no children; former golfers, including men, women, retirees, and parents; children; and Latinos familiar with the game. Also prominent are the USGA’s efforts to address pace-of-play issues.

But for planners, it’s important to remember that there is a core audience of meeting attendees for whom golf still has a strong appeal, and there are situations where the game is the perfect vehicle to achieve an organization’s strategic goals.

Indeed, golf is still instrumental in high-end corporate entertaining when CEOs or other C-level executives want to spend time with clients or customers, says Charlotte, NC-based Robert Miller, chief sales and marketing officer for 54 Sports, an event management firm.

“Although golf has lost some of its popularity as an activity for internal meetings, it is still important during events that include clients,” says Miller. “Four solid hours in front of a client can not be replicated in a boardroom or sitting at a football game.”