Getting it Right

For something that's supposed to be a game, golf can be an awful lot of work.

Not for your attendees, mind you. The only effort they have to exert is showing up with their sticks and shoes, slathering on sun block, and then spending five hours chasing after small white balls that they smack into the woods, again and again.

But somebody has the unenviable task of putting all that together, and the bet here is that it's you. Before you start, though, take some advice from two veteran golf-event planners: Debra Kaufman, formerly the director of meetings and administration for the Professional Insurance Marketing Association in Bethesda, MD; and Maura Middleton, senior associate director for CMA Association Services Group in Princeton Junction, NJ.

For several years, Kaufman was responsible for creating two annual tournaments for her association, while Middleton, who recently moved from the corporate side of meetings to the association side, organized golf outings that took place as part of her former firm's sales meetings. And while the structure and objective of each of these planner's events were different, one thing remained the same: Everyone had to go home happy, or the planner had some explaining to do. Here's how Kaufman and Middleton did it.

Friendly Competition

Kaufman knew that attendees looked forward to her tournaments well before each conference began, and that put some pressure on her. "The number-one reason people come to the meetings is networking," she explains, "and much of that networking happens on the golf course."

Her challenge, then, was to create a moderately competitive tournament while still allowing people to play with whomever they'd like. So, "We'd let people list on the registration form the people they wanted to play with, instead of compiling handicaps and randomly putting together players," she says. "But for the people who register on site, we'd use their handicaps to fill in the last open spots, and to try to avoid putting together a foursome of high handicappers." The reason: One group like that will slow down the entire event.

To keep up the pace of play, Kaufman encouraged players to pick up their balls and move to the next hole if they were unduly slowing down groups behind them. And by using a shotgun start (in which everyone tees off at the same time, each foursome on a different hole) and a scramble format (in which everyone hits from the spot of their foursome's best shot), Kaufman made sure play moved quickly.

Since the group meets at resorts, Kaufman took advantage of each property's convention services department to help with her golf event. "Use your CSM as a liaison with the golf course, even if the course isn't affiliated with the property," she says. "With one event where I used an off-site course, I never had to talk to more than two people to set up my whole tournament -- my CSM handled transportation and lunch arrangements, and the head pro at the course handled most of the other stuff," including placing in each cart rules sheets and the post-play schedule, and putting up sponsor and contest signage around the course.

To give attendees a chance to loosen up before heading onto the course, Kaufman ended the morning meetings by 11:30 and scheduled the tee time for 12:30. And to save time, "We placed box lunches in each golf cart so people could eat as they play, instead of rushing through a sit-down meal." She also hired refreshment carts to traverse the course (there should be enough carts so that players see them once every three or four holes). If the course doesn't have such carts, it may be possible to set up refreshment stations on a few holes around the course, and to use the halfway house located between the ninth and tenth holes.

To subsidize some of the tournament's cost, Kaufman sought sponsorships from industry suppliers. She's quick to add, though, that "sponsorships were kept low-key, because for tax purposes we needed to be careful about the line between sponsoring and advertising. We'd ask companies to sponsor the lunch, the hats we put in the carts, the social event afterwards, and the contests we have on a few holes; in return, we give them signage at registration and on the course. But we decided not to have someone from supplier companies out on each hole to greet people."

And rather than have the awards ceremony at the end of play, Kaufman opted for a champagne breakfast the next morning. "We'd have the president's banquet that night, so there's simply too much going on," she says. "We'd save the awards for morning, when the new association officers were announced."

At the breakfast, the first-place team received their recognition and awards, as did the winners of the contests for longest drive (men's and women's) and closest to the pin (men's and women's). "We alternated our gifts from year to year," Kaufman says. "We'd do crystal one year, silver mugs and plates the next, and so on." Golf equipment or gift certificates from the host course's shop are never a poor choice, either -- they usually make the appreciative staffers at the golf course work a little harder for you and your group.

Informal But Important

Just because Maura Middleton wasn't charged with putting together a formal tournament for her firm doesn't mean she had any more room for error than Kaufman did. In fact, with the political overtones inherent in any corporate outing, there's plenty that can go wrong for planners in that situation.

"This wasn't competitive golf," says Middleton, who still helps coordinate the annual golf event held by Meeting Professionals International's Greater New York chapter. "My attendees were just getting out to relax and to bond." But with about 60 percent of her attendees choosing to play golf, she had anywhere from 50 to 200 players to contend with at each event. "We'd have a shotgun start with the larger outings, but we'd simply stagger the tee times with the smaller ones."

And with each event came a few potential pitfalls. "With a shotgun start, you have to be mindful of whom you send out to start on particular holes," Middleton says. "Your VIPs should be started either on hole number one or on hole number ten, so they start and end their round at natural points on the golf course. You don't want them to drive their cart for ten minutes just to tee off." And with a staggered start, in which each group tees off at the first hole a few minutes apart, Middleton advises that VIPs be among the first to go.

Another observation by Middleton regarding senior executives is that "they often don't choose whom they are going to play with ahead of time -- they want to see who asks them to play, or they'll wait to see who has an open spot in their foursome." So remember to ask your VIPs whether they'd like to keep their options open until right before the event begins.

Even when choosing the golf course, a planner should keep VIPs in mind. Why? Because many executives don't play golf often enough to be very good. Holding your event, then, on a course that's difficult may be a bad idea. Ask the pro shop how "forgiving" the course is for mediocre players; if the answer is "not very," consider another course, or risk having frustrated golfers.

Finally, Middleton notes that planners can play in their own events. "The pro shop staff will cart around the course to monitor things," she says, though she carries a walkie-talkie. "Playing takes your mind off things for a while."