Golf Meetings: The School of Hard Knocks

It would seem a fairly easy task: Coordinate the details around having a group of people gather at a golf course for a day of play, a bit of business talk, and plenty of bonding, supplemented with food and drink plus a few awards and gifts.

Well, things are often not what they seem. With so many other networking options available to businesspeople, the first time that your golf event hooks, slices, or double bogies might be the last time your organization will command the attention or respect of those you invited.

To give you a better chance at pulling off a memorable, glitch-free golf event, Successful Meetings has compiled a list of common golf-planning errors from two experts: Walt Galanty, the Alexandria, VA-based former president of the now-defunct National Association of Golf Tournament Directors; and Phil Immordino, the Phoenix-based president of the new Golf Tournament Association of America.

Choose the Right Club
First, book a date for the event at least 90 days in advance with a golf course. But before you hang up the phone, ask the pro shop staff, "Which tasks can you help me with, and how much will each cost?" The pro shop has a wealth of experience when it comes to pairing players of differing ability, choosing contests to hold throughout the day, ordering logoed merchandise, setting up sponsor signage, choosing gifts and awards appropriate to your guests and your price range, and making backup plans in case of rain.

Remaining jobs that fall to you include promoting the event, gathering sponsors, choosing the food and beverage, and selecting the format of play. And there's one sand trap these tasks have in common: "The old-school rules that have worked for previous generations of business golfers, which have been handed down through the years from committee to committee," says Immordino, who authored the book "How to Produce a Successful Golf Tournament."

The hard-drinking, burger-munching, predominantly white, usually male attendee has been replaced by a health-conscious, networking, multi-tasking duffer who often wants more out of a day on the links than just a few drinks, some laughs, and a par or two.

Galanty notes that some planners are indeed changing their ways as the demographics of business become more diverse in gender and age. For instance, "a lot more organizations are creating a specific web page for a golf event, which aids not only in attracting the younger crowd but also in answering common questions, announcing new sponsors or event features, and making registration easy for all attendees as well as the planner."

Similarly, lining up sponsors is more complicated than most planners realize. "Too many people tell potential sponsors that the event offers great exposure, when all they are truly offering is access to 144 people via signage and perhaps a brief interaction on the course with a company rep who's giving away mementos," Immordino says. "Tournaments are not good media buys unless you are expansive with your overall package, offering exposure beyond the event." Again, the event's web page offers opportunity, as does the host organization's general web site. And tactful logoing of awards and gifts with sponsors' names makes it more likely that players will continue to use the items long after the event. Finally, Galanty says that "setting aside playing spots for larger sponsors is attractive, because then they can entertain their best clients too."

The Proper Stance
To further offset costs or to raise more money for a charitable cause, Immordino says that "having a sizable registration fee is not an obstacle. But, golfers will pay more only if you give them more. At the least, that means you've got a well-conditioned golf course, impressive merchandise, good food and drinks, and a wonderful atmosphere for the whole day."

In fact, the presentation of food and beverage affects the atmosphere of the event more than one might realize. So planners must consider the items they'll want on the beverage carts that roam the course while guests are playing. Sandwiches and snacks are a must, plus beer, wine, soda, sports drinks, and bottled water, so everyone will find something they like. Hard liquor is an option but can result in trouble, as some planners come to learn the hard way after contacting their organization's insurance carrier following an incident.

Another mistake some planners make is to have a plated, multi-course meal after the event. Doing this prevents people from mingling with those they didn't play with, and it drains the energy from the awards ceremony, which often happens during the closing meal. The best bet, according to Galanty: passed hors d'oeuvres, a buffet, and a few bar stations, all of which likely add up to less money than a full sit-down meal.

The Way to Play
When it comes to the actual playing of golf, planners have control over whether everyone enjoys the course and the company of their playing partners, or they feel like the round is more like an exhausting, five-hour forced march. How? By choosing a playing format that fits the level of expertise of your golfers.

For instance, if many of the players are experienced, the format used tends to be "best ball." This means that each team member plays his own ball, and the lowest score made by a team member on a given hole is the one recorded for the team.

If the group has a mix of good and not-so-good golfers, then a "shamble" format may be your best bet. In that format, each team member tees off; the team chooses the best tee shot among them; all players place their balls at that spot; each member then plays his own ball to the hole. This moves the game along more quickly yet still allows people to play most of their own shots. Do remind players, though, that if they make several bad shots on a single hole they should simply quit that hole—their teammates will finish the hole and post a usable score.

For a field of mostly novice or poor golfers, a "scramble" is the format of choice. In a scramble, players place their balls at the spot of the team's best shot, on every shot. This way, nobody feels embarrassed or intimidated because they don't play well; only the best result of the group is used on every shot.

With so many golf outings taking place each year, there's little choice for planners but to strive to create the classiest, most entertaining event they can. Because when an event stands out among others, potential attendees and sponsors will clamor for a spot in next year's outing.

Originally published November 01, 2007

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