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Meetings take a swing at the pros

Courtesy The John Deere Classic

“Holy moley! Can you believe how close we are?” exclaimed a dark-haired boy lying on the ground a few feet from pro golfer Scott Verplank.

The PGA player was preparing to tee off on the 15th hole at the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., in May.

The youngster is not the only one amazed at how accessible professional golf can be. Major golf events are within the reach of not only the general public but of meetings. Yet, building a meeting around a major golf tournament is an idea planners don’t often pursue.

“A lot of folks consider it unattainable because it’s on TV,” said Richard Goldman, executive director of the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra and the Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau. “It’s a worldwide special event like the Super Bowl they think, but it is attainable. We can bring people together and make it happen.”

And make it happen they do, at many levels. “People think it’s out of their budget,” said Emily Kelly, director of business development for the TPC Sawgrass Clubhouse. But as Kelly and others point out, events tied to professional golf tournaments can be as inexpensive or as extravagant as a budget allows. Attendees can be ushered into upscale tents set up beside the course or handed a general admission ticket. They can dine on white linen beneath tents or grab hot dogs at concession stands.

“We can find something to suit every group,” said Goldman. “We have a wide spectrum of ways businesses can exploit this terrific entertainment.”

And these tournaments are often considered a treat, even for those who never play the game.
Catie Marks isn’t a golfer, but she enjoyed her visit to the Players nonetheless. The 20-something-year-old works for her mother, who runs a community association property management company. “The demographic has changed,” said Marks. “It’s younger now. Golf is more trendy than it used to be. There are more women. Being here just makes you want to like golf.”

Tourneys played nearly year round
A lengthy lineup of professional golf events provides many opportunities for groups to gather. The list goes well beyond the four major tournaments: the U.S. Open Championship, the Masters, the British Open and the PGA Championship. The PGA Tour organizes more than 40 tournaments each year. “The tournaments are played practically year round,” said Adam Wallace, PGA Tour media assistant.

Tournaments are played across the country, among them the HP Byron Nelson Championship in Irving, Texas; the John Deere Classic in Silvis, Ill.; the Verizon Heritage PGA Tour at Sea Pines in Hilton Head, S.C.; and the Greenbrier Classic at the Greenbrier Resort, White Sulphur Spring, W.Va., the newest event on the PGA Tour.

Even the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship move around the country and are often played on courses near second- and third-tier cities. Of course, a few major golf events, such as the Masters in Augusta, Ga., are such sought-after events that they are tough tickets to get, but there are plenty of tournaments that are suitable for small meetings and incentive trips and relatively easy to arrange for groups.

The Players Championship at the TPC Sawgrass in northeast Florida is one such professional golf event. It is played in a region described as a “golf mecca” by Goldman and marketed as Florida’s First Coast of Golf, home to more than 70 golf courses.

“We have some of the most spectacular golf on the planet,” said Goldman. “We have 39 holes on the ocean or Intracoastal waterway.”

The Players Championship is played on the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course, whose 17th hole, an island green, is among the most famous in the world. Golfers can typically play the Stadium Course but not during the Players Championship. “But the other 51 weeks of the year, we host specialty events,” said Kelly.

Groups who want to meet, bring in clients or host incentive trips have plenty of options during the Players.

They can book space in one of the chalets scattered around or near the 17th green. Some have stadium seating with food booths, and others have linen-covered dining tables and buffet spreads.

Ian Hoffman, senior vice president of marketing for Intergraph Corp., based in Huntsville, Ala., brought 24 customers in two waves to the Players for the first time this year and booked space in a stadium chalet. His company shared the chalet with seven other groups; each had its own stadium seating, both inside and outside under an awning.

“We brought in the golf enthusiasts,” said Hoffman. “It’s a nice opportunity to bring in key clients from Europe and the U.S.”

Surprisingly easy to plan
Hoffman found the event surprisingly easy to plan, mainly because of the PGA management staff’s assistance. “It’s a turnkey program,” he said. “They cobranded merchandise and made our lives much easier. And it’s been very economical, the price overall. This is a must if you use golf as client entertainment. Everyone takes back such a memorable experience.”

The first days of the tournament are relaxed as golfers play their qualifying rounds. “There are more players here during that time, because many won’t make the cut,” said Goldman. “Players are much more accessible then, and it’s very casual.”

On those days, the chalets are popular. Groups can meet and then walk the greens to watch their favorite players.

Being a sponsor brings benefits

Becoming a sponsor affords organizations a number of advantages. At the Greenbrier Classic, an 18th-green skybox sponsorship is a large investment that offers a stream of benefits, among them 50 tickets to a private concert during the tournament, 40 tickets for the week for the skybox, a team in the Pro-AM tourney, parking, advertising and five guest rooms for the week.
At the John Deere Classic, organizations can choose from among packages for venues ranging from double-decker skyboxes, trophy suites on the 17th hole and a hospitality tent on the 18th hole.

Jeld-Wen, a manufacturer of windows and doors, is a partner of the Players and is the primary sponsor of the Jeld-Wen Tradition, held in August in Bend, Ore., and part of the PGA Champions Tour.

The company brings in executives, key customers and general managers for both golf tournaments. In Oregon, guests stay at the Sunriver Resort, and in Ponte Vedra Beach, they stay at the Marriott Sawgrass. Being a sponsor gives Jeld-Wen access to rooms at the headquarters hotel that the company wouldn’t have otherwise.

“We have meetings during the event; some are educational,” said Bill Hueffner, director of development and professional relations. “We have many executives at events and meetings in order to have that face-to-face time that we just don’t have that often anymore.”
He sees sponsorship as an effective way to do business.

“The event is already paid for in the sponsorship,” he said. “If more people looked at using these types of events, they would realize the benefits. They don’t have to create team building or entertainment, because it’s all right there.”

Doing business during a  major golf tournament is worthwhile, he said.

“We want people to leave with a great impression of the company and excited about doing business with us,” said Hueffner. “And we want our employees to be proud to be part of an organization and motivated to provide high performance. When people you work with get to go to a sporting event that is coveted, it’s a nice touch.”

Looking beyond headquarters hotel
An influx of golf fans, players and the media puts pressure on hotel availability during these high-profile events. At the Players, there are a number of resorts available beyond the headquarters hotel, the Sawgrass Marriott, and several have their own golf assets.

For example, the AAA Three Diamond 301-room Renaissance Resort at World Golf Village in St. Augustine, Fla., is adjacent to the World Golf Hall of Fame. The resort offers two golf courses, as well as access to the PGA Tour Golf Academy, the World Golf Hall of Fame’s 18-hole putting course and the 132-yard Island Challenge Hole.

“We’re a nine-iron away from St. Augustine and an eight-iron from Jacksonville,” said Scott Selvaggi, the resort’s director of sales and marketing. “Coming here during the Players is a great reward or incentive. Plus we have lots of team building. It’s a great way to schmooze clients.”

Even closer to the tournament action is the 249-room AAA Four Diamond Lodge and Club at Ponte Vedra Beach, opened in 1928 and considered “the granddaddy of resorts,” according to Andy Radovic, vice president of marketing. Most of its rooms are oceanfront. The resort also has two golf courses, 15 tennis courts and a 30,000-square-foot spa. “Corporations like to come here to entertain,” said Radovic. “We have over a dozen here this week.”

In Akron, Ohio, home to the World Golf Championship-Bridgestone Invitational, the Akron-Summit County Convention and Visitors Bureau helps groups block hotel rooms and make other arrangements so they can tie a meeting or incentive to the PGA event.

Conflicting events, limited hotels
There can be challenges, however. Held in August at the Firestone Country Club, the tourney’s dates have conflicted with the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s inductions in nearby Canton for the past several years, putting even greater pressure on hotel rooms. On the upside, points out James Mahon II, the CVB’s director of public relations, golfers can play the Firestone club’s two other courses during the tournament. “That’s an amazing added value,” he said.

In the Quad Cities, where about five area hotels are filled with players, the media and other tournament officials during July’s John Deere Classic, it is important for groups to block rooms early, said Jessica Waytenick of the Quad Cities CVB.

A number of groups do build meetings around the tournament, including the Iowa Department of Economic Development, which has met at the Radisson Quad City Plaza in Davenport, Iowa, and made forays to the Classic, and Quad Cities First, a business development organization that entertained a dozen visitors from around the country during the tournament.

When pairing a meeting with professional golf, planners often look for a locale with activities to keep nongolfers happy, such as St. Augustine or Hilton Head, S.C., home to the Verizon Heritage, played at the Sea Pines Resort, known for its candy-striped lighthouse.

“Golf Channel officials tell us that the setting is one of the favorites on the Tour, loved by players and spectators, because after play is finished and the party begins, Harbour Town is a great commercial area, full of life and a vibrant spirit that makes the tournament fun for everyone,” said Jessica Gardo, manager of marketing and public relations for the Hilton Head VCB.

In Ponte Vedre, Lee Mow, a meeting planner who was a guest during the Players, was making a point to look at what the area offered for those who aren’t interested in golf.

“I love golf so much that I have to be careful with those who don’t love it as much,” said Mow. “But that’s the great thing about this area. I had no idea St. Augustine has this much to offer.”

The Jacksonville and St. Augustine area CVBs partner during the tournament to host a chalet on the 16th fairway. St. Augustine and Ponte Vedra want to bring in more meeting groups during the Players Championship; the Jacksonville CVB mostly brings in meeting planners who could book business in the area throughout the year, not just during the Players Championship.

“We want meeting planners to get a feel for what Jacksonville is all about when the city shines the most,” said Lyndsay Rossman, senior director of corporate communications. It has paid off with a booking rate of 90 percent, she said.

A good time well spent
The young lad who squealed in delight at being close to the action didn’t seem the least bit bothered that only a couple of hours earlier Tiger Woods had dropped out of the tournament with a bulging disk in his back.

Disappointment does not linger, especially for those fortunate enough to attend one of the sport’s biggest events and do business at the same time.

“It’s truly remarkable,” Hoffman said on the last afternoon of the tournament. “The event presents a perfect opportunity to spend one-on-one time with the customer. It’s invaluable speed time with the customer.”