Corporate Golf Gets Creative

Today more than ever, the adage that “time is money” guides budget-strapped meeting and convention planners to search for ways to retool and pack more agenda into fewer days.

Mostly missing from meeting schedules are the purely “at leisure” time blocks that were common before the latest economic meltdown. Now, agendas are fine-tuned and tightened. Morning sessions start earlier; breaks are shorter. Light-fare luncheons are quick-turnaround events, and then it’s back to work until late afternoon.

But what about golf? Has that time-honored meeting component also fallen victim?

Not really, but meeting golf at a number of Wisconsin resorts is adapting and taking on a new look. Resort convention staff and golf directors are proactively suggesting ways to address the time crunch, trim costs and add value for their corporate clients.

“Golf is still an honorable sport, where you can learn a lot about a client or a colleague by spending time on the course,” says Dave Hallenbeck, Director of Golf at the 1,300 acre Four- Diamond Grand Geneva Resort in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

The Grand Geneva is home to two courses:  The Brute is a traditional and challenging American-style championship course, over 7,000 yards with 68 bunkers and expansive greens. The par 71 Highlands course, fashioned after its namesake Scottish landscape, has been touted by Golf Magazine as one of America’s best public courses for several years running.

“We ask the corporate client, ‘What do you want from a golf outing?’” continues Hallenbeck.

“They want to break up the intensity of meetings with recreation, but they also want to maximize the benefits of networking.”

According to Hallenbeck, a scramble, or “best-ball” event is good for networking and tends to neutralize the difference in player skill levels that might otherwise intimidate. Plus, he adds, it speeds up play.

“We can offer full 18-hole tournaments, of course, all the way to Ryder Cup standards, and depending on our client’s goals, we also suggest putting contests, or nine holes in conjunction with a cookout, or group clinics on putting techniques, or swing analyses during a cocktail reception.

“With two courses and 36 holes, we have a lot of possibilities and we make it seamless for clients concerned about time. ‘On time’ is key. We plan to the minute. We know how valuable their time is.”

Ed Svitak, the resort’s Director of Sales and Marketing, agrees that the overall makeup of meetings is changing, but he cautions that the trend toward planners booking groups with shorter lead times will probably have to change before too long.

“The pace is picking up. If they contact us in the eleventh hour, they might be shut out, and we don’t want that. We’re advising our longtime clients to plan further out, to lengthen their lead time.”

The Heidel House Resort and Spa in the picturesque central Wisconsin town of Green Lake has an enviable lakefront location right across Illinois Avenue from Tuscumbia, a course built in 1896 and officially the oldest in Wisconsin. The 18-hole 6,301-yard par 71 layout has long retained its reputation for being one of the best manicured courses in the state.

The Heidel House, a resort with a long history of its own, is just minutes away from two other highly-rated area courses, Lawsonia and Mascoutin.

At Lawsonia, The Links and The Woodlands offer 36 holes of championship-caliber golf on two very diverse courses. The Links layout, largely treeless, replicates Scottish and English golf course holes, bearing a resemblance to British Open courses. By contrast, The Woodlands course is densely tree-lined and tighter, with large bent-grass greens and about 80 sand traps.

Hundreds of years ago, the land that is now Mascoutin, a 27-hole course about six miles north of Green Lake was a Native American Indian village by the same name. When the original 18-hole course was laid out in 1975, many of the century-old trees were saved, creating lush undulating fairways and fast greens that are known for their fine conditioning.

Michelle Van Kirk, the Heidel House marketing manager, plans corporate events at all three courses, first focusing on the corporate planner’s objectives. If the meeting event includes company clients, her staff might suggest maximizing interaction by including key clients and the appropriate executives in foursomes.

“Or,” she says, “we might suggest enhancing team building and internal networking with a blind draw—randomly assigning members to teams—to encourage ice-breaking among colleagues or business partners who don’t know one another very well.

“We often suggest a scramble because it encourages a more collaborative atmosphere and creates a sense of teamwork. And we can plan the entire golf experience, start to finish.”

As the only Forbes Five-Star resort hotel in Wisconsin and the Midwest’s only AAA Five Diamond resort hotel, the American Club Resort in Kohler is favored by corporate planners for its luxury accommodations, award-winning spa, and stunning Pete Dye-designed golf courses ranked among the best in the country.

“We plan golf outings for corporate clients from both in and out of the state,” comments Ed Elsner, Kohler’s Tournaments Coordinator who oversees as many as 500 events a season.

“If they hold their meetings here, they will usually want to include golf. We can offer them the best: Blackwolf Run will host the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open, and Whistling Straits will be the site of the 2015 PGA Championship and the 2020 Ryder Cup.

“For their top clients, companies usually want to play either the rugged Straits course or Blackwolf’s challenging River course. But we offer a lot of flexibility. We can execute anything from a fun company outing to a high-end corporate event.

“And yes, corporate planners are more budget-conscious. Many scrutinize every line item. We can bring costs down with a putting contest before dinner, for example, or by playing fewer than 18 holes, which fits better into their time-tightened agenda.”

Missy Dortman, the American Club Resort’s Director of Meetings and Events, works closely with Ed and his staff to mesh the components of both meetings and golf.

“We offer a Five Star product, personalizing it for the client and working within their budget and time constraints. To include golf, we might offer a swing analysis clinic with Todd Wagner, Director of the Kohler Golf Academy in conjunction with a “Taste of Kohler” cocktail and restaurant sampling, wrapping networking, golf and food into one experience.”

The Kalahari Resort and Convention Center in Wisconsin Dells purchased nearby Trappers Turn Golf Club in 2006, a logical next step according to Patrick Steffes, General Manager and Director of Golf.

Designed by two-time US Open champion and ESPN golf analyst Andy North and course architect Roger Packard, the 27-hole 72 par course offers options showcasing the natural beauty of the glacier-carved landscape unique to the Wisconsin Dells area.

There are definitely challenging aspects to the course: 102 acres of rough and only 34 acres of fairway. And water comes in to play on 13 holes.

“Although we’re owned by Kalahari and they send groups here, we offer golf packages through several other Dells area resorts,” says Steffes. “Corporate golf has always been a strong component of meetings and conventions.

“We actually start booking most of our golf groups during the winter months—December through March—with details worked out between our staff and the corporate planner as we get closer to the event date. Our groups can range from 16 to a maximum of 216 players.

Steffes acknowledges that there has been some shrinkage of corporate golf groups in the past few years, though that trend is turning around. “The benefits of spending five hours in a foursome that might include your CEO or best clients are very significant.”

“We’re very lucky that we’re located in the Dells and linked to a major convention facility. That, plus our new high-tech features on the course work in our favor too.

“Our carts have full color state-of-the-art GPS systems so guests can see hole graphics, distance to the pin, hazards, etc. With corporate groups, it also allows hole sponsors to showcase their ads in full color on the GPS screen. ‘This hole brought to you by so-and-so.’

“The traditional scramble is favored by almost all of our corporate groups, though we also work golf into team-building events, a beginners clinic, contests-and-cocktails, that sort of thing,” says Steffes, “and for food options, our expanded clubhouse restaurant seats up to 250, so we’re prepared to accommodate almost any group after their golf event.”

This article was originally published in the Corporate Report Wisconsin