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Posted: February 25, 2009

Against the wind

Corporate golf bookings remain steady despite the recession

Gary Baines

Dennis Lyon, manager of golf for the city of Aurora, didn’t know exactly what to expect when Aurora Golf recently sent out a survey to 25,000 people on its e-mail list, asking them if they planned to play more, less or the same amount of golf in 2009.

Given the state of the economy, and that people are watching their expenditures closer than usual, Lyon wouldn’t have been at all shocked to get a different consensus than the city received. But by a 12:1 margin, more people indicated they planned to play more rather than less this year. Out of 280 respondents, 133 said “more,” while 11 said less and 136 about the same. “That was really surprising to me,” Lyon said.

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Lakewood Country Club

Though golf operators in Colorado fully understand they’re not immune to economic downturns, it appears things aren’t as bad here as in many other areas of the country. After all, a telephone survey conducted in November by Seton Hall Sports Poll and the Sharkey Institute indicated that 47 percent of U.S. golfers were going to cut back their spending on the sport because of the recession.

If that’s the case, it’s reasonable to assume booking of corporate golf events might also be taking a hit. But at least in Colorado, the outlook isn’t all that grim. Conversations conducted late in the fall with 15 golf executives, directors of golf and head professionals in Colorado indicated that while the booking of such events may be a little softer than normal in our state, in many cases it’s been business as usual — while keeping fingers crossed about the future.

“I haven’t heard any horror stories yet, but that’s not to say we aren’t keenly aware of the (economic) situation,” said Tim Lollar, the director of golf at Lakewood Country Club and president of the Colorado Section PGA. For some, it comes down taking a big-picture view of the situation. “Most people are still booking (corporate outings); they’re not sacrificing entertainment or marketing,” said Kevin Laura, president of Green Valley Ranch Golf Club in northeast Denver, home of the HealthOne Colorado Open Championships. “Golf is still an affordable entertainment tool and morale booster. … Smart people realize that in tough times you want to stay in front of customers instead of cutting your marketing arm off like what sometimes happened in the past. “The return on investment for golf is so much higher — it’s enjoyed by all. It’s a low price point per head for all day. You could see 100 to 150 clients in one place.”

The consensus among Colorado golf officials contacted was that most in-state courses expect to host close to the same number of corporate events in 2009 as they did in 2008, though the number of participants in those events may decrease. “People are a little more price-sensitive and price-conscious,” said Matt Schalk, director of golf at Vista Ridge Golf Club in Erie. “In years past where we might have had 144 players (for a corporate outing), some now will have 100 or 120. It’s not that the events are going away, but the numbers might be a little smaller.”

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Frank Orton, general manager of Lakewood Country Club

Mike Ball, head professional at Ptarmigan Country Club in Fort Collins, confirmed that trend,
noting that Ptarmigan hosted more than 10 percent fewer outside rounds in 2008 than is typical. “We already saw the effects last season of the economy,” he said. “And (in 2009) we’ll probably see an extension of that. The events will still exist, but not the numbers (of players) that we’re used to. We haven’t had any tournaments say they’re not returning, but we know (some effects) are coming. So we’re looking at alternate ways to fill
dates if that happens.”

Even the state’s most prestigious clubs can’t buck the economy. Colorado Golf Association executive director Ed Mate noted that in late September the Par Club tournament, which benefits the Eisenhower-Evans caddie scholarship, drew 27 groups instead of the anticipated 32. “Usually we’d be turning away teams at a place like Denver Country Club,” Mate said. Still, the timing of the most drastic downturn in the economy — the fall of 2008 — might help golf in Colorado elude the brunt of the major aftershocks. Courses in the state see the great majority of their rounds played in the warm-weather months, and it’s hoped that by the spring and summer the economy will be at least heading in the right direction.

“It could have happened in June 2008 instead of (in the fall),” said Eddie Ainsworth, the executive director of the Colorado Section PGA. “We could be running more scared. Some places (in 2008) had their number of rounds played go down, and some were up. Some people are preparing (2009) budgets for a little less. But for all the doom and gloom that everyone preaches, we’re all hopeful that things will turn out better than anticipated. There could be an optimistic outlook by April.”

Fortunately, Colorado has plenty of options — and range of prices — available for clients interested in booking corporate/charity golf outings. High-end resort or private courses can charge hundreds of dollars per person for groups wanting to play outstanding courses not readily available to average golfers. But for those working on a tighter budget, there are plenty of middle-of-the-road possibilities that charge rates starting at $60 a head, including greens fees, a cart, range balls, $5 to $12 per person for prizes in the golf shop,
and tournament organization.

Scheduling corporate tournaments for less-busy days of the week and times of day — or before June or after August — can also help keep prices down. Avoiding weekends, when rates are higher, is a good start. While some private courses host few or no outside events — one example is Colorado Golf Club in Parker, which was recently named host of the 2010 Senior PGA Championship — many welcome a certain number of corporate or charity events to help offset the costs of running the facility. In most cases at private courses, such events take place on Monday, when the clubs are usually closed to members.
 
“There’s a lot of competition out there,” Lollar said. “We try to be fair in pricing, but you always get shopped. We ask people to recognize that not everyone gets a chance to play at a private club. There’s a certain exclusivity factor that should help (corporate event organizers) recoup extra charges. Nothing personal against public facilities, but exclusivity translates into dollars.” So does the reputation of the course, and even the prestige that comes with hosting national and regional tournaments. The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, for instance, was the venue for last summer’s U.S. Senior Open, the most prestigious event in the world that’s limited to competitors over 50 years old. And because the Broadmoor is considered one of the top golf resorts in the country — it was ranked No. 12 in that category in Golf World magazine’s recent Readers’ Choice Awards — it can command higher prices for corporate events. Golfers must stay at the hotel. The peak-season rates to play in such events typically run $230 for the East course and $195 for the West and Mountain courses.

But even at such prices, director of golf Russ Miller said the Broadmoor will have 39,000 rounds per year of corporate or charity event golf played at the resort’s three courses. However, Miller added that after having been heavily booked for such tournaments in the last quarter of 2008, a number of companies canceled. But he reports that beginning in May of 2009, the Broadmoor has more golf bookings than it’s had in the last couple of years.

“We’re not seeing people wanting to negotiate the price; what we’re seeing is (corporations) paying for one round of golf rather than three, and if you want to play more, you pay for it yourself. Another thing we’ve seen is where we used to have a full shotgun (with players starting at each hole of the course), now sometimes we may only get 40 or 50 players.”

Some clubs are willing to work with corporate event organizers by tweaking prices, amenities or schedules if necessary. “We’re more sensitive to the unknowns of the economy,” Schalk said. “I don’t know a lot about it other than what I read, and it’s not good. We’ve got to make sure that if someone spends dollars with you that you give them what works best for them, and not necessarily what’s most convenient for you.”

Still, most clubs have not lowered their standard corporate event pricing due to the tough economics times, nor are they to the point they’re offering out-of-the-ordinary incentives. “I don’t know if you ever want to get into discounting yourself,” said Kevin Vena, the head professional at Pinehurst Country Club in southwest Denver. “If you do, you start getting, ‘That’s not what you did last year.’”

Some course operators are hopeful because even in a tough economy, playing golf can serve as a valuable outlet for people. “Golf can be perceived in a couple of different ways,” Lollar said. “Is golf business or is golf entertainment? As entertainment, it’s kind of like the liquor business: People drink when they’re happy or sad. People still need to have the opportunity for a release from the daily grind.”

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Gary Baines is a Colorado-based freelancer who writes frequently about golf.

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