Humana's Chuck Lane breathed a sigh of relief when the last foursome of 144 top sales producers and execs headed out to the greens at Maui's Kaanapali Golf Resort in Hawaii. But then came the dreaded phone call from the course. “Where are the beverages?” players demanded.

Turns out Lane — assistant vice president of public relations and meeting services for the Green Bay, Wis. — based firm and a veteran planner of golf outings — had ordered beverage carts, but not the drinks.

Golf tournament rule number one: Assume nothing.

Fortunately, with resorts accustomed to hosting large group tournaments, glitches such as dry beverage carts are the exception, not the rule. But there is no underestimating the value of prudent advance work to help forestall problems like this and produce memorable golf events.

Choose the Right Course

Choosing the right course is arguably the most crucial step in ensuring a positive experience for the players. Many factors determine proper site selection, but distance from the resort seems to be a universal concern. Most golf tournaments start after lunch and can stretch out for five hours, so it's important for players to get on the course, finish before dark, and return in time to prepare for dinner. Carrie V. White, senior meeting planner with Aegis Insurance Services in Jersey City, N.J., tries to stick within 30 minutes of a resort. After getting burned a few times, she has learned to drive and time the route herself on site visits. “Timing is key,” White explains. “If the golfers don't get back until 7:30 and their spouses are waiting for them, then they're angry and end up being late for dinner.”

Sometimes, though, the lure of a world-renowned golf course is too hard to resist, and a group might venture a little farther than normal to take advantage of it. “When we do that, we try to build in a nighttime function that won't conflict with the timing,” says Jeff Calmus, director of conference planning for New England Financial/MetLife in Boston.

Calmus prefers the one-stop shopping convenience of a venue such as Orlando's Walt Disney World Resort that includes its own golf courses. “When you make a financial investment in an entire meeting facility, obviously you have more control over your tournament. And it's a lot easier in terms of coordination,” he explains.

Since golf outings are often part of programs designed to reward top producers or impress key customers, many financial services companies book groups into destinations that have hosted pro tournaments. Phyllis Connelly, executive meeting planner with Liberty Mutual Insurance in Boston, likes Pinehurst in North Carolina because it was the site of one U.S. Open (which will return in 2005) and because it offers eight courses — an important consideration for a schedule that includes a tournament and gives Liberty Mutual's 70 to 80 key accounts multiple time slots to squeeze in individual games. “I know from experience our customers can't wait to get out on the courses; they know which ones they want to play,” says Connelly.

But not every group is ready for the big leagues. White, not a golfer herself, says she consults golf magazines and keeps a list of the top 25 U.S. golf facilities, but “I won't send a group of beginners to that kind of course.” To determine whether a lesser-known course is up to snuff for a group, White checks out the quality of the greens and the clubhouse. And, because she admits she is “not completely versed in the courses and the pars,” she also asks Aegis' CEO, who does golf, to review a course's card and decide whether it will pose a sufficient challenge for the clients.

“With large tournaments, we rarely play on a really hard course,” White says. No one wants to embarrass the occasional golfer, especially when that golfer is an important policyholder. “When you have 144 players, you definitely have some beginners — people who come once a year to this meeting and don't otherwise play golf,” she notes.

Leveling the Playing Field

That doesn't mean that novice golfers need to avoid world-class courses, though. Corporate golf tournaments routinely are set up to put teams of golfers of varying skills onto a level playing field. The most popular format, the scramble, involves teams composed of players with a variety of handicaps. Every member tees off, and only the best drive counts. Then team members take turns hitting from that spot, counting only the best shot.

Marty Manning, vice president of sales for Zurich Life Insurance Co. in Schaumburg, Ill., says the scramble format makes everyone happy. “The person who is the very good golfer usually carries the team and they use his or her shot most of the time, and the person who plays once or twice a year doesn't have to worry. Inevitably, during the round everybody contributes two or three shots minimum. Usually, the whole thing comes down to putting, and some of the less-talented golfers can make a 20-foot putt, so they contribute.”

Manning says the scramble arrangement provides a terrific opportunity to forge relationships. “At least half of the teams really come together because they're going to shoot a score that they would never shoot on their own,” he observes. “They'll talk about it for the rest of the trip.”

Setting up balanced teams can pose an interesting challenge. Manning says he is lucky, because after planning golf events for Zurich Life for 20 years, he knows how well most participants play.

Asking players to declare their handicaps can open a can of worms. “It allows cheating, fibbing, and consequently one group might sandbag and win, which can cause hard feelings. That's not the purpose of tourneys,” Lane says. “We're trying to create a win-win, where everybody goes home with something and is happy.”

Foursome Politics

In addition to balancing each foursome's skill levels, the planner needs to strike a delicate balance between business affiliations and internal protocol. Calmus says a little homework can help achieve that balance. “We talk to people internally in the company who understand the relationships between the people playing, which is very strategic from a business standpoint. These are sources who understand what is happening out in the field and on the sales force, such as who wants to discuss something with which executive,” he says.

Some pairings are obvious: The e-commerce client with the IT staffer, the top producer with the CEO, the token home office person on as many teams as possible, and teaming players from various regions. It's also important to avoid pairing competing clients.

Once the foursomes are established, requests for changes are inevitable and need to be handled tactfully. “We try to honor as many requests as we possibly can, keep it light, and keep a sense of humor about it,” says Lane. “There's always a danger that someone will be perceived as an inferior player. But everybody has an ego, and we try to never make anybody, least of all the customer, feel unimportant or slighted. We try to make everybody feel honored.”

Calmus says he's accustomed to changes at the last minute, and being able to respond quickly is critical. “If you don't change the names fast enough on the carts, there could be some embarrassment,” he says.

Carts, Clubs, Communication

Once the foursomes are decided, it's largely up to the golf facility to make sure the event goes smoothly. A good golf department will set up carts with players' clubs, take care of scoring, and provide guidelines for the players. But that doesn't leave the planner out of the picture. While Manning says that planners have little to worry about if they're dealing with a professional facility, he doesn't take anything for granted. “One of the things you don't want to happen is to not have the golf bags and carts ready.” He sends a staffer over to the clubhouse midmorning prior to an afternoon outing to make sure everything is in order.

As with any event, communication is key. “We look for the same service mentality from a golf operation as we do from the rest of the resort,” says Calmus. “We want one contact. We want that person to be accessible to communicate our needs to, and we want them there when we are actually running the tournament.”

Drawing from past experiences can make planning a lot easier. “It's important to have the right number of reserved tee times,” Connelly says. “You don't want to have to pay for unused times, and you want to be able to get all your players on the course. So it's important to have a lot of past history with your group to prepare for the proper number of players.”

Lane says he and his staff serve as an extension of the club staff, registering players and starting the players, collecting score cards, directing players to the food and transportation areas, and returning rental and personal clubs to their proper places.

“Attendees leave a sporting event with a torn ticket and a memory,” Lane says. “The outcome of a golf match is probably forgotten halfway through cocktails. But people will remember their friendships and business relationships with the host.”

Favorite Fairways

We asked the planners interviewed for this article to pick their favorite courses, and tell us why. Here's what they said:

“There are several I enjoy playing, but from a tournament organization standpoint, I just finished two tourneys at Ko Olina on Oahu, Hawaii, and the Marriott's Rancho Las Palmas in Palm Springs, Calif., which were the two best organized staffs I have ever worked with.”
— Chuck Lane, Humana

“I like Pebble Beach [Calif.] — the challenge of the course, the views, the history, the nostalgia. I remember going there when it cost $25 to play.”
— Marty Manning, Zurich Life Insurance Co.

“Certainly Pebble Beach is the most dramatic and famous course I've ever played. I think the best courses in general are those that use the surrounding elements, like the Four Seasons in Nevis, which has donkeys on the fairways and monkeys in the trees. I also like the one-stop-shopping convenience of the Orlando Walt Disney World Resort courses”
— Jeff Calmus, New England Financial/MetLife

“I like Pinehurst, N.C., because it's so unique with the eight courses. My next favorite would be the Greenbrier, W.Va., with its beautiful location.”
— Phyllis Connelly, Liberty Mutual

Everyone's a Winner

Each golf tournament at Aegis Insurance Services' annual policyholders' conference is followed by an awards reception, but the honors are not all for competitive feats. “We have a staff person drive around in a golf cart, watch what's happening, and take photos during the day,” says Aegis' Carrie V. White. “Then we give out awards, including one for the most embarrassing moment.”

Not focusing on the technical side of golf and injecting a little humor helps all 700 attendees — many of them non-golfers — enjoy the event, White says.

Zurich Life Insurance's Marty Manning suggests mixing it up by running mini-tournaments involving only men, women, or couples. The smaller field of players increases the chances that everyone will win a prize.

While logo hats and shirts may seem like throwaways, some golfers like to show off their recent visits to trophy courses. Humana's Chuck Lane, who recently ran an incentive program for 300 qualifiers and their guests at Hawaii's tony Ko Olina resort in Oahu, says he was generous with the logo merchandise. “It reminds people that they were our guests in a fabulous destination.”

Lane also likes to stage seminars with long ball hitters and trick shot artists, He doesn't plan them every year, “but it's a lot of fun,” he says.

And never underestimate the value of a big name to create a lasting memory: Liberty Mutual has long been hiring Chi Chi Rodriguez to offer clinics at its tournaments, which gather 70 to 80 CEOs and CFOs at world-class golf facilities. “It's a natural draw for the attendees,” says Liberty Mutual's Phyllis Connelly.

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