Create a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Design an event that attendees couldn't duplicate on their own.

Meeting planners in the financial services industry regularly receive those marching orders. Kim DeVillers, first vice president, corporate event marketing, at Countrywide Financial in Calabasas, Calif., has a surefire way to carry them out for Countrywide's customers: Make them part of a famous foursome. “When you offer business partners the opportunity to play golf with a top touring pro like Phil Mickelson, they will be there,” DeVillers says.

Countrywide sponsors four annual golf tournaments with plenty of pro and celebrity cachet — and gets maximum marketing benefits out of each one. Those benefits go far beyond getting the company's name on a banner. Working within Countrywide's marketing department, DeVillers designs tournament experiences for business partners with the aim of building and maintaining relationships and brand loyalty.

A Natural: Golf and Business

Countrywide Financial is the second-largest home-loan provider in the United States, a Fortune 500 company with earnings of $2.4 billion in 2003. It has grown into a leading provider of diverse financial services and in 1999 acquired Balboa Life and Casualty, now the centerpiece of its Balboa Insurance Group. A company that has been recognized for its leadership in lending to minorities and lower-income homebuyers, Countrywide was named to Fortune's list of America's Most Admired Companies earlier this year.

Countrywide got into golf sponsorships in 1997, when it began sponsoring a Senior PGA event initially called The Tradition Presented by Countrywide and later The Countrywide Tradition. Countrywide's relationship with the tournament lasted six years; in 2003, the event moved from Scottsdale, Ariz., to Portland, Ore., with new sponsors. “That was our introduction to the world of golf sponsorships,” DeVillers says. “It was so successful for us that we continued into the PGA sponsorship world.”

Indeed, Countrywide is racking up tournament experience. Its annual golfing calendar includes The Nissan Open Presented by Countrywide, held in February at the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, and three charity golf tournaments: the Frank Sinatra Celebrity Invitational Presented by Countrywide, held in February in Indian Wells, Calif., benefiting the Barbara Sinatra Children's Center; the Michael Douglas & Friends Celebrity Golf Presented by Lexus, held in Las Vegas in May, benefiting the Motion Picture and Television Fund; and the Target World Challenge, held in December at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, Calif., benefiting The Tiger Woods foundation. (Woods hosts the event, inviting the top 12 pros of the year plus four other golfers to participate.)

For Countrywide customers, getting to watch these tournaments live, while enjoying exclusive hospitality, is in itself a priceless experience. But as a sponsor, Countrywide has coveted spots in the Pro-Am or Celebrity-Am tournaments that are part of every major golf tournament and can therefore invite its business partners to play in them. Actually walking the fairways with a foursome that includes a celebrity or touring pro is a story to be told for a lifetime.

These amateur rounds and other golf outings she plans during tournament week allow DeVillers to put company representatives alongside their best customers for a casual and exciting few hours. “It's a great bonding experience for the business partners and the hosts,” she says. “You have a captive audience for five hours to talk business, get to know them, and build the business relationship.” Throw in stunning scenery and reliable California weather, and everyone comes out a winner — if you've done your homework, that is.

Out of the Office

DeVillers starts her work for each tournament by surveying the Countrywide representatives who will be attending to ask what they liked about the previous program and how many business partners they want to invite. “We put the program together based on their input,” says DeVillers, who interviews eight to 10 top executives before each event as well. What's usually at the top of their wish list? More time on the course. “They want more opportunities to golf with their partners,” DeVillers says. “Usually they golf in the morning, and view the tournament in the afternoon.”

During the Nissan Open, for example, about 60 national business partners plus their guests fly in for a Thursday-to-Sunday program. DeVillers connects the weekend's events thematically, from check-in to tee-off to dinners, playing off the locale. The tournament is always held at the same course; however, DeVillers houses Countrywide's guests in a different property each year. In 2003, she booked them into Beverly Hills and picked up the Hollywood theme; this year, they stayed near the coast and she used a beach theme throughout.

“It's like an incentive,” DeVillers says, in that she has to plan an unforgettable experience for the golfing attendees, plus activities such as museum tours and shopping trips for non-golfing guests, and she has to keep it fresh.

“These tournaments are so exciting to attend,” says DeVillers, previously a non-golfer who took up the sport after she started working with the sponsorships. “We get a lot of impact with them.”

Talk the Talk — and Other Tips

Here's some advice from Kim DeVillers, first vice president, corporate event marketing, Countrywide Financial, on getting the most from your golf sponsorship:

  • When considering a sponsorship, study the marketing benefits closely to make sure they meet your strategic objectives. If they don't, negotiate. For example, if you need 15 spots in the Pro-Am rather than 10, ask for them before you accept the sponsorship proposal.

  • Learn as much as you can about golf. You need to know how to talk the talk with the tournament organizers, your executives, and your business partners, in order to plan the most effective customer program.

  • Know the format of the Pro-Am or Celebrity-Am tournaments and include it in your invitation. That'll let business partners know how “serious” the golf is — and whether they would be comfortable participating.

  • Sell the event to your business partners. Create excitement, send a compelling invitation, and ensure that the corporate representative who is inviting them talks it up.

Golf Sponsorship: Look Before You Leap

Love to see your company name attached to a PGA Tour event? Take a step back and figure out exactly why you want to sponsor a tournament. “You just don't jump into these things,” says Bill Colvin, president of Colvin Sports Network, Cleveland, Ohio. “You've got to have a reason.” Colvin has been helping companies with their golf needs — from major sponsorships to local outings — for 17 years. Among the possible golf sponsorship objectives:

  • Brand Awareness — People who play and watch golf on television are largely college graduates with high incomes and executive-level positions. Companies with products or services geared to this group can benefit by linking their name with tournaments. “And in recent years,” Colvin notes, “the demographics of golf have expanded to include the upper-middle-class segment and a contingent of 25-to-35- year-olds. This allows companies that previously would have been off-target with a golf sponsorship to become involved. It may not be a PGA Tour, Champions Tour, or LPGA Tour event, but could be a specialty event like the Ford Xtreme Golf Challenge.”

  • Customer Relations — At a minimum, you can give customers, both golfers and non-golfers, tickets to the tournament. Further, pro tournaments devote one or two days to a Pro-Am event. As a sponsor, you can invite your best customers to play with the pros — along with you, other executives, and sales staff. “A company also can replicate this portion of a professional tour event by planning a VIP Golf Day and hiring one or more touring pros for a private Pro-Am,” Colvin says.

  • Employee Motivation — Use spots in the Pro-Am or tickets to the tournament as awards in employee incentive programs.

  • Charity Donation — Every sponsored pro tournament involves charitable contributions, Colvin notes, which provides a great opportunity to give back to the community and get some positive brand recognition.

With your objectives clear, decide on your level of sponsorship:

  • Title Sponsor — Your name appears in the title of the event, on signs, and in televised advertisements. You get a hospitality booth, tickets, and playing spots in the Pro-Am. The cost of this sponsorship varies, depending on how the tournament will be broadcast (whether on a major network or a cable channel) and the size of the purses awarded. For instance, according to Colvin, a company could pay up to $7 million to be a title sponsor of a PGA event that is broadcast on network television, while sponsorship of an event on a cable channel with smaller purses might start at $3.5 million. Champions Tour and Nationwide Tour sponsorships are less expensive.

  • Presenting Sponsor — Your name will be listed after the name of the tournament, so it will rarely be mentioned in outside media coverage of the event. You'll get Pro-Am spots and tickets, though not as many as a title sponsor. Prices vary widely.

  • Hospitality Sponsor — You get a hospitality tent, tickets, some on-course exposure, and association with the event. Cost: $25,000 and up.

For more guidance on sponsorship or other golf events, call Bill Colvin at (216) 696-9511.