Golf is a must-have for insurance and financial services company meetings. Here's how two planners make everything run smoothly from tee to green.

“Facilities that allow people to walk the course can really slow down your group.”



Golf has long been an integral part of meetings in the insurance and financial services industries. Now, as the popularity of the game continues to rise — National Golf Foundation statistics show there are 26.4 million golfers in the United States, 6.1 million of whom play 25 or more rounds per year — it is becoming even more important for meeting planners to give good golf.

ICP recently talked with two veteran tournament planners to get their thoughts on what makes golf at meetings swing. Donna Dunlap, corporate secretary for Energy Insurance Mutual in Tampa, Fla., has been planning a scramble tournament as part of her company's Risk Managers Information Meeting at the same location for 13 years. And for the past four years, Marsha Miera, associate vice president/corporate planner for Fidelity National Financial Inc. in Santa Barbara, Calif., has overseen two concurrent tournaments for the Fidelity National Financial Chairman's Round Table incentive meeting.

Return Engagement

This year, Energy Insurance Mutual drew about 300 attendees to its Risk Managers Information Meeting, held each February at the Westin Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, Fla.

The meeting's purpose is to discuss what happened during the previous year within the firm and the energy marketplace, which, because of deregulation, is in constant flux. About half of the attendees play golf on four courses of varying difficulty, says Dunlap, who was previously a trust officer with Guaranty Bank & Trust Company in Oklahoma City. She took up the game in 1988 when she began planning the event, which includes both the tournament and straight tee-times.

Energy Insurance Mutual provides more than $25 million in excess liability coverage to gas and electric utilities and energy services. Over the past several years, attendance at the risk managers' event has dropped a bit because of consolidation in the industry. But, notes Dunlap, the firm still represents a majority of the country's gas and electric utilities.

Attendees, including both brokers and utility representatives, like having golf on the agenda because it gives them a good environment in which to talk to their peers about what's going on at other companies in their industry.

“They enjoy that type of atmosphere. They're able to relax more than when sitting in a meeting,” Dunlap says. “It's good to be one-on-one. A lot of business today is done by e-mail or phone, and you don't get that face-to-face contact.”

The risk managers' meeting attracts attendees from all over the United States, as well as Canada and the United Kingdom. Arriving on a Sunday and departing on a Wednesday, attendees participate in two half-day business meetings and dinners, and have the rest of their time free for leisure activities. In addition to golf, Dunlap offers deep-sea fishing, sailing, and tennis, as well as tours for spouses to locales like St. Petersburg or Sarasota.

Tee for Four

Golf, however, is the main attraction. Dunlap says the four-man scramble-format tournament is more popular with attendees than the straight tee-times, because there's less pressure. In a scramble, each of the four players on a team hits a shot off the tee at each hole. The best drive is chosen and the other three golfers bring their balls to where the best drive landed. All then hit their second shots from there, continuing until the ball is in the cup.

This year, about 25 teams competed in the scramble, while some 15 foursomes played straight tee times. Because the makeup of the tournament doesn't vary much from year to year, Dunlap is able to book the event a year out. The final lists are given to Innisbrook two or three weeks before the event. Attendees often say with whom they'd like to play and when, which helps Dunlap and the resort set up the foursomes.

Dunlap first booked this meeting at Innisbrook in 1990, and has contracted with the facility through 2004. Having a long-standing relationship with the property has been helpful in such things as locking in tee times, avoiding overbooking at the resort, and ensuring that her group gets the rooms it requires for conference sessions. “I expect certain things, and they're very willing to work with me,” she says.

The service has been good at Innisbrook, particularly since Westin took over a few years ago and did some remodeling, notes Dunlap, adding that room rates haven't risen much in the years she has booked there. And, while she wouldn't describe the golf rates as a “bargain,” they certainly aren't any pricier than at comparable properties.

Energy Insurance Mutual has considered moving the meeting, but end-of-event surveys always show that the overwhelming majority of attendees want to come back to Innisbrook. Its popularity could be due to the fact that many attendees come from cold climates, so Florida in February is a big draw. It's a plus for the company too; it allows all 11 employees from its Tampa base to attend the meeting.

While the format of the business meeting is essentially the same year to year, Dunlap works to keep it fun with different theme parties. She threw a '50s bash this year, and past fetes have included sports and casino nights.

One major trend Dunlap has seen over the years is an increase in the number of women golfers at her event, a direct reflection of the increase in women working in utilities. In the early years, she says, fewer than one percent of the tournament's players were women; now, 25 percent are female.

Equal Flights

Fidelity National Financial had more women playing in its tournaments this year too — three of the 96 players were female. Okay, it doesn't sound like a big leap forward, but planner Marsha Miera notes that, for the first time ever, a woman was on the winning team in the scramble.

Braving 112-degree heat, 270 attendees from around the country participated in this May's Fidelity National Financial Chairman's Round Table, held at the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort in Palm Desert, Calif. Attendees included about 120 managers who achieved a pretax profit of $1 million, along with their spouses, business partners, and vendors.

The event's accompanying golf tournament had two concurrent flights. The Chairman's Flight, for serious golfers, had 16 two-person teams participating, while the Fidelity Flight, a scramble, drew 16 foursomes. Players must qualify for the Chairman's Flight, in which spouses cannot participate; the scramble is open to all.

The Fidelity Flight was held at the Hyatt's Indian Wells Golf Club, while the Championship Flight took place at The Landmark in Indio, Calif., about 20 minutes away. Site selection for the Chairman's Round Table every year is 90 percent driven by the availability and reputation of the golf courses, notes Miera.

“Our chairman is really into golf,” she says. “We are always looking at resort properties that have more than one championship golf course, so that at least one group doesn't have to be transported for the golf tournament. Kapalua [on Maui] was great for us, with the Ritz right there with three great courses — and the Arizona Biltmore was also nice, with two courses on site.”

Fidelity National Financial Inc. is a provider of title insurance and real estate-related products and services. The level of attendance at the Round Table, held for 16 years, has been steady since Miera started running it in 1997. This year, it increased by about 40 percent, thanks to the acquisition of Chicago Title, which more than doubled the size of the Fidelity National. The acquisition actually made some people a bit hesitant to compete in the Chairman's Flight, the more competitive of the tournaments.

But not everyone lost their nerve. More novices participated this year, including one player who had signed up to play social golf and ended up getting talked into filling in for someone who dropped out of the scramble.

And They're Off

This was the first year for a shotgun start to the tournaments, which worked out well, says Miera, who herself is a golfer with about a 21 handicap. While she doesn't have the time to do business over a four-hour round as often as she'd like, she spends a lot of time on courses. She does thorough site inspections of prospective courses to make sure they're what she needs.

Miera recalls one time when she waited to sign contracts with a property in Hawaii until they were clear on what maintenance the course was performing, and when. It turned out they were aerating the course to promote healthy turf growth not long before the tournament, which meant there would be divots everywhere. Fidelity booked elsewhere.

Miera needs a championship-level course for the Chairman's Flight, while a resort course is ideal for the scramble. She plans about nine months in advance of the tournament, looking at factors such as whether a course allows players to drive right out to their balls on the fairway, which saves time. (Some courses won't let you drive off the cart path.) And Fidelity doesn't book with facilities that allow people to walk the course, as it can slow the group down.

As for amenities, she says, attendees like a well-stocked pro shop and Miera always checks the availability of rental equipment. Some attendees rent cars, so valet parking is a plus. Miera also looks into whether a resort has a staff photographer, because people appreciate getting photos as souvenirs.

Because most attendees have a hotel room, locker rooms aren't considered a priority, but food and beverages certainly is. Box lunches aren't popular with this crowd, which would rather grab a hot dog from a cart and be on the go. Fidelity keeps an open tab (for everything but tobacco) with the food-and-beverage outlets on the courses, so players can get what they want when they want it.

Tournament Tips

ICP asked Marsha Miera, associate vice president/corporate meeting planner for Fidelity National Financial Inc., and Donna Dunlap, corporate secretary for Energy Insurance Mutual, for tips on how to plan a successful golf event.

  • Check with the course for any little things it can do to make your life easier, says Miera. For example, one of the courses Fidelity played at this year, The Landmark in Indio, Calif., had a computerized system that allowed it to automate the generation of score cards and scoreboards. “It saved a lot of time and looked more professional than having everything handwritten,” she says.

  • While you don't need to be ready to join the PGA tour to plan a tournament, it is advisable to at least brush up on the game. “I think it would be very difficult if you didn't know the basics,” says Dunlap. One resource is the National Golf Foundation (www.ngf.org), which has available several books on tournament planning, including Planning and Conducting Competitive Golf Events and Fundraising With Golf.

  • Planning a hole-in-one contest? Miera suggests checking out the National Hole-In-One Association (www.hio.com), a golf event prize service that can provide customized signs and other promotional materials.

  • Keep the course updated on what needs to be set up, how many carts are required, and what kinds of rental equipment will be needed, as well as any other details that might come up, says Dunlap. Not even the best vendor can move heaven and earth at the last minute, so the more the facility knows in advance, the better.

  • Miera agrees that good communication is essential. After the site inspection, she usually does at least one conference call with the facility to make sure everything is in order, and she keeps in close touch with her own staff to make sure every little detail — such as who is in charge of the scorecards or deliveries — are taken care of. Attendees are kept in the loop with an e-mail newsletter update approximately every 10 days after they register, and a call to their hotel rooms the night before the tournament to inform them of their tee times.

  • Perhaps most important, says Dunlap, “Keep your cool.” There will always be last-minute changes to contend with, such as people wanting to switch pairs. “Some people tell me I spoil my players, letting them play with whomever they want, but I try to accommodate everyone. Most of the time I don't have anyone who is unhappy, and it's all going to work out in the end.”



Quite a Stretch

No longer thought to be the province of only chanting granola-eaters, yoga is quickly becoming a mainstream activity. An estimated 15 million Americans now participate in the sport, which its proponents believe can improve two things that are essential for both good golf and good meetings: concentration and flexibility.

So it only makes sense that someone would hit upon the idea to bring the spirit of “om” to the frustration of the fairway. Fitness instructor Katherine Roberts has conducted “Yoga for Golfers” workshops at events across the country for organizations as diverse as SmithKline, Seagram, and VH1.

Since the typical golfer is a middle-aged male, the yoga program Roberts offers for golfers is more gentle than Ashtanga (a.k.a. “power yoga”), the style she normally teaches at The Boulders Resort in Carefree, Ariz. Poses are selected to directly benefit the golfer's game, focusing particularly on power distribution, hip strength, and balance. Proper alignment and safety are also high on her list.

How workshops are structured depends entirely on what the planner wants and the type of group, she says.

For the Howie Long Gridiron Classic held in May, she planned a 15-minute session before the shotgun, instructing golfers on stretching poses they could do against the side of the golf cart. Roberts also was available on the course throughout the day to answer questions and offer advice.

Sometimes, clients request a session for golfers before they tee off, and another later in the day for spouses. At other events, she has given 90-minute workshops to begin the day. She notes that a third of the attendees at a recent morning session were nongolfers — not surprising since yoga provides health benefits to everyone.

Roberts has taught yoga for eight years and fitness for almost 20. She grew up in a golfing family and hit upon the idea of pairing yoga and golf when she saw how it benefited her own game. The breathing techniques helped her feel more focused and in control of her swing, she says.

Roberts spent two-and-a-half years developing her program. Her video, “Yoga for Golfers…Because Your Body Doesn't Get a Mulligan,” has sold more than 10,000 copies since it was introduced last year.

While she has never held a workshop at an insurance meeting, Roberts thinks the yoga/golf synergy would be an ideal fit for the industry. “It's a great niche for insurance, because of the strong health benefits.”

For more information, visit www.yogaforgolfers.com or call (888) 313-YOGA.