When Insurance Agency Marketing Services of Omaha, Neb. decided to return to Las Vegas this October for its second annual incentive program, Paula Kelly knew she wanted to hold the meeting at the new $630 million Wynn Las Vegas. Kelly, vice president of American Investors Life in Memphis, Tenn., helps to plan the event. She was particularly enthusiastic about using the resort's Tom Fazio — designed golf course — the only 18-hole course on the Las Vegas Strip.

At $500 per round the Wynn's course was expensive, but still appealing, Kelly says. The problem? This fall, the course is going to be closed for re-seeding for a month, and will not reopen until the day after her group leaves. “I've pleaded with them,” she sighs. “But I was told: ‘Ms. Kelly, even Steve Wynn himself couldn't play on this course.’”

With on-site golf out of the question, Kelly is looking to book tee times at Royal Links Golf Club and Dragon Ridge Country Club. While she feels confident of finding a suitable course — there are several championship links within a 20-minute drive of the Strip and a number of companies that provide golf booking services — the change to an off-site venue will certainly impact her program, starting with the need to build in more time for transportation.

Planning Ahead

With an annual incentive event for 2,000 attendees, Dick Adler, sales promotion director for American Family Insurance Co. of Madison, Wis., says he always looks for an urban venue because resorts usually can't handle his volume. But, he still tries to provide golf as a leisure option. This year's program, at the Manchester Hyatt in San Diego in July, included golf at two championship courses within 30 minutes of the host hotel: the Torrey Pines Golf Course and the Del Mar National Golf Club.

Adler often uses a destination management company to help him make golf-related decisions, but in this case he knew exactly what courses he wanted to book. He made sure that once he had contracted with the Manchester Hyatt he made arrangements for tee times with the two golf courses. He also made the transportation arrangements for the 100 or so golfers he expects will be teeing off at each course.

Booking early is critical when it comes to dealing with off-site golf venues, Adler says, and he made sure that he had tee times set up four months prior to the San Diego meeting.

Sometimes that's easier said than done. Ellen King, conference meeting planner for Standard Life Insurance Co. of Portland, Ore., says she often plans meetings two years out. “But if a golf course won't book tee times more than 60 days in advance, it's a problem,” she says.

One thing that can help with tee time availability, King advises, is a Sunday-to-Wednesday meeting cycle, with Mondays open for golf. Since Mondays tend to be notoriously slow days for courses, King says, “The clubs are delighted to see us.”

“Getting out in front of the process,” as Adler puts it, is important, particularly when it comes to transportation. Adler says he is flexible when arranging transportation, working with DMCs if he needs to move a busload of golfers, or simply hiring taxis if the numbers are small. And of course, the further the driving distance to the course, the more complicated the transportation issues.

Sharon Chapman, CMP, CMM, travel and corporate events planner for Berkshire Life Insurance Co. of America in Pittsfield, Mass., ran into a bus problem during an off-site golf outing at a meeting in Vancouver several years ago. She had bused 48 golfers to the Furry Creek Golf & Country Club, about 30 minutes from the group's host hotel. The golf event went well, but the bus broke down on a bridge just as it left the country club. “A half-hour transfer ended up taking two hours,” Chapman says. And to make matters worse, the golfers were heading back to the hotel for an evening event that included an awards program.

While the golfers endured the delay good-naturedly — helped by some video entertainment and a beverage cooler — Chapman says she has since learned her lesson. Before the incident, she says, “I never really thought about the chances of transportation breaking down when going off site. But at a later meeting in the Caribbean, when I sent some attendees out snorkeling and the boat broke down, I was ready with a boat on standby.”

Some planners rely heavily on destination management companies to help with the details of off-site golf event planning. For a Standard Life sales meeting of the employee benefits division in June at Charleston Place in Charleston, S.C., that included a day of golf for more than 100 attendees, Ellen King worked with Christy Loftin, the associate director for special events and supervisor of the hotel's internal DMC. Loftin helped to find a golf course, get tee times, arrange for bus transportation, and more. She notes that meeting attendees are often racing against time, perhaps going to a meeting in the morning before jumping on a bus at noon to head for the golf course. She expedites matters by making sure equipment like golf bags are sent to the course in advance, so when players arrive they'll find their clubs already in place in their golf carts. When time is tight, Loftin also recommends providing boxed lunches on the bus, so participants won't have to waste time eating when they arrive.

“Most of the time planners haven't been to Charleston before and don't know the courses,” Loftin adds. Her long, steady relationship with a variety of top courses in the area, including a number of private country clubs, means those facilities give us “a lot of courtesy when it comes to booking,” including arranging tee times on short notice.

Teeing Up Overseas

Arranging off-site golf overseas poses additional challenges. Paula Kelly has brought several groups to Ireland, where “the hardest part was getting on the courses,” she says. At one meeting she had several attendees, including her CEO, who wanted to play Ballybunion, one of the most scenic and well-known links in the country. After going through every contact she could think of, Kelly was able to get the owner of the host hotel (the Park Hotel Kenmare in Kerry) to pull a few strings. She suggests that planners faced with similar challenges might also ask the hotel's concierge desk for help.

Most golfers are no different than Kelly's boss — they dream of playing the great international championship courses. David Brice, the founder of Golf International Inc., a New York — based golf travel company, reports that the demand to play the famous greens in places like England, Scotland, and Ireland has increased by more than 300 percent over the last 15 years.

For most of these courses, booking early is the only option for getting group tee times. When world-famous St. Andrews in Scotland, for example, opened up its visitor reservation books in October 2003 for the 2004 season, they were promptly filled up with advance requests St. Andrews already had on file.

Seven Top Tips for Booking Golf Offsite

  1. Book early, particularly for championship-quality courses — private or public.

  2. Remember that the timing of the event will influence availability — tee times are much easier to get in southern states in the hot, humid summer months, for example.

  3. Try to schedule golf on a Monday — historically, it's the slowest day on the course.

  4. Relationships are everything. A well-connected DMC or hotelier might be able to get your group on a course that's normally out of the question.

  5. Make sure your transportation is in order, and have a contingency plan in case the bus breaks down.

  6. Golf travel companies that specialize in booking golf, both within the United States and internationally, are widely available. The American Association of Golf Tour Operations lists as members nine companies experienced in booking both domestic and international golf travel. For more information, go to www.aagto.org.

  7. Have some last-minute golf-planning questions? Ask the concierge at your host hotel.