NOT LONG AGO, golf was the only game in town. It was what meeting attendees did for fun — the highlight of an off-site.

Not anymore. Other activities, such as spas, have gained in popularity. Newcomers are intimidated by golf, while others don't always have the time or interest to play 18 holes. Even people who picked up the game years ago — including many women — are dropping it.

“We've seen a dramatic decrease in our numbers the last two years,” says Frank Sablone, executive director, Tag and Label Manufacturers Institute, Naperville, Ill., about the tournament he organizes. He's not alone. Steven Jones, vice president, special events, Cendant Corp., Parsippany, N.J., reports that one outing he plans used to take up two courses — now it requires just one. And Kevin Harry, sales director at Walt Disney World Disney Parks & Resorts, is seeing more 40- and 50-player events replacing what used to be 200-person tournaments.

Time Is Money

One of the big reasons for the decline in golf at corporate events is the time crunch.

“A much faster-paced work environment really works at the opposite end of golf, which hasn't gotten quicker,” says Nancy Berkley, president, Berkley Consulting, Livingston, N.J., and author of Women Welcome Here! A Guide to Growing Women's Golf. In addition, corporate meetings have become shorter and more focused, making it harder to book a six-hour block for golf.

Robert Hatheway, president, RJH Associates, Windsor Locks, Conn., says the challenge for planners is to quicken the pace of the golf outing. “Everything we can do to speed up the round actually works to our benefit in terms of bringing people to a golf event,” he says.

Many other recreation options are competing for attendees today, including spas, which are increasingly popular. “That's where people are spending their money,” reports Gary Pearson, director of meetings and conference services, Aon Service Corp., Chicago. In fact, in a recent survey of incentive qualifiers conducted by Insurance Conference Planner magazine, CMI's sister publication, golf ranked third, below spas and sightseeing, in popularity. Interestingly, of the 301 respondents, 81 percent were men.

Planners are also bumping into resistance to golf events at the executive level. Many younger chief executives don't play golf and aren't sold on its networking benefits. And because of corporate belt-tightening, companies are often requiring players to pay their own way. “The senior executive who doesn't play golf doesn't see the rationale in spending $200 for green fees for a person who plays twice a year,” says Hatheway.

For planners, the result appears to be an even greater drop in attendance. “If we are paying for an outing, the numbers are down a hair; if they [attendees] are paying for it, it's down a lot,” reports Cendant's Jones.

What Can Planners Do?

To get people back into the game — and attending your company's tournaments and golf outings — here are a few suggestions:

PLAY NINE

Longer and more difficult courses have made it increasingly difficult for the average player, let alone the beginner, says Berkley. “Eighteen-hole traditional golf has been taking longer, and people attending conferences are busier than ever. That means golf for the conference attendee must either be shorter or offer more value.”

The problem is that a lot of resort courses don't accommodate nine-hole rounds. If you book a hotel course, Berkley suggests involving the hotel operator, along with the golf director, in negotiations because the latter often isn't as business-savvy. “Meeting planners have to find courses that want their business and think more creatively.”

Some facilities are starting to get the message. The new, upscale Ocean Hammock Golf Club in Palm Coast, Fla., offers a nine-hole afternoon rate. Groups can play nine holes on this championship course each day after 3 p.m. for $55 per person. Several groups have taken advantage of the program, according to Allen Goodman, regional vice president of sales and marketing. “Corporations need to justify how time and money is spent at meetings away from the office,” he says. “This offers them the opportunity to get in a few hours of golf after some productive sessions.”

TRY PAR-3 OR SHORT COURSES

Many well-known golf resorts also have shorter courses that are often easier and quicker to play. Renowned golf instructor Dave Pelz designed a par-3 short course at Cordillera Resort in Colorado that appeals to both diehard golfers and beginners. Pine Valley Golf Club in New Jersey has a 10-hole course designed by Tom Fazio, while Pebble Beach and Augusta National each have par-3 tracks. The executive course at Marriott Mountain Shadows Golf Club & Resort, Scottsdale, Ariz., can be played in less than three hours. Some resort courses allow groups to create shorter, par-3 holes by moving the tee to within 150 yards of the green.

According to golf course architect William Amick, who has designed 75 courses during the past four decades, “There is a real need for smaller, faster, less-expensive golf courses” in addition to, not instead of, the championship-caliber courses. “We realize that we have to keep attracting and retaining new golfers.”

HOLD A CLINIC

While some golfers' eyes glaze over at the thought of attending a clinic, learning sessions are essential for beginners and are favorites with many women's groups. “With women, it's a no-brainer,” says Jo Ann Hoffman, president, Meeting Industry Ladies Organization/The Golfe, Bethesda, Md., who gets great attendance at her clinics. Women not only want to learn the game, she says, but also how to use it as a business tool.

John Lehmann, president, Network Sports Marketing LLC, Wellington, Fla., runs two-hour clinics concurrent with a tournament for the people who don't want to play 18 holes. After the clinic, they'll play nine holes. Depending on the skill level of the group, he says, the clinics are well-received.

ADD VALUE TO YOUR OUTING

“You have to look at the group you're bringing in and see what you can add besides the golf experience,” says Hoffman. “Do something that may give them the incentive to want to go.” One idea is to create a mini marketplace of suppliers at a tournament to provide networking and relationship-building opportunities. Another is to bring in a speaker who would appeal to the profession or interest of the group.

HOST A SKILLS COMPETITION

What about chipping, putting, and driving contests, or a decathlon event combining golf with other activities, such as free-throw shooting or darts? A similar contest involves separating groups into teams of six or eight with two people designated to play nine holes of golf, two to play tennis, maybe two to play badminton, and perhaps two to engage in some other sport of choice. The winning team is the one that has the best combined score.

TRY A SPORTS NIGHT

If time prohibits a golf tournament during the day, consider installing an indoor putting green or turf and inviting a high-profile golf instructor or professional to give tips and answer questions.

Finally, when you come up with fresh alternatives to the standard 18 holes, make sure that you're working with a golf resort that can accommodate them. “We can come up with all these ideas, but if we don't get cooperation at the course level, it's impossible,” says Walt Galanty, executive director, National Association of Golf Tournament Directors, Alexandria, Va., “Hotels have learned how to work with the meeting industry so we can all make money, but some golf courses have not yet learned how to do that.”