THERE'S NO GETTING AROUND IT: Golf events have gotten expensive. Corporate Meetings & Incentives' Golden Links Advisory Board members report that they have had to contend not only with the increasing cost of staging golf events, but also with a stagnant — if not decreasing — level of participation.

“The costs are getting too high,” says Frank Sablone, executive director, Tag & Label Manufacturers Institute Inc., Naperville, Ill.

It's not unusual to see greens fees in the $250 to $275 range at high-end golf resorts, Sablone says. Add in extras such as boxed lunches and increasingly expensive club rentals, and the cost often soars above $300.

When we spoke with Sablone, he was at a meeting at “a fantastic resort” in Mexico. Three years ago, the golf tournament for this event drew 72 players. This year, it was down to 48. “It costs $255 to play a scramble,” Sablone says, “and players, who cover the cost themselves, say, ‘I'm just not going to do it.’”

Chuck Lane, director of incentive travel and public relations, Humana, Green Bay, Wis., says greens fees are “far from cheap” and that when he is conducting an outing or tournament at a luxury resort, he often feels “at their mercy.”

Even bookings at local country clubs can pose problems, Lane says. “When we do charity outings, we are really operating at gunpoint,” he says. “No breaks, no discounts. It's a take it or leave it seller's market, and that bothers me.”

Where's the Return?

The trend of higher golf fees is colliding with another trend in corporate meetings — ROI, or the demand that meetings and events show a quantifiable return on investment. “Corporations want to maximize the amount of value that they get from a golf event,” says Bob Hatheway, President, RJH Associates, Windsor Locks, Conn. “I think it's very difficult to place ROI on a golf function within a meeting.”

So, he says, senior execs who aren't your “A” golfers, who pick up a club a couple of times a year, are looking for alternatives to an event that could cost their companies some hefty change and take up an entire day.

Picking up on the ROI theme, Jo Ann Hoffman, president/CEO, The Meeting Industry Ladies Open and The Golfe, Bethesda, Md., says that while “having a golf tournament just to have fun is important, that fun needs to be turned into better networking and better value so you can justify the time you need to take to come to an event.

“It's a reflection of what's happening in the industry,” Hoffman adds. “People are looking harder at where they are putting their dollars.”

Another way that companies are cutting back is in the length of their events. “Five-hour rounds are not acceptable,” says Robert Harris, director of golf at The Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. He is seeing more golf events turned into half-days, or even an extended-stay option at the beginning or end of a meeting.

Women to the Rescue?

While higher costs appear to be having a negative effect on golf event participation, a separate trend is helping to counter that decline. Women are participating in increasing numbers, “a trend that will probably continue,” says Hatheway.

Nancy Berkley, president of Berkley Consulting Inc., Livingston, N.J., agrees. “It's not only that the industry needs to attract more golfers and is more willing to move beyond the white male golfer,” she says. “What's also happening is that the golf industry recognizes that within Gen-X and baby boomers are huge numbers of women who make up a large pool of potential customers.”

The golf industry has become more welcoming to the female golfer. Instructors are getting younger, don't carry the “traditional baggage” from the male-dominated school of golf, and are comfortable working with women.

For her part, Berkley doesn't necessarily believe that higher fees are an insurmountable problem. “You have to look for a facility that can give you a good price but deliver service as well.”

Sablone agrees that working with facilities that are flexible on pricing can help to combat the expense problem. He refers to an event that he helped to organize in October in California, where, “for the first time in many years,” the course was willing to work with his group on price.

“They understood we had 160 players for two courses, and they knew that they had no other players [booked for afternoon rounds],” he says. “So they worked with us on price and on lunch, and we pulled out of there for $150 to play golf and have lunch.”

For more information on the Golden Links Advisory Board, turn to page 57.