Golf meetings hit the rough

By Scott Anderson

Over the years, golf has proven to be the one true “recession-proof” game as the die-hard duffers continue to play the game in record numbers.

But even the once untouchable sport is starting to show signs of being affected by the most recent downturn in the global economy.

Membership renewals at the popular clubs have fallen off and even sponsorships of the professional golf tournaments have been scaled back as well.

And many analysts expect this trend to continue once the true golf season gets into full swing with the warmer weather in the spring and the recession lingers well into the year.

Indeed resorts, which have enjoyed the boom times during the rise in popularity of the game, will also suffer as companies look to pare costs by cutting back on conferences and all the related activities.

Most companies, hoping to underline the point that they are sensitive to the state of the economy, have altered the emphasis on the golf-related component for their function.

“The one thing that we have noticed is that the optics of conferences being held at resorts have to be considered when offering recreational attributes, because it only perpetuates that negative stigma in today’s economy,” says Mark Rich, Director of Sales, at Blue Mountain Resorts, in Collingwood, Ontario.

Unlike past years when golf was a featured event at a meeting, more companies are moving away from shining the spotlight on the game during the function. This has forced the conference facility to alter the make up of its meeting packages.

“Like everybody else, we are having to address the issue of cost and ROI and as a result not only golf but all of our products have been re-examined and re-evaluated to allow for those companies that are exercising that right to bring their executive or staff away for a true value-based experience, while still differentiating the resort product from that of a more urban hotel,” Rich says.

To that end, Rich says Blue Mountain is trying to build programs that allow for shortened experiences so that more time can be spent in the meeting room. The resort, about 90 minutes north of Toronto, offers “mini-hole” tournaments, which shortens them from the traditional 18 holes to a smaller match of between three holes and nine holes.

This, Rich says “allows you to get out and play but not take away from any meeting time that is required to justify these excursions.”

Predator Ridge

Resorts in Western Canada, which have the benefit of more temperate weather, are also noticing a definite change in the make up of corporate golf outings, says Lisa Corcoran, a spokeswoman at Predator Ridge Resort, in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley.

“It is certainly something we are busy focusing on at the moment given the state of the economy. We are definitely in the midst of planning for it.”

Corcoran says her resort, which offers 27 holes of golf, is still seeing the groups coming, but they are smaller in size and the purpose of their trip has changed. “We are now seeing groups that are smaller, they are more focused and they are coming to do strategic planning,” she says.

Corcoran estimates that the group size has come down by about 25 percent to average about 30 participants per event. “We are still seeing a lot of client trips, but itís a much more cohesive group.”

Groups are also booking further in advance for their functions, she says, noting that a number of groups have not only earmarked their spots for 2009, but have also claimed spots well into 2010.

Teambuilding at Deerhurst

Golf rounds and corporate tournaments have long been accepted as a means of networking and cementing business deals. But now, Muskoka’s Deerhurst Resort is putting a new spin on the traditional game with “Get a Grip,” a golf teambuilding session specifically designed for groups.

The golf package, which was piloted last summer and will be in full swing beginning this spring, is something of a natural for the conference centre with two 18-hole golf courses and an acclaimed Adventures in Excellence program. “Deerhurst has these two skill development activities we’re very well known for, a golf academy and on-site teambuilding, that sometimes operate next door to each other already,” says Director of Golf Simon Bevan.

“While evaluating our group clientele’s evolving needs last season, it just seemed smart to offer something that merges the strengths of both.”

When the Get a Grip session was developed, a key factor was ensuring it engaged participants of all skill levels, from total novices to avid golfers. “Golf can be a bit of an insider activity; it was very important to us that no one feel disappointed by the quality or left on the sidelines,” says Bevan.

It also had to work within the growing trend toward shorter meetings with tighter schedules.

“Not every group has the time to spend four or five hours out on the course,” says Head Professional Danny Jackson, who assists organizers in booking a wide range of Deerhurst golf events as well as company and charity tournaments.

As planners know, it can also be challenging to create that overall team atmosphere when you’re dealing with a retreat, a small office of 15 or 25 people or a spread out staff. Attendees tend to break off into foursomes with the people they know best and non-golfers often end up away from the rest of the group.

Get a Grip is designed to help groups as small as eight or as large as 75 at-a-time, costs less per person than an average green fee on most Ontario courses and can be completed, start-to-finish, in three hours or less.

Each session is customized to meet the specific objectives of the group. But all include an integrated mix of golf exercises and teambuilding tactics designed to foster innovative thinking and problem solving.

“At first getting a series of golf balls over a wall or team members through an unusual obstacle might be all about the initial play,” says Mark O’Dell, who heads up Deerhurst’s extensive sports department and Adventures in Excellence program. “But by the end, everyone absolutely has a different focus and awareness.”

And, although it wasn’t planned that way, the introduction of this full-fledged Get a Grip program couldn’t have come at a better time.

“In these uncertain times, everyone is trying to come to grips with tighter budgets while coping with dramatic changes, so cost-effective teambuilding makes more sense than ever,” says Deerhurst Director of Sales Clee Varon.

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