Knowing your audience, both as businesspeople and as golfers, is step one in designing a successful outing. Are your clients high-level executives who regularly play the best courses in the world? You could tempt them with the appeal of a famous track, a hard-to-penetrate private retreat, or the latest course designed by a respected architect. To draw busy midlevel executives under pressure to account for time away from the office, minimal travel is a consideration. To make new golfers feel comfortable, a facility with a good learning center, such as the PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, Fla., might be ideal.
If the course you want is among the country's best, you'll need to plan as much as a year in advance. Recognize that most private clubs are limited as to the number of groups they book annually. Even at top public courses and resorts, competition for dates is stiff. When you've secured the course of your choice, make your invitations nontransferable. Otherwise, you could end up with a junior exec when you wanted the CEO. You don't want to pay a high per-head price to entertain people who aren't decision-makers.
Regardless of where you entertain, the key is making sure your clients have fun and feel comfortable. So it's crucial that the tournament format is appropriate for their level of play. High-handicap golfers will likely appreciate a scramble, in which each golfer in a group hits a drive, the team selects the best shot, each golfer plays from that spot, and the group follows this progression until completing the hole. Standardized Sanitation Systems Inc. of Billerica, Mass. recently used a scramble at an outing for 160 clients at PGA National Resort & Spa at Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
Gimmicky formats, like having to hit a shot with a training club, can enliven your outing. But serious players will prefer a straightforward round of golf. They will want to play their own ball for every shot, especially at a famous venue. When your guests are mixed, players can be grouped by handicap for separate competitions.
No matter which format you choose, pay attention to your pairings. While you obviously would want to put certain people together to further a business relationship, don't stick a new golfer with, say, a 5-handicap client. But sending out a 5-handicap host with a client who's a novice could work, as long as the host takes care not to intimidate the guest.
Even the most self-assured execs may hesitate to play in an outing if they've just taken up the game. So offer an alternative, such as a clinic or instruction by a name pro (page G10). Seasoned players, too, would appreciate this, says Todd Anderson, one of Golf Digest's 50 Greatest Teachers and an expert at working with corporate customers at The Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla. If you have a champagne budget, you can hire both a tour pro and his teaching guru, says Randy Smith, head pro at Royal Oaks Country Club in Dallas. It's not just the instruction that matters; it's how the pro and teacher interact with your guests. You'll want someone who'll take a real interest in each person's game.
Much of the success of any outing depends on close attention to detail. "Taking care of the small points might double your budget, but it's those that make an impression and build business for your company," says Smith. Even modest venues can be enhanced by amenities such as monogrammed towels in locker rooms.
Make sure your on-site staff is well-trained and familiar with your products and personnel. If you're hiring from an event firm, provide its people with more background data than you think they'll need and quiz them. By the same token, be sure your own reps are familiar with golf.
Spare no expense when it comes to food and beverages. It's advisable to entertain fewer guests better than more on the cheap. Tended bars with top-line liquor spaced out on the course may be a better choice than coolers full of beer on each cart, because less alcohol will be consumed.
Be sensitive as to how much entertaining your guests can take. Remember that a round of golf followed by a meal and awards ceremonies take up a lot of time. Cocktail receptions are currently more popular than sit-down dinners, say many club pros and planners.
If you're providing transportation for out-of-town guests, make airport and hotel transfers painless. There shouldn't be a moment when guests have to wonder how to get from Point A to Point B. Especially these days, be prepared to bring in security personnel above and beyond what a venue may normally provide and to accommodate a top exec's own security staffers.
When it comes to gifts, think unusual, practical, or edible. Nancy Vera, president of Event Links in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., recommends electronic gadgets such as DVD players or gift certificates for shopping after the event. Sandi Vargas, president of Event Access in San Jose, Calif., advises that you think "about items that are indigenous to the event's locale, be it food, wine, or a CD." A memento that will be kept and used or a well-produced videotape of event highlights will continue to sell your company to your customers. By Lisa Furlong