“I believe there is nothing that replaces a face-to-face meeting, but the social parts of meetings, be it golf or other activities are also very important,” says Jerramy Hainline, corporate director of golf sales/marketing for Hilton Worldwide. “Continuing to get that message out there and then working with a company to figure out how to make it happen is my daily challenge. So we have to be creative in how we deal with this.”
How are the RFPs looking, Jarramy?
“There’s definitely been more interest lately. It’s too early to tell, we haven’t seen the conversion yet of that interest,” he says, “but it’s a strong indicator that the mood toward golf is changing and trending upward…. Groups are saying they want to come back and do a golf program but they’re looking for more flexibility and variety this time. They don’t want to just do golf, or just do spa when they’re not golfing, like they’ve done in the past.”
Recent groups in Phoenix, for example, combined golf and group events at Bondurant’s high-performance racing school in Scottsdale (see pg. 20). “They loved that,” he says, “It’s all of the sudden getting all this attention.”
And he’s seeing an interest in packaging golf with NBA and NFL games into group programs too.
“They’re saying, ‘Hey, let’s get a box suite and coordinate around when The Lakers are playing in town, you know, wouldn’t that be cool.’ And that wasn’t the case before, there wasn’t a lot of interest in that type of combo packaging. Now, and I don’t know why, but there’s this surge in demand for mixing things up more…. People are asking for something different and unique, we’re seeing that all the time.”
Hainline also suggests that if a company can’t arrange one large golf program for, say, 300 attendees, they might be open to the idea of smaller meetings of 50 people, each at a different golf location. They can sync up with a live feed for general sessions, and then later, each group plays golf in a 6-city competition.
“It’s unique, it’s different, it achieves much of the same thing as bringing everyone together and the company saves a lot of money,” says Hainline.
THE GOLF COAST
We might never again see the present-day prices for the caliber of golf and quality of luxury accommodations available at the very high end. The competition among golf resorts to attract or retain group business in this window of weirdness we’re all enduring over perception issues has applied downward pressure, of course, on rates. But for how long?
“We’ve seen in the last three months in our sales office what I would call a significant uptick. There’s been a dramatic increase in levels of activity in the number of phone calls, RFPs and most importantly, signed contracts,” says Andy Radovic, vp of sales/marketing for the 5-diamond Ponte Vedra Inn & Club located just south of Jacksonville. “Three months doesn’t make it a trend, but it’s heading in the right direction.”
This quiet, upscale oceanfront destination with PGA-caliber courses offers all the big city cultural pursuits you could ask for just 20 minutes away. The 250-room Ponte Vedra Inn first opened in 1928 for the socially-registered crowd with summer homes in Newport and Greenwich. And that sense of visiting a well-established residential community is a big part of the experience here. Groups tend to mingle with the locals in a country club setting after playing the Ocean Course, the oldest layout in NE Florida, and the Lagoon Course—both shaped out of sandy dunes along natural palm-studded fairways.
“The longevity of the property with its storied history and pedigree going back four generations is certainly a primary draw for our groups,” says Radovic. “That’s significant, as well as our AAA 5-diamond status, which we’ve maintained for eight consecutive years.”
Radovic explains that in a typical year he’ll do about 500 groups, 80% of which are corporate. And in the last 10 years, the owners have poured over $100 million into refurbishments, including the addition of a 30,000-sf spa.
With regard to the perception issue, Radovic jokes there was a time when you wanted to be a 5-diamond property.
“We’re very proud of that status. We play it down a little in light of what’s going on in the industry, but we have 550 staff members who’ve worked very hard to attain that mark.”
GOLF BY JACK
Prevue was the media sponsor for the 2009 Leadership Summit last November, produced and managed by The Opus Group. The annual event is a networking and professional development confab for incentive planners and buyers, held this time at the 412-suite Secrets Maroma Beach Riviera Cancun. The DMCs CEO Mexico and Amstar aptly handled logistics.
Just for the record, whoever invented the swim-out suite where you walk out your living room and into the pool to swim to breakfast—we’d like to buy you a couple tall cold ones.
The elegant all-inclusive resort features seven restaurants with cuisine ranging from the French-themed fare at Bordeaux to the Pan-Asian delicacies at Himitsu, with four Teppanyaki tables. The Secrets Spa by Pevonia totals 13,000 sf with 19 treatment rooms, including five outdoor spa suites around the coral stone courtyard with curvy pools encircling the relaxation pavilion. Meeting space indoors is 7,000 sf.
Many of the 70 planners and 30 buyers played golf at The Moon Palace Golf & Spa Resort in Cancun. The Moon is home to the only Signature Jack Nicklaus course in the region, meaning Mr. Nicklaus himself drew up the plans.
When the group showed up, Moon Palace had ensured that everyone knew where to go. All of the carts were set up with everyone’s clubs waiting, not to mention score cards with our individual names on them. And everyone had time to knock a few out onto the practice range and grab an extra cup of java before teeing off in the light sea breeze.
“We have seen such an upswing in RFPs for golf programs in the last three or four months that this summer we’re launching a new golf university with corporate packages for performance-based golf improvement,” says Sandor Wiaker, Palace Resorts’ director of tour service.
He explains that the school will have the newest teaching and fitting technology that “scales the golfer into the computer using diagnostic tools to study the golf swing and the individual golfer’s entire body mechanics holistically.”
MORE GOLF BY JACK
On the east coast of the Dominican Republic, the oceanfront 126-suite Golden Bear Lodge & Spa in Cap Cana was designed from the start specifically around the needs of golfers. The staggering Punta Espada layout is another Signature Nicklaus course with eight holes bordering the cobalt blue sea, which Golfweek proclaims as the best links in the Caribbean and Mexico. And it gets better. The first nine holes are now open at the Las Iguanas Cap Cana course—the second Nicklaus masterpiece of three planned.
“Golden Bear Lodge & Spa is unique because it’s the first resort in the Dominican Republic that fully embodies the spirit of golf. From the décor to memorabilia around the resort, the influence of Jack Nicklaus is everywhere,” says Matthew Mullen, senior director of sales for AMResorts. “Every single luxury suite has full living rooms, dining rooms and kitchenettes, so there’s a ton of space to spread out. That very feature makes it appealing for golfers and groups alike.” Indoor meeting capacity is 2,300 sf.
Just west of Miami proper about 30 minutes from South Beach, The Doral Golf Resort & Spa features five championship courses designed by some of the greatest layout designers in the business. There isn’t a golfer alive who doesn’t want to test his or her skills against the famous TPC Blue Monster course.
In preparation for the property’s 50th anniversary in 2012, Doral is presently undergoing a resort-wide renewal. The $16 million top-to-bottom renovation, including a $5 million upgrade to the spa, is just the latest installment of upgrades following the $100 million invested over the past five years.
“Resorts have had to respond to meeting planners looking for enhanced value adds, and to those looking for properties without the word “resort” in the name,” says Cari Farinas, marketing manager. “Doral has accommodated those requests by custom-creating letterhead for groups.”
Farinas adds that planners who host a meeting June 1-Oct. 31 this year and in the future will receive a batch of value adds, such as free amenities and discounts including a 10% credit towards the master account, free Internet access, triple Marriott Awards points and a complimentary opening reception.
Rene Kitzen is director of The Signature Group USA, a Miami-based DMC, who has brought many groups to the historic golf resort. He says, “The advantage of Doral is that it’s close to Miami and guests can have all the facilities of being in a resort, as well as having the city for offsite programs.”
Like many others in the industry, Kitzen sees resorts and planners working together more creatively than ever before. He’s also increasingly seeing more groups during the last year tie-in a CSR benefit for a good cause with the meeting. “This way it’s a win-win for everyone,” he says.
THE DESERT DUFFER
Part of Hilton’s Waldorf Astoria Collection, the 738-room Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix anchors both the Adobe and Links golf courses. The Golf Club offers dedicated corporate clinics and group playing lessons, the latter of which run $150 pp including greens fee and nine holes of instruction. For onsite logistics, Biltmore Destinations DMS assists with everything from Indian jewelry-making classes to off-road Hummer excursions.
Having recently visited the Biltmore, another selling point is the historic elegance of the property, designed in 1929 with consultation by Frank Lloyd Wright. The famous architect plays heavily into the resort’s theme. For example, Wright’s At The Biltmore restaurant serves “American Lodge” cuisine, which is basically fine-dining comfort food such as Steak Diane with wild mushrooms and a peppercorn veal stock. The hotel also does a fantastic series of wine pairing seminars with visiting California winemakers and chefs from other Waldorf Astorias, indoors or outdoors among the orange blossoms.
Whatever they’ve been doing a few hours south at The Westin La Paloma in Tucson resort seems to be working. For six years, La Paloma has been chosen by planners as #1 among 151 Westin properties worldwide for meeting planner satisfaction.
“This is a little bit like winning a national championship or the Superbowl,” says Bill Petrella, general manager. “And La Paloma has won this distinction six of the past seven years.”
The Troon Golf-managed La Paloma Country Club features 27 golf holes designed by Jack Nicklaus, spread among three courses undulating around the hilly topography of the Sonoran Desert, the Spanish Colonial low-rise buildings and the large Saguaro cacti. All of it’s bathed in the dusty rose hue of the mountain sunsets, but planners rave about the service.
“We have held CME meetings and board retreats there,” says Susan Stacy, with the American College of Osteopathic Internists. “We loved it each time and I can’t say enough good things about the property. From the accommodations, the food, amenities, location, the staff—simply amazing.”
“BEST OF 2010” WINNERS
The International Association of Golf Tour Operators (IAGTO) is a group of international travel companies who crisscross the globe staying and playing in the world’s top golf destinations and “their approval gives us strong international recognition,” says John Haskins, golf manager at Kiawah Island Golf Resort in South Carolina. Kiawah won the IAGTO’s “North American Golf Resort of the Year” for 2010.
Hoskins understands that perception is a difficult beast to tame and realizes the pressure it has put upon planners. He says Kiawah combats the perception “by pushing economical options offered by our facilities. We push the more moderately priced accommodation types while assuring the value of the experience is not tarnished. The #1 rule is to provide constant service through these times to maintain the trust of clients.”
On a recent visit, they made me feel as if I were their only client. My sales contact had alerted all the staff of my presence, and employees I had never met were calling me by name. Group rates begin at $168 pp, including accommodations and golf.
In a surprising twist, the IAGTO awarded its “European Golf Resort of the Year” for 2010 to Kiawah’s sister property on Ireland’s southwest coast, the 255-unit Doonbeg Golf Club. The Greg Norman layout along a 1.5-mile crescent beach is a stunner with 16 of the 18 holes featuring ocean views. Likewise, The Lodge at Doonbeg’s 2-, 3- and 4-bedroom suites have super cool designer farm-style kitchens, while F&B is supervised by US television celeb chef Tom Colicchio. Doonbeg is 40 miles from Shannon International Airport.
“We have a significant portion of Doonbeg’s business coming from North America so we fully understand the needs of the American traveler,” says spokesperson Mike Touhill. “Corporate incentive groups will discover a very unique cultural experience at Doonbeg with all the service and amenities they would expect from a US resort.”
For serious golfers, the chance to play on a British Open course is the Holy Grail of golf incentives. Part of Starwood Hotels’ Luxury Collection, the historic Turnberry Resort, Scotland reopened last summer after a $65 million renovation in time to welcome the world’s greatest golfers to the 2009 Open. The Ailsa Course is ranked one of the best links courses in the world, while the Kintyre Course is considered one of the prettiest.
The hotel was originally built as a grand 1906 Edwardian country house and those regal rural lines were left as is during the renovation. Inside is another story. The subdued modern look is crisp and clean with TVs inside the walls, original art in the black and white bathrooms with egg shell bathtubs, and large picture windows framing the magnificent scenery. If I had my druthers to create the ultimate golf program, I’m booking direct flights to Glascow, less than an hour’s drive from Turnberry.