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Special Events: Wowing the Crowds and Wooing Your Membership

It takes a certain kind of club—and membership—to host major championship events.

Championships confer a special prestige on a club and its membership. They announce to the world, “This is a first-class organization, worthy of hosting a world-class event.” And, during some national and international championships, a club can actually become the center of its particular sport’s universe for just a few, momentous days. 

A tremendous amount of work goes into preparing for a major event, and members are called on to make sacrifices during any tournament or regatta. To ensure these prestigious events come back again and again, a club’s management team needs to ensure member needs are not short-shrifted when hordes of non-members, not to mention the media, visit their facilities for a week or even longer.

Is Your Club Up to Par?

Each club offers its own unique allure. But, what truly makes a club venue attractive to tournament officials and operations?

When it hosts the Senior Professional Golfers’ Association of America (PGA) Championship this spring, Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., will become the only club to have hosted all, excluding, of course, the Masters, of the major men’s U.S. golf events—the U.S. Open, the U.S. Amateur, the U.S. Senior Open, the PGA Championship, the Ryder Cup, and the Senior PGA Championship.

The reason all of these premier events are held at Oak Hill begins, says club General Manager Eric Rule, CCM, with the fact that “Oak Hill is a championship-caliber golf course.”

But other factors, such as overwhelming support in the Rochester community, also make the club such a desirable venue. People in the area are “gung-ho for championship golf,” Rule adds. “We know we can sell tickets to the event, and we have really active members who help in marketing the event to sell corporate hospitality.” 

Winged Foot Country Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., has hosted five U.S. Open Championships, most recently in 2006, and the club has been the site of numerous other championship tournaments. General Manager Colin A. Burns, CCM, says that Winged Foot has been chosen to host many of golf’s premier events because “it’s one of the great golf facilities in the world.” The club takes great pride in what Burns calls its “continuing presence in the making of the history of the game.” 

Houston’s River Oaks Country Club has hosted the River Oaks International Tennis Tournament since 1931, with many of the game’s greatest players competing in the clay court event. Extensive preparation and attention to detail are critical in holding a tournament of this size and caliber.

“It takes a tremendous amount of effort. We spend 50 weeks of the year to prepare for the one week of the tournament,” says CEO and General Manager Joe Bendy, CCM.

The U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship had been held in Houston for the past seven years, but it needed a new venue for 2008. Given River Oaks’ long history of successful clay championships, the tournament’s organizers knew a good thing when they saw it. Meaning, River Oaks will host this event for the very first time in 2008.

Similarly, the Chicago Yacht Club successfully hosted the Etchells North American Championships in 2005, which led to the club’s hosting the Etchells World Championship of 2008.

“Without actually aggressively going after the bid, it kind of fell into our lap,” says club General Manager and Chief Operating Officer James Clark, CCM. He added that the event is both adding prestige to the club and is helping the city government make a case for hosting the 2016 Olympics, by demonstrating Chicago’s “ability to host world competition of that caliber.”

Oakmont Country Club in Oakmont, Pa., has hosted eight U.S. Open Championships, more than any other club in the country.

A major reason for this, says General Manager Tom Wallace, is, “We have a storied history at Oakmont, with tradition playing a big role. Generations of golfers have been able to test their game on the same course. The most important thing is it’s a tough test, but a fair test.

“The United States Golf Association [USGA] knows our members will do whatever it takes to make sure the championship goes well,” he added.

The Perks of Playing Host

Speaking of members, at many clubs that host major tournaments, members are asked to give up much of their day-to-day access to facilities during the events. But, they also receive ample benefits, both tangible and intangible, along with the hassles and headaches of disrupted services.

Joe Bendy says that River Oaks members love the opportunity to see great tennis players, “up close and personal.”

“It’s a very intimate setting,” Bendy says. “Members literally walk onto the court to get into their box seats.”  He explains how many tournament participants stay as guests in members’ homes, and more than a few are repeat visitors with the same host.

Aside from seeing and potentially meeting top tournament athletes, money is another benefit of hosting a major tournament. But, the extra cash flow doesn’t seem to be a paramount consideration.

As Oakmont’s Tom Wallace remarked, “It’s not financial. The money for the championships is significant, but it’s not the driving force. Having championships here is part of our identity and our history … it’s important that we have a facility that’s attractive and is a great place to hold a major event.”

Oakmont always keeps the club at or very near tournament-level, meaning members always play on a first-class, challenging course. “[Our members] love having a tough course year round,” Wallace said, “Any time you come to Oakmont, it’s U.S. Open-ready. We take a lot of pride in that.”

Winged Foot’s Colin Burns agrees that money is not a driving factor, noting the monetary benefits are “frankly, very secondary, if not tertiary” in determining whether or not the club wants to host a tournament. Again, pride in the club plays the leading role.

Before, during and after a championship tournament, the members are “chests out, chins high,” as they tell their friends about the club. “You get a sense of pride, and I think for us that’s the greatest benefit,” Burns explained. Interestingly, after just hosting the 2006 U.S. Open, Winged Foot’s membership recently turned down the bid to host the tournament again in 2015.

For the Chicago Yacht Club, hosting events, such as their signature Race to Mackinac, is central to the club’s purpose of “of advancing the community’s knowledge, enjoyment and participation in boating and the nautical arts.”

General Manager James Clark says, “Our sport is sail racing,” and “the Mac”—at 333 miles, the longest freshwater race in the world—“and the approximately 130 regattas the club holds when the lake is sailable, promote an awareness of and appreciation for sailing. We have a great deal of interest in the sailing events, because they are demonstrative events that really portray our sport.”

Special events can also engender a sense of community within the host club. 

“After a championship, our members and our staff really feel a lot closer,” said Oak Hill’s Eric Rule. “The pride they take in successfully hosting a major event is really a great motivator for everybody.” He says that, while intangible, this is a very real benefit to Oak Hill members. 

Mike Butz, the USGA’s deputy executive director, agrees. “You build a core group of people who are working toward the common good of running a successful national championship. At most clubs, there are groups of four guys who play together every week, but do they really get to know the rest of the membership?” 

Butz acknowledged a small minority of a club’s membership might initially be averse to be hosting a tournament, with all the disruptions it entails. But, “At the end of the day, after a successful championship,” he said, “even they will come back and say, ‘this is the greatest thing that every happened to our club,’ and they become part of the community.

“Then, the community itself begins to identify with the club, with spectators telling friends and visitors, ‘I remember when I went to the U.S. Open,’ and they wonder when it’s coming back.”

How to Deal with Disruptions

The “small minority” of resistant members Butz alluded to can be expected at any club. After all, during any major event, day-to-day operations are disrupted, especially at the clubhouse, which many non-members can access.

And access to the club itself may be much more difficult than usual for members. A common problem is parking, or, the lack of it. Dining facilities and opportunities to entertain guests are curtailed. And, of course, members give up at least a whole week—sometimes longer—of access to their golf, tennis and yachting facilities.

Given all of these disruptions, one might think that clubs would need to sell their members on the value of hosting the event beforehand. However, there seems to be an understanding by most members that, hassles and headaches aside, hosting major events is part of what it means to belong to a premier organization (See sidebar, “An Inside Look at Oakland Hills Country Club.”)

At Oak Hill, the members are certainly predisposed to hosting events. Rule says the club recently surveyed its members and found that they would like to see a major event at the club every five-to-seven years.

And at the Chicago Yacht Club, Clark acknowledges they get occasional pushback, even sometimes from some of the older yachtsmen who know what to expect. That said, the prestige associated with holding premier, world-renowned events usually trumps any inconveniences members encounter. Clark said, “[Our members’] chests pump up with pride when they talk about the Mac and some of the other things we do.”

Even with the willing participation of membership—many club members volunteer during events—club management is always looking for ways to keep the disruptions at a minimum, helping to ensure that members have an enjoyable experience during events. 

Keeping Consistent Quality Membership Services

For example, at Oakmont, a Membership Services Committee consisting of members, board members and staff, concentrates solely on taking care of member needs during a major championship.

They make sure members have tickets, know where to park and the best way to get in, and have relatively easy access to the clubhouse and to food. “The smartest thing we did was to set aside the time and money to just make sure that the membership during the championship had the best experience possible,” Wallace said. “I think we accomplished that in 2007.”

River Oaks understands that the status quo isn’t good enough either. Each year’s event has to be bigger or better than last year’s. Innovation is as important as execution. Bendy cites what they’re doing with their doubles matches, which typically run much shorter than singles. “We’re having them in our stadium at noon,” so members can attend during lunch time.

Winged Foot instituted a shuttle service for members who live in the neighborhood, making access to and from the club during a tournament highly efficient. They also have a day spa for women members so they can get off their feet and get a massage and spa treatments while at the club. “We wanted to ensure that members really felt like members during the event,” says Burns.   

The club designates certain facilities as members-only during events, such as the Terrace Dining Room, which provided three meals daily to members and guests. Also, post-event dinners for members and guests were held.

Members-only facilities helped out at the Chicago Yacht club, too. “We offer an exclusive member service in terms of food service during big events so [members] will have access to a certain degree of normalcy at their club,” says Clark. Scheduling plays a key role, too. With the club holding about 130 events annually, “You have to be sure you schedule them appropriately,” Clark noted.

Oak Hill also uses the members-only approach during events, setting aside one half of the club’s Grill Room for members and their guests.  The club management also tries to assure members they’re looking out for them. For the 2003 PGA Championship, the club put together a “Members Guide to the PGA Championship.”

“They got all the information that was specific to members—where they could go, when they could come in,” Rule says. “It was a lot more detailed than the information we distributed to the general public about the event.”

“Members do give up an awful lot to be able to host a championship,” Rule remarked. Making them feel they are a part of the event is very important to the success of the entire operation.”

Chris Collins is a freelance writer and communications consultant based in Arlington, Va.


An Inside Look at Oakland Hills Country Club

Staging a Major Tournament

By Cindy Vizza

Most of the time the parking area, which is large enough to accommodate 52 passenger buses, lies hidden beneath eight inches of topsoil and sod near the 8th hole. 

But when the 90th PGA Championship arrives at Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield, Mich., this August, the all-natural camouflage will be quickly cast aside to handle the crush of people descending on the club.

Whether it’s the USGA Open, the Ryder Cup, or other major events, Rick Bayliss Jr., chief operating officer of Oakland Hills Country Club, understands what it takes to welcome the world to the club. So do the members. Eleven years ago, members signed off on a strategic plan calling for the club to continue its tradition of hosting international and national events.

“Prospective members know from the beginning that we host a number of major events,” says Bayliss, “and they embrace it and help organize and work the events.”

Indeed.  More than 3,500 volunteers are recruited and trained for each major golf tournament played at the club, and the majority of these volunteers, about 3,100, are club members, their families and friends. The tournament director and staff train the volunteers, conduct background checks and distribute uniforms.  But that’s only one part of the groundwork.

Temporary structures, which include corporate chalets, commissaries, mechanized tents, trailers and staging areas, are built on the property. To use the bus slips, the club plans and constructs access roads, ropes sections of the golf course, and builds viewing areas. And new portable toilets and trailer pods with luxury “facilities” are placed strategically throughout the property.

The club and tournament director work closely with the Bloomfield Township government to plan traffic routes and road closures. For example, local ordinances are enacted to prevent safety issues for the event-goers and neighbors, such as erecting tents outside the club premises and parking on neighborhood lawns. Township authorities ensure on-site, temporary structures are constructed to code, and the police department serves as the lead agency for fire and security for the event.

Coming Soon

In August, Oakland Hills Country Club will host the 2008 PGA Championship. The event will include three days of practice rounds and four days of tournament play. More than 48,000 people are expected to attend the event each day.

Members will have to handle these disruptions:

  • In June—two months from tee off—gravel will be dumped on the driving range to accommodate the numerous forklifts and heavy trucks that will begin preparing the infrastructure for the event.
  • Mid-July, the tennis and pool areas will close in order to build the press tent and volunteer headquarters.
  • Guest and cart access to the course will be stopped two weeks out. All play will cease one week before the August event and remain closed for the week following the event.

In order to alleviate some of these inconveniences, members are provided with detailed timelines of preparations and closings at the club. During this time, reciprocity with other clubs in the region is provided for golf and dining.

“But, some things we can’t control,” says Bayliss. He describes a beautiful spring day on the course when all one should hear are gentle breezes and birds chirping. Instead, the sounds of trucks and heavy equipment will dominate the normally serene environment, indicating a major tournament is just ahead.

Choosing a U.S. Open Venue

A big consideration in the USGA’s selection process for major tournament sites, according to Mike Butz, deputy executive director of the United States Golf Association (USGA), is simple timing.

In other words, what else is going on relatively close to the target year at the club? Can it be tied it to a special anniversary—100 years since the club held the Open, perhaps? 

The USGA also looks at where the Open has been held over the last 10 or so years and where it will be going in the years leading up to the year in question. Currently, the next available U.S. Open will be in 2016.

“As much as possible, we like to move it around, geographically, around the country and expose certain areas of the country to the championship and the USGA,” Butz explained.

But, above all, “It’s all about the golf course.  Will it be a great test of the world’s greatest players?” he added. If the golf course test is met, the USGA then analyzes many “outside the ropes” issues, such as spectator capacity, corporate hospitality, facility location, parking, accommodations, traffic, television compounds, and large equipment needs. In other words, all logistical considerations are investigated.

The USGA also wants full buy-in from the club as well as the community. Officials work with not only the club, but with local traffic and police and other government authorities to determine that disruptions to the community are minimal and the event runs as smoothly and successfully as possible. Local, county, and state government entities need to be on board and must have and be willing to expend the resources to assist the USGA in all areas. 

What’s past is not necessarily prologue: the U.S. Open has grown a great deal over the years. A club that hosted the Open 10, 15, or even 20 years ago many not have facilities adequate to meet the larger tournament’s needs. “We’ve got to do good homework there,” Butz said.  

And it’s about more than logistics. The USGA painstakingly analyzes the costs incurred in securing services and facilities necessary to conduct a successful tournament, as well as the revenue the community can generate for the tournament.  This way, officials can bring the association’s executive committee a thorough, rigorous assessment of what they can reasonably expect, in financial terms, from holding the U.S. Open in a particular community.

“This is critical to the USGA, because financially it kind of funds everything else we do,” Butz explained. 

He went on to note how hosting the Open helps “build on the reputation and prestige of the club” and establishes the club as a championship-caliber facility. This can create a stature that helps them structure pricing for corporate outings, if they have them, and it makes membership all the more attractive to seek or retain in the future.