2004: Business - Cup runneth over

For Buick, the Ryder Cup competition began months ago.

The General Motors brand, which already sponsors four PGA Tour events, has been running a sales contest for its top 250 dealers. The top 40 salesmen won two tickets each to the Ryder Cup and Buick’s 100-person “chalet” adjacent to the 18th fairway at Oakland Hills Country Club. They’ll play golf the day before the Ryder Cup at the Country Club of Detroit, where Buick has blocked off tee times throughout the tournament for its people.

Larry Peck, Buick’s golf marketing manager, says the contest is similar to one run in connection with the 1999 Ryder Cup, adding that the brand expects “a 15 percent spike” in sales.

Like other mega-events, the Ryder Cup doubles as a major gathering place for businesses, which use it as a motivational tool, an opportunity to entertain major customers and for corporate meetings.

More than 265 corporations – including 72 Fortune 500 companies – bought hospitality packages at Oakland Hills. They included:

10-person tables for $60,000; a basic 100-person chalet for $325,000; and a 200-person chalet with a swimming pool for $650,000. Those are the prices to get through the front gate; corporate clients will pay extra for food and beverages, merchandise and upgraded decor in their hospitality tents.

Several hundred more companies have made five- and six-figure investments to entertain at nearby golf clubs, homes and other off-site locations.

While the prices, particularly on-course, might seem steep, corporations scarfed up the locations like they were being sold at fire-sale prices. All on-course space was sold out by the start of this year.

The Pepsi Bottling Group bought a 100-person chalet in May 1999, shortly after space went on sale, according to John Wojnicki, account manager for the company’s central division, which includes Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Wojnicki says it wasn’t the sort of expenditure that required internal debate by the Troy, Mich.-based bottler and distributor. The company viewed it as an opportunity to solidify and expand relationships with customers, most of whom will be from Michigan.

“It’s going to be something very, very special,” says Wojnicki, whose company will entertain customers along the 16th hole in a tent modified to look like a sports bar, with an octagonal-shaped bar and seven televisions. “It’s a good investment as long as we use it properly.”

Detroit-based Comerica Bank, which has a tent along the 18th fairway, plans to entertain about 600 customers, about 95 percent of whom live in Michigan. Wayne Mielke, Comerica’s vice president of corporate communications, says the company views the event as “an opportunity to say thank you to a number of our customers, which is important for a relationship bank.” It’s also a perk for employees; Comerica is staffing the merchandise tent with 330 volunteers, who will be able to watch the tournament when their shifts end.

Cadillac, unlike most, won’t be entertaining customers. It will hold its annual meetings with its top 100 dealers Wednesday through Friday in its tent along the 18th fairway, according to Steve Flynn, manager of sales and marketing strategies.

Off the course, more than two dozen firms are peddling everything from car services to privileges at country clubs near Oakland Hills. But the firms offering these services say the PGA of America isn’t showing them any hospitality by instituting a no re-entry policy during the Ryder Cup.

“Being able to say that once you’re in, you can’t leave and come back also helped (the PGA sell space on-course) . . .” says Chuck Mycoff, senior vice president of Chicago-based Intersport.

Mycoff says the policy is one reason his firm has sold only about 200 packages at its off-site location, Birmingham Country Club, instead of the anticipated 400.

Tournament director Andy Odenbach says the policy is a standard security measure employed at major events since 9/11. And he dismisses griping from firms marketing off-site space because he doesn’t view them as competitors.

“I don’t really care what they do because we’re 100 percent sold out,” Odenbach says.

The PGA Web site also warns corporate customers to “beware of imitators,” and lists 26 firms that offer off-site hospitality.

“They try to hinder all of our business relationships on a daily basis,” says Ira Levine, managing partner of American Corporate Events, a Tarrytown, N.Y., hospitality company. “It just baffles me. The people we bring in are senior level – CEOs, chairmen – and these people are looking to spend a lot of money.”

Odenbach says his concern is that corporate customers do due diligence to make sure they’re doing business with reputable firms. “Many times I’ve seen firms go to the Ryder Cup, the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby, and they didn’t get the tickets they had paid for,” he says.

“Andy Odenbach is Mr. Negative when it comes to off-site packages, and for good reasons,” says John Dees, vice president of operations for The Hospitality Group, a company that provides hospitality services internationally.

Nevertheless, plenty of business will be conducted off-course.

Dees says his firm will play host to 1,100 corporate customers at a 32,000-square-foot pavilion erected on the tennis courts at Birmingham Athletic Club. There, customers will eat and drink, play on golf simulators and take lessons from golf pros.

The BAC, in fact, will be a prime off-site location this week, thanks to its location across the street from Oakland Hills. Entertainment Sports Partners, an Orlando, Fla., firm, has reserved the clubhouse and tee times there for slightly more than 200 customers. Its perks, according to chief executive Rob Goulet, include a visit from Ben Crenshaw following the opening ceremonies. ESP’s packages, including lodging, range from $26,800 for a foursome to $67,000 for a group of 10, according to the company’s Web site.

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