Golf travelers pay the bills

During a recent trip, I talked with a hotel marketing executive who told me his property effectively has dropped the term “resort” from its official name. He reasoned that in the current political climate, it’s more palatable for business-meeting planners to say they’re scheduling off-site gatherings at an “inn” as opposed to a resort.

Who would have suspected the phrase “golf resort” would become a powderkeg? But it has, reflecting criticisms from the political class initially directed at companies that visited resorts after taking federal bailout funds. But those criticisms have redounded on businesses that haven’t received a penny from the feds. (Yes, there still are some.)

That’s not good news for golf resorts, many of which count on business meetings and travel for more than half of their revenues. Executives at a number of resorts say that percentage is certain to tumble this year.

In February, The New York Times reported the cancellation over the previous month of 30,000 Las Vegas hotel-room nights that had been booked for meetings, costing city businesses $20 million. Las Vegas’ jobless rate ballooned to a record 10 percent in January, outpacing the national average of 7.6 percent. (The national average grew to 8.1 percent in February, but Las Vegas’ rate for that month has not yet been reported.)

“There’s an impression out there that somehow if you come to Las Vegas, it’s going to reflect on your business culture, and that’s a bunch of hooey,” Las Vegas Mayor Oscar B. Goodman told The Times.

Bill Marriott, chairman and CEO of Marriott Corp., noted last month in his blog that 32 groups recently had canceled meetings at one of his company’s San Francisco-area golf resorts, Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay (pictured), which hosted an LPGA event in 2008. Some of that might reflect cost cuts, but most probably is attributable to businesses’ concerns that they will be publicly scolded.

“Hotels everywhere are feeling the repercussions from companies canceling functions because they fear the scrutiny,” Marriott wrote.

Politically, it’s a tap-in for the scolds in Washington to chastise companies that conduct business – and, yes, perhaps even play a little golf – at resorts. But real people pay the price for such grandstanding.

On March 11, Marriott and other travel-industry executives made their case to President Barack Obama. According to the U.S. Travel Association, the industry employs 7.7 million. Conferences account for nearly 15 percent of all travel and $101 billion in annual spending, and throw off $16 billion in tax revenues.

Let’s see: lots of jobs, spending and taxes. Politicians usually like those things.

So maybe it’s time to stop demonizing business travelers. It might be politically expedient, but it’s strangling the resort industry.

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