Ace in the hole

Successful golf outings come from making the right choices

Players tee off during The Big One at Ironwood Golf Course in Sussex.

Every year, a significant number of businesspeople will spend a portion of some of their workdays on a golf course playing in charitable or corporate outings, or just entertaining particular clients for the day.

Just because they are not answering emails or sitting in meetings does not mean these participants aren’t working. However, the difference between lost time out of the office and a fun, productive day on the links often comes down to the planning by event organizers.

Players tee off during The Big One at Ironwood Golf Course in Sussex.
Credit: Arthur Thomas

The Waukesha County Business Alliance’s annual golf outing, known as The Big One, has grown to the point where it requires a special parking system to fit everyone in to the Ironwood Golf Course parking lot. Even then, cars were still parked on the grass for the July 25 event.

About 350 people attended this year, including 216 golfers, maxing out the number of players the Sussex course can handle. The outing is at the point now where the only way to guarantee a playing spot is through a sponsorship, and even those spots sell out quickly. The few non-sponsor spots sell out in hours.

“Especially in the last five years, we’ve seen a huge interest and increasing interest,” said Amanda Payne, WCBA vice president for public policy, who previously led the organization’s event planning.

She pointed to the games, activities and giveaways hole sponsors provide on each tee box as one area where The Big One has found success.

“Our sponsors love this outing because they get to interact with golfers all day long and it’s a really good networking opportunity, and for us that tends to be the sweet spot,” Payne said.

Making the outing memorable and successful requires plenty of advance planning. The WCBA starts a year ahead of time with booking the course and setting a date. Sponsorship sales open in the fall and then golf registration begins in spring, Payne said.

“Over the years, we have worked that deadline back,” she said. “I always think the further out you can be planning the better, but it takes time to work yourself to be able to be that far in advance.”

Played as a four-person scramble, the Big One serves as one of two main annual fundraisers for the WCBA. The other is a dining event known as Savor the Flavor.

“Planning is key. You can’t start too soon,” said Kim Preston, vice president of treasury management in First Business Bank’s Brookfield office.

First Business takes a slightly different approach with its golf outing. The bank picks up the costs for the event, while participants pay an entrance fee that goes into a prize pool. Two-person teams compete over 18 holes and depending on the size of the field, the top three to five finishers have a portion of the pool donated to the charity of their choice.

Preston said the format gives golfers a say in where their money goes, and also keeps the bank from having to make a decision about which cause to support.

“There’s so much need and so much opportunity,” she said.

To make a level playing field, First Business requires all participants to have an official handicap. That limits the field – the Milwaukee version of the event had 42 participants this year.

“That’s probably been the biggest obstacle,” Preston said.

But using handicaps also allows for more competition. The First Business event even has live leaderboards so players can track how their team stacks up.

“It kind of creates momentum throughout the day from a competitive standpoint,” Preston said, noting the leaderboards are shut off with a few holes left and the winners are revealed at a dinner after the round.

Regardless of format, Stan Eames, chief executive officer of Brookfield-based software firm GenAlpha Technologies LLC and an avid golfer, said successful events often hit on a few key factors. For starters, they have broad appeal, which means incorporating elements that allow non-golfers to participate. A live or silent auction after the round to benefit charity often accomplishes this task.

Eames said a good meal following a round will often leave a lasting impression and makes players want to come back the next year.

“That’s something that always makes a tournament more appealing,” he said.

Players at The Big One participate in a beanbag toss game on the first tee at Ironwood.
Credit: Arthur Thomas

Making an outing enjoyable is one thing. Making it memorable might require taking things to another level. Eames said he once played an outing in Vermont at which players were required to hit a shot wearing full ski attire.

“There were a lot of fun videos or pictures that were taken of that,” he said, noting unique activities or features can leave a lasting impression with players.

Payne cautioned outing organizers to avoid including every activity possible.

“There’s a whole laundry list of things you could do at a golf outing,” she said. “Sometimes people get trapped in the mode of ‘we need to have all these things,’ versus figuring out what’s really working and what’s not.”

The WCBA annually reviews the results of its outing to see which activities are performing the best.

“Every outing is probably a little bit different,” Payne said. “It’s just a matter of figuring out what is the right fit for your audience.”

Payne and Preston both said finding the right golf course is also important. First Business played this year at Blue Mound Golf and Country Club in Wauwatosa, providing an extra draw to attract players, since not everyone has an opportunity to play the private course. Ironwood, a frequent outing host, provides the space and infrastructure to handle a large crowd for the WCBA.

Both women also highlighted the importance of providing support to event organizers. First Business and the WCBA both have event planners on staff, but the organizations also surround those people with additional help. The WCBA has a golf committee of its members that work on organizing, plus another 50 volunteers the day of the event. Preston said the First Business team rallies around the event to draw in participants from individual networks.

There is always a chance something can go wrong with an event, and the weather at a golf outing presents one major uncontrollable variable.

“You can’t do anything about that,” Payne said. “As long as you know how you’re going to handle it if it happens, or how the course is going to handle it, people can still have an enjoyable day.”

Eames said the ability of players to get the most out of a golf outing can often come down to which group they are in. It is much easier to grow a relationship over a four-plus-hour round than it is with just a few minutes before or after the round.

“I think it’s key that you put people together that you want to get to know each other,” Eames said.

Outings and tournaments are a great way for people to get to know each other. Eames said discussing specifics like a pending deal or transaction is often best left to an individual tee time outside of the outing setting.

“You don’t want to spoil the fun by having it be all business,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean there is no room for business discussion at an outing. Eames said before playing a round with a customer, he tries to take stock of the current relationship, what issues may need addressing or any future plans he can share.

“I try to open the door to them talking about that,” he said. “I don’t force the issue.”

Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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