Simply Divine - Golf Business Magazine
Released on: Jan 22, 2010
By Ted Johnson
By banding together, nine operators in Reno have created a golf event that generates exposure and business for each of their facilities
Like their counterparts in other golf-centric destination markets, course operators in the Carson Valley area of Reno, Nevada, struggled for years to generate equitable exposure for all of the facilities in their region. All of that changed in 1999, when Bill Henderson, then working for Dayton Valley Golf Club, threw out a crazy idea to a group of operators who had gathered with officials from the Carson City Convention and Visitors Bureau to discuss ways to accomplish just that. “Why not have a bunch of writers play two holes at nine different courses?” he asked.
After a few chuckles and insincere nods, Phil Weidinger bolted out of his chair and proclaimed, “Wait—we may be able to use that.” And with that, the “Divine Nine” was born.
Several months later, on a frosty September morning, a dozen local and national media members teed it up for the inaugural Divine Nine tournament. The format was simple: two holes on nine different courses for a total of 18 holes. It went off without a hitch, and it’s been held every year since.
A Divine Nine experience is grounded in laughter and bonding, thanks in part to Weidinger, a public relations executive from Lake Tahoe. The affable impresario rides the bus that transports writers and reporters to each facility, all the while riding each of the participants. Weidinger’s teasing is legendary and, coupled with an abundantly stocked in-bus cooler, creates something of a rolling party.
As soon as they arrive at each facility, participants unload their bags onto waiting carts and head out for two holes, then return directly to the bus before heading to another stop on the nine-course rota. Each two-hole round lasts approximately 30 minutes, but with the time it takes to get from course to course, the event becomes a daylong endurance test.
When the buses come to a final stop, Candy Duncan shifts into gear marketing the area at regional golf shows. Her efforts have become decidedly more effective than in the mid-1990s, when she tried to promote Reno-Tahoe without the benefit of the Divine Nine.
“They’d laugh at me,” remembers Duncan, executive director of the Carson City Convention and Visitors Bureau. “No one thought there were any great courses in Nevada.”
Duncan is the one laughing now. Thanks to the top-of-mind recognition generated by articles and other media reports, show attendees now seek out her booth, where they share stories about their experiences on the different courses.
Perhaps the biggest endorsement for the Divine Nine came in 2008, when the event went public. Approximately 40 golfers ponied up $280 to participate in a modified event that offered a two-night hotel stay, the nine-by-two golf experience, and all the food and drink they could consume.
“It opened a lot of eyes,” says Henderson, now director of golf at Carson Valley Golf Course. “The comments by the public were about what nice courses we had. They experienced the whole area, and the likelihood is for much higher return play.”
For their part, courses pay $1,500 annually to be part of the Divine Nine consortium. That investment funds marketing programs, advertisements in golf publications, exhibit space at trade shows and maintenance of the Divine Nine Web site (www.divinenine.com). Duncan estimates the nine participating courses receive a level of publicity and market awareness worth approximately $90,000.
As with all effective cooperative marketing efforts, the success of the Divine Nine program rests in each operator’s willingness to work for a common goal. Participating facilities have to sacrifice tee times and, in the words of Henderson, “be willing to roll with the punches.”
Jim Kepler, general manager of Eagle Valley Golf in Carson City, does that by blocking a 30-minute section on his tee sheet and informing regular customers who book times around this slot that they might be interrupted by Divine Niners. “Most people say they understand, and they’ve been cool,” he says. “But if anyone doesn’t like it, I tell them they can skip ahead or, if that isn’t enough, I’ll offer them a coupon for a free round.”
Of course, Kepler and others are trying to satisfy all parties without making such concessions. The ultimate goal: To validate statistics from the National Golf Foundation which indicate that when traveling to play, golfers spend an average of $285 each day.
“If we get more people to the area, we know we’re going to get our share,” Kepler says. Though specific returns on investment can’t be assigned to the effort, Henderson says operators “have seen direct results of this already,” noting that “groups of 40 and more come back.”
Next year will mark the 11th anniversary of the Divine Nine and the third time that the event will be open to media members and the golfing public alike. Looking forward, organizers wonder just how large it can grow. Some even question whether a field of 144 is possible.
“You’d have to have nine courses shut down two holes all day,” says Weidinger, voicing equal parts intrigue and skepticism. “And if you’re a paying golfer, would you want to show up and find there are nine 16-hole courses in the region, even if it’s for one day?
“But then, there would be more people who see all of the golf courses. And that’s more people to come back with their friends.”
Such a crazy idea would never take off. Or would it?
Ted Johnson is a California-based freelance writer.