Usually, the 237-room Columbia (S.C.) Sheraton would have stopped accepting reservations for the days of the Masters Golf Tournament months ago. But five weeks before Tiger Woods tees off in nearby Augusta, Ga., the hotel is still wide open to late-planning guests.
Why? Masters sponsor Citigroup (C ), which previously used the hotel as headquarters for its lavish hospitality program, isn't coming this year. That leaves the Sheraton scrambling to fill about 800 rooms during the week of the prestigious tourney.
Citigroup "didn't have the entire hotel, but certainly a major portion," says Keith Sycamore, the Sheraton's director of marketing and sales, who adds that he has made headway in replacing the Citigroup bookings. "We're doing O.K., but we'd like more business coming our way."
TAKING A BREATHER.
It's looking like 2003 may be remembered as the year of cold feet at the Masters. A roster of major companies is scaling back or eliminating entertainment junkets this year, whipsawed by a stagnant economy and the looming possibility of war in Iraq. Almost as ominous for Corporate America is women's-equality activist Martha Burk and the specter of protests over the male-only membership policies of Augusta National Golf Club.
"From companies, we're hearing that this year the Masters is less about golf than about the controversy surrounding the tournament. They're thinking it's better to take a breather for a year and hope this clears up," says Jeff Bliss, president of Javelin Group, a sports-marketing and hospitality outfit.
A long of corporations is choosing to maintain a lower profile in Augusta -- or not being seen at all. Coca-Cola (KO ), long-time TV sponsor of the event, opted to cut ties with the tournament in the wake of protests about the all-male membership policies of the Augusta National Golf Club. In previous years, Coke's Masters guest list has numbered in the hundreds, industry sources said.
Since January, other companies have been bailing on contracts with Augusta hotels, caterers, and transportation companies. Cadillac, IBM (IBM ), J.P. Morgan, and Coke all backed out of deals with Waters Van & Rental in Augusta. Owner Bill Waters estimates half his fleet of 400 vans will be idle tournament week. "Corporate America is just not spending money like they have been," he adds.
Georgia Pacific is paring its Masters entertainment budget by two-thirds, a company spokesman says. And Southern Co. (SO ), an electric-and-gas utility serving Southeastern states, decided six weeks ago to skip Augusta entirely. Normally, it entertains 20 to 25 clients. "We evaluated a number of different things and decided it wasn't in our best interest to be there," says Leonard Haynes, Southern's chief marketing officer.
One dissuasive factor for sure is Burk, the chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, who's promising to throw up picket lines near the course and perhaps to hold protests at hospitality venues.
Charles Besser, CEO of Chicago-based Intersport, which operates a hospitality venue 50 yards outside the main gates at the golf club, said he sees little chance of Burk's forces disrupting guests. Says Besser: "Everybody's confident we'll be able to handle that. We're so close to the club."
For some consumer-oriented companies, however, the potential negative publicity of being linked to the tourney this year is reason enough to stay home. Few want to risk alienating shoppers, men or women, sympathetic to Burk's crusade. "Consumer brands have to be very wary," says sports marketer Bliss.
Not that Augusta will be a corporate ghost town as the azaleas bloom. A number of companies will be coming back, including Lucent Technologies (LU ), which has plans for a smaller-than-usual hospitality junket, a company spokesman says. This year's guests certainly figure to witness one of the more memorable Masters ever. And that doesn't even count what might happen on the golf course.
By Mark Hyman in Baltimore
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht