Rent a Star

Give your guests a brush with golfing fame--and savvy

When Phoenix-based Avnet Inc. (AVT ) staged a sales retreat for key field reps last January, it sent invitations to 75 star employees and one guest who knew squat about semiconductors. Then again, golfing great Sandra Palmer, who won 19 titles on the LPGA Tour, including the 1975 U.S. Women's Open, wasn't expected to talk tech. Her assignment was to spend a day showing Avnet employees a fabulous time on the golf course--and maybe even shave a few shots off their handicaps. Months later, Avnet's brass is still raving about Palmer's charisma and how she turned the event into a fairway happening. "She took charge and, with a few suggestions, had people playing better golf immediately," says Charles Babb, Avnet's vice-president for marketing. Best of all, the success on the golf course helped set the tone for the rest of the meeting. "It showed we cared about [the sales reps] as individuals because she worked with each one of them," he says.

A golf legend can transform just another corporate outing into a memorable event--which can give a boost to business, particularly when top clients are the guests. Such celebrities don't come cheaply (table, page G12). Palmer, 59, who has been out of the limelight for several years, charges $3,500 to $5,000 for a day's work. Set your sights on a megastar, and the tab can exceed $100,000. (Forget about Tiger Woods. According to his agent, Mark Steinberg, he's not available for such appearances.) To ensure that your money is well-spent, you have to pick your pro carefully, matching personality and star power with the kind of audience you will be inviting.

To find your celebrity, it's best to enlist the services of a talent booking firm, such as Burns Sports & Celebrities in Evanston, Ill., or a golf event planner, such as Corporate Golf Professionals in Pebble Beach, Calif. A newly formed event planner, in Scottsdale, Ariz., also represents a stable of players, including women's tour veteran Kathy Whitworth and ex-TV analyst and tour player Bruce Devlin. The site lists each player's fee, so without much effort you'll know whether you can afford a Whitworth ($3,500 to $5,000) or a Devlin ($5,000 to $10,000).

The fees charged by these firms vary depending on services rendered. Event planners, who can arrange every aspect of your outing from booking hotel rooms to filling the golf carts with drinks, usually tack on 20% to the overall costs of services they've helped arrange.

But the biggest service they provide is helping you sort through the universe of golf personalities to find one that's right for your event and budget. Are your guests golf nuts or casual fans? Aficionados might prefer a pro who likes to talk about the minutiae of the sport. Someone like that might be a bore for guests new to the game. For them, the apt choice may be a pro who is as much an entertainer as a golfer, such as Hall of Famer Chi Chi Rodriguez, 66.

Outing consultants also know which pros would be easy to work with--those who would be unpretentious, relaxed, and always willing to pose for one more photo. "The people we recommend like doing outings and understand who's paying the bills," says Bob Williams of Burns Sports & Celebrities. On his A-list are senior players Dave Stockton, 60, and Gary McCord, 54, and PGA Tour player Peter Jacobsen, 48. Walt Galanty, president of Accurate Image Marketing in Alexandria, Va., seconds that list and adds Lee Trevino, 62.

You don't need to limit yourself to one golf pro. You can hire 20 players from, say, the tour, golf's minor leagues, at $2,000 a head. Todd Southard of Corporate Golf Professionals likes that option for large events. A pro can then accompany every group that tees off. "Instead of five minutes of face time with big-name players, guests are getting six hours of face time with pro golfers who hit it just as well," he says.

It's best to have plenty of lead time in planning an outing. That's the key for locking up the golfer of your choice for a date that works best for you. "One year in advance is not too far to start thinking about it," says Williams. If a pro's tour regularly comes to your hometown, see if you can schedule your event at about the same time. Pros often like to combine outing bookings with tourneys already on their schedule.

When you organize an event around a personality, there's always a concern that the person may not show up. What if the pro gets sick or misses a connecting flight? Not to worry, say planners. They try to minimize travel-related disruptions by having the pros arrive the day before. Illness doesn't derail outings, either. Even prominent pros make a habit of covering for one another, so if one is forced to back out, another steps in.

A typical outing buys about 10 hours with the golf legend. As host, you decide how to split up the day. Most follow a simple schedule: a practice clinic in the morning, followed by lunch and a leisurely 18 holes. If you have only one celebrity, he or she will play a couple of holes with each group. If the guest list is too large, the pro camps out at a par-3 hole and hits tee shots with all groups as they pass through. The pro then wraps up the day by handing out prizes at a post-round dinner. If all goes well, your guests will leave feeling psyched about their golf game and ready to send some business your way.

By Mark Hyman

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