Sierra Nevada golf courses pool efforts in joint promotional venture
June 8, 2007
RENO – There were a few skeptics when tourism officials and business leaders first approached dozens of golf courses along the Sierra Nevada’s eastern front about pooling their resources to help promote the area as a golfing destination.
Why would anyone want to help their competitors?
Nearly a decade later, from the Carson Valley to Reno and the mountain courses north of Lake Tahoe, the verdict is unanimous.
“It’s a great promotion,” said Darryle Fukano, one of the pros at Empire Ranch Golf Course along the Carson River.
“We kind of are competing against each other but also trying to help each other out. Everybody tries to find a niche. It runs the whole range of local munis (municipal courses), all the way through Tour qualifying courses.”
Empire Ranch is one of the courses that make up the “Divine Nine” in Carson City and the neighboring Carson Valley and Dayton Valley. The nine courses launched their first media tour in 1998. A year later, another joint venture was hatched to the north – “Golf the High Sierra” – now with 17 courses.
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This year, for the first time, they merged their promotional media tours. The two groups combined include courses designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr., George Fazio, Hale Irwin, Peter Jacobsen, Johnny Miller, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
Both rely on annual promotions to fly sports and travel writers in from around the country to spend time playing the courses, dining at restaurants and chatting with business leaders to get a taste of what the region has to offer.
Ben Wright, the former CBS Sports golf commentator known for his British accent who now is editor of Links Magazine, made his first visit to the Tahoe area recently as part of the tour. He said the co-op is a “brilliant idea.”
“The golf around here is phenomenal. I had really no idea how beautiful the country is around here. It reminds me of Scotland in a lot of ways,” he said of his native country.
Earlier this week, several writers tested their skills at what has become a recent tradition at the “Divine Nine” loop – hopping on-and-off a shuttle bus in an attempt to play two holes at each of the nine courses in a single day.
Media members from such publications as Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times and Golf Digest have had a chance to play complete rounds at nearly two dozen courses, teeing-off in the morning at Nicklaus’ Old Greenwood on the edge of Truckee and playing in the afternoon in Reno at Jones Sr.’s LakeRidge with its signature island green. Or playing Irwin’s The Resort at Red Hawk in neighboring Sparks at daybreak and Fazio’s Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course at South Lake Tahoe as the sun sets over the Sierra Nevada.
Phil Weidinger, a Tahoe-area public relations man in charge of local publicity for NBC Sports’ American Century Celebrity Golf Championship held annually at Edgewood, remembers approaching the Nevada Commission on Tourism with the idea of the media tour to promote the cooperatives.
“We had all these people throwing their money into a joint venture and some of them had done some co-op stuff before, but there was some concern among a couple of them about who would get the most benefit,” Weidinger recalls.
“If a restaurant was going to donate a few meals, they needed to understand they were not going to be the focus of a story about Lake Tahoe,” he said.
Lynn Saunders, now the president and CEO of the Donner-Truckee Chamber of Commerce, was the marketing manager of the tourism commission at the time.
The approach was appealing, in part, because Tahoe-area ski resorts had enjoyed success with a similar joint effort, she said.
“Phil made a presentation, and people knew him from the celebrity golf tournament. They knew he was connected in the golf world and felt confident he could bring in top-notch writers,” Saunders said.
Some of the restaurants and hotels had to be “educated a bit” about why they might not be mentioned in a travel article but still would benefit if the region was featured, but she said she was surprised how little of that was necessary.
“Often in co-ops it takes a few years to get everybody willing to put their own name aside and do a co-op. But from the very beginning, people in this case were willing to go for the good of the whole,” she said.
Golf the High Sierra’s Web site includes testimonials from some of the more famous course designers, including Palmer, who designed Dayton Valley Golf Club near Carson City, one of the USGA’s host sites for U.S. Open qualifying.
“There is literally no place on earth that has the kind of unique beauty Tahoe has,” Palmer says.
The cost of the media tour tops out in the neighborhood of $100,000 a year – about $45,000 in expenditures and $50,000 to $60,000 more in complimentary rooms and meals, Weidinger said.
But Weidinger said the investment has paid off 10-fold. He said the tour has generated exposure to more than 48 million people with media coverage equivalent to $5 million in paid advertising.
“It’s been beneficial to everyone,” Debbie Casey said while playing a round with the Golf Channel’s Rich Katz on June 6 at the new Jacobsen-designed Gray’s Crossing in Truckee near Nicklaus’ Old Greenwood.
“It’s helped get people to realize this is a great golf destination. We have a short season, but it’s a great one,” said Casey, general manager of Tahoe Mountain Resorts, an affiliate of the Colorado-based East West Partners, which owns the two courses.
Bill Henderson, director sales and marketing at the Carson Valley Inn, has been a backer from the beginning.
“Everybody either saw the value of a cooperative effort or were willing to give it a chance. Even those who were not really sure about it still decided to jump in,” he said.
Still, the courses have had second thoughts from time to time. Some considered backing out when times were tough on tourism after the 2001 terrorist attacks put the brakes to travel. But they stayed on.
“You could tell a couple of courses were wavering. But Divine Nine only works if you have nine courses,” Henderson said.