Business Catalyst Par Excellence: The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail

It was part of the RTJ mission from the beginning: 11 sites and 26 masterful courses that would tee off on business opportunities across the state.

Golf is a natural fit for business, offering hours of time to get to know people while building trust and friendship, says John Cannon, president of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. Here he relaxes at Ross Bridge in Birmingham. Photo by Art Meripol

Raise the prospect of a five-hour long business meeting and watch the eyes glaze over. The mere suggestion can conjure up visions of cramped chairs, flickering fluorescent lights and lengthy power-point presentations.

Now take that meeting and move it to the golf course. Suddenly the participants are outside, getting exercise and soaking up the sunshine. They are able to be both casual and competitive. Yet, in one of the marvels of the game, they still can easily talk about business.

Indeed, golf is one of the few sports that people can enjoy while simultaneously having business discussions. There is no significant time to chat during a basketball or softball game. Bowling is too noisy, and many group activities — such as escape rooms — are too distracting.

But with golf, you hit a shot and then leisurely walk or ride in a cart to where the ball landed. During that time, you have a few minutes to discuss business. And then you do it again — over and over and over, for several hours. It’s a relaxing routine with a captive audience.

“Golf has always been a natural fit for the business community,” says John Cannon, president of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, a series of 26 courses at 11 sites throughout Alabama. “You have an environment where people really get to know each other pretty well over five hours. You can create trusts and friendships that relate to your mutual business interests.

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“The atmosphere of the golf course and the social aspect of the game can definitely help cement further business relationships. I have some relationships that are over 40 years old that started with a day on the golf course.”

Cannon says the longstanding connection between business and golf has been important to officials with the RTJ Golf Trail ever since the first courses were constructed in the early 1990s. While appealing to golfers was obviously the top priority, Cannon says the clubhouses at the courses were designed with the business community in mind as well.

“We want to make sure to have a place in each clubhouse with very flexible space where we can hold multiple meetings simultaneously,” Cannon says. “We knew we had to integrate ourselves with the business community in every one of our markets to be successful.

“Now we have hundreds of business partners. Every day that we’re open, we’re hosting a business meeting of some sort. Without it, we wouldn’t be nearly as successful as we are. We’re always looking for avenues to maximize our relationship with the business community.”

There are numerous places to play golf in Alabama, but the RTJ Golf Trail leads the way in terms of both scope and recognition. The trail hosts more than 1,000 events and 500,000 golfers each year, with visitors from all 50 states and an average of 20 foreign countries.

Here is a quick look at three of the trail courses and how they try to hit a hole-in-one with the business community:

Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa

Ross Bridge in Birmingham is sort of a Mount Everest-type challenge for golfers. If played from the back tees on each hole, Ross Bridge measures a staggering 8,191 yards in length, making it the second longest course in the United States and fifth longest in the world. Most courses are closer to 7,000 yards long.

The length of the course just means that the golfers have more time to get to talk to each other and possibly discuss business.

“Playing 18 holes at Ross Bridge allows you to really get to know somebody,” says Jonathan McKinney, director of sales and marketing at Ross Bridge. “You’re going to ask them where they’re from and talk about their family. The conversations that can occur on a golf course are kind of like what you can have while sitting on your front porch. You take down your guard and get to know somebody in a more personal way.”

Ross Bridge offers 16 events rooms with a total of nearly 20,000 square feet of meeting space, both indoor and outdoor. Rooms range from small spaces designed for no more than 10 people to a banquet room that can accommodate up to 1,200.

“A large part of what we do at Ross Bridge is group business with companies and associations,” McKinney says. “The course is a fantastic amenity for the groups. It’s one of the things that makes Birmingham stand out to these folks who are planning meetings. We can utilize and market the golf as a destination. These groups can come in to have a meeting, but they also have a world-class golf course to play.”

Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa

Located on the Tennessee River in Florence, the trail course at the Marriott Shoals helped usher in a new wave of tourism to northwestern Alabama, according to Director of Sales and Marketing Selena Miller.

“Since we opened in 2005, there have been 12 additional hotels that have opened in this area,” Miller says. “We saw this area take a complete economic upturn. There were other golf courses around here, but nothing open to the public that was truly comparable to the Robert Trent Jones course. We were suddenly able to bring in business people who otherwise weren’t coming to the Shoals area.”

The Marriott Shoals has 19 event rooms with a total of more than 30,000 square feet of meeting space, including a room that can accommodate up to 2,000 people. Miller says many of the business groups, both large and small, incorporate a round of golf into their meeting schedule.

“We’ll get a large group that will have several meetings over the course of two or three days, and then have a morning or afternoon where they’ll take the whole group out on the golf course,” Miller says. “That’s such a great team-building experience.

“But we’ve also seen an increase in smaller groups, maybe a law firm or just some people who work together. Instead of a meeting, they’re taking a work trip with 12 to 16 people where they’re playing golf. And there are others who take their clients golfing and really have that one-on-one time where they can talk business and close those deals.”

Grand Hotel Golf Resort & Spa

The Grand Hotel in Point Clear has been around for so long that when it first opened in 1847, golf was played with wooden clubs and leathers balls. Much has changed since then, though the Grand — with its 200-year-old oak trees dripping with Spanish moss and views of Mobile Bay — remains an attractive place to mix business with leisure.

“The Grand is a special setting. You could not build a hotel like the Grand today,” says Kevin Hellmich, the Grand’s director of sales and marketing. “Everything about the Grand Hotel is a networking opportunity. You can have a cocktail reception on the ballroom patio, or sit outside Bucky’s Lounge around one of the nine fire pits.

“The setting here allows individuals to relax a little bit more and get to know fellow meeting attendees. They tend to be a little bit more unplugged at the Grand than they would be at a typical convention hotel.”

The hotel’s two trail courses also provide plenty of networking and business opportunities, which can be continued in one of the hotel’s 18 event rooms. There is a total of more than 37,000 square feet of meeting space, with the ability to accommodate up to 1,400 people in a single room.

“Our hotel recreation department can plan special team-building activities, including golf, for the corporate events we host at the Grand Hotel,” Hellmich says. “We feel like if we can get a first-time meeting here, then they’ll come back a second and third time, and the golf is certainly a part of that.”

Cary Estes and Art Meripol are a freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Estes is based in Birmingham and Meripol in Hoover.

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