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How Allentown’s MSG Promotions transformed the U.S. Open

OAKMONT — Mimi Griffin, the “pioneer” of U.S. Open corporate hospitality, walks Oakmont Country Club with two walkie-talkies and a cellphone. They’re always buzzing.

One minute, a service crew can’t get onto the property to clean bathrooms because of a locked gate. The next, a group from a future U.S. Open host site wants a tour of the championship’s sprawling backstage.

Griffin, whose Allentown-based MSG Promotions has coordinated U.S. Open hospitality for more than 20 years, handles each detail with patience. That’s how the company helped transform the U.S. Open and also a reason the big-picture intersection of golf and commerce is much brighter than it was eight years ago.

Since taking over corporate hospitality in 1995, MSG Promotions has changed the way the USGA conducts business at the U.S. Open. Once an afterthought, with tents occasionally placed on a course parking lot or tennis court, hospitality under MSG has become a significant revenue point for the annual championship.

U.S. Open hospitality sales have produced more than $165 million since 1995, when MSG Promotions landed its first contract at Shinnecock Hills. The company has worked at more than 20 USGA events, including the U.S. Senior and Women’s Opens at Saucon Valley Country Club.

“Mimi is the one who pioneered corporate hospitality and transformed it into what it is today,” said Reg Jones, the USGA’s senior director of U.S. Open championships. “Certainly from a financial standpoint, when it comes to the U.S. Open, it’s one of our most significant revenue streams. It really funds our organization.”

This week’s U.S. Open at Oakmont has outsold its 2007 predecessor, which was held prior to the Great Recession. A total of 275 corporate clients (about 20 percent more than in 2007) have filled 32 tents, 30 suites and the enormous Champions Pavilion, spending from $6,000 to $225,000 for their facilities.

Along Oakmont’s 17th and 18th fairways, fans spilled out of the Fownes Village tents, drinking plenty of beer, for which the USGA expects sales to be seven times higher than for bottled water. Down the hill, the Palmer Suites, named for honorary tournament co-chairman Arnold Palmer, featured a two-level, windowed pavilion with open bar, lunch buffet and afternoon hors d’oeuvres.

Griffin surveyed the property Wednesday, the final day of practice rounds, and called it a welcome sight.

“Other than at Pinehurst [which held the men’s and women’s Opens in 2014], we haven’t been close to pre-recession sales until now,” Griffin said. “And that’s a good sign.”

Griffin, a former basketball announcer who was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014, said golf spending has made restorative progress in recent years. The 2009 U.S. Women’s Open at Saucon Valley was among the first championships significantly affected by the recession, as some companies that purchased hospitality packages 18 months before the event ultimately withdrew.

Now companies are again purchasing hospitality options but spending their money more judiciously, choosing smaller, shorter packages and outfitting tents with less lavish furnishings. Griffin said companies spent more than $1 million on daily options at Oakmont, often choosing them over weeklong packages.

Further, corporate demographics are changing. In once manufacturing-heavy Pittsburgh, more packages were sold to companies involved in technology, insurance and finance.

“Everyone is much more careful about the way they spend money,” Griffin said. “Honestly, it was a correction that was needed, because people were spending without evaluating carefully what their money was getting them. The nice thing now is that, U.S. Open corporate hospitality has held its own as a proven vehicle for client relationship-building. We’ve corrected to a lower level, but now we’re back at post-recession sales. And that’s a really good sign.”

A staff of 25 full- and part-time employees from MSG Promotions is on-site at Oakmont, some of whom arrived two weeks ago. Jobs for Griffin’s team of 11 interns have ranged from painting picket fences to greeting company CEOs.

For Griffin and Jeanne Taylor, MSG’s chief operating officer, a significant challenge is staging hospitality locations without being intrusive. It’s not always easy.

At the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, Phil Mickelson sliced his tee shot at the 18th hole off a 36,000-square-foot hospitality tent 30 yards left of the fairway. Mickelson’s one-shot lead turned into a victory for Geoff Ogilvy.

A year later, Griffin received calls from clients wanting a table in the tent Mickelson hit.

“Mimi has a great respect and understanding for our philosophy, which is that our focus is what’s going on inside the ropes first,” Jones said. “Then, certainly a very high priority is making sure that all the spectators, all the corporate clients, have a memorable experience. She is the absolute best at making sure that happens.”

THAT’S A LOT OF BEER

The USGA expects 30,000 intervention for drugs and alcohol on-site each day for the U.S. Open, which translates to healthy food-and-beverage sales. Here’s what the USGA expects fans to ingest this week.

365,000 12-ounce beers

125,000 16-ounce souvenir beer/soda cups

100,000 quarter-pound hot dogs

75,000 sodas

50,000 bottles of water

48,000 bags of chips

42,000 quarter-pound hamburgers

18,000 jumbo cookies

Source: USGA

June 15, 2016 | by Mark Wogenrich, Contact Reporter for The Morning Call