Back on course: Golf tournaments, business expos pick up as economy gains steam

You know the economy’s bad when people stop making deals over golf.

And that’s exactly what happened in the recession, particularly in local real estate. Trade groups canceled networking events as fast as developers called off projects. Golf tournaments, leadership seminars, business expos, charity fundraisers — all became collateral damage of the market’s collapse.

Now, like the real estate market itself, industry associations have settled into a new normal. Sure, things aren’t nearly what they were. But the market has stabilized, and even slight gains in sales and development mean the rebuilding of the real estate networking event.

“Things are picking up. There are more transactions going on that make people money instead of helping them just get by. And it’s improving fairly rapidly,” said Kirk Boylston, president of NAIOP Southern Nevada, the Commercial Real Estate Development Association.

It’s a far cry from where things were a year ago. NAIOP’s member count plummeted from more than 900 before the downturn to around 300 in 2012 — a problem when it takes about 100 golfers to make a tournament work financially, Boylston said.

What’s more, members left behind struggled to survive. Budgets had no room for charity events and networking. Individual members didn’t have cash for entry fees, and companies didn’t have money for sponsorships.

So the association canceled golf tournaments in 2011 and 2012. It also halted a leadership-development program and its bus tour of properties. The Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors struggled as well, its membership falling from 17,000 to 11,000. Out the window went its golf tournament, with its $150-per-person fee for entry and dinner, and its Realtor Rally trade show. At the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association, membership fell from 650 to 250 as companies closed or left the market. The group canceled its Builders Show and scaled back its Housing Day seminars in response, said executive director Nat Hodgson. Participation in its golf tournament slid, but the association held tight to the event for its networking value.

“You get more business, more camaraderie and more genuine discussion at a golf tournament than you ever get on a corporate conference call or an operations meeting,” Hodgson said. “Everybody’s there, you’ve got your guard down and you’re talking from your experiences and your heart. You can’t put a number on the value you get from that.”

But golf tournaments and other events aren’t important just for networking. They’re also vital fundraisers. Take NAIOP, which uses money from its golf tournament to pay for government-affairs efforts. A Realtors’ golf tournament could raise as much as $10,000. Cutting events created a vicious circle: Association revenue from membership dues dropped and forced event cancellations, which resulted in additional income falloff as participants and sponsors peeled away, said Phelps Hope, CMP, vice president of meetings and expositions for Kellen Meetings, an Atlanta company that plans association events.

Things are finally circling back, though.

Developers and landlords are leasing more commercial space, and Realtors can’t put houses on the Multiple Listing Service fast enough to meet demand. As brokers emerge from their foxholes, they’re joining trade groups again. NAIOP has added 100 members in the last year to jump back up past 400, Boylston said. And the Realtors’ association has added members each month in 2013, Tina said. The new dues make breathing room for extras in association spending plans.

So NAIOP and the Realtors will revive their golf tournaments in the fall.

“The economy’s better, and we’re selling homes. We want to get Realtors involved again and help them feel like they’re part of something,” Tina said.

Plans for new events go beyond October’s golf tournament. The association had a bowling tournament in May, and Tina started a benevolent fund to help Realtors in crisis with essentials such as mortgage payments. It’s even talking about bringing back its Realtor Rally, a trade show that used to draw thousands of members, plus vendors promoting everything from new cars to title services.

At NAIOP, “people just seemed to be asking for more events” as membership picked up, Boylston said. On top of the November golf tournament, the group plans to revive in September its Developing Leaders Institute, which gives in-depth training to members under 35. And its bus tour, which went from an actual drive-by of properties in the 1990s and early 2000s to an indoor presentation in 2010 to nothing at all from 2011 to 2013, might be on the way back as well, though on a smaller scale.

Still, there are reminders that not everybody has recovered. Sign-ups for home builders’ golf tournaments have more than doubled, from around 100 in the recession to 216 for the October round, Hodgson said. But the group is a good three years out from bringing back its Builders Show. There’s not enough business to make it a must-attend, and the upcoming International Builders’ Show in February will more than suffice for now, Hodgson said.

It’s common for associations that cut events to lag at bringing them back, said Cynthia Cortis, director of event services for SmithBucklin, a Chicago-based association-management company.

“Everyone is more careful. We’re certainly bullish on where (events) are going, but once you make cuts, you get used to not spending those revenues,” she said. “People say, ‘Maybe we won’t bring back that party. People are living without it.’ But you also have groups that are much more optimistic.”

That’s the nature of recovery, Phelps said. Business can be good again, but it’ll never be the same as it was before the downturn. Technology, spending habits, work forces — everything is different. Except for one thing.

“We still do business by relationships, and you cannot build relationships through e-mail or online,” he said. “You have to get face to face.”

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512. Follow @J_Robison1 on Twitter.