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After a barnstorming Ryder Cup stateside this September, it’s now the turn of Wales in 2010. David Watt, head of hospitality for The European Tour, tells Mark Sansom he’s looking forward to the challenge
In a sport that’s renowned for demurely celebrating the achievements of individuals, the Ryder Cup stands out. The biannual golf tournament is a stellar sporting spectacle, pitting teams of the best golfers from Europe and the US against each other in a matchplay format that draws some of the biggest and most partisan crowds in golf.
It is also a competition in which you can expect the unexpected. Lesser-known players often humble global stars, and as the European team learned at Valhalla Golf Club in Kentucky this year, favourites can come unstuck. The American team may have started as underdogs, but they were worthy victors – and so the pressure is on for the home team to reclaim the cup when it comes to the Celtic Manor Resort near Newport in October 2010.
Experiencing a different kind of tension will be David Watt, the head of hospitality for the event. He is at the heart of the host’s plan to make the next Ryder Cup the biggest and best in the event’s 82-year history. It sounds like an awesome challenge, but Watt’s background should stand him in good stead.
Having starter his career as a chef, Watt set up his own event management company, Creative Breaks, with business partner Giles Toosey in 1996 and, despite both being new to the event industry, the pair went on to mastermind a number of successful projects, including the popular London Bierfest, which recently completed its seventh sell-out season. Steady growth was interrupted by the terror attacks of 2001, but despite the economic downturn that followed, the company survived and in early 2002 merged with Quintus Events, which was subsequently acquired by IMG Hospitality in early 2007.
As a keen golfer (with an impressive handicap of just 8), Watt jumped at the chance to become head of hospitality when the European Tour came calling in 2004. The 2006 Ryder Cup at the K-Club in County Kildare was his first in the role – and, despite some appalling weather, a major success.
‘2006 was a great experience, although unbelievably tough,’ confirms Watt. ‘Unless you see it first hand, you simply cannot comprehend just what an enormous event The Ryder Cup has become. With the Opening Ceremony and Gala Dinner to arrange on top of the hospitality programme, I didn’t see a single live shot played all week. As a golf fan, it was agony! However, we had 40,000 people through hospitality in that time and did not receive a single complaint about food or service.’
This year’s Ryder Cup at Valhalla also had its weather-induced challenges as a major hurricane hit on the Sunday prior to the event, leaving nearly 300,000 homes without power in the Louisville area. Watt confesses he was deeply impressed by the fortitude of the US hosts, as well as being intrigued and influenced by their approach to corporate entertainment.
‘The hospitality product is completely different in the States’, he explains. ‘The majority of facilities provide ‘snack’ food rather than three-course plated lunches. Our customers would never settle for plastic plates and glasses! We are, however, looking to incorporate several of their ideas into our offering to reflect the changing needs of the corporate customer. Above all, their levels of service were exceptional and that’s something we’ll aim to emulate in 2010.’
‘We plan to have many more staff than we’ll actually need. Some visitors said we had too many staff in 2006, but in my opinion, it’s a valid investment. We want to ensure that we have the resources available to cater for all of our guest’s demands; before they have to think about refilling their glass, it will have been topped up.’
Another innovation picked up from Kentucky was their use of business centres. While there’s a complete ban on mobiles on the course, vast expanses of phones and computers are laid out in these areas. They are accessible to all corporate clients and offer a great opportunity for those who don’t want to lose complete touch with the office.
As a former chef, Watt also places outmost importance on the standard of food. ‘We are working closely with the Welsh Assembly to source and showcase as many local recipes and suppliers as possible,’ he says.
As one of the top five global sports events by viewing figures, The 2010 Ryder Cup hospitality packages will be in high demand. There will be various options for those wishing to experience the event, from tables of 10 in the restaurant facility overlooking the 17th green, to private suites for 30 and 50 alongside the 16th fairway and green.
A three-story structure will be built into the Usk Valley hillside and offer hospitality areas with great views of the pivotal later holes, where matches will be won and lost.
At an event with 40,000 spectators, it would be impractical and inappropriate to offer hospitality guests guaranteed seats in all the grandstands, so to have such vantage points from the suites is a real boon. In Watt’s words, the boxes will offer ‘outstanding views across the course; probably the best ever seen at a golf event.’
Sales for the 2010 Ryder Cup have already started, and as expected, despite the economic downturn, demand is high. ‘We have about 1,100 covers in the restaurant and 50 private suites to sell, and I would be surprised if there is much left this time next year. In Ireland, the whole event sold out in four months and we had 1,500 more covers to sell each day there,’ says Watt.
You can expect to pay around £1,000 per person, per day – and anyone tempted by cheaper offers or ‘off piste’ facilities should heed the example of the unfortunate group of 300 who, having bought unofficial packages for the 2006 event, were turned away when it was discovered their passes were invalid. Packages can only be purchased from the European Tour directly, or from the following official agents: IMG Hospitality, Keith Prowse, CSL (Ireland), Mike Burton Group and Ryder Cup Travel Services.
‘After some of the problems we encountered in Ireland, we’re determined to run a really tight agency programme this time around’, says Watt. ‘I would urge anybody wishing to book hospitality to pick up the phone and check with me first. I have already had one company preparing to hand over £40,000 to an unlicensed agency. The reality is that if you book with someone outside of our hospitality family, you will never receive any tickets, and once the event has sold out there is nothing we can do to help.’
The Ryder Cup always attracts A-list celebs. The glitterati were out in force in Kentucky, with, among others, keen golfers Michael Johnson, Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake and Ryder regular George Bush Snr. In 2006, another ex-president, Bill Clinton, was greenside (along with his entourage from the Secret Service), causing unprecedented hassle for the tournament’s organisers. ‘He wanted a special seat at the Closing Ceremony, which meant a massive reorganisation just ten minutes before it started. The only seat we could find that was deemed appropriate looked more like a throne, and I think even the former president felt a little uneasy!’ says Watt.
While David’s time at the event is spent ensuring everything runs smoothly, surreal moments do occur. Waiting backstage with the famous gold trophy prior to ushering the two teams out for the 2006 Opening Ceremony, Watt found himself next to Tiger Woods, first in line for the US Team. ‘Do you want me to hold that for you?’ enquired the world’s most famous sportsman with a grin. ‘I think you might have to win it first,’ replied Watt.
PLAY THE TWENTY TEN COURSE
It’s no coincidence that the Celtic Manor Resort won the bid to host the 2010 Ryder Cup. Welsh multi-millionaire owner Sir Terry Matthews was determined to be the man to bring the event to his home nation for the first time and, to that end, tasked a team of top architects with developing a brand new offering – resulting in the aptly named Twenty Ten Course. As the first course specifically designed for the Ryder Cup, it mixes classic links holes with a series of more ‘American-style’ elements, including a lake that runs alongside nine of the holes. Guaranteed to challenge at every turn, it’s a lengthy 7,493 yards in total and, with a par of just 71, it certainly rewards big-hitters – though all that water means accuracy is also essential. Open to corporate bookings through The Twenty Ten Experience, it makes a great option for entertaining clients in the run-up to the next cup: 18 holes and dinner in Rafters restaurant costs from £70 per person.
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, Autumn 2008.