April 2012

The 2012 Heritage Is On!

Author: Paul deVere

It was the evening of June 15, 2011. Steve Wilmot was busy doing something he had never had to do before. But the unusual had become usual for the tournament director. “I worked with Senator (Lindsey) Graham’s office up until about 8 o’clock on Wednesday night prior to the Thursday announcement, getting clearance for the RBC private plane from Canada to land on Hilton Head, because we don’t have customs. It was unbelievable,” Wilmot said.

The following day, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem announced that the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) would be the title sponsor for 2012 Heritage and the Boeing Company would be the local presenting sponsor. The process to get to that point took 24 months of the unusual.

In 2009, when Verizon announced that the 2010 Heritage would be its last as a title sponsor, there was no way Wilmot or the Heritage Classic Foundation board could know what they would face in the race to find a new sponsor. To the general public, it looked like it should have been a 100-meter dash. No one knew it would be a two-year marathon.

“We had a Title Search Committee within the organization,” Wilmot explained. “We also identified about a dozen retired CEOs in this committee or those who sit on boards who could maybe open some doors and identify the right people and let us kind of run with it. To be honest, we realized that we may have opened our doors a little too much,” Wilmot recalled with a smile. “It was amazing. We might get to somebody at General Motors and all of a sudden they would say, ‘Hey, if another person from Hilton Head calls me…’ But everyone had good intentions.”

According to Wilmot, over a thousand companies were contacted. “There were a couple hundred that received a full blown proposal. There were 30 to 40 that got the full presentation. There were some people locally who questioned if we were doing enough, a question I also asked myself,” Wilmot said. “It got to be hard just going out to a restaurant. People just wanted to be helpful, so they would come up and ask, ‘Why don’t you talk to BMW?’ I would answer that we had. What always followed was, ‘Why won’t they?’” Wilmot tried explaining the reasons, but the complexity of those situations was a bit beyond a conversation at the dinner table.

A personal turning point for Wilmot happened in August 2010. The search for a title sponsor wasn’t going all that well, though everyone was hard at it. The PGA had moved The Heritage back a week due to scheduling changes. For decades the tournament took place the week right after The Masters. He knew people planned well in advance for Heritage week, booking hotel rooms, villas and homes.

So when he got a call from an old friend who was co-owner of one of the island’s large, short-term rental management companies, he wasn’t surprised. Wilmot knew the date change could have created a booking problem. Wilmot thought he was prepared and ready to take on whatever situation his old friend presented to him.
“He called me right around when we announced the date change for 2011. I thought that spelled trouble. People booked a year in advance for the Heritage. I have known Bob Hawkins for years, but my first reaction was okay, they are double-booked or they have a deposit for that week. So what do they do?” Wilmot was sure he could reason with his friend.

“Bob came in and asked, ‘Steve, how are things going? I know you’ve been looking for a sponsor and all these things, but let me just tell you. I was already having a pretty good year when the unfortunate thing happened in the Gulf [the BP disaster]. Well, what was a pretty good year turned into my best year. I found out that, predominantly, most of the people who were coming here for the first time over the summer are coming because they saw Hilton Head Island on television during the Heritage. I would just like to make a donation. I’m not looking for anything. I would just like to say thank you.’

“I said, ‘Great Bob.’ I didn’t know how much it was going to be. It didn’t matter. It was a nice gesture on his part. He didn’t want to talk about the date change; he just talked about how important the tournament was to this community and how his business has benefited. He wrote a check for $20,000. I was not prepared for that,” Wilmot said.

That’s when Wilmot knew that some people in the community understood the importance of the Heritage—what it really means. It’s not just a golf tournament. It is a part of the island’s soul. Hawkins’ gesture helped strengthen his focus.
“I could show you the letters from a wonderfully supportive lady who lived in Sun City. She was shopping at Publix and wrote me a letter asking if I considered Publix (for a title sponsor) because it’s such a good store. Every one of those suggestions, from letters to phone calls, I followed up because you certainly never knew,” Wilmot said.

What Wilmot certainly didn’t know back then was that the first company a presentation was sent to would be with him at the news conference in 2011. When the search process began, Wilmot was at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta for the Tour Championship. He was talking with Bill Paul, a good friend of his. Paul is the tournament director for the RBC Canadian Open. “He said that RBC had asked him about getting involved in events. I have thanked him many, many times because he told them, ‘If there is an event on the PGA Tour that would be perfect for what you (RBC) want to do and how you want to do it, it would be Hilton Head.’”

Late in 2010, when no sponsor had yet been found for the 2011 Heritage, the Heritage Classic Foundation made the very tough decision to take all of its reserves, over $4 million, and pour those dollars into the sponsorship. With the help of the Town of Hilton Head Island and Beaufort County, another $2 million was raised. And with the help of others, it was enough.

“I am so fortunate to be a part of something that is such a community event. To go around last year and see the pride in the concessioners, our volunteers, the support of the companies that have been with us, including Hargray, Palmetto Electric, Hilton Head Regional Medical Center…These people stuck with us. Coca-Cola stepped up last year. They put us all in a position to have a 2011 so we could hopefully get to 2012 and beyond. I thank the Town; I thank the County. If it were not for them I wouldn’t be talking to you. And if it were not for the Foundation having hindsight 10 years ago of preparing for the future, we wouldn’t be here,” Wilmot said.

The sense of community that Wilmot witnessed was also experienced at the 2011 Heritage by Jim Little, chief brand and communications officer for RBC. “We were in the process of deciding what geography we were going to do more golf in. What intrigued us was what was not being said about the Heritage, about Hilton Head. We talked to a lot of the pros and no one could figure out why they couldn’t find a sponsor. So while many people would run from that, somehow it attracted us. There was something to 40 years of this Heritage, and there seemed to be nothing really wrong. There seemed to be an opportunity to come in, get good value with Boeing and really make a difference. They went out of their way to make us feel needed as well. When you think about it as a marketing property, it’s one thing. But then when you get here, you realize it’s a community of people, small businesses—a community that wants our support and help. All of those ingredients kind of added up to a perfect outcome,” Little said.

For years, the foundation and staff had tried to show other areas of the state just how important The Heritage was to everyone in South Carolina. A study by Clemson University in 2010 showed that the tournament added over $80 million to the economy of South Carolina every year. When Nikki Haley became governor in January 2011, The Heritage gained a strong proponent, someone who understood. That “understanding” was made clear to RBC’s Little when he first met with the governor.

“It was a full-court press. The big joke at the beginning was what Governor Haley basically said at our first meeting: ‘It’s going to be easier to say yes, than no.’ So, I kind of knew at the very early stages that a ‘no’ probably wasn’t going to be possible after they had gotten us down here. She turned out to be right. She’s been a great partner, and I know all of the other levels of government have been involved and really working. So we are thrilled to be part of all that,” Little said.

For Jack Jones, general manager and vice president of Boeing South Carolina, the experience of being asked to take part as the local, presenting sponsor was slightly different. Jones said that Governor Haley and Senator Graham helped put the tournament into historical and economic context for the state. However, for Boeing to become involved, “it had to be a prestigious and quality event,” Jones said. “We also wanted to know how it would benefit the community. Knowing that about one million of the dollars we are going to spend in our sponsorship goes to local charities made the decision easy.”

While all the negotiations were taking place, there were rumors that a deal was sealed or questions about the Foundation bringing in a big sports management company for negotiations. “For whatever it is worth, we were and are working with the PGA Tour, the world’s largest golf organization and sports marketing company,” Wilmot said.

It was a difficult time for him. Some of the rumors were true. As an example, Wilmot said that insurance company Aflac was ready to sign off when they had a final meeting at the 2011 Masters. The company is very involved with NASCAR and could always depend on the sport’s biggest stars to be in every race. Golf tournaments aren’t like that. When invited, golfers choose where they want to play. The deal went away.

“About six weeks prior to the tournament last year, there was a momentum change,” Wilmot said. “I credit the media and I credit the players with what happened. I went down to Bay Hill (Arnold Palmer Invitational) to see a couple of players. I usually don’t do it; it’s not like I’m recruiting. You would have thought I was a rock star. Nobody cared about Bay Hill. I was attacked by caddies; I was attacked by agents, media, rules officials, VIPs, other sponsors, other tournament directors. I was standing next to their tournament director and everyone was talking to me. Everybody was saying the right things, about the history and tradition (of The Heritage)—telling the young guys. They said, ‘This can’t be the last event’; ‘this would be egg on the face of the Tour’; ‘this is too important.’ All of a sudden the Tour says, ‘It’s not a matter of if we’re going to sign a deal; it’s a matter of when.’ We hadn’t heard that from them,” Wilmot said.

The 2011 Heritage Week couldn’t have been better for the tournament, the Foundation and Wilmot’s team. “Two things that I always talked about and had no control over were Mother Nature and the players. We had a great week of weather. We had a great field. We had a great leader board. We had the playoff. All of a sudden you have Jim Nance and Nick Faldo doing their thing, going on about the importance of The Heritage. We knew we were going to get a hit from CBS and it was going to be kind of a last push, but it was unbelievable. The Tour will tell you that Monday after the tournament, they had never had so much interest about our event, more than any other event they have ever had,” Wilmot said.

On Monday, June 13, 2011, a conference call was scheduled with the Tour. Wilmot and Heritage Classic Foundation chairman Simon Fraser were sitting in Wilmot’s office. Fraser had always been at Wilmot’s side, helping, encouraging, and “doing some of the very heavy lifting,” Wilmot said. “That Monday, we were sitting here, and all of a sudden there’s the Tour on a conference call saying, ‘Well, we would like to make the announcement this week.’ There was a pause, and Simone will tell you, I was kind of in shock and I asked, ‘What announcement?’ That was how we learned that RBC and Boeing said yes,” Wilmot said.

The Tour wanted to schedule a news conference on that Thursday, because Governor Haley would be out of the country at the Paris Air Show and Commissioner Finchem would be traveling to Washington D.C. for the U.S. Open. That was why Wilmot was working the customs deal with Senator Graham’s office at 8 p.m. Wednesday night so the Canadians could land at the Hilton Head Airport. And that was when the usually smiling Wilmot returned. The 2012 RBC Heritage was on.

Sidebar:
RBC Heritage PGA TOUR Event to be Bicycle Friendly
The RBC-Heritage PGA TOUR golf tournament in 2012 is going to be bicycle friendly.

Thanks to cooperation between CSA-Sea Pines Plantation, the RBC Heritage tournament and the Hilton Head Island Bicycle Friendly Advisory Committee, access to the tournament by bicycle this year will be as easy as showing a ticket/badge.

“We are happy that accommodations were made to make this event easy to access by bike,” said Frank Babel, co-chair of the Advisory Committee. “We’re predicting this will be popular, especially among residents on the island and visitors who are bicycle enthusiasts. It also has the potential to ease car traffic congestion.”

Bikers should show the officer a valid ticket for that days event and during the hours of play. After accessing the gate(s), signs will direct bikers to bicycle parking, which will be located conveniently close to the main tournament entrance in Harbourtown. New signage has been designed to assist the marked bicycle pathways to the tournament.

Bicyclists are advised to remain on the bike paths at all times and may bring their own lock for self-parking on designated racks, with volunteers available to assist.

For more information contact Sea Pines Security 843-671-3000/671-7170

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