Lake County communities see green in BMW Championship
The 70 top professional golfers in the world won't be the only ones trying to score this week when the BMW Championship comes to Conway Farms in Lake Forest.
Lake County and surrounding communities will be chasing a potentially substantial but elusive payoff from tens of thousands of daily visitors who they hope will eat at their restaurants, stay in their hotels and visit their stores from Sept. 9 to 15.
And who knows? Maybe a corporate visitor or two will find Lake County amenities attractive enough to consider setting up shop here.
"We anticipate a $30 million economic impact to the area," said Vince Pellegrino, vice president of tournaments for the Western Golf Association, which is conducting the event.
With a stellar field of household names competing for $8 million in prize money ($1.44 million to the winner), this third leg of the PGA Tour playoffs for the FedExCup is not just another tournament.
"The majority of the people will be coming from outside Lake County for the championship," Pellegrino said. "With the way ticket sales have gone we're anticipating large crowds."
He estimated that over its run, the event will attract about 125,000 people — mostly spectators, but that figure includes 1,600 volunteers and support staff. Attendance is projected at 25,000 to 30,000 each day Thursday through Sunday for the tournament competition.
The potential has been no secret to the Lake County Convention & Visitors Bureau, which during the past year has coordinated planning meetings with its community partners, including Lincolnshire, Libertyville, Lake Forest and Vernon Hills, which are near Conway Farms Golf Club.
Restaurants and hotels will be the main benefactors, according to Maureen Riedy, president of the organization.
"I think we're trying to do as much as we can," she said. "A lot of it is trying to get the word out before they (visitors) arrive and getting them information on dining opportunities when they're at the hotels."
Riedy estimated about 30 percent of visitors will be from outside the Chicago area. For example, the target audience includes the 30,000 members of the Wisconsin State Golf Association, who have been contacted via email.
"That's the kind of scenario that could have a huge economic impact on the area," she said.
There are about 8,600 hotel rooms in Lake County. Though September is traditionally strong, hotels are expecting a spike for the coming week, according to Riedy.
For some, the impact was evident well in advance. For example, the Lincolnshire Marriott Resort has 389 rooms and generally is up to 75 percent full in the summer. But this coming week, the occupancy could reach the low 90 percent mark, according to Hassan El Neklawy, general manager.
"I've been booked for a while. I have several groups in the hotel, media, sponsors," he said recently. "It's been a very strong week for us overall."
He expected the resort's golf course also to be busy due to a "golf fever" that accompanies such an event.
Fever was the operative word a year ago when Medinah County Club in DuPage County hosted the Ryder Cup. In that case, about 6,000 room nights were booked five years in advance for the media, players, officials and sponsors, according to the DuPage Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Because of its larger size and international draw, the Ryder Cup is a different experience than the regional BMW Championship. But there is no doubt professional golf can be good for the locals.
The estimated economic impact from the Ryder Cup was $70 million to $80 million for DuPage County and $130 million for the entire Chicago area, according to Beth Marchetti, director of development for the DuPage bureau.
Last year, the BMW Championship was held at Crooked Stick in Carmel, Ind., which has a population of about 85,000 and is about 20 miles from downtown Indianapolis. The challenge was to keep a share of visitor traffic and spending with the lure of the big city down the road, according to Karen Radcliff, deputy director of the Hamilton County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
A 19th Hole online clearinghouse for spectator information, as well as signage and events downtown, was part of the strategy. Though an overall economic impact was not calculated, local hotel occupancy was up nearly 19 percent and hotel revenue up more than 42 percent for that week compared to 2011, Radcliff wrote in an email.
The event drew about 140,000 visitors, though the traffic count at support businesses was not as high for BMW as compared to the 2005 Solheim Cup and 2010 U.S. Senior Open, which also were held at Crooked Stick.
Really a benefit?
However, not everyone is convinced that BMW will be a bonanza for Lake County. The $30 million estimate likely is exaggerated, said Robert Baade, a professor of economics at Lake Forest College, who has studied the impact of large sporting events, including the Olympics.
The fact that some visitors simply will drive home after a day on the course, stay in Chicago, or avoid the area because of expected congestion factor into his assessment.
"I have a hunch it's so dispersed, the (economic) impact isn't likely to be felt to any significant degree anywhere," he said.
Because advertising at the tournament site is tightly controlled, Lake County towns will be challenged to promote themselves and lure visitors.
To get around that obstacle, the towns and the Lake County Convention & Visitors Bureau are putting out an electronic welcome mat. The bureau has a special BMW tournament section on its website that lists golf courses, restaurants and hotels, and it has links to the local communities. They, in turn, have their own connections to the bureau, as well as to local dining, entertainment and other activities.
"The theme, we kind of want to keep it consistent: Lake County has a lot to offer. We want to see you come back," said Tonya Zozulya, a planner for the village of Lincolnshire.
Supplying information for mobile devices is another key to the strategy, Riedy said.
"A lot of people will be looking for information on their phones," she said. "That's how you have to have it now."
Thinking long term
The influx of visitors does provide a chance for local communities to snare a piece of any economic increase and for the county to promote itself as a good place to do business.
"I think it will be a nice bump. I don't think it will be anything massive, but it will be a good opportunity for exposure," said Heather Rowe, economic development coordinator for Libertyville. The village has optimized its website so it will appear higher in general searches.
One business with a detailed plan for capitalizing on the event is Mickey Finn's Brewery, a Libertyville mainstay. It will be serving bratwurst, chicken breasts and its signature burgers Thursday at Conway Farms to 800 volunteers and it will provide $50 restaurant gift cards to all 70 players. In exchange, the restaurant received tickets for the event and will have two banners at the lunch, which will be a nice plug for the town, according to owner Brian Grano.
"I think a lot of people will be wining and dining for that week. That will take us from a little bump (in business) to a bigger bump," he said.
Communities also hope to plant the seed of what is available so visitors will return after the tournament.
"We'd like to try and capitalize on it as much as possible," Zozulya said.
Lincolnshire has six hotels and more than two dozen restaurants. "We're sending out letters to every single restaurant in the village," Zozulya said. "We're asking them to take advantage of this and come up with special menu items."
Host community Lake Forest has two commuter train stations in town and hopes to capture some attention for its 33 restaurants, bars and coffee houses, and other businesses.
The city will offer welcome packets for all the players, and informational brochures also will be available at both train stations, from which free shuttle buses will take visitors to the tournament site.
A fashion show, "Red Carpet on the Green," is planned for Thursday in the historic Market Square, and in the evening, Jeff Silver, CEO of Coyote Logistics, is the scheduled guest for Lake Forest Business + Technology Incubator's innovation speaker series. On Saturday, the Lake County's farmers market, which draws 20,000 annually and has an estimated impact of $453,000 per year, will be held downtown.
And from Friday through Sunday, the 38th annual Lake Forest Library book sale, which features many collectible books, will be ongoing.
"We're trying to have fun, unique events to draw people into the business district," said Susan Kelsey, the city's economic development officer.
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