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Corporates are staying away from Augusta

First came Martha Burk and her full-throttle campaign to see a female member at Augusta National Golf Club. Then came Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH coalition and the Ku Klux Klan to intensify an already nasty gender war.

Now comes the deafening silence of corporate high-rollers skipping next month's Masters.

With golf's most storied major championship a month away, businesses around Augusta, Ga., are scrambling to replace lost bookings from more than a dozen Fortune 500 companies that traditionally make the Masters a focal point of corporate entertaining and marketing.

From Coca-Cola and Citigroup, both key Masters sponsors, to Lucent Technologies, Cadillac, Southern Co., and J.P. Morgan, much of Augusta's largest corporate visitors are either staying away entirely, downgrading hospitality plans significantly, or working to keep those plans out of the public eye.

The ripple effects are already deeply felt within the small southern town, with mom-and-pop outfits from restaurants to chauffeurs wondering where the lost dollars can be recovered.

"We're off by about half," said Bill Waters, owner of Waters Van Rentals. The company operates a 400-vehicle fleet of vans used during Masters week to shuttle corporate executives. "We've picked up a few small business [bookings], but the big boys, they've all cut way back."

This concern did not exist as recently as five months ago. Though the Burk-Augusta National conflict was fully engaged, several leading bookers of corporate accommodations reported strong early business. And to be certain, some pockets of Masters-related business remain quite robust, such as some prime corporate housing locations closest to Augusta National.

Since the holidays, however, the large companies have not kept up the pace of reservations seen in recent years.

The 2003 Masters gained more of a circus atmosphere when Jackson announced plans to protest at Augusta in support of Burk and the women members cause, followed by the leader of a Klan splinter group announcing his plans for a rally in favor of Augusta's all-male policy.

Not all of the corporate reluctance is because of Burk, chairman of the District-based National Council of Women's Organizations, though she has made the corporate titans who comprise much of Augusta's membership a focal point of her efforts. Augusta National is also not accepting any advertising for this year's tournament to shield its sponsors from the ongoing furor.

The lagging economy, increased scrutiny on executive spending, potential war with Iraq and reduced Masters ticket allocations for many companies also have substantially dampened the Augusta mood.

"When you lay off hundreds and hundreds of people, it's very hard to turn around and entertain guests in a lavish setting down here," said Diane Starr, owner of Corporate Quarters Inc., which brokers rentals of high-end housing for Masters week.

The company is close to meeting usual sales targets, but only after turning to smaller companies. "Doing an event like this when the economy is down definitely has an effect on shareholder mood, so it's not really surprising what's happened."

Even in Columbia, S.C., more than an hour from Augusta, the Masters downgrade is having an effect. Citigroup canceled its block of rooms at the Sheraton Hotel there; the financial services giant traditionally took up much of the 237-room hotel to base its hospitality efforts. About half of those room reservations have not been rebooked.

"We're still a month out, and we're picking up business from smaller groups and individual travelers," said Keith Sycamore, the hotel's director of marketing and sales. "But this is certainly not an ordinary year."

Though tickets to the tournament remain a hot commodity, selling for much as 20 times the $125 face value on secondary markets, many mid- and low-tier hotels around Augusta still have vacancies for Masters week.

 

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