BY ANDREA SIEDSMA
Jay Rains almost laughs when he thinks back to 2001 when he had the notion that if San Diego could host three Super Bowls, the Davis Cup and the Republican National Convention then it would be the perfect venue for the U.S. Open, one of golf’s most coveted championships.
With the U.S. Open slated to begin at Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla five months from now, Rains is now giving himself a reality check.
“It’s less than half a year away. When we first started down this road, it seemed like a million years in front of us. June will be here before you know it and we’re excited,” said Rains, chairman of the 2008 U.S. Open Executive Committee and a partner with DLA Piper U.S. LLP in San Diego.
That excitement is not only caused by the pure fact that the U.S. Open attracts media coverage from around the world and close to 45,000 spectators a day, but also by the expectation that the overall event will bring $100 million to the San Diego region, not to mention the ripple effect it will have on local tourism.
This will mark the first time in 60 years that the U.S. Open, which will run from June 9-15, will be held in Southern California (the last time was in Los Angeles in 1948).
Rains said San Diego , despite all of its attractions, beauty and ideal climate , was not an easy sell to the United States Golf Association.
The most important thing, he said, was to get Torrey Pines up to par with USGA standards for its most important championship. So, Rains , former president of the Century Club, the local nonprofit that serves as administrative backbone for the annual Buick Invitational golf tournament , began a mission to raise $3.5 million to renovate the south course at Torrey Pines. The 28 local community members who donated the money formed a group that is now called the Friends of Torrey Pines.
“People were very supportive of doing something for the community, but there was also this Holy Grail to pursue the U.S. Open for San Diego,” Rains said. “The USGA was impressed that we could get private citizens to work in partnership with the city to get the event to come to San Diego.”
From a tourism standpoint alone, the U.S. Open is a big coup for San Diego, Rains said.
“If the U.S. Open is held at Pebble Beach, they don’t have the kind of hotel infrastructure, the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld and the beaches like we have,” he said, adding that about 70 percent of the tickets bought for the golf event were from outside of San Diego (and half of those were purchased from outside of California).
That’s good news for Patrick Duffy, general manager of the Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines, which is dedicating all of its rooms for corporate hospitality for the U.S. Open, as well as lodging players, USGA officials, business leaders and other attendees during the event.
“I think this event will rival the Super Bowl in terms of economic impact to the city,” Duffy said. “It will have a longer length of stay. You’re going to have a very high caliber attendee with disposable income. During that time, people can bring their family and enjoy San Diego while attending the U.S. Open.”
And, Duffy said, unlike any other U.S. Open sites, Torrey Pines has two world-class hotels right on the golf course ,Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines and The Lodge at Torrey Pines.
The fact that the Open will be played on a municipal golf course (only the second time since last year’s event at Bethpage Black, a public course on Long Island) will also appeal to the average Joe golfer, Duffy said, further attracting a diverse group of attendees and spenders to the region.
Reg Jones, managing director of the U.S. Open, said San Diego’s tourist destination M.O. is one of the reasons why ticket sales of the weeklong event have been so successful. He said city officials, as well as local vendors, have been accommodating.
“The city of San Diego is a tremendous partner for us,” Jones said. “We depend on them for a lot of the logistics like transportation and security. When you’re inviting 45,000 of your closest friends every day for a week you have to make sure you have the resources in place to accommodate them.”
One of the many regional vendors working for the U.S. Open is Classic Party Rentals and Classic Tents. The company, based in Los Angeles, has a big San Diego operation that will be in charge of tables, chairs, tents and furnishings relating to catering for all U.S. Open corporate hospitality events. This is the company’s first year working with the U.S. Open, and it has been awarded another vendor contract for next year’s Open in New York.
“Being a local vendor and having a strong management team in San Diego was an important factor in getting this contract,” said Mike Bjornstad, chief operating officer for Classic Party Rentals and Classic Tents. “Between our operations in San Diego and our regional and national operations in terms of tenting, we are one of the few companies that can provider the USGA with what they need for the U.S. Open.”
While Bjornstad declined to disclose the value of the contract with the U.S. Open, he said the company will have 60-80 people working the event. He said the San Diego event helped pave the way for the company’s New York contract.
“The U.S. Open is an exciting opportunity for us to do some work on a national level and in a new market,” Bjornstad said.
The championship also provides opportunities for local companies , large and small , that want to entertain existing and prospective clients. So says Mimi Griffin, director of marketing for the golf event. Unlike many previous U.S. Opens, this year’s event has been more affordable for small to medium-sized companies to take part in corporate hospitality.
“Because the economy has changed, the USGA has changed with it,” said Griffin, also president of Pennsylvania-based MSG Promotions, which has a contract to provide all corporate hospitality management for the U.S. Open. “We have tents to accommodate up to100 people a day down to tables of 12. We have made entertaining at the U.S. Open more affordable for small and mid-sized companies. In the past it was only affordable to Fortune 100 and 500 companies.
“We can now really penetrate the local San Diego market and have as many companies that want to participate in the U.S. Open,” Griffin said, adding that small tables are about $8,000 a day, while weekly tables run $28,000.
She said companies participating in the U.S. Open will be able to entertain clients at a world-class event that doesn’t come around too often.
“The thing about the U.S. Open is you get quality face time with your client, whether it’s in a private tent or in the covered pavilion with tables,” Griffin said. “You can relax in an enjoyable setting and bond with key clients or prospects. At the U.S. Open you’re not allowed to bring cell phones or BlackBerries, so you can get your client in a place where they can’t be distracted by outside sources.”
Aside from the big economic boost the U.S. Open will give to the San Diego region, Jay Rains is happy that the event just might even shed a positive ray of light on a city that has been ridden with negative media attention during the past couple of years.
“I moved here 25 years ago and this town was very open to me and had a can-do attitude to make this a better community,” Rains said. “If the community improves, then that’s good for everyone. That’s what the U.S. Open is. We have taken, as a community, enough shots about our fiscal crisis and other issues. This is America’s Finest City. This is an opportunity for a week to show what San Diego is really all about.”