Several years ago, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) conducted an advertising campaign that positioned its members as the “unsung heroes” of the golf industry.
The messaging and design of the communications shined the spotlight on those people who tended the game’s playing grounds, acknowledging that the work was done with a certain sense of anonymity.
For more than 35 years, GCSAA had its own unsung hero – a heroine, in this case. Her role was to oversee the logistics and planning of the association’s annual conference and show. That meant no detail was too small. No question was too dumb. No request went unfulfilled. Her morning began before sunrise and the evenings ended after sundown.
Bonnie Stephenson’s career at GCSAA began in 1974, when letters were typed with seven carbon sheets for multiple copies, and ended in 2010, when sensors would scan name badges as attendees entered the trade show floor, transmitting data to a computer for storage and analysis. It was during that time the GCSAA Conference and Show (later the Golf Industry Show) experienced unprecedented growth. And, while there were many hands on deck to help handle the load, Stephenson was the rudder for an event that would grow at one point to be among the 75 largest (out of more than 5,000) trade shows nationally.
Hannes Combest, who served as managing director of member programs from 1996 through 2008, worked hand in hand with Stephenson as the event grew to a high of nearly 26,000 attendees and 305,000 square feet of exhibition space in 2008. Combest calls Stephenson the “glue” that kept everything together.
“Bonnie was special,” Combest says. “She cared so much about the association and the members. This was their show and she was going to make sure their experience was a positive one. If you weren’t on staff, you really did not get to see what went on behind the scenes. She built a great team and together they got things done.”
“Can you imagine where all registration and seminar selection was done through snail mail?” Stephenson remarks. “We typed name badges on site. We had to walk around to find people – no walkie-talkies or cell phones back then. All committees met at conference, so we had to type up minutes and distribute them. By the time I left, technology made everything almost instantaneous.”
There was a point where the planning with the host city was done in advance over the phone, but, as the show grew, advance physical visits were required.
In the early 1970s attendance was approximately 4,000. It climbed to 7,500 in the early 1980s and then took off in the early 1990s as course development boomed. The all-time high of 25,000-plus in 2008 came when the Club Managers Association of America (CMAA) and the National Golf Course Owners Association (NGCOA) were the lead partners with GCSAA in hosting the Golf Industry Show.
“There were lots of changes over time, obviously,” Stephenson says. “I loved what was called the Banquet and Show, which featured 1,500 guests, a three-tiered head table and headline entertainment. It was a very classy event. I also enjoyed the big sessions. It was neat to see an empty ballroom come together to host 2,000 people. The speakers were also top-notch and fun to work with.
“Technology allowed us to do more. We also added new elements that were on the cutting edge. I took pride in the fact that we negotiated hard with the vendors to keep our costs down. We were very efficient, I thought.”
From my perspective, the thing that stood out most about Bonnie was the respect she had from fellow staff, members (especially the board of directors) and vendors. She rolled up her sleeves like everyone else. But she also displayed a willingness to change. As the show grew, she grew with it. That was important, because the show was and remains the largest revenue source for GCSAA.
“Bonnie was the point person when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. We thought we would move to Houston, but found out there was a competing event, so we had to move again to Atlanta,” Combest says. “She was key to the integration of the various partners to the Golf Industry Show. The detail involved was extraordinary, but she got the job done. Her hard work is paying dividends for the attendees today, even after she has been gone.”
Next month, the golf course industry will gather, just as it has every year since 1927, to engage in education, commerce and networking. The conference and show has provided a platform for success for superintendents, architects, educators and many others in the industry. And, since 1974, they can thank Bonnie Stephenson as an “unsung heroine” in supporting their achievements.