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May 21, 2018 EXECUTIVE PROFILE

Grube sets stage for Travelers Championship success

HBJ Photo | John Stearns Nathan Grube stands by pin flags signed by past Travelers Championship winners, including Ken Duke and Jordan Spieth.

Travelers Championship Tournament Director Nathan Grube could not have ordered better drama than what occurred last year when Jordan Spieth rolled in a sand shot on the first playoff hole to win in electrifying fashion.

Like the weather, that kind of finish is out of Grube's control. But elements he can manage have helped earn the tournament high marks, including being named 2017 “Tournament of the Year” by the PGA Tour, continuing momentum propelling the annual event toward its next showing June 18-24 at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell. Spieth and other marquee golfers are returning, sponsors are clamoring to do more and revenues are trending up.

“We talk about setting the stage,” Grube said of his staff, which is complemented by about 4,000 volunteers.

“We're going to make sure we've done everything to get the fans out here, the crowds, the golf course, the food and beverage experience, the families — we're going to build the best-quality event that we can possibly build,” he said. “Whatever the players do on that stage, we'll leave it to them, but we're going to eliminate every possible reason for them not to come.”

Grube, 43, once aspired to play on the PGA Tour stage after college, then discovered his game didn't measure up to the top talent he saw on mini-tour events, the golf minor leagues of sorts.

“I was like, 'OK, you know what, I don't have it,' and I was OK with it,” Grube said, noting his golf now is mostly with clients and family.

He and his wife, Carmen, have a son, 13, and daughter, 10.

Understanding he wouldn't make his living playing golf, he sought to make it in the business of golf, earning his PGA credentials in a two-year program.

“It's technically a golf professional, not a professional golfer,” Grube said from the tournament's 11th-floor office in downtown Hartford's State House Square, where a stand-up desk is elevated for his 6-2 frame. The program covers areas like teaching, merchandising, food and beverage, golf shop operations, working with members, etc.

The road led him to working at Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama where, upon seeing a sports event management company run a tournament, he was intrigued. Bruno Event Team set up hospitality structures, coordinated media and advertising, and more — the kind of work Grube's staff does today.

“I was just fascinated with the whole set-up,” he said, recollecting, “ 'This feels like a traveling circus. Who coordinates all this?' ”

He sought work with Bruno, landed a job, helped with its myriad sporting events, from golf to motorsports, before getting the opportunity to run the Southern Farm Bureau Classic PGA Tour event for Bruno in Jackson, Miss. It set the stage for his 2005 hiring in Connecticut for what's now the Travelers.

But shortly after relocating, then-title sponsor Buick announced it wasn't returning after 2006, temporarily casting the tournament's future in doubt.

“The tournament literally went away for awhile,” Grube said.

He and the organizing board considered an LPGA or senior event, but when 84 Lumber dropped its sponsorship of a PGA tournament in Pennsylvania, a date opened on the PGA's calendar and Travelers Cos., already a lower-level sponsor in Hartford, took the title reins in 2007. Travelers signed a 10-year extension in 2014.

Grube and his 11 year-round staff know how important this event is to Connecticut since it teed off in 1952 as the Insurance City Open.

“I think all of us on our team feel an immense amount of responsibility,” he said of their wanting to continue to improve it.

Tournament tweaks

Grube and his team work closely with Travelers, meeting each Friday at Travelers with a tournament-focused team there of at least another dozen. Then Grube's staff returns to work managing the details of pulling off an event with a budget of about $16 million, $7 million of that for the purse.

Grube is the face of the tournament with players, sponsors and the community, working closely with Andy Bessette, Travelers' executive vice president and chief administrative officer.

“When we go out on tour to talk to players, even to talk to sponsors, Andy and I will be together,” Grube said. “It is a very strong combination to have your title sponsor and then the event manager together.”

Noticeable tournament changes this year, Grube said, include a new food and beverage arrangement and menus with Levy Golf, which provides similar services for major events that include the Ryder Cup. Fans will enter structures, grab what they want and pay as they leave, different than before when fans lined up at counters, Grube said. Familiar food providers like Bear's remain.

The event's tent provider also changed, so hospitality structures will look different and bleacher seats have been replaced with seat-backs.

Three additional structures in good viewing areas are planned for fans with general admission tickets to visit and cool off, Grube said. There are now four such facilities, all free, for ticket-holders.

“If you have a general admission ticket this year, you're going to be able to feel like you're a VIP,” he said.

In the course's “fan zone,” additions include free Wi-Fi, charging tables for fans' devices, air-conditioned cooling benches and additional shade umbrellas.

Tournament revenues are getting a charge, too, pacing ahead of a strong 2017, when revenue ran 20-plus percent ahead of 2016.

“I would have been thrilled if we would have kept at pace at what we did last year,” Grube said.

Barring unforeseen hiccups, the tournament should be able to give more to charity than the $1.72 million it distributed to 165 groups last year, he said of the tournament's other important winners.

Check out a video clip of Nathan Grube's interview at hartfordbusiness.com.

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