Corporations Take a Low-Key Approach to Event Sponsorship

Leslie Wayne|The New York Times

Even in these tough times, major corporations are spending to entertain valued clients at golf tournaments and exclusive receptions.

But where these companies once splashed their names and logos on every polo shirt and tote bag in sight, they are now going to extraordinary lengths not to be noticed. Take the U.S. Open golf tournament at Bethpage Black, where the nation’s biggest banks held parties this summer at the Heritage Club, an exclusive corporate hospitality center just off the 18th hole of the Long Island club. Goldman Sachs , Bank of America , Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley all brought clients to watch the tournament and dine at a buffet and open bar.

But an observer would never have known the banks were there.

Guests of the banks sat at tables, each costing $50,000, with no indication of who was paying for them. Nor were the bank’s names on any of the other displays of corporate sponsors. As a group, the banks paid $750,000 — Goldman had two tables at $100,000; Bank of America and its Merrill subsidiary took eight tables at a cost of $400,000; and Morgan Stanley shelled out $250,000.

“Clearly, they did not want to be identified,” said one volunteer at the Heritage Club, who also declined to be identified because he was not authorized to talk publicly for the club. “I thought maybe I’d just put a generic ‘TARP Recipient’ sign at the center of each table.”

Those who plan corporate events call the new practice “stealth spending.” In some cases, a corporate gathering is so well disguised that the event planners may not even know whose event they are working on. The subdued approach — no greeters at airports with corporate signs, no large banners — stems from worries that anything too lavish will suggest the companies are out of touch with the painful financial circumstances of many Americans. But it does not mean the parties have stopped.

The biggest trend “is having an event, but no one knowing whose it is,” said David Beahm, a Manhattan event planner.

There is more than just an invisible hand of the market at work. The banks in particular are worried about attracting more scrutiny and criticism from government officials and taxpayers after receiving financial assistance through the government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program, among others. They saw the public disgust over the A.I.G. corporate retreats and the way the auto executives were chided for taking their corporate jets to Washington. And they have heard plenty about Wall Street bonuses.

More recently, Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, introduced legislation to ban banks receiving the relief money from being corporate sponsors. While that bill has been buried in a blizzard of other legislation, it touched a nerve among financial institutions still smarting from previous Congressional tongue-lashings.

So this year, Bank of America put its traveling hospitality tent called “Hogan’s Alley” in mothballs. The luxury tent is described as “a step back in time to the golden era of golf” in the 1950s with “hardwood panel interior walls, vintage leather couches, help desk and concierge services and a museumlike collection of historical P.G.A. Tour mementos.” Since 2003, it has been used by tens of thousands of guests of the bank.

Joseph L. Goode, a spokesman for Bank of America, said that the bank decided to operate almost anonymously at the U.S. Open because it was sharing a suite with other companies, rather than pitching a tent of its own.

“Symbolism matters,” Mr. Goode said, adding that the bank’s decision not to promote its brand at the tournament was deliberate. “We are right-sizing our hospitality for the current environment and tone and mood of the country, with fewer bells and whistles.”

Goldman and Morgan Stanley did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Even entire conferences now lack the name of the company sponsoring them — especially if they are being run by a financial services company, now in the cross hairs, or a pharmaceutical company, in the spotlight because of health care reform. Typical is a large banner at a conference saying “Reaching Forward 2009,” with the company’s name in fine print, if at all.

Corporations that write big checks to support cultural events want to make sure that their money is not being used in a showy way.

“The chief executive does not want to walk into an event and be embarrassed,” Mr. Beahm, the event planner, said.

At a recent fund-raiser at the Museum of Modern Art, corporations were pleased to see a chandelier made out of recycled soda bottles and tablecloths created from recycled potato chip bags, according to Matthew David Hopkins, who heads 360 Design Events Ltd. in New York.

“It’s not that corporations don’t have the money,” said James Etkin, president of ME Productions, an event planning company in Miami. “They don’t want to show they have the money. There’s a difference.”

In that vein, out go the “gobos,” or projected patterns of lights with the company’s name. No more branded pillows and mugs.

Mr. Etkin said that a high-level corporate officer recently met his truck of supplies as it pulled up to an event — something that had never happened before. “He was looking as we brought things off the truck and was rejecting things as they came off — saying this is too high or elegant and rich.”