The Phoenix-Scottsdale area is arguably the high-end resort capital of the West. Because of its growing popularity, the area's resorts and hotels are focusing more and more on increasing meeting space to accommodate corporate conferences/golf outings.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Want buzz? Bring in a celebrity chef or two, makeover your rooms with huge, flat screen high-definition TVs and mount a slick PR campaign. Want revenue? Pump up your meeting space.
The top resorts in Phoenix-Scottsdale - arguably the high-end resort capital of the West - are doing both as the region engages in something of a plush-pillows arms race. Of course, the real battle may be in finding more space for those large business groups that often drive a hotel's bottom line.
Everyone hears about the new restaurants and luxury goodies. Fairmont Scottsdale Princess opened a Michael Mina restaurant (Bourbon Steak) this high season. The Phoenician is shutting down special-occasion valley-institution Mary Elaine's (to many longtime residents' and visitors' horror) and replacing it with a brand new offering from mega chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, best known for his signature restaurant in one of New York's Trump Towers. The Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa recently completely redid both its bar and restaurant, bringing in a power feel with special cigar and brandy dinners. Camelback Inn is booting its Chaparral Supper Club for BLT Steak.
All these are five-star resorts with big-time reputations, in many ways, the engines in the area's sophisticated fine-living tourist pull.
"Everyone I know wants to talk about the restaurants," frequent visitor Sarah Holderman said. "It's becoming the new Las Vegas with all these famous chefs."
What bubbles beneath the restaurant and perks surge is the rush to expand meeting space, though. The JW Marriott Desert Ridge recently added a 25,000-square-foot ballroom on top of its already mammoth meeting space. The priority project at Fairmont Scottsdale Princess involves building more meeting space.
It's not nearly as glamorous as a celebrity chef. But it's often much more impactful on the profit margins. Many of Phoenix-Scottsdale's upper-echelon resorts get two thirds of their business from corporate groups.
Go to a place like Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort and Spa at Gainey Ranch in the middle of the week, see all the name tags dangling from guys in khakis, and you'd think it's even more than that.
"You're seeing more and more that the corporate groups want everything in one place," Ben Fusco, Hilton Resorts Southwest area vice president, said. "They want the wonderful restaurant and the fantastic pool and the great golf all a short walk from their rooms. That's on top of the meeting spaces where they can hold all of their functions, including often a very high end private dinner.
"If a company's going to reward its top performers with a getaway for example, they want to know that they're going to have everything they need in that resort, all handled by the same staff - or staffs that work very well together."
That's one of reasons, Fusco said, that Hilton Hotels is getting to the business of operating and often owning the golf courses at its resorts.
"If that corporate group is treated fantastically by everyone in the resort, but then doesn't get that same personal attention at the golf course for their big event, their whole experience and what they think of your resort can be ruined," Fusco said. "We don't want to leave that golf experience to chance.
"That's just not good business."
And in the Valley of the Sun, resort golf often revolves around big business. It doesn't matter how green your fairways are or how nice and fast those greens roll without presentation and banquet areas to match.
The Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa - which is now owned by Hilton under its luxury collection - started dramatically increasing its meeting space several years ago. In 2002, it opened up the 15,159-square-foot McArthur Room. The next year, it debuted the Frank Lloyd Wright ballroom at 24,576 square feet. There's also a 30,000-square-foot conference center.
What really helps set the Biltmore apart, though, is the history behind many of its meeting areas. There are smaller rooms with famous murals or gold ceilings, big areas that used to serve as the hotel's formal dinning room, still complete with the raised mini stage area where the band hired for the evening would waft notes down at guests dressed in formal evening wear (tuxedos for men, elaborate gowns for women). This used to be a spot with the feel of the dinner party Leo DiCaprio crashed in the "Titanic."
Now the setting can make that big business idea seem a little more inspirational or that reward retreat a little more special. At least, that's the hope.
Arizona's top resorts keep getting bigger in large part because meeting space keeps getting added. It's now the norm to have a completely separate building, or three, to give big business groups their own separate space.
You don't want those regular vacationers in shorts and flip flops sauntering by as you plead with your sales force to push harder, after all.
The cool, cutting-edge restaurants and a wowing golf course fit right in with the business plan, though.
"The business groups don't want some anonymous hotel food they could find anywhere in the country," Fusco said. "They want something unique, something that they're going to remember."
In other words, they want buzz. And you thought those celebrity chefs were only geared to those relaxing vacationers?
April 14, 2008