After more than a decade during which no major resorts were constructed in the Phoenix area, Arizona's capital city has seen a surge of such development. Three resorts with a total of 2,200 guest rooms opened within a month of each other in late 2002.
Each of these new properties has distinguishing features. The Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa takes advantage of its location on the Gila River Indian Reservation and capitalizes on its Native American connection. The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa, in Scottsdale, rises to an atypical height of 11 stories to satisfy its developer's requirement for "a grand hotel rather than a low-rise resort." And the Marriott Desert Ridge Resort and Spa, in Phoenix, boasts Arizona's biggest ballroom (its 33,000 sf and accompanying 17,500 sf foyer can easily handle the exhibit portion of a large conference).
One reason for the demand for new resorts in Phoenix is that the line between business and leisure is blurring for business travelers, says Howard Wolff, SVP of Honolulu-based architect Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo (WATG). In a recent survey of 5,000 business executives, 82% said that they end up working during their vacations. Forty percent of all business travelers say they add an overnight weekend stay when they attend a business function. To accommodate these needs, resorts are adding business amenities like meeting rooms, conference facilities, and wireless Internet access.
Members of the Pima and Maricopa tribes wanted the design of the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass to reflect their cultural heritage, so that it could be communicated to resort guests, according to WATG's Cynthia Jacobs, project manager on the job. "We took that as a theme and started to design the resort around those kinds of ideas and images," she says.
The project was managed by a Native Owner Team that met weekly, says Dale Gutenson, project manager and general manager for Wild Horse Pass Development Authority. Native experts reviewed all decisions related to the community's culture.
This attention to detail led to the celebration of tribal art forms in the resort's rooms, which are arranged in two wings. The Pima are famous for their baskets, which use natural materials, such as willow shoots and cattails. Baskets usually have a black center, with black and white designs. Design motifs on headboards, tiles, and other items in the Pima rooms reflect these patterns. The Maricopa are known for their red clay pottery, and the rooms in the Maricopa Wing showcase these designs.
Beneath the dome of the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass lobby are 10 panels depicting various aspects of Gila River Indian Community culture. The murals are done in acrylic on white muslin.
Similarly, the project pays homage to the Gila River, which was historically the basis of the community's livelihood. For hundreds of years the river sustained the tribes' agriculture, wildlife, food, and recreational needs. Early in the 20th century, as Arizona's population grew, the river was diverted upstream. Now it flows through the reservation only when floods occur.
Using hundreds of photos of landscape and vegetation along the existing Gila to the north, the developers recreated the ancient river as a feature of the resort. In fact, two man-made rivers were created — a two-mile-long "Resort River" that flows from the resort entrance around the property, and a half-mile-long river, up to 14 feet deep, linking the resort and a casino, which opened in 1997.
Three eight-passenger craft boats powered by electric motors and a gasoline-powered pontoon boat that seats 17 transport guests along the service river.
The tribes originally considered making gaming the major draw for the resort. But the existence of the adjacent casino, and uncertainty about possible changes in Arizona's gaming regulations (at the time, the state had a 10-year limit on gaming pacts — a period that has since been extended to 22 years) seemed to make a casino-focused resort a risky proposition. "Marching orders from Day One were that the resort would have to be successful on its own," Gutenson says.
Further nurturing of the environment was achieved by moving about two million cubic yards of soil, in order to elevate the resort's main entryway about 20 feet above the flat natural grade. Entry to the Wild Horse Pass is at the third level, affording visitors a view to the Estrella Mountains in the distance, and, occasionally, a glimpse of the resort's namesake wild horses.
For similar reasons, the center section of the Westin Kierland makes the owner's desired visual statement before transitioning to its lower elements. This massing was inspired by the profile of nearby mountains, according to Bob Glazier, a principal with resort architect Hill Glazier Architects, Palo Alto, Calif.
Rising to a height of 120 feet, the Westin Kierland Resort & Spa gains a visibility not shared by its low-rise competitors. The exterior design replicates the striations of rock in the Grand Canyon.
Designers of the new generation of conference hotels must make their hotels comfortable not only for tourists but also for business groups meeting at the facility, says Mark Hornberger, a principal with San Francisco-based Hornberger + Worstell, which designed the Marriott Desert Ridge.
Outdoor areas are increasingly being programmed into resorts. "People prefer to be outdoors, but they don't want to be uncomfortable," says Raj Chandnani, manager of advisory services with WATG. Outdoor areas can be used for coffee breaks, meals, or other respites from indoor meetings. As interest in tennis has waned, some resorts are even converting their old courts into al fresco event spaces, using tents as shelter, he says.
"People coming from colder climates in the winter really want to be outside," says Glazier. That's why the Westin Kierland has both roofed and open outdoor meeting space. Design considerations for these outdoor spaces range from electrical distribution to providing convenient access to the kitchen.
Resort facilities need multiple courtyards, wings, and indoor and outdoor meeting areas to allow groups to split up into smaller units without bumping into each other, says Hornberger. Desert Ridge's layout also allows guests to move comfortably in a "meet-and-eat" configuration, he says.
Hornberger cites Desert Ridge's "seamless and invisible service connection," an underground corridor that runs more than 2,000 feet from the golf clubhouse, passing through the resort and continuing to the spa. It keeps service cart and guest traffic on separate paths.
In a further blurring of the line between business and pleasure travel, spas have become de rigueur at resorts. "Spas were once an amenity, but are now a necessity," says WATG's Wolff. "They're part of the price of entry for a four- or five-star property." He says the spa market is growing at a rate of 20% a year.
WATG's Chandnani notes the revenue-producing potential of the spa. Patrons are likely to sign up for more than a single treatment, turning their visit into a full-day experience. Some resorts are marketing spas to men by using terms like "sports pedicure" and "sports massage."