The Phoenician Rises to New Levels of Excellence

By | May 1st, 2007
The Phoenician

Year Established: 1988
Acres: 250
Guest Accommodations: 654
Meeting Space: 64,000 sq. ft.
Spa: 22,000 sq. ft.
Golf Holes: 27
Golf Rounds, 2006: 48,500 (18-hole equivalent)

With countless lists and ratings for the “Top 100” or “Best New” or “Five-Star” properties of the hospitality and golf worlds, it’s not all that difficult for any club or resort to accumulate accolades and awards.

But few have jumped onto as many lists as quickly and impressively as The Phoenician Resort, built literally into the side of Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale, Ariz. After opening with unparalled opulence in 1988, The Phoenician skyrocketed to the top of just about every recognized ranking of the best hotels, golf courses, restaurants, spas, meeting destinations and resort properties.

Of course, The Phoenician also soon gained recognition of quite a different sort just months after it opened, when its founder, Charles Keating, was at the center of the huge savings and loan scandal that eventually brought about government seizure of the property. A series of ownership changes ensued that at one point saw the Phoenician fall into the hands of the Kuwaiti Investment Office (it is now owned and managed by Starwood Hotels &Resorts, as part of its Luxury Collection division).

Throughout the turmoil, though, the resort kept its lofty rankings and retained the physical attributes, and reputation for lavish service, that led one reviewer to call it “a hotel that would make even Donald Trump blush,” and another to say it “takes luxury to cartoonlike proportions.”

All of which makes a new award, given to The Phoenician last year, stand out as perhaps the most surprising, and significant, in its history: Troon Golf, contracted by Starwood to manage the resort’s golf operations, named it the “most improved facility” among the 185 properties in Troon’s portfolio.

Was this proof that all of the previous accolades for The Phoenician were bogus, and ignored a slew of underlying problems? Hardly. Rather, it highlighted the need, especially in today’s highly competitive environment, to continually scrutinize every aspect of even the most top-shelf of operations. Because even at the height of luxury, things can always stand a little bit polish.

The Phoenician has been known from day one for its signature yellow cabanas a

Director of Golf Kevin Betts has been Troon’s point person for polishing an already top-shelf operation.

The Tasks at Hand
Kevin Betts and Brian Hampson weren’t too concerned with any of The Phoenician’s rankings, awards or ties to Charles Keating when Troon sent them to the property within two months of each other—Betts as Head Golf Professional in November 2004, and Hampson as Golf Course Superintendent the following January.

Instead, their focus was squarely on the fact that Starwood had soured on its previous approach to managing The Phoenician’s three nine-hole golf courses, pro shop and other golf-related activities, and was looking to Troon to find ways to do it all better.

After about six months of assessing the situation, reports Betts, it was clear that while golf-related revenues and profits at the Phoenician were solid, there was potential to improve both significantly, primarily through simultaneous attention to two main areas: guest satisfaction and associate satisfaction. And of these two, the biggest gains were projected from the employee side.

“Staff morale was the number-one thing we saw we needed to address,” says Betts, who was promoted to his current position, Director of Golf, in early 2005. “This is a big place with a lot of demands and a lot of expectations, and it’s easy for people to get frustrated if they don’t know exactly what to do, or aren’t properly supported.

Golf Course Superintendent Brian Hampson improved consistency through by-the-book management.

“We needed to get a lot more diligent about demonstrating how each person’s role is valued,” he adds. “A big part of that was backing it up with real incentives, such as payments for safety performance.”

Much of the added support structure was provided by drawing on resources available through Troon. For example, says Hampson, relying on Troon’s 50-page book of golf course maintenance standards made a huge difference in helping to bring about much greater consistency for The Phoenician’s three courses, which—as their names (Desert, Oasis and Canyon) attest—all have very different profiles.

“It was primarily a matter of getting organized, setting up detailed schedules, and doing a better job of forecasting and communicating,”Hampson says. “All golf courses are prone to having off days, but when you have documentation to help guide you, such as the Troon standards provide for everything from cups to flags to fertilizing, it can really help smooth out the cycles.”
The Phoenician’s golf management recognized there was plenty of value to be drawn from the other major entity now involved with running the property, too. “If you’ve never been around a five-diamond property but think you have an idea of [its] operating and service standards, you’ll soon find it doesn’t compare to anything you’ve experienced,” says Betts.
“The Starwood guest training program is unbelievable, so we made sure we sent everyone through it.”

Payoffs from efforts like these quickly showed up throughout The Phoenician’s golf ledger. “Calendar year 2006 was extremely good,” says Betts. “We kept greens fees flat, but still saw a 9.2 percent increase in golf revenues and a 13.5 percent increase in operating profit. Retail was up 8.75 perc

New Director of Instruction Michael Lamanna will help the golf side keep finding ways to grow and improve.

ent and rounds played went up 13 percent [to an 18-hole equivalent of 48,500], largely from a nice [20 percent] jump in group rounds.”

Even with the bars now raised to those heights, don’t discount the chances of another “most improved” award for 2007, with new momentum being drawn this year from last December’s arrival of a new Director of Instruction, Michael Lamanna.

“We just had [assistant golf pros] handle instruction before,” says Betts. “Michael’s presence is already giving our Golf Academy much more credibility and activity, especially for our Juniors program and among novice golfers who come here for a meeting and then decide it’s also the perfect opportunity to get a little more serious about the game.”

More Healthy Trends
While Troon tunes The Phoenician’s golf side, big strides are also being made in the other parts of the resort’s operations that are directly under Starwood’s watch.

Spa Director Sheryl McCor-mick may soon have a big new place to call home.

In F&B, Executive Chef Paul Carter—now in his third year on property after 14 years with Ritz-Carlton—continues to expand a 185-person culinary operation that has already grown to encompass 11 kitchens; comes with a $10 million annual “grocery bill” (as Carter describes it); has a showcase restaurant (The Terrace) now doing $9 million in annual revenues (after a 22 percent increase in 2006); and overall, brings in more revenue than the resort takes in from its rooms (which aren’t exactly priced on the Motel 6 scale).

Carter’s operation is so expansive, in fact, he didn’t bat an eye when recently asked to provide several unique recipes for a manufacturer’s special event that would all share a common ingredient: mustard (click to view recipe ). “We buy mustard in bulk and have endless recipes using it—and the same goes for pretty much any other ingredient,” Carter says.
Another long-recognized cornerstone of The Phoenician, its Centre for Well-Being spa, could very well be the next feature of the resort that contends for a dramatic improvement award. According to Spa Director Sheryl McCormick, the next “pet project” of ownership is close to coming off the drawing board:an entirely new spa/fitness/wellness facility that would double the Centre’s current 22,000 square feet.

“In the last five years, we’ve seen just about every other major resort build a new spa,” says McCormick, who became Spa Director last year but has worked at The Phoenician since 1992. “I’ve been here long enough to know that whenever it looks like others might be gaining the lead, we won’t let it stay that way for long.”


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