Changes in the Desert Wind

By | February 28th, 2017
The Phoenician, Scottsdale, Ariz.

The Phoenician, Scottsdale, Ariz.

Notable shifts in one of the industry’s key markets, Scottsdale, Ariz., reflect how club and resort properties must respond to new trends in golf, recreation and leisure.

Ever since the 1960s, when Scottsdale, Ariz., began to grow in step with the development of the greater Phoenix area, it has served as one of the best barometers of the health of the club and resort industry, and as a good place to gauge emerging trends for businesses centered on golf, recreation and leisure. As home to some of the most prominent gated communities built around golf, tennis, wellness and other aspects of club life, as well as destination resorts, high-end daily-fee golf clubs, and a majority of the 200-some courses in the Valley region, few markets cover the full spectrum of club and resort properties like Scottsdale.

SunRidge GC has developed an on-site clubfitting partnership with Hot Stix.

SunRidge GC has developed an on-site clubfitting partnership with Hot Stix.

Many of these properties, like Troon North and TPC Scottsdale among golf courses, and Desert Highlands, Desert Mountain, Gainey Ranch and DC Ranch among communities, have been able to maintain a fairly steady strategic course and stay on solid ground throughout the industry’s ups and downs. But others—including some that have well-known names and occupy some of Scottsdale’s most historic sites—have had to make major adjustments in what they offer, and to whom, to stay relevant and viable. Significant changes in some prominent Scottsdale properties’ ownership and management structures have also occurred.

On a recent tour of the Scottsdale area, C&RB visited several properties that have made notable shifts in their offers and strategies to try to gain a new edge in a still-crowded and highly competitive market. Their efforts and experiences can serve as instructive and suggestive lessons for the industry as a whole.

Smart Money
When Don Misheff told a business associate in 2010 that he and his wife Cindy were planning to buy SunRidge Canyon Golf Club in Fountain Hills, Ariz., the response he got was pretty blunt: “I believe that’s the first stupid thing I’ve ever heard you say, Don.”

But Misheff, a CPA and former Managing Partner with Ernst & Young’s Northeast Ohio practice who had served as Chairman of Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, was undaunted as he then let that associate pick his brain about every number behind the due diligence he had done on SunRidge—and his colleague finally acknowledged there might be some sense behind his intentions. In the years since, the Misheffs have retained that same faith in the business as they’ve forged ahead with improving the facility, adding amenities, and aggressively establishing and promoting SunRidge as a distinctive brand.

Trapeze lessons and “aqua mermaid” classes at The  Phoenician’s famous pool reflect how one of Scottsdale’s most well-known resort properties continues to look for new ways to attract both repeat and first-time customers.

Trapeze lessons and “aqua mermaid” classes at The Phoenician’s famous pool reflect how one of Scottsdale’s most well-known resort properties continues to look for new ways to attract both repeat and first-time customers.

Along the way, Misheff admits, he’s made some miscalculations and learned some things about what works—and what doesn’t—for today’s golf-oriented enterprises. But he’s confident he now has the right team, and the right mix of unique features and offerings, in place.

“We got behind at first with the wrong management approach,” Misheff says, acknowledging that initial arrangements with a management firm and an outsourced dining operation didn’t work out. “But with the changes we’ve made in the last couple of years, we’re really optimistic about the trends we’re seeing, and I’ve never felt better [about the acquisition]. We believe in the Scottsdale market and the economy here, and are confident we can keep improving and going after more market share.”

The initial attraction to SunRidge, a 20-year-old property, was drawn from a combination of “a bargain price and good bones,” he adds. “It was like a Ferrari that had been left untouched in your grandmother’s garage for 15 years.”

Once they got the keys, the Misheffs set out to rev up the property through a variety of steps that included:
• Golf course upgrades that included regrassing and expansion of all putting surfaces, bunker redesigns, and expanded landing areas. “Enhancements were done to make the golf course more forgiving for the average player, while maintaining the challenge and allure of SunRidge Canyon, including our stout finishing stretch, ‘the Wicked 6,’” says Head Golf Professional Wes Neal.
• More teeing area space for the practice facility and a lease arrangement for on-site clubfitting with Hot Stix Golf.
• A partnership with Troon to participate in programs such as Troon Rewards, Troon Golf Vacations, Troon Advantage, and Team Troon group/tournament opportunities.
• Golf- and dining-pass programs and introductory coupon offers, promoted through targeted media and direct mail, to build a quasi-membership component and attract locals who would otherwise not find their way to the course.
• Development of the “Wicked 6” Bar & Grill, under the direction of new Food & Beverage Manager/Executive Chef Diana Skidmore, as a go-to spot, with live music and regular themed events like clambakes and casino nights, for both golfers and locals.
• While the SunRidge team has made a conscious decision not to seek out weddings and other large catered events, it has an arrangement with the nearby CopperWynd Resort & Club, which does not have a golf course, to partner with that property for rehearsal dinner and bachelor party packages that include use of the SunRidge course and clubhouse.

Occupying the same property that was once a playground in Scottsdale’s earlier days for celebrities like John Wayne and Burt Reynolds, the new Mountain Shadows resort features The Short Course, an 18-hole, par-3 layout that also includes a bonus par-2 “wager hole.”

Occupying the same property that was once a playground in Scottsdale’s earlier days for celebrities like John Wayne and Burt Reynolds, the new Mountain Shadows resort features The Short Course, an 18-hole, par-3 layout that also includes a bonus par-2 “wager hole.”

“Weddings can be very distracting to golfers, and we don’t want them to get in the way of the total golf and dining experience that we see as our niche,” Don Misheff says. “Golf is our priority, but at the same time, we were surprised that dinner wasn’t offered here previously.

“Now we have outdoor seating and a fire pit with great views of the course, and a great place to hang out and enjoy music and good food like wood-fired pizza,” Misheff says. “That’s good for making sure the golf experience doesn’t end with the 18th hole—and at the same time, all that we have going on at [the bar and grill] attracts a lot of people from the area who would otherwise never even know we were here.”

Adds Kris Starr, SunRidge’s Director of Operations: “People are coming here in groups now, just to hear the music, eat and drink, use the pool table and hang out. [The bar and grill] has added a social-club focus that was lacking, both for our golfers and also new people from the community. That’s helped us sustain a whole new revenue stream, and we think we’re in position now for some really spectacular growth.”

Rising Again
After it was built in 1988, The Phoenician quickly ascended to recognition as one of Scottsdale’s signature resort destinations. Built literally into the side of Camelback Mountain, it soon became known worldwide for its famous pool lined with yellow cabanas, three unique nine-hole golf courses, and an overall sense of opulence and service indulgences that one reviewer said “would make even Donald Trump blush.”

Over the years, The Phoenician has also become known for how its ownership has frequently changed hands. Just months after its opening, its founder, Charles Keating, was at the center of the huge savings-and-loan scandal that eventually brought about government seizure of the property. In the years since, ownership has included well-known names like Starwood Hotels & Resorts, as well as head-scratchers like the Kuwaiti Investment Office. In 2015, the property was bought for $400 million by Host Hotel & Resorts.

Awe-inspiring views of the natural features that gave the property its name always loom large for members and guests at The Boulders Resort & Spa, whether they’re on the golf course or inside one of its recently renovated spaces.

Awe-inspiring views of the natural features that gave the property its name always loom large for members and guests at The Boulders Resort & Spa, whether they’re on the golf course or inside one of its recently renovated spaces.

Whenever the resort’s operation is revisited, as C&RB first did with its May 2007 cover story (“The Phoenician Rises to New Levels of Excellence”), new developments can be found that highlight how the property is adapting to changing times. At the end of 2016—amid reports that the resort had petitioned for a rezoning to allow hundreds of new homes to be built, using land that would reduce golf to 18 holes—the new ownership was unveiling its upgraded Canyon Suites “resort within a resort” concept. The new 62-room luxury hotel was designed for retreats during which guests will be encouraged, through interaction with personal concierges, to experience all of the recreational and leisure opportunities and experiences that are available on the property.

That now includes a chance to experience being a trapeze artist, through a new program instituted in partnership with the I.Fly school of Long Island, N.Y. A permanent park equipped with a full trapeze rig and netting has been set up on The Phoenician’s property, and participants ages four and up can now sign up for $70 sessions during which they are safely instructed on swinging on the seat, locking their legs to hang upside-down on the bar, and even executing a wrist-to-wrist catch with an instructor or other participant.

Group rates and special workshops are also available for the trapeze amenity, which The Phoenician will also actively market to its meeting-business clientele as an especially unique team-building and bonding opportunity. The resort is also holding trapeze shows that are open to the public, as part of a new extended outreach effort that includes street fairs and free guided nighttime tours of its 250-variety cactus garden. Other examples of popular new offers at the resort include “golf course safari” nature tours, and sunset helicopter rides.

Coming Full Circle
Like many cities that have seen their rapid growth lead to sprawling development that eventually hits the limit on how far out people are willing to go, the Scottsdale area is now seeing a repurposing of closer-in sites that were popular in its earlier days, but then fell out of favor. Notable examples of how such properties are now being used for ambitious new golf and resort projects are Mountain Shadows and the Andaz Scottsdale Resort & Spa.

We-Ko-Pa Golf Club’s Cholla course underwent a $1.8 million renovation this past summer, getting new greens, bunker sand and an irrigation system upgrade.

We-Ko-Pa Golf Club’s Cholla course underwent a $1.8 million renovation this past summer, getting new greens, bunker sand and an irrigation system upgrade.

Mountain Shadows, scheduled to open February 14 in the tony suburb of Paradise Valley, is not a new name on the Scottsdale scene. The original Mountain Shadows resort, occupying prime real estate in the shadow of Camelback Mountain, quickly gained fame as a playground for celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne and Burt Reynolds after it first opened in 1959. But the resort’s small size (68 acres) eventually paled in comparison to newer, larger and swankier properties that came on stream as the Scottsdale area expanded, and Marriott Hotels, which had bought the property from local developer Del Webb in 1981, decided to shutter it in 2004.

Mountain Shadows then stayed in mothballs for over 10 years before the property was acquired in 2015 by Westroc Hospitality. Two years and $100 million later, the new version has been built from the ground up, with 183 guest rooms, a presidential suite facing Camelback Mountain, a full-service restaurant, a lounge, two pools, a high-tech fitness facility, 37,500 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor event space, and on-site luxury resort condominiums and lofts available for purchase.

While the original Mountain Shadows golf course was still in place when the developers began the revival, it too has been given a completely new look, as The Short Course, an 18-hole, par-3 layout (see photo, pg. 18), that also includes a bonus par-2 “wager hole.” Architect Forrest Richardson redesigned the original Arthur Jack Snyder layout into holes that play from 60 to 200 yards and represent a 50% reduction in maintained turf area—an increasingly important consideration as water becomes an ever-more-precious commodity with the greater Phoenix area’s continued growth.

“It’s exciting for people to have a new [golf/resort] product in Paradise Valley, which was pretty much built out,” says Tom McCahan, who also moved closer to Scottsdale’s roots when he became Mountain Shadows’ new Director of Golf and Club Operations, after many years at The Boulders.

(In its March 2017 issue, C&RB will have more details on Mountain Shadows, as part of a feature on short courses.)

The Andaz Scottsdale Resort & Spa’s bungalow-style clustering of rooms and suites is intended to foster an immediate sense of community and encourage interaction among guests at the “desert oasis” on 23 acres in the shadow of Camelback Mountain.

The Andaz Scottsdale Resort & Spa’s bungalow-style clustering of rooms and suites is intended to foster an immediate sense of community and encourage interaction among guests at the “desert oasis” on 23 acres in the shadow of Camelback Mountain.

The Andaz Scottsdale Resort & Spa, a Hyatt property that opened at the end of 2016, does not have golf, but it is also hoping to lure visitors and locals through its proximity to Camelback and the heart of Scottsdale, along with special amenities. The property is billing itself as a “desert oasis” that offers unique dining concepts, multiple pools, a spa and fitness center, 20,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor meeting and event facilities and other features, all within just 23 acres.

The property’s real distinction comes from how its 201 guestrooms and suites are arranged in bungalow-style clusters of up to six units each, in a design intended to foster an immediate sense of community and encourage interaction among guests. The resort’s primary restaurant also pursues that purpose, with a “glass-box display kitchen” that features a plancha grill for displaying creations by Executive Chef Adam Sheff, a menu that promotes shareable plate options, and a lounge centered around an “open mixology hub.”

A “Bould” New Look
Outside of Camelback Mountain, The Boulders Resort & Spa has perhaps the most impressive physical features to be found in the Scottsdale area, with the property built around massive, natural rockpile formations that often defy gravity, and belief. The property recently completed a multi-million-dollar renovation designed to maximize the awe-struck sensation that comes from getting up-close and personal with The Boulders’ unique scenery—and nowhere has the change been more dramatic than in the resort’s new Discovery Lounge, where views of Sonoran Desert sunsets and the 12-million-year-old rock formations take center stage outside floor-to-ceiling windows.

“The changes are truly remarkable,” says General Manager Howard Harris about the results of the renovation. “The fresh look preserves our rich history by continuing to draw inspiration from our surrounding desert environs.”

Proper Support
Two highly rated daily-fee courses in the Scottsdale area—We-Ko-Pa Golf Club and Talking Stick Golf Club—are using new management approaches and affiliations to raise their profiles and bring new distinctions to their brands.

The Boulders Resort & Spa, Scottsdale, Ariz.

The Boulders Resort & Spa, Scottsdale, Ariz.

In 2013, We-Ko-Pa GC cut ties with a management company and is now owned and operated directly by the Yavapai Nation (the golf club, along with a casino, resort and conference center, is located on the Yavapai reservation in Fort McDowell). After shedding the extra layer, says Head Golf Professional Eric Dettman, “The tribe has been very supportive and super-generous in reinvesting in the property; they’re very proud when they see it receive national rankings.” We-Ko-Pa’s Cholla course underwent a $1.8 million renovation this past summer.

While Talking Stick GC has maintained its management relationship with Century Golf Partners and Arnold Palmer Golf Management, a new emphasis has been placed on “putting Palmer in the back seat,” reports General Manager Steve Leonard, PGA, and promoting the Talking Stick brand, culture and heritage (the golf club, and affiliated resort/casino, are owned jointly by the Pima and Maricopa tribes).

Talking Stick GC has also been successful in arranging joint promotions with a nearby Topgolf facility that opened in 2014 as the first location in Arizona for that fast-growing enterprise. “We don’t see [Topgolf] as a detraction from our business at all,” says Leonard. “You can see their facility from our course, so why not work with them to have people come from there to play a full round here, or vice versa?”

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