Golf and spa resorts, virtually banned as public relations anathema during the “AIG effect” era, are back with a vengeance. Their unique benefits, especially for incentive travel programs, far outweigh their risk in terms of perception. And in fact, the all-important perception today is that companies are once again pampering their most important people with high-profile recognition and rewards.
“Golf and spa resorts are an important part of our property mix, because especially for our incentive programs, we try to create a unique, one-of-a-kind experience that our qualifiers could not really produce on their own,” says Dan Young, CMP, director of event planning and recognition at Minneapolis-based Thrivent Financial. “And in a way that can be harder at a golf and spa resort, because every guest there is experiencing those same things just because they’re there. So we have to make sure to put elements into the program that are unique and exciting.”
“Golf and spa resorts are an important part of our property mix, because especially for our incentive programs, we try to create a unique, one-of-a-kind experience that our qualifiers could not really produce on their own.” — Dan Young
For example, Young says, the company used The Fairmont Tremblant in Quebec, Canada, for an incentive group. “But we did it during the Tremblant International Blues Festival, which is a world-famous music event. And it was just an incredible time to be there. We bought out the entire hotel.”
Fairmont Tremblant resort is nestled in the heart of a European-style village at the foot of the legendary Mont Tremblant.
“Before we went, people had no idea what we were getting into,” Young says. “But after they experienced something that special, during an amazing musical event, they felt it was the best incentive conference they’d ever been to.”
Last year, Thrivent used The Phoenician in Scottsdale, Arizona, for two programs. “Those were events that were definitely focused on golf and spa amenities,” says Young, who plans about two dozen meetings a year, including four major incentive programs. “But our goal is to mix golf and spa resorts with urban resorts like the Four Seasons Sydney in Australia. We don’t go to a golf and spa resort every year, because we like to have variety in our programs. But when we do go to a golf and spa resort, they are incredibly popular. And that’s why I’d estimate that we use them about 50 percent of the time for our various conferences and incentive programs.”
Young, like many planners, often uses fabled properties such as The Broadmoor in Colorado or The Greenbrier in West Virginia to create the biggest possible buzz for the trip from day one. “Resorts like The Broadmoor and The Greenbrier are places that people get really excited about,” he says. “Places like that automatically get people excited as soon as they hear about the trip because everybody has heard of them and knows their tremendous reputations. They want to go just based on those reputations. But sometimes we’ll go to equally fantastic places, like The Fairmont Tremblant, that most people have never heard of.”
And, Young says, there are other truly fantastic but little-known golf and spa resorts, such as the Grand Del Mar Resort in San Diego, that he has used with great success. “That’s just an amazing property,” Young says. “But until we announced it, most of our people had never heard anything about it.”
Not only is there a long list of good options for golf and spa resorts throughout the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean, but there is a range of choices in terms of size and scope that means every planner can find a property that fits his or her group, says Jennifer Meyer, meeting planner at RWAM Insurance Administrators Inc. in London, Ontario, Canada. She plans four or five incentive programs each year and often uses golf and spa resorts in the U.S.
Her different programs cater to both internal salespeople and outside brokers. Golf and spa resorts are particularly important to the third-party programs. “That’s because independent brokers can take their business anywhere they want to,” Meyer says, “so we want to treat them well to keep them loyal.”
Partially for that reason and partially to consistently create a wow factor with her selection of properties, a key element of RWAM’s incentive programs is tradition. And part of that tradition translates to…pampering attendees in a way that creates lasting memories. “A lot of our brokers were part of our very first trip 25 years ago,” Meyer says. “And they have been on every one since then. And that’s important to us because it’s a way to build and maintain long-term relationships.”
Her current list of go-to proper ties include FireSky Resort & Spa, a Kimpton hotel in Scottsdale. She likes FireSky so much that she has used it for three programs for about 100 attendees.
The cozy 204-room hotel promotes rejuvenation, but is also near historic Old Town Scottsdale, as well as dining and art galleries. FireSky’s signature restaurant is Taggia, which serves coastal Italian food and features an outdoor patio under the Sonoran desert sky.
“One of the things we like best about FireSky is its size,” Meyer says. “It’s a good fit for our groups. We don’t really like (huge) properties where everyone is going to get lost. The whole point of our programs is to build relationships and have a shared experience. But FireSky is also just a really nice property, and everyone on the staff is very friendly. We also get very good value there for the money we spend. And I also just love Scottsdale.”
Another popular golf resort in Arizona The Westin La Paloma Golf Resort & Spa in Tucson recently rejuvenated the bunkers and greens on the award-winning Jack Nicklaus Signature course. To coincide with the desert’s natural beauty, the 250-acre property is transforming a number of outdoor walkways into an Art Walk with rotating works of sellable art consisting of metal, steel, stone and glass from locally run Metal Arts Village. The iconic resort also is in the process of converting its cold plunge pool into a therapeutic mineral “bath” with imported salt from the Dead Sea.
The resort partnered with the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum to create a Sonoran Desert Walkway, which showcases the exotic plants and native animals of the Sonoran Desert including flowering cacti, century-old Palo Verde, succulents and yucca.
Also, the resort’s Running Concierge leads beginning to intermediate morning runs around the desert oasis while providing advice on afternoon intermediate routes through neighboring Sabino Canyon.
There is an impressive 64,000 sf of indoor function space featuring one of the largest ballrooms in the state, the Arizona Ballroom, outdoor function space including an imaginative patio, covered deck and other options, state-of-the-art telecommunications, 25 separate meeting rooms, and four certified Conference Meeting Planners on staff.
Another of Meyer’s favorite properties is the Mokara Hotel & Spa in San Antonio, Texas, which is part of the Omni Hotels & Resorts family. She used the intimate 99-room resort for the first time last year.
“I went on a site visit and just fell in love with the property and the town of San Antonio,” Meyer says. “Again, one reason I liked it is that it’s a good fit for the size of our program. And you can walk along River Walk in downtown San Antonio. It’s also convenient to the airport, so that makes it easy for our attendees.”
Situated along a quiet stretch of River Walk, Mokara Hotel & Spa is three blocks from the historic Alamo and six blocks from the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. Within one mile of the luxury boutique hotel are the King William Historic District and the Alamodome.
Mokara’s ambience is focused on relaxation. Its lobby features a limestone fireplace and luxurious leather seating. A candlelit foyer leads to a 17,000-sf spa with 19 private treatment rooms. Signature treatments include Spanish Rosemary massage, Lime Blossom Scalp and Body Treatment and Purple Sage Salt Glow. Adjacent to a 24-hour fitness center is a Mind & Body Center, which offers complimentary weekend yoga classes. The hotel’s flagship restaurant, Ostra, serves innovatively prepared sustainable seafood complemented by an extensive wine list, an oyster bar and a dining terrace along the River Walk.
Another of Meyer’s most successful resort choices is Grotto Bay Beach Resort in Bermuda.
Located just one mile from Bermuda International Airport, the 201-room property is located near many of Bermuda’s most popular attractions, including Crystal Caves; Devil’s Hole Aquarium; the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo; Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute; and the historic town of St. George.
The laidback resort features 21 acres of manicured lawns and brilliantly hued flower gardens, as well as forest. Along the resort’s shoreline, two theatrically lighted limestone caves provide a dramatic alternative to swimming in the ocean. Guests also can enjoy the seclusion of the garden’s spa tub. A beautiful pink-sand beach stretches along the calm waters of Grotto Bay.
Accommodations are in a trio of 11-story lodges painted in pastel Caribbean colors that complement white tile floors. All rooms have ocean views.
“We had done a program at Grotto Bay about 20 years ago, long before I ever started with the company, so our CEO had already been there and liked it,” Meyer says. “He wanted to go back. It’s very close to the airport and has a very nice beach. And once again, it’s just a property that is ideal for our group size. Another thing that was nice is that the manager has been there for something like 40 years, and he remembered our group from 20 years ago. That was very nice.”
Terry O’Neill, director of development at Phoenix-based NewGen Worldwide, which matches foreign investors to U.S. development projects such as hotels and hospitals, has used the AAA Four Diamond Talking Stick Resort in nearby Scottsdale for the last two years for one of his company’s major conferences, the Green Card Fund Annual Investment Summit, which includes about 150 participants such as current investors, project developers and local partners.
A Native American-owned property located in the sprawling Talking Stick Cultural and Entertainment Destination on the Salt River-Pima Maricopa Indian Reservation, the 496-room Talking Stick Resort features The Spa at Talking Stick and is adjacent to the Talking Stick Golf Club.
Dining options include the upscale flagship Orange Sky Restaurant for aged beef and fresh seafood and the casual Blue Coyote Cafe for distinctive American cuisine.
Because a number of the investment summit’s attendees at the last two conferences came from China, O’Neill paid careful attention to a cultural tradition. Chinese meeting attendees want to relax and get to know their hosts and other attendees socially for a couple of days before getting down to business.
Talking Stick Resort provides the perfect environment for meeting that requirement, O’Neill says. “So the first two days of the conferences were devoted to getting to know the resort and fellow participants. Attendees went to the spa. Others went shopping. But everybody just relaxed and had a good time, which set the tone for the conference.”
Many of the attendees chose a golf outing, and foursomes were formed with attendees matched with company leaders.
Given the many options O’Neill had for a golf and spa resort in the Southwest, why Talking Stick?
“We knew we wanted a high-end resort that had a casino,” O’Neill says. “We wanted attendees to have a high-quality experience. We also loved the golf courses at Talking Stick. But the thing that made the first meeting so successful and the reason we went back last year is because of the level of the service we got. The staff was just excellent in every respect.”
Exceptional service is a trademark characteristic of Native American-owned casino resorts across the country, O’Neill notes.
The casino and spa at Talking Stick were especially popular amenities.
“Our attendees like a luxury experience,” O’Neill says. “They like to be pampered. So having a property where we had a quality golf course and a quality spa, as well as quality food and beverage and a great casino, meant we had the complete package. And it was also important to us that people didn’t have to leave the Talking Stick property for anything. Everything they wanted was right there.”
Because the conference represented the first time many of the attendees had visited the U.S., O’Neill also wanted them to get what he calls “a taste of Arizona.” As a result, he worked with Talking Stick’s staff to arrange a performance of Native American music and dance. “That was a very special experience,” O’Neill says. “Our attendees really got a sense of what Arizona is all about culturally and historically.”
Ryan Bodine, NewGen Worldwide’s business development manager and the hands-on coordinator of the conferences, had extremely high praise for the service Talking Stick delivered. “The entire staff did a great job for us,” Bodine says. “And that’s especially true of Debra Mizrahi, who is the catering manager and our group coordinator. We had early mornings and late nights, and Debra was there for everything the entire time. She made sure that everything we needed was provided for our guests. She’s really the reason we like Talking Stick so much and want to keep coming back.”
Due to the exceptional experiences they and their attendees had there over the last two years, O’Neill and Bodine say they are certain NewGen Worldwide will go back to Talking Stick in the future.
Now that demand for golf and spa resorts is high again, finding dates and getting good rates is becoming more difficult.
“Things are getting a little tougher at top properties,” Young says. “We just booked a five-night program for 2017 at Loews Miami Beach. And we knew we wanted to go to Florida. But we had a very difficult time finding space for the dates we wanted. And in fact, in Florida, for major resorts we had a very hard time finding dates for an entire week in all of 2017. We finally ended up getting the dates at the Loews Miami Beach and the rates were within our budget. But we were lucky, because we always do that particular program during high season, in the spring, and we’re competing with spring break and the strongest demand of the year for Florida.”
Meyer says she sees virtually no difference now between dates and rates at a golf and spa resort and a downtown meeting hotel in a top destination.
In terms of negotiating deal terms such as rates, concessions and amenities such as golf and spa privileges, there is no significant difference, in bottom-line business terms, between a resort and a downtown meeting hotel in a major city, Young says.
Meyer, however, finds negotiation easier with golf and tennis resorts, because group business typically is not as big a part of their day-to-day business as it is at a major flag hotel in a top city destination. In the current seller’s market, mainstream meeting properties are increasingly discriminating about the types of meetings they will take and at what price, Meyer observes.
And the most important considerations in the use of golf and spa resorts remain the wow factor and a well-demonstrated commitment to taking good care of qualifiers for incentive programs.
Those are the twin engines that drive ROI, Young says.
“Our events are at the level where the quality of our programs is really what drives the business results that are achieved by a lot of our people,” he says. “When they get out of bed in the morning, they’re not only going to work to provide for their families, they’re also highly motivated to qualify for our incentive programs. So the properties we choose and the programs we create are a big part of the business lives of our people and also a big part of the performance of the company.” I&FMM