|By Lynn Thompson, Seattle
TimesMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jun. 20, 2008 --TULALIP -- Earlier this week, as workers in hard hats touched up hallway paint and new front-desk staff practiced checking in guests, about the only thing completely ready in the new $130 million Tulalip Resort hotel set to open today were three magnificent cedar poles rising two stories in the lobby.
Carved by a team of Tulalip artists, the poles both welcome guests and suggest the extent to which the Tulalips' vision of a luxury resort with a distinctive tribal identity is poised to take its place in the Tulalip Tribes' growing portfolio of successful business ventures.
Even high gas prices and the weak economy aren't dampening tribal leaders' predictions that the new 12-story hotel near Marysville will become a destination resort competing not with Best Westerns and Holiday Inns along the Interstate 5 corridor, but with the glamorous casino-hotels of Las Vegas itself.
"We think our resort will rank right up there with the best," said Tribal Chairman Mel Sheldon.
Tribal leaders envision high-end gamblers staying for several days in one of the deluxe "themed" suites that will rent for as much as $5,000 a night. Boxing matches and top-name entertainers are also in the works.
Tribal officials concede opening a luxury hotel 40 miles north of Seattle has its challenges. Convention and meeting planners typically choose cities with high vacation appeal, and Everett and Marysville aren't on the map.
The high price of airline travel may also hurt out-of-state tourism, but the favorable exchange rate with Canada continues to be a big draw for the Tulalip Casino and the nearby 110-store outlet mall, they say.
"Our biggest challenge is to convince people that there's this caliber of resort north of Seattle," said Brett Magnan, executive vice president for the Tulalip Resort Casino.
But tribal consultant David Palermo said the experience of other tribes around the country that have added hotels to their casinos suggests that the resort will be a moneymaker.
"As far as long-term profitability and success, the Tulalips don't have anything to worry about," he said.
Guests staying in one of the hotel's standard rooms will be treated to luxe style: granite counters, dark African wenge-wood trim, 47-inch flat-screen TVs, Tulalip-designed art on the walls, and floor-to-ceiling windows, although the view is mostly of the vast parking lot that surrounds the casino and hotel. A king or queen room, both about a third larger than standard hotel rooms at 500 square feet, will cost $175 per night on a weekend once the hotel is complete.
Today's opening is being called a "soft opening," with the planned spa, swimming pool and 15,000-square-foot indoor atrium still unfinished. But interest is already high. The hotel is fully booked for the opening night and for several other dates this summer, Magnan said.
The grand opening is planned for Aug. 15, with plans to use the intervening weeks to fine-tune service and to test-drive banquet and meeting facilities, and also help break in 425 new employees, about 30 percent of them tribal members.
Even before their $78 million casino opened in 2003, the Tulalips envisioned an adjacent hotel that would allow guests to lengthen their stays and to drink while they gambled without worrying about the drive home.
A theme for the advertising campaign leading up to the opening has been "Stay and Play," with the emphasis not just on gambling, but on the nearby Seattle Premium Outlets mall and on the indoor pool and spa complex that hotel administrators say will make the resort a draw even in winter. The outlet mall, casino and hotel are part of a tribally owned retail complex called Quil Ceda Village.
Seven other tribes, including the Quinault, Suquamish and Lummi, have built lodging to complement tribal casinos, said Ernie Stebbins, executive director of the Washington Indian Gaming Association.
In Centralia, about halfway between Seattle and Portland, the Chehalis Tribes partnered with a chain of resorts featuring indoor water parks. The result, Great Wolf Lodge, which opened in March just off I-5, is facing some of the same challenges likely to confront the Tulalip resort.
The lodge is trying to identify and market to a new audience, to attract tourists to an area not known as a vacation destination and do so in the midst of a recession.
"We're still fingernail-biting at this point," said John Poole, director of sales and marketing for the lodge.
But he said high gas prices and the rising costs of air travel will likely mean more business for resorts close to home.
"People are looking for ways to vacation in their own backyards," he said.
The new Tulalip hotel also is expected to significantly increase the size of events that can be hosted in Snohomish County, which was third in the state to King and Pierce counties in visitor spending at $823.4 million in 2006, said Amy Spain, executive director of the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau.
The first big event hosted by the hotel will be Skate America, a pre-Olympics competition scheduled for October at the Comcast Arena at Everett Events Center. It's expected to attract 60 athletes from 15 countries and draw as many as 30,000 spectators. An estimated 300 participants and dignitaries will stay in the new hotel.
Laura Lee, a sports promoter who is working with the Tulalips to bring the event to town, says she's been impressed with the hotel staff's attention to detail, from the emphasis on customer service to the high-quality amenities in guest rooms.
"I felt absolutely comfortable inviting the world to stay there," she said.
While the feel of the hotel is luxurious, it may be the native-designed artwork incorporated throughout the interior that will give it a distinctive identity. Tribal artists Joe Gobin and James Madison designed the carpets, welcome poles, ballroom door pulls, wall sconces and prints incorporating stylized Northwest Indian images including salmon, eagles, water and the transformations between spirt and human worlds.
Headboards and wallpaper in rooms echo a basket-weave pattern. A backlit glass mosaic behind the reception desk incorporates 1,200 hand-cut, etched or blown pieces of glass. It portrays a fisherman's-eye view of Tulalip Bay and tells a traditional tribal story about three brothers who become whales to find salmon for their starving people.
It's a metaphor that still resonates with a tribal organization that 20 years ago had little but a dying commercial fishing industry and some valuable reservation land along I-5. Today, casino and other revenues from the Tribes' Quil Ceda Village development total more than $400 million annually, according to tribal sources.
The addition of the hotel, and its projected earnings, will allow a continued expansion of social services to tribal members, including health care, housing, senior activities and youth programs, Chairman Sheldon said.
Sheldon said the hotel, which is seen as the next step in a long-term business plan, emphatically underscores the Tribes' continued resurgence.
"Not only are we not a paragraph or a picture in a history book, we have beautiful art and a vibrant culture that we can be proud of," Sheldon said.
Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or email@example.com
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