News for the Hospitality Executive
|By Shella Jacobs, The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Mar. 14, 2004 - Tucson's resorts and hotels will have a savvy new competitor when Starr Pass Marriott Resort & Spa opens in December.
But the arrival of the area's largest hotel, with 575 rooms and more than 88,000 square feet of meeting space, is expected to bolster the bottom line of businesses all over Tucson.
Local companies -- event planners, florists, laundry services, and even audio-visual providers -- already are vying for a slice of the resort's future business.
"Everything you need in a hotel is generally purchased locally or with firms that operate locally," said Phyllis Fetter, a Tucson-based marketing consultant in the meetings and conventions industry and former chair of the hospitality department at Pima Community College. "You're looking at quite an impact when you're talking about a hotel with 575 rooms."
Much of that impact will be in the area's general employment picture. Starr Pass Marriott has filled 11 positions, including general manager. By the time it opens on Dec. 15, there will be about 600 people on the payroll, said Mike Kass, marketing director.
Beyond that, the resort will offer a new option for Tucsonans to gather for parties and events. Along with out-of-state groups and associations, Starr Pass Marriott expects bookings for annual local charity events.
Already, the resort has booked 85 groups for conventions and meetings in 2005, each of which will use 70 to 500 rooms, Kass said. Events and meetings are on the books through 2007.
Of the groups scheduled to stay at the resort, 60 percent are new to Tucson and they include medical and fraternal associations, Kass said.
"A resort this size, the multiplier effect alone of the room dollars just could be huge," said Steve Nichols, owner of Quick Print, a printing company that already is working on projects for Starr Pass Marriott. "It's a huge boon for the local economy."
Competition for business from Starr Pass Marriott already is heating up, with many local merchants eager to get in front of the race.
SavOn Flowers first contacted the resort about a year ago, said owner Jim Stith.
The local florist is familiar with how to land sales at other resorts, including the Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa, Westward Look Resort and the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort. Several times a year, SavOn completes anywhere from 60 to 90 arrangements using thousands of flowers for weddings, anniversary parties, and other events at resorts and country clubs.
"You work to build a relationship," Stith said. "Once you build that relationship and they test you a little bit, then you get your foot in the door."
Rio Nuevo Productions has made its own overture to Starr Pass Marriott. The 2-year-old business provides audio-visual service and equipment and can arrange staging, sound and lighting for events.
"That's something we're very interested in talking to them about," said Judy Parsons, the company's entertainment coordinator.
Its sister company, event planning firm Corporate Adventures, is counting on more clients as Starr Pass Marriott becomes an established resort destination.
Like other event planning firms, the company suffered severely with the downturn in corporate America, especially after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"It was an atmosphere of fear," Parsons said. "Did that hurt? You bet. Will the new Starr Pass facility cure it? No, but it's certainly going to help it because things are turning around."
While they are hopeful, there is some skepticism among business owners about whether Starr Pass Marriott will tap local companies.
Resorts that are part of national chains often bring in out-of-town companies, said Lee Oliver, owner of Arizona Cine Equipment, a provider of audio-visual equipment and display booths for conventions.
"It would be the type of business that we would want to go after," said Oliver.
But his experience tells him that resorts often go with Phoenix companies for audio-visual services.
"The excuse is that they're a national company and they feel better going with a national firm than a local firm," Oliver said.
Still, that won't stop him from pitching to Starr Pass Marriott, particularly for conventions. One of his company's specialties is decorating for events such as the Tucson Gem & Mineral Show, providing everything from tables and chairs to drapes and other display materials.
Starr Pass Marriott isn't shy about hiring out-of-state firms, working with Santa Monica, Calif.-based Hirsch Bedner Associates Design Consultants for the interior design.
But Kass, the resort's marketing director, said there will be business opportunities for local companies.
Quik Print, for example, has been producing many of the resort's printed materials, such as sales packets the resort's marketing team sends to event planners.
The company also has printed poster-sized renderings of the property as well as letterhead, business cards and envelopes for the resort staff.
"We're very happy with the business they've brought us," said Nichols, Quik Print's owner.
Within the next six months, Starr Pass Marriott likely will start the bidding process for services it will need, Kass said. In addition to florists and audio-visual providers, even laundry services for the resort's linens and guests' clothes will be on the bid list.
Laundry companies in the Downtown area or the South Side stand a good chance because of their proximity to the resort, he said: "The closer, the better."
As business owners draft their best deals for Starr Pass Marriott, other resorts are watching to see how well the new property establishes itself.
"We spent a lot of time talking about it, preparing for this," said Mark Lindsey, director of sales and marketing at La Paloma.
"It is increased competition, but ultimately it will be good for Tucson," he said. "It's going to help Tucson far more than it hurts other resorts."
So far, Lindsey said, advanced bookings at the Westin are on a strong pace for 2005; this year also is looking good.
Next year's bookings at El Conquistador show similar success, said general manager Tim Booth.
"There might be a little short-term market-share shuffling, but I think over time it will increase overall occupancy," he said.
Starr Pass Marriott's impact on room rates in Tucson, however, remains uncertain.
It's common for a new resort to offer discounted prices to build a base of customers, industry experts said, which in turn forces other properties to lower their prices.
There may be a reduction in rates in the Tucson area, but it won't be just because of Starr Pass Marriott, Lindsey said. The economy also is a factor, and its sluggish recovery pace still has customers in the bargain-hunting mode.
The chosen opening day for Starr Pass Marriott should also stem any slip in prices, Booth said. The resort is slated to open Dec. 15, just as Tucson's high tourist and meeting season starts gaining momentum.
Demand for rooms goes up and reaches its peak during the cool season and doesn't start fading until May, said Fetter, the market consultant. Typically, it isn't until May 1 or even May 15 when resorts start offering discounted rates for the hot-weather season, she said.
In the long-term, there should be enough business for all the resorts in Tucson as they help the city become a more popular destination for meetings, conventions, and just plain vacations.
The meetings and conventions business alone could be enormously lucrative for Tucson. It has been described as a $102.3 billion industry nationwide, according to a 2001 report by the Convention Industry Council.
Business travel comprises 20 percent of total U.S. domestic person-trips and half of business travelers typically attend meetings, presentations, and other related corporate activities, according to a 2002 survey by the Travel Industry Association of America.
In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 638 groups with nearly 192,000 delegates booked conventions or tours through the Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau and attendees spent $148.9 million while they were here.
The bureau has already booked some group events at the Starr Pass Marriott and continues to field inquiries about it, said Jonathan Walker, president and chief executive of the MTCVB.
The expected rise in visitors to the city should catch the attention of airline companies, especially those with little or no presence yet at Tucson International Airport, Fetter added.
"Every big addition that we get like that in Tucson is helpful to our working relationships with the airlines. We don't have all of the service that a city of this size really commands," Fetter said. "As we add more space, particularly deluxe space, we make an impact on what the airlines think we're worth as a city."
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