Million-dollar cars and multimillionaire car lovers are rolling into WestWorld of Scottsdale today for the Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction.
Just a 20-minute, mint-condition Duesenberg drive south of the auto extravaganza, tens of thousands of top-conditioned marathoners are taking over Tempe Town Lake for the P.F. Chang’s Rock ’n’ Roll Arizona Marathon & 1/2 Marathon.
It’s showtime in the East Valley — the three- to fourmonth season packed with events that will pack hotel rooms, restaurants and local golf courses.
The winter visitor spending splurge is fueled by out-oftowners willing to pay premium prices to enjoy the desert sun and Southwestern attractions and distractions.
While most travelers hit the roads and take to the airways in summer, winter is high season here.
"January to April is critical," said Richard Behr, general manager of the Hilton Resort Scottsdale. "If you don’t hit your numbers then, you chase your tail for the rest of the year. In winter we have the highest volume and the highest (room) rates."
It is expected to be a hot tourism season this year, local industry leaders say.
That’s welcome news following a long travel drought started by the slipping economy in early 2001 and kicked into high gear by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Succeeding years saw corporate travel budgets slashed.
Business travel — meetings and individual road warriors — typically make up nearly 40 percent of the Valley’s tourism trade, said Doug MacKenzie, spokesman for the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau. The business bunch tends to be big spenders, racking up expenses for meeting rooms, equipment and higher food and beverage sales.
For the big resorts, with lots of ballroom and conference space, groups make up 60 percent of the business, said Rachel Sacco, president of the Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Hoteliers in the East Valley and throughout the country deeply discounted rooms during the corporate travel drought to persuade leisure travelers to take up the slack.
The business travel recovery began last year. Local hotels saw occupancy — the percentage of available rooms that are booked — rise to nearly 1999 or 2000 levels.
This year, based on early reservations, occupancy is just as good as in 2005, and room rates are nearly approaching those turn-of-the-century highs, too.
At The Boulders in Carefree, one of the Valley’s most elegant — and most expensive — resorts, reservation call volume in January is up 40 percent, said Michael Hoffmann, general manager.
"We are very pleased about the way things are going this year," he said.
Other hoteliers are even more effusive about their expectations for the critical first quarter.
"We just finished our budget, and 2006 is looking to be a very good year," said Gene Conklin, general manager of the Marriott Phoenix-Mesa."It will be the best year this hotel has had in 15 years."
Clearly, warm weather and abundant fairways are major draws for snowbound Midwesterners and others from northern habitats.
Corporations gearing up for a new year plan business gettogethers January through April. They look for someplace warm and golf-friendly to attract maximum attendance. If the conference spot has an exclusive spa and upscale shopping center nearby, eventgoers add on extra days to stay and play and often bring family members.
But other sun destinations, such as Florida and California, have sun and golf and spas — and beaches or other attractions. Even gambling mecca Las Vegas is building Scottsdalelike golf and spa resorts 10 miles from the Strip to attract a wider variety of tourists.
Local events are hugely important in persuading vacationers and business meeting planners to choose the Valley for their winter destination instead of those other sunny locales, said Robert Brinton, executive director of the Mesa Convention & Visitors Bureau.
And the events are key to keeping tourists — both convention attendees and vacationers — in the Valley for longer stays, he said.
In some cases, the events are the only reason for choosing the destination.
That’s true of the 5,000-plus bidders at Barrett-Jackson, the Super Bowl of auto shows, which gears up for a nine-day stay at West-World today. It’s true of the estimated 34,000 P.F. Chang’s marathon runners and their cheering squads.
And it’s especially true of Chicago Cubs fans who will fill up Mesa for as much as six weeks to see their boys practice and play Cactus League baseball.
Last year, 1.27 million people attended spring training games, said J.P. de la Montaigne, Cactus League president. Six out of 10 were out-of-state visitors, spending an estimated $250 million while they were here to watch baseball, he said.
Event season started with the annual Fiesta Bowl, which this year attracted enough football fans to sell out not only Sun Devil Stadium, but also most East Valley hotel rooms for two or three days during an otherwise slow travel week.
The out-of-towners left behind an estimated $200 million or more shared by hotels, restaurants, shops, rental car providers and various city and state tax coffers, said Shawn Schoeffler, Fiesta Bowl spokesman.
If the gridiron spectacle is a predictor of attendance at the rest of the winter events, hoteliers will be happy. "We saw more people with longer stays this year than usual," said Tom Kreitler, general manager of the Holiday Inn Phoenix-Tempe ASU. "People were asking how to get to Sedona or Tucson. It was a very profitable Fiesta Bowl."
Tempe hardly cleaned up from the football fan parties when the marathoners arrived. The Holiday Inn, a short jog from the finish line, has been booked solid for this weekend nearly a month, Kreitler said. Most of his guests are staying four or five nights and sometimes filling up extra rooms with friends or family to cheer them on, he said.
Hotel room bookings for the marathon, which snakes through Phoenix, Scottsdale and winds up in Tempe today, were up 59 percent from last year, said Toni Smith, spokeswoman for the Tempe Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Next up is the FBR Open, dubbed "the greatest show on grass." It is the most attended tourney on the PGA Tour.
Last year, nearly 518,000 people showed up during the week’s events, said Mike Haenel, 2006 tournament chairman. The economic impact of their spending and that of the golfers, officials, media and others who put on the event was about $175 million, he said.
Only about 15 percent to 20 percent of the in-person golf watchers were from out of town, but another 6.9 million people from around the world watched the tournament on television, Haenel said.
The potential of snagging future visits from those snowbound TV watchers is huge, Sacco said. "Our entire advertising budget wouldn’t have nearly the impact of the FBR Open," Sacco said. "It shows Scottsdale in the best possible light — that this is a place where you can come and have a great time."
Golf is "truly tied to Scottsdale tourism’s success," she said. And the FBR Open shows people from around the world what it looks like to play golf in Scottsdale.
February and March are packed with unique events from amateur sports tournaments in Tempe to ostrich races in Chandler and horse shows in Scottsdale.
But by late February, the whole East Valley turns into a virtual baseball field.
Cactus League baseball, which starts with practices in mid-February and games throughout the whole month of March, is the biggest overall tourism draw of the season, scattering teams and fans all over the Valley and the state.
It set attendance records — compared with its own best years and those of the Grapefruit League in Florida — for the last two years, Brinton said. This year is shaping up to be just as lucrative, he said, with fans snapping up tickets for games weeks in advance.
"We’ve already sold out the March 27 game between the Cubs and the White Sox," Brinton said. "We knew we would sell out, but we didn’t expect it to happen so soon."
Cactus League attendees, unlike FBR Open fans, are mostly tourists.
Especially the Cubs followers. Brinton said 68 percent of them are from the Midwest, and mostly all, when polled a few years ago, said they focus their vacations around spring training. In other words, if the Cubs didn’t come to Mesa, neither would they.
Major League Baseball has added a new event this year—the World Baseball Classic, a sort of all-star tourney matching up teams from baseballplaying countries vying for a world championship. Some of the playoffs will be held in the Valley, De la Montaigne said. That could attract international baseball fans who had never visited the destination before, he said.
But the final games are not in the Valley and could siphon off some fans to follow the superstars if, as expected, the U.S. team moves on, Brinton said.
While everything looks upbeat for a strong winter tourism season, the experts say there is one unpredictable factor that can change everything.
If it’s cold in the north and sunny in the Valley, people will flock here, events will reach record attendance, TV viewers will pick up their phones and book rooms for April. If it’s warm in Chicago and rainy in the Valley, the diehards will come, and the others will stay home. "You won’t get people out of Chicago if it’s in the 50s there," Brinton said.