It's been anything but smooth sailing in the turbulent waters of the lodging industry, but the Good Ship Marriott is finding the climate in the high country just fine, thank you. The massive hotelier is introducing no less than four new ski-oriented resorts this year-two at Beaver Creek, Colo., and two at Lake Tahoe-and is on the hunt for other ports of call to fly its many flags. It's too soon to pronounce the end of large, independently owned hotels in the mountains, especially high-end properties, but there is certainly a "battle of the brands" underway at North American ski areas.
Attracted by the real estate prospects and strong demand from baby boomers, corporate hotel planners from the Hyatt to the Westin are zeroing in on the handful of remaining undeveloped hotel sites next to the slopes. And where new sites are unavailable, they are looking to buy or manage existing properties-lodges that can benefit almost instantly by being included in worldwide reservations systems and high-profile marketing programs.
Marriott, the darling of business travelers who want comfortable but moderately priced rooms, has been a minor player at ski areas for years. But with corporate travel and conferences in decline, the company is aggressively pursuing leisure travelers by building recreation-oriented hotels and by accelerating its various interval-ownership brands, of which the best known is Marriott Vacation Club International.
And even the crown jewel of the Marriott family, The Ritz-Carlton, is striving to be more resort-friendly. Forget about the French Provincial interiors and crystal chandeliers that used to adorn all Ritz-Carltons, whether they were beachfront resorts in Hawaii or business hotels in big cities. The Bachelor Gulch property, Ritz-Carlton's 48th hotel, breaks from tradition with a rustic "parkitecture" that borrows from the baronial national parks lodges of Yellowstone and Yosemite. The 237-room hotel doesn't lack any of the guest services or amenities that are hallmarks of "The Ritz," but it does exude a distinctive, alpine ambience with its logs, timbers and stonework.
Bachelor Gulch, one of Beaver Creek's outlying "ski-to" villages, is unique in another respect. Adjoining the hotel is a new Ritz-Carlton Club, where buyers of fractional interests will share with hotel guests certain common facilities, such as a 21,000-square-foot spa and a fine dining room. The Club, the second of its kind to be built in Colorado-the first opened at Aspen Highlands in 2001-offers 54 "residences," 30 with two bedrooms and 24 with three bedrooms. Ranging from 1,503 square feet to 2,492 square feet, these units are sold as one-12th intervals, with members getting 21 days from each prime season annually.
Although there is limited, and pricey, residential real estate elsewhere in Bachelor Gulch, the Ritz projects are clearly the nucleus of the community. It's a remote and largely noncommercial place; guests will not be able to step outside their doors and indulge in shopping sprees or pub crawls as they do at Vail Village. But considering the heavy advance bookings for this first season, that's not a hindrance. "Our guests are looking for an exclusive retreat, and they'll spend most of their time skiing at Beaver Creek," says General Manager Todd W. Harris.
Large, traditional hotels at ski areas are rare these days, for the simple reason that the return on investment is too protracted and therefore difficult to justify. Most of the new "flagged" properties are condo-hotels or interval ownership clubs, which allow a company to recoup its costs much sooner, sometimes before turning a single spade of earth. What made Bachelor Gulch a feasible project was a partnership with Vail (which owns 49 percent) and the generation of upfront capital from pre-sales of 23 wholly-owned penthouses on the top floors of the hotel.
Marriott is also opening two new interval-ownership hotels in South Lake Tah. The 199-unit Marriott Grand Residence Club is on the west side of Heavenly's two-year-old gondola, while Marriott's 261-unit Timber Lodge is on the east side. Guests can walk a few steps to the gondola base station and be three-fourths of the way up the mountain in less than 20 minutes. The two hotels form an instant village at the base of the mountain, which was recently acquired by Vail Resorts.
Timber Lodge is the 52nd property of Marriott Vacation Club International, which has other interval-ownership hotels at prime ski destinations such as Breckenridge, Park City and Vail. All units are sold in one-week intervals, but the average buyer owns more time than that. The Grand Residence Club, a new brand for Marriott, which now has 11 "flags," is somewhat more upscale and has larger condominium-style units. These are sold as quarter-shares (three months per year), not by design but by inheritance. Marriott bought the property from American Skiing Company, which had already presold more than half of the inventory under its Grand Summit name. Both projects were part of a massive, city-sponsored redevelopment program, and they replace old motels and retail businesses that were demolished.
Scott Oldakowski, Marriott's project director of sales and marketing, says the community backing allowed the company to build more interesting structures with more expensive construction materials than what might have otherwise been used. And the arrival of Marriott has pumped new life into sales of the Grand Residence Club, he says. "People realize that they have a lot more options with the Marriott Rewards program, a lot more flexibility in trading within the Marriott family, than they had with ASC," Oldakowski says.
As with its Ritz-Carlton division, Marriott International (the parent company) is scouring North America for more mountain resort venues. As this edition went to press, the company was in talks with Boyne USA Resorts to take over management of the two largest lodging properties at Big Sky, Mont.-the recently opened Summit Hotel and the Shoshone Condominium Hotel (which forms a wing of the original Huntley Lodge). Both have associations of individual owners who must put their imprimatur on any management change. In Canada, Marriott is represented by Residence Inns at Whistler, at Tremblant and, more recently, at Kimberley in British Columbia, and all have suites that are individually owned.
Marriott franchisees are also on a roll. At Vail, the original 344-room Marriott hotel at Lionshead, which was acquired by Vail Resorts a year ago, completes a $45 million renovation this season, with new interiors and a new outer skin that replaces the drab wood siding with Bavarian white stucco and a copper roof. "You won't recognize the place," says Adam Aron, Vail Resorts chairman and CEO. "It will have European styling, and it will be one of the prettiest hotels in the United States."
What else lies ahead for a company that operates more than 2,200 properties in the U.S. and in 64 other countries and territories? "Europe," says Bill Phillips, senior vice-president of resort development for Marriott Vacation Club International. "We would very much like to do a European ski resort deal, because we have a sizeable business among European owners. But it's difficult to find an all-seasons resort like Vail or Tahoe."
Difficult, maybe. But don't be surprised if a Marriott flag is raised soon at a ski resort near you.