Sunday, May 16, 2010

Owners aim to rejuvenate the Wigwam

by Dawn Gilbertson The Arizona Republic May. 16, 2010 12:00 AM

Jerry Colangelo was on his way to dinner at the Wigwam Golf Resort and Spa in March when a group of golfers watching an NBA game at a lobby bar recognized him.

The former owner of the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks asked the guests where they were going for dinner.

Colangelo, whose investment group purchased the historic resort and two Arizona Biltmore golf courses for $45 million in a bankruptcy auction late last year, didn't much like their reply: to a restaurant outside the Wigwam.

"I said, "No, you're not, I'm going to treat you to Red's,' " the Wigwam's steakhouse, Colangelo recalled.

Hands-on market research and promotion is an early hallmark of the historic resort's new local owners.

Colangelo has stayed at the resort, hosted an event there for community and business leaders in the West Valley and begun to tap an unparalleled roster of connections in the business, sports and charity worlds to bring their business to the Wigwam, located in Litchfield Park.

Slideshow: slideshow Wigwam to get a makeover

He and other executives have heard one thing over and over in preparing to put their stamp on the Wigwam: the well-manicured resort is a treasure, but off the radar for many.

After returning from a trip to the Wigwam last fall, one fan of the resort from Seattle said in a review: "This was a surprisingly nice place with a lot of history and character." The subject line on his post: "Where is everybody?"

Colangelo said that he hadn't been to the Wigwam in about 10 years before buying it.

"We hear that a lot," said Greg Miller, vice president of Destination Hotels & Resorts, the Wigwam's new management company. "That's going to change."

The initial plan: better emphasize the resort's historic roots and add features guests have said are lacking, including an improved restaurant lineup and more outdoor dining and activities.

In an interview, Colangelo and other executives for the first time revealed details of a makeover that will begin in July and cost between $5 million and $10 million, depending on final plans and budgets.

It is being led by Jim Smith, a longtime friend of Colangelo's whose Paradise Valley firm Serving the Nation has worked on projects at the Royal Palms Resort and Spa, Hermosa Inn, Ritz-Carlton Phoenix and Hotel del Coronado near San Diego.

"What you see here represents what we heard," Colangelo said. "This is just a response to the local community and our guests regarding improvements and raising the bar."

The hotel's previous owner and management company were heavily focused on luring large meetings, so they didn't focus as much on ambience and other factors that draw vacationers and companies looking to reward their top performers with a luxury getaway, said Frank Ashmore, director of sales and marketing.

"That's being reintroduced here, and that's what I'm most excited about," he said.

The highlights of the coming changes:

• Significantly redo the resort's entrance to make it look like it did decades ago. The palm-tree-lined drive will return. The porte cochere will be eliminated - replaced with a ranch-style log entryway with the Wigwam name, which greeted early visitors to the resort.

• Shift the lobby to the west so guests enter the property as close as possible to the original building on the property. The front desk will be in a historic room where there is now a Starbucks. (It will be relocated.) Walls will be torn down so guests no longer have to wander through a maze after they check in and want to explore the resort.

• Relocate the pool away from the main building so there is more room for outdoor dining and entertainment.

"We really move it back away from the building and give it its own unique experience," said Tom O'Malley, an attorney and longtime Colangelo colleague who is overseeing the Wigwam for the investment group.

The new pool area will be separated into two areas: a formal zone and a family zone. The latter will include new water features for kids, including sprinkler-type fountains. The two areas will be connected.

Lawn games and other activities will be located nearby.

• Change the mix of restaurants. The golfers Colangelo encountered - frequent visitors to the Wigwam dating back 20 years - aren't the only ones who complain about the Wigwam's restaurants.

Smith overheard one couple who checked out the Arizona Kitchen for breakfast decide against it because there was no place to eat outside and because there were no windows.

Colangelo is mum on the details but says they will make the Wigwam a magnet for locals, much like T Cook's at the Royal Palms Resort and Lon's at the Hermosa Inn.

One feature they will certainly have: the option of al fresco dining.

"Here we're bringing people from all around the country, and they can't go outside and have a dinner or have breakfast," he said. "We said, 'You've got to open this up. Let's sell what we have to sell, and it's our weather.' "

The project is expected to be completed by the end of the year, in time for the Valley's peak tourism season.

The new owners are making the investment at a time when the tourism industry is still struggling to recover from the recession. Arizona saw some of the biggest declines in the country. Occupancy is on the rise, but room rates remain depressed. Plus, there is a new threat: travel boycotts related to the state's new immigration law.

"We ended up with the property at the very worst of times. That's the bad news," Colangelo said. "But the good news is there's only upside."

Owners aim to rejuvenate the Wigwam

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