Upscale in the sandstone
When Gateway Canyons Resort opened six years ago with a convenience store, a 16-room motor inn, a fuel station and a restaurant, it was billed as a small tourism-economy generator in a ranching community that had lost its mining economy decades earlier.
It was a comfort for Gateway residents who no longer were forced to make the 50-mile drive to Grand Junction if they needed to fill up with gas or grab a jug of milk. A quaint destination for weekend vacationers seeking to take in the red rock canyon scenery but not the crowds of Moab or Glenwood Springs. A novel distraction for out-of-town guests who could gawk at resort founder John Hendricks’ collection of classic cars.
Yet even as Gateway Canyons expanded its appeal by implementing amenities such as guided adventure trips, an outdoor amphitheater and spa treatments, most people outside of western Colorado remained in the dark about the out-of-the-way resort.
But resort operators say the recent alliance with a hospitality management company that boasts more than 30 years of experience, managing upscale properties stretching from the Florida Keys to the Pacific Northwest, will shine a spotlight on Gateway Canyons and draw visitors from around the world and boost occupancy rates.
If successful, Gateway Canyons will pull in the kind of deep-pocketed leisure and business travelers whom the Western Slope tourism market — except for ski resorts such as Aspen and Telluride — hasn’t reached. And observers say that could be an economic boon not only for the resort, but for the Grand Valley as a whole.
“We appeal to customers looking for a unique experience and not a traditional cookie-cutter hotel,” said Sean Mullen, vice president of sales for Noble House Hotels and Resorts, the Kirkland, Wash.-based firm that took over day-to-day operations of Gateway Canyons last month. “We’re looking at an upper-scale market. Consumers are looking to go somewhere where, while they’re at the hotel, they’re gaining an experience, a memory, an education in a particular area.”
Noble House and Hendricks are crafting a host of improvements intended to maintain and grow the resort’s customer base. At the top of the list is the refurbishing and expansion of the resort’s 54 rooms, the construction of 18 new suites, the addition of a wellness center and the installation of a series of pools that will serve both resort guests and residents of Little Canyon, a series of homes to be built closer to the canyon walls.
The resort also will relocate the Outpost General Store and fuel station to an off-site location in Gateway in order to create a new resort entrance to accommodate curbside service.
Most of the changes are scheduled to come online within two years. Homes are expected to go on the market in 2014.
In Noble House, Gateway Canyons tapped a firm that caters to society’s upper crust.
The company’s traditional customer is 35 to 55 years old and married, with an annual income of more than $200,000 and a net worth of between $750,000 and $20 million, according to Mullen. Its 15 properties, most of which consistently receive top billing and reviews from Zagat, Travel + Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler, pull in many of their customers from Europe and Canada.
Mullen said part of what sets Noble House’s hotels and resorts apart is the unique experience they offer. He noted that The Edgewater is the only waterfront hotel in Seattle, and that “PT 109,” a 1963 biographical film about the patrol boat operated by then-Lt. John F. Kennedy during World War II, was filmed at the Little Palm Island Resort & Spa in the Florida Keys.
“When you walk into our hotels, you know the destination you are at, rather than walking into a hotel and saying, ‘I’m in a nice, safe hotel, but I could be anywhere in the world,’ ” Mullen said.
Gateway Canyons is banking on the introduction of amenities like the 18-suite Palisade Casitas and a wellness center that will teach customers how to live a healthier lifestyle, as well as a greater effort to market the resort as a wedding destination, to bring in more couples and families. To attract corporate retreats and companies looking to reward top-selling or producing employees, the resort will mine Noble House’s deep list of corporate partners, a list Mullen says includes pharmaceutical companies, insurance carriers and airlines.
Mullen said Noble House established “preferred relationships” with several companies by meeting those companies’ criteria on standards such as service quality and security.
Noble House can use that sort of comfort level to cross-promote Gateway Canyons and the Mountain Lodge in Telluride, which Noble House acquired two years ago.
“Someone can come from Australia and come to Telluride and have a unique experience there and only be two, 2 1/2 hours (away from Gateway),” Mullen said. “You have comfort and knowledge you’re working with one (company).”
Debbie Kovalik, executive director of the Grand Junction Visitor and Convention Bureau, said Noble House’s network and client database is a “tremendous asset for trying to position and market Gateway.”
“They have connections there that would be nothing but a big bonus for the county,” she said.
Kovalik said Noble House may face a bit of a learning curve in understanding the Colorado market and the type of visitor the state attracts, and the VCB would like to assist the company in learning about the market and showcasing Gateway Canyons. She said Gateway Canyons is currently part of the VCB’s marketing partnership, in which the resort contributes 3 percent of its gross sales in exchange for marketing through the bureau, and she hopes the resort continues that partnership after this year.
Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, said increased visitation to Gateway Canyons could benefit the valley in short-term tourism and long-term business.
“Who knows who might come to this upgraded destination resort who might be in a decision-making position with regard to branch locations of companies and business in the future?” she said.
Don McLaughlin has lived in Gateway for the past 14 years but has roots in the community dating back to 1952. He has watched the resort grow and change, and he views the proposed expansion with mixed feelings.
The former president of the Gateway Property Owners Association and former chairman of the Gateway-Unaweep Fire Department Board of Directors said there’s a “culture collision” that happens when visitors who have never been to the area and may not speak English mingle with longtime ranchers who know each other on a first-name basis and have developed close relationships. On a more practical level, an influx of tourists will create challenges for the all-volunteer Fire Department, he said.
McLaughlin credited Hendricks for encouraging resort employees to volunteer with the Fire Department and paying them to undergo firefighting and emergency-medical-service training. But he said the transient nature of the tourism industry — employees are laid off during the offseason or often leave for other jobs — makes it difficult to create the relationships and strong communication levels needed in potential life-or-death situations.
“That bond simply isn’t there when you’re dealing with new people all the time,” McLaughlin said. “You just begin to get a working relationship and then they’re gone.”
On the other hand, he said, “I believe that anybody who makes his money legally has the right to spend it legally.”
“If this management company is good, if they’re capable, they’ll probably increase the business here, and that’s what they’re supposed to do,” he said. “If they increase business, that’s good for the community.”