World-class events boost tourism

Janice Kleinschmidt. Attractions 0 Comments

Yes, people come to the Coachella Valley to swing a golf club, sooth their muscles in hot mineral water, lounge poolside at hotels, revel in the vibe at hip hotels, and absorb the desert’s natural beauty and resort culture. But they increasingly come for world-class events.

The event with the biggest one-year gain in attendance — at an astounding 76 percent — was Modernism Week in February. Organizers estimate the economic impact of 16,400 midcentury enthusiasts at $4.9 million. Architecture and design buffs came from as far away as Australia.

In July, seven months before the next Modernism Week, Chair Jacques Caussin received e-mails from Pennsylvania and Minnesota inquiring about the dates of the 2011 event. “We are exploring the possibility of bringing a handful of our donors,” wrote Matt Nielsen, director of development at the Frank Gehry-designed Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis.

Palm Springs International Film Festival in January remains a big draw; attendance and revenue were both up 7 percent this year. More notably, Palm Springs ShortFest in “off-season” June saw jumps of 8 percent in attendance and 20 percent in revenue (the latter in part to an upsurge in film submissions). Numbers, however, tell only part of the story.

“The ShortFest has definitely kicked it up a notch,” says PSIFF Executive Director Darryl Macdonald, noting a significant increase in media attention and the stature of film industry professionals coming to the event. “Major, major players in the agency and management world came to scout talent. Two to three years ago, they would consider coming to only the feature festival.”

Macdonald notes that audiences for both festivals are skewing younger and the percentage of filmgoers from out of town has grown. And attendance has continued to grow even when the economy as a whole has been depressed. That’s not a trend other festivals can boast.

“The film festival world is littered with the corpses of formerly hot events,” Macdonald says. He points to two of this year’s demises: CineVegas in Las Vegas and Gen Art Film Festival in New York, which closed in May on the heels of its 15th anniversary. “This is in major markets,” Macdonald says. “In a market like Palm Springs, that we continue to grow with the same type of strides we saw a decade ago is pretty staggering.”

Fashion Week El Paseo, which this past March supplemented a week of runway shows with a two-day food and wine festival, grew attendance by 45 percent — the same percentage that sales increased at Saks Fifth Avenue at The Gardens on El Paseo (directly across the street from the Big White Tent) — compared to 2009’s Fashion Week. Sales attributable to Fashion Week at The Gardens as a whole amounted to $654,668 — and there was plenty of fashion joy to spread around.

“We had the busiest week we have ever had in the 36 years that we have been on El Paseo,” says Velma Otterman, owner of Cactus Flower Shoes, the longest-established store on the chic shopping boulevard.

With websites promoting the showings of marquee couturiers and up-and-coming designers (including students), Fashion Week is earning recognition well beyond the Coachella Valley’s surrounding mountains. Forty-two percent of the attendees came from outside the market, from as far north as Alaska and Canada to Rhode Island, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and other points east.

The BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament upped last year’s attendance by more than 7,000. Since 2006, the Indian Wells Tennis Garden has seen the number of filled seats and suites during the two-week event climb from 270,453 to 339,657.

“It’s a great, great tournament,” says Michele Sicard, head of corporate communications for BNP Paribas Americas. In March, the Paris-based investment and banking company — marking its second year as title sponsor — entertained clients from throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, and a few from France. “Clients love to come to that tournament, to that area,” Sicard says. “The top players in the world play there, and [our clients] also can enjoy golf.

“What is also very good about this tournament is you see the players up close. It’s very friendly,” Sicard says, adding that BNP, which operates Bank of the West branches (though none in the Coachella Valley), also benefits from brand exposure and has “a fantastic relationship” with the tournament’s organizers.

Similarly, Emirates airline doesn’t service Palm Springs International Airport, though it launched daily service from LAX to Dubai right before its debut this year as a major sponsor of the tournament.

“My first-year experience clearly exceeded all of my expectations,” says Ted Brady, sales manager for the Southwest region. Emirates sponsors sporting events around the world, including horse racing, golf, soccer, and sailing. “We look at a lot of different venues,” Brady says. “We found that the Indian Wells event is highly rated. The top players in the world come to Palm Springs, and it does attract our target customer base.”

Brady’s initial concern was whether Emirates’ premium clientele would travel to the tennis garden, so he made phone calls before sending invitations. “The response was absolutely overwhelming,” he says, noting that customers even came from San Francisco and Houston for the event. Not only did it give the company an opportunity to reward loyal customers, but also reinforced its branding with the Emirates name on the wall behind the players (clearly visible in TV coverage).

“To have an audience of millions who are watching on a global basis brings us tremendous value,” Brady says. “I received a phone call from Dubai, where some employees and executives were watching at midnight.”

For the 11th iteration of the Coachella Music and Arts Festival, organizers rolled the dice, hoping its stature was great enough to eighty-six single-day passes. That action may have priced the event out of the reach of some fans (a threeday pass cost $269), but the gamble paid off. Attendance even rose between 15,000 and 20,000 to 225,000 over the three days.

Making up, in part, for the policy change in passes, camping options expanded. But local hoteliers weren’t singing the blues. Embassy Suites in La Quinta, one of the closest hotels to the festival venue, sold out its 173 rooms (standard rooms and casitas) for three- and four-night stays, according to Craig Stahl, director of sales and marketing. Even the 10-room El Morocco Inn in Desert Hot Springs (at the opposite corner of the Coachella Valley) enjoys a sold-out weekend during the festival.

“A buzz will sometimes happen at the event and guests start talking about it when they return,” says owner Bruce Abney. “Then other guests say, ‘Can we stay another night?’”

In its 64th year, the Riverside County Fair & National Date Festival in February — the same month as Modernism Week — set attendance records, attracting 310,394 fair goers. It would seem people never tire of camel and ostrich races, date shakes, and an Arabian Nights pageant — some of the features that set the annual 10-day event in Indio apart from other county fairs.

Perhaps the most noteworthy trend in Coachella Valley tourism is the growing diversification of what attracts visitors. Architecture, film, fashion, sports, music, and family fun provide energy to the desert scene — much like the sun.


Call it the quintessential bad news/good news scenario. Groups that had booked rooms for this year at JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa in Palm Desert canceled them in 2009. That’s the cloud. The silver lining, according to K.C. Kinsey, director of sales and marketing, is that those cancellations created availability for new groups.

“In 2010, we have recorded one of our most significant group bookings in the year for the year,” Kinsey says, referring to groups that inquired, contracted, and stayed at the resort all in the first half of the year. (Typically, the corporate window on booking hotels for conventions or meetings ranges from 12 to 36 months.) Not only did Desert Springs earn income from late-planning groups, but also it gained clients who said they wanted to return next year.

The gold lining is that clients who last year canceled 2010 bookings are returning. “We’re starting to hear from those groups for 2011 and 2012,” Kinsey says.

The pendulum also appears to be swinging at the retro-chic Riviera Resort & Spa in Palm Springs, where group bookings for 2011 were up 269 percent by midyear. The resort appears to be benefiting from the personality shift it underwent during a $70 million renovation project a couple years ago.

According to Ty Brassie, director of sales and marketing, the Riv’s hip vibe “cannot easily be duplicated, as it embodies the coolness of 1960s Palm Springs.”
— J.K.

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