Transformational Tourism

When they come to play and decide to stay, visitors have a positive impact on the workforce.

Lisa Marie Hart Vision

If the desert "gets" what millennials are about, they will come here with their energy and creativity, and stir demand for new types of job-creating businesses, experts say.

The thought strikes often and in so many places — bouncing to electronica inside Coachella’s Sahara Tent, eating street tacos at Saguaro’s El Jefe, chilling at a DJ pool party at the Ace Hotel, imbibing at a Modernism Week cocktail soiree, zooming around a race track in Thermal, floating in a tepid mineral pool, or wading by the 40-foot waterfall at Tahquitz Canyon: “Maybe I should just live here.”

When the thought grows legs, the nine cities of Greater Palm Springs nurture the feeling. If they can leverage the desert experience and events like Coachella, Splash House, and Desert X to attract younger professionals, eventually they can transform the local workforce and economy.

In 17 years, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival has become one of the world’s most popular events of its kind. Leading up to it, the media gushes over designer fashion collections, festival hair trends, boho sandals, and even nail art. “These events have an incredible impact on our destination,” says Scott White, president and CEO of the 
Greater Palm Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The priceless media exposure has helped rebrand the area and catapult our recovery from the recession.”

The two-weekend-long Coachella Festival is one of many events drawing coveted millennials and their discretionary income. Some people suggest that the area’s (relatively) reasonably priced real estate has begun garnering interest. More than one tattooed barista has been asked, “People like us really live here?”

The answer, in some sense, is yes. This is not yet the next Austin, San Antonio, Portland, or Boulder. But the CVB’s Destination Development Plan suggests a pathway. The 100-page manifesto calls for a unified effort to grow annual visitation from 12.2 million to more than 16 million by 2026. “It’s a master plan for how our destination needs to evolve to ensure success for the long term,” White says. “Each of the nine cities can maintain its unique brand and experience while supporting the overall brand message.”


Come for the festivals, stay for the … (fill in the blank). Arts and culture, outdoor adventure, eco-sustainability, health, and wellness are some of the plan’s main targets.

The appetizer for many visitors might be one of the popular boutique and contemporary hotels that exude youthful vibes, maintain a carefree atmosphere, and provide unusual amenities. The Ace has in-room record players. At ARRIVE Palm Springs, visitors check in at the bar, enjoy trendy ice cream and coffee shops, a bocce court, and table tennis; they get premium Blue Lola headphones in their room. V Palm Springs serves Polynesian cocktails poolside, lends bicycles, and has a stop on the Buzz trolley route.

The tastes of a new generation are fickle. But if local hotels can understand them, these visitors might decide the desert “gets” what they’re about, too.

“Youth bring energy, creativity, and a demand for new experiences, restaurants, products, and services that benefit everyone,” White says. Active retirees want a lively destination, as do young people seeking an affordable place to raise families. When local communities become a viable place for young professionals to thrive, everyone wins. “Having a younger workforce will drive new development and businesses based on things they like to do. Eventually we want grads to be able to find jobs that don’t currently exist here.”

Opportunity will need to come largely from outside the area’s bread-and-butter hospitality industry, which is becoming more sophisticated with distinctive new properties and an education system attuned to creating a workforce to fill management jobs that historically went to imported talent.



Joe Wallace, CEO of the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership, would like to see four-year accredited degrees in engineering and business offered next in Palm Desert. “It starts with technology,” he says. “Tech brings in people with the talent to work across business lines.”

Austin’s Laws Of Attraction

This year, U.S. News & World Report ranked Austin, Texas, the second best place to live behind Denver. The home of the multimedia festival SXSW (South By Southwest) boasts strong employment, a stable housing market, and a slice of Silicon Valley manufacturing and development to augment its music scene and self-proclaimed weirdness. It’s hip and offers long-term prospects, especially for young (often creative) professionals in tech, government, and education.

Even with its obvious advantages of being a state capital and home of the University of Texas, Austin serves as a model for Greater Palm Springs’ tourist-to-transplant ambitions. “We have many of Austin’s positive attributes,” says Wallace, listing affordable housing, short commutes, and a lower cost of living than coastal California. “We have the music festivals, a friendly and accepting populace, and are proud early adopters of new products. Our future is as bright as Austin’s.”

Hip properties like ARRIVE Palm Springs stir interest among millennials and more established Gen X’ers.

Wallace has tracked Austin’s awakening from sleepy college town to booming metropolis, as SXSW has promoted new businesses and residents to adopt the laid-back, high-performance Austin lifestyle. It didn’t happen overnight. The festival originated in 1987.

“The Goldenvoice events (Coachella, Stagecoach, and Desert Trip) attract millennials, middle-aged folks, and active seniors,” Wallace says. “Those events expose every level of expertise, from entry level to investors, to the favorable lifestyle of Greater Palm Springs. Targeting this group has the potential to bring significant levels of expertise and investment dollars to the valley.”

Fulfilling The Hype

Tourism has a significant impact on the local workforce. In 2002, Trina Turk chose Palm Springs to launch the first of 12 boutique stores. Artist Josh Agle, aka Shag, opened a second location in Hollywood after his success in Palm Springs. Remember the first Koffi? Now three locations strong, the business has a Rancho Mirage roasting facility, private label coffees in local establishments, and beans all hopped up in La Quinta Brewing Co.’s award-winning Koffi Porter beer. These entrepreneurs helped build the Palm Springs Uptown Design District and proved the location as a viable testing ground and enduring retail destination.

“It’s been interesting to see how the city has changed,” says Brooke Hodge, director of architecture and design at the Palm Springs Art Museum. Hodge discovered Palm Springs 15 years ago while living in L.A. “More coffee shops equals more hipsters equals more artists.” She recently relocated from a prestigious position at New York’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum. Familiar with the city and its lively art, architecture, and design community, she jumped at the chance.


“Palm Springs has the sophistication of a much bigger city with the friendliness of a small town,” says Hodge, a Vancouver native who built her career in L.A. and New York. She relishes the ability to live outdoors, the interesting people she has met, and the convenience of having a car again. “Younger people are seeing the desert’s attraction. Artists and designers who love the space they can have in the High Desert are starting to migrate and bring their businesses and design studios. As people are more interested in work/life balance and quality of life issues, I think they will be drawn to places like Palm Springs.”

Travel+Leisure recently deduced that people in Joshua Tree are “turning the region into a hipster oasis.” Two women from Philadelphia who plunked down in Pioneertown have opened La Copine, a trendy brunch place. White knows a Joshua Tree resident who works in the San Francisco Bay Area a few days a week. “I run into more and more people commuting from San Francisco because rents have gotten so high,” he says. That’s innovation, determination, and lifestyle design personified.

On The Desert Horizon

In addition to efforts to expand higher education, White suggests advances in transportation and the creative economy will help further transform the workforce. As the newly formed California Desert Arts Council aims to empower and promote the visual and performing arts, the CVB has been working to expand air service with JetBlue, American Airlines, and WestJet. Better year-round air access will beckon tourists and assist commuters.


Rail service also will expand. “People need the option to live in Greater Palm Springs, own a home with a pool and a nice-sized yard, but get into L.A. easily to do business and escape,” White says. “Driverless cars will be critical to our society, but I don’t think they will replace rail.”

Wallace says Greater Palm Springs is well-positioned but transformation takes execution, and execution requires investment, perseverance, consistency, and cross-city cooperation.

“We’re almost where Austin was 10 to 20 years ago, but we don’t want to become Austin,” White adds. “With their creative economy and high-tech sector, all cities want a piece of what Austin has. I think we can do it in our own way. Once people experience the area, nine out of 10 times they fall in love. We want them to see there are so many things to do here they can’t do it all in one trip.”

And if they keep coming back, he’d like to see them settle in for the good life.