Sara Bird-in-Ground sees her mission as telling the world about the rich culture of her community — the Pima and Maricopa tribes who for centuries farmed the area, sharing their bounty with travelers.
Bird-in-Ground is the cultural tourism manager at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort, the 500-room luxury inn that sprawls across an otherwise-undeveloped, mountain-framed swatch of desert on the Gila River Indian Community southwest of Chandler.
She makes sure the art and artifacts around the resort and spa are real, shares the tribes’ history and culture with employees and guests, and devises culturally themed programs and events, such as the resort’s Kids Club, which includes nature walks, pottery-making and basket weaving.
Cultural tourism is the latest buzz-phrase for U.S. tourism leaders who see it as a way to distinguish one sun-and-golf destination from another as the economy continues to drag and the competition for the shrinking tourist dollar gets fierce.
Scottsdale Convention and Visitors Bureau staked a $700,000-a-year promotion on lining up arts organizations and cultural events for tours and packages. Scottsdale’s Culture Quest program is 6 months old and hasn’t caught fire yet, but hoteliers say it’s destined to become an important part of a package that will swing vacation decision-makers toward Scottsdale instead of a culturally bereft destination.
“This is an investment that gets results,” said Rachel Sacco, president of the Scottsdale Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Culture Quest is so new we don’t have anything quantitatively, but we hear it from the hotels anecdotally. It gives us a competitive edge. Cities that invest in cultural amenities attract tourists and provide cachet for residents.”
The trend to tout culture as part of the travel experience has been especially fruitful in the Southwestern United States because the area is so rich in stories to tell, said Kristen Jarnigan, spokeswoman for the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass. She said recent world events have led to more family-focused travel, and earning the culture and history of a destination while vacationing is attractive to families.
The Sheraton Wild Horse Pass is well-poised to profit from the trend. The resort was designed from scratch to showcase the Gila River Indian Community’s heritage.
“In all of the United States, there is no luxury resort that I know of with authentic culture throughout,” said Bird-in-Ground,who previously worked for Indian gaming operations around the country. But while the Sheraton’s themed focus may present a lucrative marketing opportunity, that is just a sidelight, she said.
“All the history we have is right here,” she said. “We want to be recognized. When people leave here, we want them to be enlightened about our culture and history. We’re not jumping on this opportunity because it is a trend.”
Education and preservation of culture also is the inspiration for the Hyatt Resort Scottsdale at Gainey Ranch. For 12 years, general manager Bill Eider-Orley has developed and expanded the hotel’s “Keepers of the Culture” program.
“It’s about embracing the things that make this an interesting destination other than just climate and golf — the indigenous flora, fauna and history of this area,” Eider-Orley said. The Native American and Environmental Learning Center has taken over an increasingly larger portion of the Hyatt’s lobby, featuring art, artifacts, artisans-at-work, and written explanations of the history of the Valley and the people who inhabited it for centuries.
Last year, Eider-Orley added the Native Heritage Seed Gardens, with 30 indigenous — and in some cases long-forgotten — plants, many of which the hotel chefs incorporate into recipes. Eider-Orley admitted the cultural extras are a draw for his hotel guests, but, like Bird-in-Ground, he said that’s not the motivation.
“Culture is a way of life that you can’t package,” he said. “I don’t want to lose what makes Arizona unique. And those are also the things that make this such an attractive destination. I never want to trivialize culture as a marketing ploy.”
Cross-marketing sports, arts and special events with hotels rooms is smart business, said Chris Kenney, marketing director for the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel.
“It gives guests more to experience than just a guest room,” he said. His hotel puts together packages with cultural events at next-door Arizona State University, from productions at Gammage Auditorium to Tempe’s popular Mill Avenue arts festivals. He’s working on teaming up with the also-close-by Phoenix Zoo for a fauna-focused cultural experience.