Nearly 30,000 runners are expected to take to the streets of Tempe, Scottsdale and Phoenix today as the second annual P.F. Chang’s Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon sprints to action.
Most of the marathoners are from somewhere else. They showed up an average two days early and brought along an average two family members or friends to watch them race, said Tim Murphy, president of Elite Racing.
January through March is prime visitor season for the Valley.
When it gets cold and snowy in the north, companies schedule conventions and sales meetings in the East Valley’s big hotels and resorts, road warriors check up on their local clients more frequently and leisure visitors come for the climate and the golf.
And sometimes, like the marathoners, to pursue their hobbies or avocations.
"People mostly come here for other reasons," said Toni Graham, spokeswoman for the Tempe Convention and Visitors Bureau. "But often they’ll plan their trip to be here during (an event)."
Tourism is critical to the Valley’s economy.
In 2003, the last time the local industry conducted a study, 13 million people visited the Valley and spent $6 billion while they were here, said Doug McKenzie, spokesman for the Greater Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"Tourism provides an important economic engine for the state," McKenzie said. It is the second biggest money maker after high-tech manufacturing, he said.
It also defines the national image for the Valley and the state — a factor that can’t be as easily measured, he said.
During the first quarter of the year, hotel room rates and green fees are at their highest, and businesses dependent on tourists make or break their bottom line for the year. After several dismal years of declining tourism worldwide that left local room rates and occupancy — the percentage of available hotel rooms booked — plummeting, East Valley hoteliers saw the trend turn tentatively positive in 2004.
This year, the positive trend is gathering steam, and local tourism leaders are hopeful the long-awaited travel drought is over.
"We’re revising our projections upward for first and second quarter," said Robert Brinton, executive director of the Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We haven’t done that in four or five years. We said we were cautiously optimistic last year. This year we’re dropping the word ‘cautiously.’ It’s OK to be optimistic now."
At the Hilton Phoenix East/Mesa, bookings for the next three months are "stronger than they’ve been since the 1990s," said David Muth, the hotel’s general manager.
Muth said he’s not only selling more rooms, but he’s selling them at a higher price.
At the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort in the Gila River Indian Community, groups account for 80 percent of the hotel’s business, said spokeswoman Kristen Jarnagin.
During the second half of 2004, group business picked up so well, "it blew away our forecast," Jarnagin said. "We actually made money in summer."
Advance bookings for this year are even stronger, Jarnagin said, and the resort is likely to exceed projections again.
The Valley is outperforming most major U.S. markets, but the whole tourism industry is recovering, said Jan Freitag, of Smith Travel Research, national lodging industry trackers.
During the down economic times of the past few years, corporations tightened their budgets and business travel nearly came to a halt. Business travel is picking up now, Freitag said, and as the demand for hotel rooms increases, it allows hoteliers to raise rates.
Still, they haven’t reached the heady peaks of 1999, he said, and may not for some time, if ever.
"Ratewise we still have a long way to go," he said. "But we should see meaningful rate growth in 2005."
Sherry Henry, general manager of the Fiesta Inn in Tempe, agreed the recovery has grabbed a foothold.
"We believe we have finally turned the corner," she said. "We definitely have more business on the books. And the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon is a great start. We are sold out for this weekend."
Henry said special events like the marathon are a big factor in filling rooms.
Organizers fill up the calendar in winter months with excuses for out-of-towners to choose Arizona for their vacation instead of Florida or another sun destination. The events range from horse shows in Scottsdale to ostrich races in Chandler.
The tourism season kicks off with the annual Fiesta Bowl, which organizers hoped this year would leave Valley businesses $175 million richer. The final figure is still to be determined, but Tempe hotels mostly sold out and inns as far away as north Scottsdale got at least some of the overflow of football fans or college bands that came to play in the parade and band competition — a couple of events that come to the Valley with the game.
The Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon, this weekend’s prized draw, has filled local hotel rooms during the lull between the Fiesta Bowl and the Barrett-Jackson Classic Car Auction, helping to transform the winter months into a solid season of packed shops, restaurants and golf courses.
Only in its second year, the race has been a tourism bonanza for East Valley hoteliers. Several, including general manager Tom Kreitler at the Holiday Inn Phoenix-Tempe ASU, sold out race weekend several weeks ago.
"I had more pressure for rooms for the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon than for the Fiesta Bowl," he said, adding that stuffing the race into an otherwise slow week has extended the tourist season on the front end. He’s equally pleased about another new sporting event, an Arizona version of the Ironman triathlon, slated for April 9.
Kreitler said Ironman extends the tourism season a week in the other direction.
"It’s like found money," he said.
The Ironman, with all three competitions based at Tempe Town Lake, has already attracted 2,500 participants. The competitors are expected to spend an average of five days in the Valley and bring two to three people apiece as a cheering section, Graham said.
It’s a distant three months to the triathlon, but 2,800 room nights already have been booked, she said.
The races bring a bunch of people to the Valley for the first time, said Rachel Sacco, president of the Scottsdale Convention and Visitors Bureau. The hope is that they’ll like it so much they’ll keep coming back.
The next-up major event does the same even though it has been around for three decades.
Barrett-Jackson Classic Car auction keeps getting bigger and spreading its reputation — and Scottsdale’s — further nationally and internationally, Sacco said.
Barrett-Jackson, considered the Super Bowl of car shows, revs into WestWorld, Scottsdale’s big-event venue, on Jan. 25. It is considered the most lucrative of Scottsdale’s events, because it attracts the well-heeled who stay in the poshest hotels and eat in the fanciest restaurants.
"People come to stay in Scottsdale and spend in Scottsdale," Sacco said. "And the likelihood of them coming back is very high because they are our target market."
Last year, Barrett-Jackson sold 98 percent of its nearly 800 cars and counted 185,000 attendees during the four-day event. This year, president Craig Jackson added 100 more cars and another day to auction them. Attendance likely will top 200,000, event organizers said.
North Scottsdale keeps the spotlight for another week after the car show when the FBR Open tees off Jan. 31 at the Tournament Players Club.
Most of the 500,000 golf watchers will come from around the Valley instead of around the world, but, thanks to TV coverage, the tourney is a prime tourist generator for the weeks and months that follow, Sacco said.
"The FBR is wonderful for a different reason," she said "It’s a huge (public relations) engine. People call us year after year. They want to play the course. We couldn’t buy a commercial that would do for us what the FBR Open does."
The rest of the winter season is packed with dozens of events from arts shows to horse shows that give visitors plenty of opportunities to spend time and money.
But the biggest draw of all steps up to the plate in March — major league baseball spring training. Cactus League games span the whole month, and fans from Chicago to San Francisco stay in the East Valley for days or weeks just to watch their teams play.
While they are here, the out-of-towners do lots more than just take in a few baseball games.
Based on a 2003 study, they shop, dine out, play golf and even travel around the state while they are in Arizona.
But 58 percent of those surveyed said they chose to vacation in the Valley only because of the Cactus League.
Last year the Chicago Cubs, which have among the most loyal followers, set a training attendance record.
That includes the comparisons among all teams in both the Cactus League and Florida’s Grapefruit League.
The entire Cactus League set an attendance record with 1.24 million tickets sold, McKenzie said.
A recent rash of rainy days hasn’t dampened local local tourism leaders spirits concerning the upcoming season.
If it rains for a day or two in March, it won’t stop any of the baseball fans from coming, Brinton said. The visitors might skip a game and go shopping or see a movie instead on a soggy day, he said.
Weather in other locales is always a much bigger factor in Valley tourism than the local forecast, McKenzie said.
If the Midwest and North have a mild winter, folks are not as inclined to try to escape to the Valley, he said, but if the northern winter is particularly harsh, reservation lines at local hotels start ringing off the hook in February and March.
"A few days or of rain in the desert looks good compared to snow in Chicago," he said.
New air carriers like Jet Blue and new fares to the Valley, such as those announced last week by Delta Airlines, also make it easier and cheaper for Northerners and Midwesterners to get here, McKenzie said.
All together, the factors seem to be ripe for a robust tourism season for the Valley, he said.
There’s just one downer to all the blue-skying, Kreitler said.
This year Easter falls on Match 27. That could lop a whole week off the stay of winter visitors, he said.
Winter visitors tend to use Easter as a signal that winter travel season is over, he said.
"When we have an early Easter it’s just not good," Kreitler said.
Still, Kreitler said he’s already booking reservations for the Ironman a whole week after the spring holiday.
UpcomingEast Valley Events
What: P.F. Chang’s Rock ’n’ Roll Arizona Marathon When: Today Where: Scottsdale, Phoenix, Tempe
What: Barrett-Jackson Classic Car Auction When: Jan. 25-30 Where: WestWorld, Scottsdale
What: FBR Open Golf Tournament When: Jan. 31- Feb. 6 Where: Tournament Players Club of Scottsdale
What: Parada del Sol When: Feb. 5 parade, Feb. 11-13 rodeo Where: Parade downtown Scottsdale, Rodeo Rawhide, Scottsdale
What: Arabian Horse Show When: Feb. 18-27 Where: WestWorld, Scottsdale
What: Cactus League Spring Training When: Throughout March Where: Valleywide
What: Arizona Men’s Tennis Championships When: Feb. 21-27 Where: Fairmont Scottsdale Princess Resort, Scottsdale
What: Chandler Ostrich Festival When: March 11-13 Where: Tumbleweed Park, Chandler
What: National Festival of the West When: March 17-20 Where: Rawhide, Scottsdale
What: Mill Avenue Spring Festival of the Arts When: April 1-3 Where: Mill Avenue, Tempe
What: Ironman Triathalon When: April 9 Where: Tempe Town Lake, Tempe