At the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort, summer guests can hunt for desert plants and local bugs with a Gila River Indian Community guide.
At the Westin Kierland Resort, on the Scottsdale-Phoenix border, they can float down the 900-square-foot lazy river or plunge down a 110-foot waterslide.
Couples staying at the Royal Palms Resort & Spa can opt for rose petals and chocolate-dipped strawberries instead of mints on their pillows.
And in summer, the luxury accommodations and pampering perks that winter visitors pay big bucks for can be had at bargain-basement prices.
Families can book a room at the posh Fairmont Scottsdale Princess Resort for $169, knowing that March visitors had to ante up $579 for the same accommodations.
At the Fiesta Inn in Tempe guests can check into a $319 room for $89, or — even better — fork over $99 a night and get a $50 credit to use at the restaurant.
The Phoenix Marriott Mesa has a deal that practically pays a guest to stay over.
With the summer-bucks package, a guest can pay for an $89 room with a Visa credit card and get a $100 discount on a room at the Mesa hotel — or any other full-service Marriott — in the fall, said Linda Propoggio, the hotel’s marketing director.
Best of all for East Valley residents, the elegant-butcheap getaways are available less than a high-priced gas tankful away.
“The majority of our summer business is local people,” said Kristen Jarnagin, spokeswoman for the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass. “We really fill up with Arizona families.”
The Sheraton and sister Starwood property, the Westin Kierland, have launched the corporations’ new program aimed at enticing families to high-end resorts, Jarnagin said. Both posh properties have added a “director of fun,” a Kids Club, and a passel of activities that the whole family can enjoy together.
At the Sheraton, that includes bug hunts, watermelon-eating contests, wagon rides, water-balloon tosses and American Indian “storytime and sundaes” evenings, she said. And, of course, “dive-in” movies, which have become standard summer fare at nearly all local resorts.
Jarnagin said the hotel has shifted nearly all its summer marketing dollars toward winning over local residents, especially families.
The Royal Palms doesn’t have the water playgrounds that typically attract families, but the resort is playing up its own strengths and marketing to local residents looking for a different kind of getaway, said general manager Greg Miller.
“Our property earned its reputation as a romantic escape,” Miller said. So he is touting “romance packages” with champagne and strawberries, rose-petal turndowns and inroom spa treatments to lure couples who want to get away from the kids as well as the house for a few days.
As recently as a decade ago, some of Scottsdale’s fancy resorts closed for the summer, and throughout the East Valley, hotels that were packed in March languished in July.
“We’ve come a long way since then,” said Rachel Sacco, president of the Scottsdale Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Tourism leaders discovered a whole new market for summer business — the local crowd, budget-minded groups and international travelers, Sacco said.
“Europeans — especially Germans — don’t care how hot it is, the rates are so reasonable” said Marie Vanatta, sales director for the Fiesta Inn.
And the Tempe hotel already has a bunch of corporate training sessions booked, Vanatta said.
Similarly, a regional Lions Club get-together has booked space in the Windemere Hotel & Conference Center in Mesa, and the statewide Rotary Club sessions are scheduled into the San Marcos Resort in Chandler, said Robert Brinton, executive director of the Mesa Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The groups will be taking advantage of upscale hotel amenities while meeting in airconditioned comfort, oblivious to the triple-digit temperatures outside, Brinton said.
“They come because it’s a good deal,” Sacco said. “It’s hot in New York and Chicago, too.”
While winter visitors usually come to the destination by air, in summer most arrive by car.
Besides Valley residents, summer vacationers come from neighboring states, especially southern California, Sacco said.
Driving is the summer trend nationwide, too.
The Travel Industry Association, a national trade organization, predicts summer travel will increase 1.4 percent compared with a year ago, and eight out of 10 vacationers will use the car to get where they are going, said Suzanne Cook, senior vice president of research.
The trade organization is keeping an eye on gas prices, but after surveying potential vacationers, Cook doesn’t see that as a major factor.
“Most consumers expect gas prices to be higher this summer, but they are taking it in stride,” Cook said. “People value their vacations. They might put off buying a new refrigerator, but they won’t give up their trip.”
Cook said those surveyed said they would alter vacation plans if gas hit $3.50 nationwide, but she is not expecting that to happen. Arizona average pump prices inched toward $3.10 this week but AAA Arizona is predicting prices won’t go much higher.
Local tourism leaders aren’t worried because of the nature of summer business.
In fact, soaring gas prices might be a boon rather than a barrier for East Valley hotels, Brinton said.
“If gas gets too high to go to San Diego, people may go to the Pointe South Mountain Resort and use the water park,” he said. The sprawling Ahwatukee Foothills property has a vast water playground with slides, wave pool, tubing river and dive-in movies, a closer, cheaper alternative to the beach, Brinton said.
“I know people who can’t wait for summer to stay at local resorts,” he said. “When rates drop as far as they do, it’s an attractive market.”
Local tourism leaders said they are expecting a good summer, but it’s too soon to know for sure.
That’s because in summer, leisure visitors, even some groups, tend to wait until the last minute to schedule a trip.
Miller said he just this week received inquiries from six different groups shopping for rooms and meeting space for a June get-together.