The lobby was too formal, and devoid of people for much of the day.
The spa was dark and below ground and didn’t rank nationally or even locally. Its fitness center was too small.
The golf course really needed work, a collection of 27 holes that didn’t match.
Those aren’t comments from a TripAdvisor review. They’re Mark Vinciguerra’s candid assessment of the resort he’s run since 2003: The Phoenician.
Yes, that Phoenician, one of Arizona’s premier resorts since it opened in 1988, a 545-room pampering palace on the southeast side of Camelback Mountain.
It was time to refresh
Where summer staycationers and infrequent visitors saw a still-gleaming luxury resort with palatial entrance, signature mother-of-pearl pool, views-for-miles patio, swank steakhouse and lush grounds, Vinciguerra saw weaknesses that put the resort at a competitive disadvantage for the vacationers and meeting attendees from around the world who spend hundreds of dollars a night in peak season.
“The resort really withstood the test of time but it was time to really take it and say, ‘What’s the future look like?’ ” said Vinciguerra, general manager of The Phoenician and neighbor Canyon Suites at The Phoenician, a 60-room boutique hotel.
Here’s what’s new
Three years and $90 million later, The Phoenician looks like a new resort. All the rooms were renovated. People who want to try the new spa can find deals online. Here are the major changes:
- A buzzing new lobby with a redesigned Thirsty Camel bar and lounge, set against floor-to-ceiling windows, as the centerpiece. Vinciguerra calls it the resort’s new epicenter.
- A new three-level spa with 24 treatment rooms, a fitness center with yoga studio, a rooftop pool, private suite, retail shop, nail lounge and Drybar blow dry salon.
- The new two-story Phoenician Athletic Club includes a 4,600-square-foot fitness center with cardio machines, weights and a fitness studio with 200 classes on demand.
- New tennis, pickleball and basketball courts.
- Revamped pool area with a longer slide and new children’s water playground, new restaurant and separate seating areas for families and adults, including reserved seating and nearly 300 more lounge chairs.
- By the end of 2018, a redesigned 18-hole golf course, clubhouse and updated J&G Steakhouse will open. In early 2019, The Phoenician Tavern, a replacement for Relish Burger Bistro at the golf clubhouse, will open. (Houses and condos will be built on the rest of the former golf-course land.)
‘What’s your vision?’
Host Hotels & Resorts, the lodging real estate investment trust that purchased The Phoenician and Canyon Suites for $400 million from Starwood Hotels & Resorts in June 2015, promised a major renovation from the outset.
Host, which has about 100 upscale hotels and resorts in its portfolio, knows Phoenix, where it owns the Westin Kierland Resort & Spa, The Camby and two Scottsdale Marriotts.
“They said, ‘What is your vision?’,” Vinciguerra said. “I said, We want to be the No. 1 resort in the country.’ ”
To see what they were up against, Vinciguerra and Host officials separately visited top destination resorts around the country including The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel in southern California and the Four Seasons Orlando and Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Florida.
Renovating in stages
The project, which was the biggest in Phoenician history and one of the biggest luxury-resort makeovers in the past two years according to Vinciguerra, was done in stages.
The makeover began in 2016 with a $10 million overhaul of Canyon Suites and the guest rooms at The Phoenician.
In 2017, the lobby and pools were redone and Mowry & Cotton restaurant opened.
The two biggest additions, The Phoenician Spa and The Phoenician Athletic Club, are freestanding facilities that just opened and are the most noticeable changes. Vinciguerra gushes about both.
He has tried the new aroma-design bar in the spa, where guests make their own lotions, oils and scrubs for their treatments and souvenirs (he’s partial to eucalyptus); booked treatments in the spa’s tranquility suite; and says the Technogym equipment in the spa is top of the line.
Lengthy renovations hurt business
The renovations have been disruptive and hurt the Phoenician’s revenue. At one point, occupancy dipped to 20 percent as rooms were renovated.
Last summer, the Phoenician charged its lowest rates in recent memory ($169) because the sprawling pool was being renovated and a temporary pool was all that was available. This summer the golf course is closed, as are the swank J&G Steakhouse and casual Relish Burger Bistro.
“It was hell getting here but it was well worth it,” Vinciguerra said.
It’s far too early to tell whether the makeover, which the resort hopes will translate to higher room rates and other revenue, will pay off. (The Phoenician recently raised its nightly resort fee from $29 to $35, for example.) Vinciguerra said the initial signs are encouraging: The Phoenician recorded its best April in history and so far is having a record summer.
The true test will come during peak tourism season, when demand is high and room rates spike. The lowest rate on the Phoenician’s website for a room with two double beds on a mid-March weekend is nearly $600 a night before taxes and fees.
What guests think of the changes
Early reviews on TripAdvisor have been predictably mixed.
A guest from Tucson who stayed in July called the renovations beautiful and said the hotel has “never looked better.” But the guest reported several problems, including dirty sheets and bees in the kids’ splash zone, and criticized the new policy of charging to reserve lounge chairs in prime areas.
A guest from New Hampshire in a late May post was more complimentary, praising the new spa, fitness center and lobby, but was disappointed that the water fountain in the lobby has been removed. (The one outside the main entrance remains.)
“We didn’t see anything wrong with the ‘old’ Phoenician,” the poster said. “However, once there we realized the entire property is much more luxurious. We did not think that was possible.”
Aiming for 5 stars in Forbes Travel Guide
The Phoenician has another makeover goal: bumping up a notch in Forbes Travel Guide, one of two major hotel ranking services.
The resort is aiming to go from four to five stars. Fewer than 100 hotels and resorts in the country earned that coveted distinction in 2018. Just two were in Arizona, and only one of them in metro Phoenix.
That one: the Phoenician’s smaller, less-known sibling and neighbor: Canyon Suites. Vinciguerra said the resort is embarking on a major employee training program in a bid to add a star.
“We’ve decided, ‘Hey, let’s just go for it.’ ”
6 cool new features at The Phoenician resort
1. Two fitness centers. Double your workout fun at two fitness centers, one in the new Phoenician Spa and one in the new Phoenician Athletic Club. The spa gym’s classes include aerial yoga and floating meditation.
2. Sports courts galore. There is a lawn full of them, including two pickleball courts.
3. A treehouse at the pool. A new kids zone includes a water playground with falling buckets of water a la some Disney resorts.
4. Reserved pool seating — for a price. Hate the idea of rushing down to the pool at dawn to save a chair? You can reserve one for $25-$50 depending on the season and day.
5. Free arcade games. Pinball, shuffleboard and other arcade games in the lower level of the Phoenician Athletic Club are free for guests.
6. Get a blow-dry to go. There is a DryBar franchise in the new Phoenician Spa, offering $45 blow-outs.
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