Slew of hotel openings shows town on track for tourism

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Gilbert has a long list of attributes and accolades that speak to its quality of life—a place to live, work and play. For the past three years, town officials have been working to see it also become a place to visit, dating back to its adoption of a tourism plan in 2016.

Those efforts, intended to help diversify the town’s economy, are beginning to show results in the number of visitors and revenue flowing back to Gilbert.

While the town still has only a small piece of the Valley’s tourism industry, it is growing in size, officials said.

The most evident sign is the opening of four hotels in the past six months, giving the town 10 hotels and increasing room inventory more than 60% to 1,058.

With a growing amount of data to study, the town is learning its place in the tourism market.

“We’re not your Disneyland, and we’re not your Grand Canyon,” Tourism Administrator Glenn Schlottman said. “We’re not the typical tourist destination. We have a very different tourist in mind.”

Who Gilbert’s visitors are

The town primarily touts its family focus as a reason people come here. That plays itself out in three of the four key types of visitors Gilbert Economic Development Director Dan Henderson identified.

The first is the day visitor. They may be in for baseball spring training and possibly even staying at a hotel outside the town. Gilbert’s goal is to get them to come into town for things such as eating in the Heritage District or hiking in the Riparian Preserve, Schlottman said.

It also can be in one-off places to visit, such as Arizona Goat Yoga, which has had publicity to attract people from out of the area. In a class of about 150 people, roughly half will be from out of state, including many Canadians, co-owner April Gould said.

“We have a lot of people who come every time they are in town,” she said in a text message. “We even had a group come from Germany who came to Arizona just for goat yoga.”

The second type of visitor is the business traveler. With employers such as those at Rivulon, more business travelers come in to conduct business locally or possibly for a conference, Henderson said.

The third is people visiting friends or relatives, officials said.

The fourth is the emerging youth and amateur sports visitor that has come with February’s reopening of Cactus Yards. Schlottman said one recent tournament played there drew about 50 out-of-town teams from eight states.

New hotels, new business

The interplay between the attractions and the hotel additions illustrates a principle Henderson frequently invokes: creating a place where the market wants to invest.

In this case, Henderson said the town is working on building the supply and demand sides of tourism. That means supporting the growth of the Heritage District, where Gilbert has grown from three to 30 restaurants in the past few years, or reopening Cactus Yards under town direction.

On the flip side, the town has worked to attract hotels, too, to accommodate increases in the visitors. Before April 2009, the town had one hotel. With the four most recent additions, Gilbert’s 10 hotels have 1,058 rooms, up 407 from August.

Those numbers pale in comparison to neighboring Valley cities, but Schlottman said the town is not worried about that.

“Where we shine is I think we have nice hotels,” he said. “We have new hotels, and they’re also affordable.”

They are also busy.

“We were crushing it in occupancy, and we still are, but with the addition of those four hotels and a 60% increase in supply, we are finally starting to see a dip in occupancy,” Schlottman said.

Schlottman reminds others the natural dip in occupancy is not a problem.

“Our goal is to grow demand and to have more heads in beds, and we’ll do that by increasing supply and filling that supply,” he said.

At the newest hotel, Tru by Hilton Gilbert, General Manager Stephen Pursell said the startup has been fairly busy based on his personal experience.

“We’ve seen a lot of leisure and family and sports teams,” he said. “Gilbert feels very busy, that’s for sure.”

Importance to economy

Henderson called tourism a “line of service” the town is now offering that is paying dividends in multiple ways, including a bed tax, or accommodation revenue, which is a new revenue stream for the town.

The tax collected for hotel accommodations has increased from about $253,000 in 2011 to nearly $600,000 the past two years, a figure it should easily surpass this fiscal year, according to the town. Collection is up 31.1% month over month for the year.

Town Council Member Scott Anderson campaigned on the importance of adding such a new stream.

“As we approach build-out, I think diversifying the economy is important, and tourism is one way to do that,” he said.

Henderson credits town leadership as well as strategy and tactics defined in the town’s five-year tourism plan for the growth. That plan included the development of the www.discovergilbert.com website and the hiring of Schlottman as tourism administrator.

“This is a fairly young line of service,” Henderson said. “It’s not even five years old in the town of Gilbert. Having a five-year strategic plan focused on the emerging gateway known as Gilbert is why I believe you’re seeing the success in the community.”

Future growth

Schlottman said the town is not done yet, either.

The Heritage District’s redevelopment plan calls for more amenities in the area but also encourages a boutique hotel development included on the 9.1-acre site called the north anchor. A second hotel also could emerge.

The Strand @ Gilbert water park at Gilbert Regional Park is expected to bring in water events that would draw people from outside the area. A hotel also could go into the park, Schlottman said.

Another area ripe for a hotel is near Cactus Yards on the undeveloped portion of Elliot District Park, though Henderson indicated the town must respect the parking needs of an adjacent church.

Anderson also has encouraged finding a signature event for the town that would draw people from outside Gilbert. Schlottmann said the town is actively pursuing such events, listing food and music festivals, youth and amateur sporting events, and STEM- and arts-based events as possibilities.

“I think we’re very much at the infancy of a destination, but it’s growing so fast,” Schlottman said.

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Tom Blodgett
Raised in Arizona, Tom Blodgett has spent 30 years in journalism in Arizona and is the editor of the Gilbert edition of Community Impact Newspaper. He is a graduate of Arizona State University, where he now serves as an instructional professional in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and editorial adviser to The State Press, the university's independent student media outlet.
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