Breathing New Life Into Existing Resorts

June 13, 2023

Written for Hotelier Magazine
by Rebecca Stone, AIA, LEED AP B+C | OZ Architecture, Principal

Expectations for the guest experience at resorts have been evolving since the 1960’s. For the past two decades, resorts have been in an amenities race with the goal of providing everything a guest could possibly want in a self-contained resort experience. But the modern guest increasingly seeks the opportunity to customize their stay to their own unique tastes and preferences – often well outside the bounds of the resort. They want to experience a sense of place and have a true, authentic experience that feels entirely unique.

As architects and designers of resort experiences around the world, OZ Architecture has seen and supported this evolution of the guest experience firsthand. Here’s a look at five key design opportunities that we are seeing for existing resorts to up the ante and provide an unforgettable experience for the modern guest.

Expand What is Considered a Guest Amenity
When it comes to amenities, for the past 20+ years, operators have looked within the bounds of their own resort, or perhaps slightly beyond, to a limited list of excursions. As a result of this more insular approach to placemaking, guests started to miss the more historic, traditional, resort experience and seek out a sense of local culture and place. As a result, we’re seeing a strong trend toward curated excursions to nearby amenities – and not just for the typical locales. Think: guided day hikes, first track skiing experiences with the hotel manager, vineyard tours, fly-fishing guides, hot air balloon rides, local festival passes, kayaking at a nearby lake, raft trips, shuttles to nearby shopping – anything that gives the guest a true sense of the ‘locals’ experience.

For example, when developing The Canyons masterplan, the team repositioned the resort to be ‘a portal to the Utah experience.’ The property is near the famed Park City, allowing guests of The Canyons to easily go into town for dinner or shopping. Fantastic local skiing can be accessed directly from the property, and with its proximity to the Jordanelle Reservoir, the resort is primed to offer guests kayaking or fishing excursions. Rather than trying to build everything into the resort, The Canyons embraced its location and strives to provide guests with the perfect base to explore everything the area has to offer.

Lift | Park City, UT
Lift | Park City, UT
Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa | Avon, CO
Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa | Avon, CO

Curated Food & Beverage Experiences
Offering truly great food in the average resort has been somewhat of a challenge over the years. Because of the seasonal nature of some resorts (i.e., ski resorts) it has been difficult for restaurants to survive with off-season swings in occupancy. This is changing. We are seeing intentionally curated F&B programs that provide greater variety for guests, drawing from the local area for inspiration. While not all of the concepts may be open at once, the strategy provides a stronger draw for guests year-round.

When we worked with Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort, many of the restaurants were run by a single operating group. They had an oyster house, a piano bar and an outdoor crab shack. Guests could choose their experience for the night – and try all of them throughout their stay. The restaurant owner had the ability to close down venues during a slow season on different days, so staff was always busy and guests always had at least an option. In Keystone, Colorado, this same concept is occurring. One group owns several of the F&B venues, with each providing a unique experience for guests. In Whitefish, Montana, we are working on several properties for the same owner. One will have a less formal market concept for guests on the move, one has a lively lakeside tiki bar and a family-friendly and fine dining restaurant, and the last has fresh local fare – all sourced from Montana.

Architectural Character Can Reinforce the Brand
As resorts that were constructed in the 1960s and 1970s begin to think about refreshing their existing buildings, they are paying a lot of attention to the architectural character that makes that resort special (or sometimes changing the character to make that resort feel more of-the-place).

Many local planning departments are now putting guidelines in place that are meant to encourage architects to think about the local vernacular as changes to existing resorts are made, thus eventually helping to strengthen the brand of that resort or community.

Vail, Colorado for example, has many condominium properties and hotels that are planning updates to modernize materials, efficiencies and even programming. The Town of Vail has thoughtfully written guidelines for Vail Village and Lionshead to ensure that the Vail identity is not lost. All changes to buildings go through a Design Review Board for approval. This board is made up of locals who understand the area’s unique sense of place and are passionate about preserving what is special about Vail.

Something for Everyone
To remain relevant, it’s important to constantly be taking the pulse of the modern traveler. Many ski resorts built even as recently as the early 2000s were primarily condominium villages. There were not a lot of hotels, and if there were, they were hotel-condos.

The Airbnb wave woke up resort developers to the fact that people are eager to travel to and stay in these destinations but may not be in the market to buy condos. The challenge has become creating a sense of brand and consistency when condo owners rent out their units – particularly when those units are not kept to the standard the resort is aiming for.

This inconsistency has driven developers and resort owners to add hotels to their mix. Today resorts are adding three- to five-star properties, allowing a more consistent stay at different price-points, and competing with the short-term rental market for guests. Keystone resort is adding Kindred Hotel to the base of the Gondola at River Run. This property will provide both hotel rooms and larger rental experiences – one to four bedrooms – that allow guests to come up for the weekend or travel with multiple generations for a longer stay.

38 Central Hotel | Whitefish, MT
38 Central Hotel | Whitefish, MT
Kindred | Keystone, CO
Kindred | Keystone, CO

Small, more boutique hotel experiences, are also gaining popularity. Whitefish, Montana has three boutique hotels coming into the town in the next year. These are small venues with 20-40 rooms each, allowing for a highly personalized level of service. The Town of Mountain Village at the top of Telluride, Colorado has a mid-size luxury brand hotel coming soon that will enliven the gondola plaza at the top of the mountain with public restaurants and a mix of condos and hotel rooms available.

In addition to smaller hotel concepts, we are also seeing more resorts adding a handful of cabins to allow for more private stays in natural and quiet settings, or larger rooms and suites that allow families to stay together. Bunk rooms, for example, are a big trend to support more multi-generational travel.

Ride the Wellness Wave
Finally, when it comes to programming, right now wellness-focused amenities are a high priority. From choose-your-own adventure spa complexes that allow guests to curate their own experience, to indoor-outdoor experiences and nature-focused wellness excursions, there is seemingly an endless appetite for supporting the mental and physical wellbeing of guests. Aspen is soon to welcome a new and improved Aspen Club into the community which will create a world-class wellness destination with a limited number of luxury rooms, and exceptional service and amenities.

Whether existing resorts incorporate one or all of the trends above, the main takeaway is the importance of consistently looking to embrace and enhance what makes each resort experience unique – a sense of place, brand identity and architectural character. Sharing those special identifiers with guests in meaningful ways is where we find the most inspiration for enhancing guest experience.

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