Talking Stick tackles tough Scottsdale market

The exterior of the Talking Stick Resort.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – It was 18 years ago when Robb McCreary first saw plans for a large resort on Indian Bend Road, just outside of the 101 Loop. Those plans called for an 800-room hotel, casino, horse track and arena.

Flash forward to the present day and McCreary, who spent 27 years working for Hyatt and Hilton, now is the director of that resort, which is owned by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

The plans for Talking Stick Resort changed over time, but the idea for a self-contained, amenity-rich resort ultimately was realized. The 15-story, 497-room hotel towers over 36-hole Talking Stick Golf Club. The casino that used to be housed in tents along Indian Bend Road has been moved into the hotel’s lobby casino.

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The casino entrance at Talking Stick

Just inside the 101 Loop, Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, an 11,000-seat baseball stadium with 12 practice fields, opened in late February to serve as the spring home of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies.

The hotel opened last July – not exactly the height of Scottsdale’s tourism season – and gradually has been ramping up business.

“We are not hitting the levels of the established properties as far as occupancy, but we’re closing the gap very quickly,” McCreary said. He added that February numbers were “much, much stronger than we expected,” and that March is meeting expectations.

In a competitive resort market, McCreary makes the case that his property has entertainment options other resorts can’t offer.

“I look at us as a typical Scottsdale, Four Diamond resort, but with a lot more amenities,” McCreary said.

The casino is Talking Stick’s most obvious point of differentiation. McCreary said he is not involved in that part of the resort’s business, but the casino clearly is a big local attraction. On a recent visit, the 50-table Poker Room was packed early on a Friday afternoon. The resort representative showing me the hotel said that some people have quit their jobs to play poker full-time.

The casino is a world removed from the 14th-floor spa, which is 13,000 square feet and has 11 treatment rooms, including four wet rooms.

On the top floor, Orange Sky is the fine-dining option. Anecdotally, I’ve heard good things about the food at Orange Sky from a couple of people; what I can say with certainty is that the elevation affords uncommonly good mountain views. The seven westward-facing booths looked like a particularly good spot to enjoy dinner at sunset. McCreary said the restaurant has been selling out on recent weekends.

Talking Stick Resort also has 100,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor meeting space. He said that the group business accounts for 40 percent of sales. He would like to raise that percentage, but that market is difficult to predict because groups are booking later and in smaller numbers.

“I’ve talked to a lot of GMs in the area, and the big meetings are not common anymore,” McCreary said.

Standard rates for a Deluxe King room typically start at $159. McCreary, like his counterparts at other properties, wants to see rates rise, but discounting remains prevalent.

“The biggest issue is going to be with the rate,” McCreary said. “The demand is coming back and it will continue, but it’s going to be slow growth.”

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