Grand Sierra goal: Reno market as a destination |

Grand Sierra goal: Reno market as a destination

Pat Patera

Do an online search for destination resorts a place to book an entire week’s vacation and it appears that there are only two on the planet: Vail and Maui.

Other contenders might be Orlando, San Diego, and even Mall of America.

Might Reno one day bask in such exalted company?

“We believe Reno is a destination on the rise,” says Michael Carsch, president of hotel operations at Grand Sierra Operating Corp., the developer of Grand Sierra Resort.

And the key to year-round business flow, he says, is to incorporate amenities that cross the lines of weather, age, income and demographics.

“Hotel business is seasonal,” says Carsch. “In the winter if you don’t ski, there’s no reason to come here.”

He contrasts this location to the Wisconsin Dells where even midweek, and when the weather is horrible, the 20-plus water parks are packed with visitors of all ages.

How did the Dells build a destination package?

Product and service, says Carsch. And that starts with a weather-proof environment. Especially when a destination resort’s splashiest draw is a water park. At 150,000 square feet, he says the aqua attraction planned at Grand Sierra Resort will be the largest water park in the land.

But a look at other destination resorts shows that it’s all about offering a full package. They offer sufficient attractions that visitors can plan a week’s worth of amusement. Destination place Orlando, Fla. didn’t grow complacent over its prime draw, Disney World. Rather, it promotes a constellation of family-friendly theme parks. And San Diego does not rely solely upon Sea World.

An unlikely contender for destination-place status is Mall of America in Minnesota. A Wikipedia researcher calls it the most visited mall in the world. With 2.5 million square feet of retail space, its 520 stores attract 40 million visitors a year. But, to coax vacationers to spend the week, it promotes surrounding attractions, including an interactive aquarium, city zoo, IMAX theatre, science museum, dinosaur museum and NASCAR speedway.

How will Grand Sierra Resort measure up?

For starters, Carsh doesn’t expect to go it alone. “We believe in the moniker: America’s destination place,” he says, and is counting on Reno to continue its tourism development.

But neither will Grand Sierra slack on its part. The resort will offer upscale restaurants to satisfy gourmets, trendy nightclubs to tempt young adults, and an 80,000 square-foot-full service spa to spiff the fluff-n-buff set.

Casino? Check. Bowling? Check. Golf? A four-story cabana driving range into the lake. Broadway shows staged in the 1,800-seat dinner theatre. And of course that top-ranked vacation activity: shopping. High-end stores are planned for 300,000 square feet of retail space, fronted by outdoor cafe seating, that wraps around the lake. Each high-end chain, such as Coach, will independently finance its space, says Carsh.

As for the rest, “We expect total build-out to be in the $2 billion range,” says Carsch. And while that may sound exorbitant, he points out that Grand Sierra has 48 acres to develop. In Las Vegas today, he adds, developers are paying millions of dollars per acre.

The Grand Sierra property already boasts the 11th largest convention hotel in the country with 200,000 square feet of meeting space, he says, and he cites an InfoSearch survey showing that 47 percent of first time visitors to the area come in tow with a convention.

Will the water park make them want to return on their own time?

Reno already has an outdoor water park, Wild Island, which in summer is packed with kids. But Grand Sierra’s offering, slated for an early 2009 opening, aims for a different market. In keeping with national demographic trends that spotlight aging baby boomers and empty nesters, this water park separates adults from families with children.

“Adults look for different rides,” says water park designer Terry Ramaker of Ramaker & Associates. So they’ll get whirlpool baths. Group areas for private parties. A “margaritaville” with sand beach, sunbathing areas and swim-up bars.

To tempt the family market, a new generation of rides is just coming out of engineering development, Ramaker adds. High-speed body flumes, wave racers wave riders, and a side-by-side tube racer ride. Also new are four-leaf clover tubes that seat four and provide a different ride down the chute each time depending upon placement of the riders.

And when swim time ends, half of the water park is designed to convert to a nightclub atmosphere, or a dancing waters show.

“We think we can be all things to all people,” says Caresch. “When we get there, we will compete with Las Vegas, Orlando, San Diego.”

Meanwhile, the top 11 floors of the hotel will be developed as “The Summit at Grand Sierra Resort” hotel condominiums. And, just as the resort looks beyond the region to draw tourists, so it looks beyond locals to buy those condos. It’s hired designer Dodd Mitchell, whose projects include the upscale shopping plaza Santana Row in San Jose.

Mitchell goes heavy on textures and lighting, fire and water in his vision for the coming condos, says Carsh. That look is already evident in the design of Dolche, an Italian restaurant opening on premise.

A major hedge fund provided much of the financing for the purchase and renovation of the former Reno Hilton by Grand Sierra Resort Corp.

Tom Schrade, president and chief executive officer of Grand Sierra Resort, said last summer a hedge fund provided $203 million for the acquisition and redevelopment of the hotel. Another financial institution provided a $20 million revolving line of credit for redevelopment costs and Grand Sierra Resort put $35 million equity into the first phase of the project.

The Navegante Group headed by gaming veteran Larry Woolf is operating the casino. Grand Sierra Resorts closed on its $151 million purchase of the property from Harrah’s Entertainment in June.