The bulldozers have temporarily ceased in the desert east of Palm Springs. The servants' quarters are painted. The butlers are learning their cues, and guests are arriving for English tea at the spanking new Grand Champions resort.
But the tractors and graders will roar again, having paved the way for just the latest in a string of ultra-luxury hotels rising out of the sagebrush in the resort-saturated Coachella Valley.
Executives of the $120-million Grand Champions at Indian Wells, which opened this month, are undaunted by the swelling pool of resorts aiming for the seasonal influx of tan-seeking tourists. They claim to have something no one else in Palm Springs does--European-style service.
But quick on their servants' coattails are half a dozen other luxury resorts--marbled destination hotels with golf, tennis, spas and $200-a-night prices--each with its own innovative service. A new Marriott will have gondolas. The year-old, financially ailing Marquis has villas with kitchens. And more European-style service is on the way from a new Ritz-Carlton scheduled to be built across the desert floor from Grand Champions in Rancho Mirage.
"Like Tucson and Scottsdale, Palm Springs is already overbuilt," said Melinda Bush, publisher of the Hotel & Travel Index, a trade publication. "As one of the fastest-growing resort areas in the country, every hotel has to fight hard for its market share by going after a different type of customer."
More than 1,600 hotel rooms have been constructed in Palm Springs and the surrounding seven communities in the past two years. Competition is particularly fierce in the desert during the summer, when the average temperature is 108 degrees and hotel occupancy is below 50%. Yet, 2,500 more rooms will be added by the end of next year, according to the Desert Resort Communities Convention & Visitors Bureau.
With all of the new ultra-luxury hotels in the Palm Springs market catering to the same Bally-loafer and Gucci-perfume set, those that offer the attentive service found at small European inns are expected to be popular in the oasis.
"The European, or world-class, tradition is an answer to a market need for a lot of luxury travelers out there," Bush said. "They don't hold conventions with thousands of people. The servants know your name. Your shoes are shined when you leave them outside the door. People who want to surround themselves with such niceties are willing to pay for it."
And those who are willing to pay are not always getting that world-class service, according to Albert DeVaul, chief executive of Century City-based Grand Champions Resort Development Corp. "In the United States, the whole notion of first class has been lost. People just tell themselves the service they get is the best."
DeVaul, 39, and Grand Champions President Charles Pasarell, 42, both new to the hotel business, thought to build a European-style resort in Palm Springs three years ago and spent two years gathering ideas from luxury hotels around the world. The result is an amalgamation of amenities ranging from a cozy English piano bar serving cognac and cigars to jazzy Californian restaurants with menus by Los Angeles chef Wolfgang Puck.
To DeVaul, European service is defined in the lobby. Champagne is served at the check-in desk, tea is served at four and the sounds of a piano fill the room. The cashier's office is located in a little room down the hallway. "You never seeing money changing hands," DeVaul said. "You can't hear them scream when they get the bill."
The new hostelries differ from the standard American hotel in that they generally have fewer than 300 rooms, a high ratio of staff to guests, an emphasis on food and dining and a homey atmosphere--all relative novelties in the American resort market, although they have been present in luxurious big-city hotels and small country inns for decades.
Some industry experts, however, question whether true European ambiance can be achieved in the United States, and especially in Palm Springs. "They make the scale too big. They go opulent instead of being understated," said Madeline Schneider, editor of Hotel and Restaurants International magazine. "All I've seen in Palm Springs is glitz. I don't think anyone there can get away from being large and contemporary."
Despite the skepticism, hotel industry insiders say that the European-style hotels have an eager market in young millionaires, Fortune 500 executives and corporations scheduling small meetings. Resort occupancy is soaring in the United States, with an average occupancy so far this year of 79%, 10% higher than any other category in the $46-billion hotel industry, according to the American Hotel and Motel Assn.