Blue Sky Utah – Stuart Campbell shares the latest on the West’s much anticipated new opening
If we had to pick a new hotel project that we’re most excited about in the United States, it may well be The Lodge at Blue Sky Utah. Set in 3,500 pristine acres of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains near Park City, the forty-six room property seems to be heading towards the perfect marriage of clean, contemporary design and an authentic Western experience.
We caught up with Stuart Campbell, Blue Sky’s COO, to get the inside scoop on the project:
The important question first, when will Blue Sky Utah be opening? Is everything on track?
Yes, it is a big project but amazingly we’re mostly on track. Considering it is a twenty month build from start to finish, we’ve only slipped against the schedule by about three weeks, which is pretty amazing given the scale of the project and the tough conditions we’re working in here in Utah.
As far as opening to guests, rather than open over Christmas, we’re going to do some dry runs in January with friends and family, bring in the press and travel trade in February, working out any bugs as we go, with the idea of the first guests arriving in March 2019.
Great! I’m interested to know how The Lodge at Blue Sky came into being in the first place?
Well it has quite a history. Mike Phillips, the owner, bought the property about thirteen years ago and always had the idea of doing something with it other than just keeping it. He is based in Park City and he and his wife love horses, so the first thing they did was move them up here but always with the goal of doing something hospitality related. He had initial conversations with groups like Interstate, Marriott, and also Auberge before the recent changes, but they didn’t lead to anything at that stage.
In the interim, Mike met Dave Perkins, founder of High West Distillery, who were planning to expand their operations in Western Salt Lake City. Mike invited Dave up for a ride on the property and it was clear that the two brands were really well aligned, both with the American West at their heart. The beautiful new distillery opened at Blue Sky Utah in 2015 and it’s been a huge success.
So how did you end up getting involved?
In 2014 I was based up in Jackson Hole as the GM of Amangani and I had just been made the MD of Europe and Africa, and was all set to move to Montenegro. After some mutual friends put Mike and I in touch, I agreed to fly down to share my thoughts but I was still very much moving to Europe. We got in truck and drove over the property and I gave him my views on what I thought it could become. We totally hit it off and it turned out that we were both speaking exactly the same language. Within three weeks I’d resigned from Aman and we were off.
The next two years were spent pulling it all together in our minds, working out exactly how it should look, feel and fit into the landscape. We got an architect on board as we started to concept the resort and we started working with a great design group out of Santa Monica. We found our contractor and then last March, together with Mark Harmon from Auberge, we all got together, did a ground breaking, and started to dig a big hole!
Today the project looks fantastic. I’m onsite two to three times a week; looking at view corridors, standing in the rooms as the steel and concrete is going up, and it’s just beautifully designed and the landscape is stunning. What’s more it has the huge advantage of being forty-five minutes from an international airport. Places like Amangiri, The Ranch at Rock Creek, and Paws Up do such a great job but one of the drawbacks is that it can take two flights and a long drive just to get there. We feel we have what they offer but within a short drive of Salt Lake City.
You mention these other great places, some of which you obviously know first hand, and I’m assuming they’re in your mind when you were developing the vision of Blue Sky Utah…
This is one of the most important questions and everyone has their ‘thing’. Aman has these incredible designs and stunning locations; I think Amangiri is one of the most beautiful resorts in the county. When you walk into the lobby of an Aman there is such a distinct feel and you know immediately that it is an Aman. Some of the ranches on the other hand evoke so strongly the Western lifestyle, beautiful mountains and rivers, large pieces of land, all of the things that people are looking to experience more of today. If you could put Amangani in Rock Creek’s location and have an international airport nearby you’d have the perfect combination; that’s what we’ve done here.
I don’t like the term but we can offer the ‘dude ranch’ experience, with the horses, cattle and fly-fishing, we have all of that spread over 4,000 acres but then you come back to a lodge that has a similar design, style and feel to an Aman. At Blue Sky you won’t be surrounded by elk antlers and woven rugs; these are great but in a kitsch Western-style rather than being very design focused and clean. We have been careful to take elements of the local area rather than trying to copy it.
I know staffing some of these remoter properties can be a challenge. What’s your approach on this front?
The best answer to that question is the 25 years of experience that leads you to the point that you can do something like this. My previous postings have been in Jackson, Macao, Bhutan, Sun Valley, and the Cook Islands, all places where it is impossible to get people but somehow we managed. Over a career you develop relationships with people and you keep in touch to see when you might be able to work together again, I have ten names in my back pocket right now who want to come and be involved in the management here and they then have relationships with people below them. It will be difficult, it always is, but there is a real focus on education here in Utah with three great colleges near us and I think we can draft people out of those schools. I think we will also be able to tempt across some people working in the resort town properties who are fed up with traffic jams and can have the same commute as before but be in the wilderness rather than jammed in a resort town.
So once you’ve got the staff in place, how do you keep things personal and avoid the temptation of things becoming too much of an operation?
The bottom line is being able to look after guests on an individual basis and one of the big decisions we made was to have no more than 50 rooms, we have 46. In my experience around the 40-50 mark two things happen, you’re big enough to make enough money to survive but you’re small enough to still able to know every employee and speak to every guest that walks through the door, this is critical. I did the maths after I left Amangani and I’d handwritten over 25,000 welcome cards! You can never stop being a good hotelier and the moment you do it is time to get out.
Before I let you go, what do you think that defining Blue Sky Utah moment might be for guests?
We’ve spent a lot of time making sure that the arrival experience is really special. From the moment you drive up to the hotel you’re looking through the building across to the mountains beyond; we’ve designed the building with an opening so that you’re not just pulling up to a closed door. You’ll be taken to your room where you can sit on the deck listening to the creek, hear horses in the background and see a herd of elk on the hill. All of this is a forty-five minute drive after a direct flight. It is that rapid transformation from New York, the Pacific Palisades or wherever, whereby everything has happened so quickly and beautifully that you can’t believe that this morning you were sitting in your apartment and now you’re outside in the Rocky Mountains watching it all happen.