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Tube top

Waterparks offer guests a winter retreat.



More hotels are being built with water parks, which keep guests on the property longer and for higher rates.

There's something altogether odd about seeing a hotel with a tube sticking out of it. What's wrong? Is it sick? 

But these tubes, which may emerge from a wall at one point, then return one or two stories down, are not life-support systems. They are simply the latest fashion trend in the hotel world, an accessory that a growing number of inns are adding in their constant battle to stay ahead in the hospitality game. 

These tubes are water slides, central pieces in water parks that are being included in more hotels around the country, especially the Midwest. Guests, it seems, are bored with the same-old hole-in-the-ground pools where the most fun involves diving in from the side despite signs pleading guests not to do such things. Kids and adults these days would rather take advantage of the Earth's gravitational pull to plunge downward hundreds of feet into the water. No diving

"It's an evolution of the types of water features that you see," said Steven Mogck, executive vice president of Select Service Hotels, a subsidiary of Minneapolis-based Carlson Hotels Worldwide. "It's a very powerful draw."

Pools have long been a big feature of hotels and still are—many chains, like Carlson's Country Inns & Suites, require their hotels to include pools. 


An increasing number of hotels use water parks to attract leisure guests, but the parks can repel business travelers.

Resort-style hotels, especially in northern climates, are moving water parks indoors as a way to attract visitors in colder months. A few gargantuan indoor water parks in the Wisconsin Dells resort area have helped it become more of a year-round destination, for instance.

Yet the water park trend has filtered down into convention hotels and into suburban and even rural areas that would seemingly have no business hosting a resort property or a destination hotel. Holiday Inn, one of the properties owned by the Intercontinental Hotels Group, has 13 indoor water park locations in the Midwest and another two outdoor water parks, in the Southeast. The chain just started a Web site devoted specifically to the growing interest in water parks.

The parks are typically located near Interstates or an airport and generally have numerous nearby attractions, said Mark Snyder, senior vice president of worldwide brand management for Holiday Inn. He gives a simple reason for their growing popularity: Hotels with water parks have occupancy levels that are 20 points higher, and they charge $28 more on average per room. "Hotels with enhanced water features consistently outperform their local markets," he said.

Consider the Holiday Inn in Maple Grove, Minnesota, a prosperous suburb of Minneapolis. The hotel includes the Venetian Indoor Water Park, which has two four-story water slides, a kids' pool and a pool sporting a climbing net and basketball hoops. Surrounding walls look like buildings and the roof like a night sky.

The hotel is in the midst of a huge retail development. The water park attracts people looking for a weekend destination, and many of the Venetian's guests use the trip to spend time shopping. "People come in for the entertainment, for shopping or for a weekend getaway," said Mitch Peterson, president of Torgerson Properties, which owns the hotel and 25 others around the country. "It really lends leverage to what's already there." 

Snyder said water parks are growing in part because families are increasingly looking for short, drive-to vacations and water-based recreation has long been quite popular. In more rural areas, these types of hotels can be major destinations in a community.

The properties attract another type of tenant: youth sports teams and clubs traveling to tournaments and other events. More than 40 percent of kids from kindergarten through the eighth grade—water parks' key demographic—participate in some organized after-school sport or club, according to federal education statistics.

"Free HBO" just isn't as big of a draw to those groups that it once was. Parents instead look for a hotel that will give their children something to do after the final whistle blows. "That's a big draw for hotels on weekends and in the winter," Mogck said. "There's a big emphasis on traveling sports and on tournaments."

Convention hotels are also getting into the act. South of Minneapolis, next to the Mall of America, a Radisson hotel that has been a traditional destination for conference-goers has built a substantial water park. While it also caters to weekend travelers, Mogck said many people who attend conferences during the week stay for the weekend because there's something to do besides shop at the mall. 

"It's a large hotel that has good facilities for the business traveler," Mogck said. "It's convenient to the airport. If a person is coming to Minneapolis for a business trip, having that amenity makes it more likely they will stay over after the convention to enjoy the leisure aspects."

Still, not just any hotel can or should install a water park. The amenity is not cheap. Installing a major water feature with a four-story slide adds a considerable amount to the cost of constructing a new hotel. The ongoing costs of maintaining such a feature are also high—thanks to the need for lifeguards and liability insurance. Holiday Inn requires prospective owners to first study the viability of a water park, Snyder said.

Many hotels may not be enough of a destination to justify the cost of a water park. While some may offer tickets to non-guests, they are usually guest-only amenities and must be able to attract enough guests to justify their expense. 

And in many cases a water park can repel certain types of guests. Business travelers, for instance, may not be keen on going to a hotel that is focused on families and children. A hotel with tubes sticking out of it just screams, "We have lots of kids here."  "A business traveler might not want to hear the pitter-patter of kids' feet," Mogck said. 

The hotel in Maple Grove has found a way around this, by closing the water park during the week when business travelers use the hotel. The park, Peterson said, is "something that could be viewed by the corporate traveler as not the most attractive feature of the hotel." Besides, the hotel doesn't usually see huge demand from leisure travelers on weekdays.

Hospitality Investors, which operates 13 hotels, has two with expanded pool areas that include wading pools and large water slides—but not a full-blown water park. Richard Hayman, chief manager and a partner in the company, said the pools areas don't bring in many guests. But it does bring guests back. "I don't think it has a lot of staying power," said Hayman. "The kids enjoy it, and it brings them back again. That benefit can be added to my properties with minimal expense. And I don't have to raise room rates." 

And running a full water park is different than running a hotel, something Torgerson Properties is finding out with its Holiday Inn. There are higher costs, to be sure, but the hotel itself becomes the destination. Guests do not leave the hotel as frequently. And the hotel has to change the park's hours to make sure it attracts leisure travelers without alienating business guests.

"It's different from our other hotels," Peterson said. "In each of our facilities we try not just to be a bed to sleep in, to make it an experience. But they don't even compare to this one. Families come in, they invest that amount of money and they stay at the water park. It's not a hotel stay. It's a vacation. And to be a good water park operator requires a certain amount of

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