How California’s desert oasis drank from the fountain of youth.Destination 2016: OrlandoDestination 2016: Phoenix
This summer’s millennial look was probably sealed when model Kendall Jenner wore a sheer bra top and choker necklace to the Bootsy Bellows party at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival this spring. More than 2 million people “liked” one of her Instagram shots from the event, then celebrity media outlets pushed her sun-kissed selfie out to the rest of the world. If you see her style recreated at pools, beaches or nightclubs in the coming weeks, remember—it all began in Palm Springs.
For two weekends in April, throngs of young people descend on greater Palm Springs—a term that refers to the nine closely connected cities in the area, including Palm Springs—to attend what has become the largest music event in the world. In 2015, Coachella grossed $84.3 million over six days, with an average of just under 100,000 attendees per weekend. The 2016 festival crowds, about half of concertgoers under 35 years of age, had an estimated economic impact of roughly $704 million on the area. “It is an iconic event that’s really influenced fashion and culture,” says Scott White, who lived in the Coachella Valley from 1988 to 1996 and returned to become president and CEO of the Greater Palm Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau in 2010.
Local governments are courting young professionals and luxury brands to create a cosmopolitan environment.
With numerous museums and more than 200 winter and spring festivals, greater Palm Springs is a cultural hub.
QUALITY OF LIFE
Relatively cheap real estate, balmy winters and springs, and access to nature make this an attractive place to live.
[two_third]But Coachella isn’t the only youth-focused event in the area. More than 450,000 people attended the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament in nearby Indian Wells, Calif., in March, and more than 210,000 tickets were sold to country music fans for the Stagecoach Festival in the last weekend of April. “We have over 200 events that happen between January and April now,” says White. “They have changed the landscape of the destination.”
There’s another way to put it: Palm Springs is getting young again.
Wealth has been a constant in the Coachella Valley for nearly a century, but by about 2000, the desert oasis was generally considered a home for the elderly. The region developed in the early 1900s as a sort of medical tourism destination, a retreat prescribed to sufferers of respiratory conditions that doctors believed would improve in the area’s dry heat. Hollywood stars glamorized Palm Springs in the 1920s and the decades following, making it a place to see and be seen. Ralph Bellamy, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope all had homes here, though none of them, even in their prime, were really pictures of youth. In the ‘60s, the low cost of travel to greater Palm Springs made it a popular spring break destination even as its Hollywood cachet faded and businesses closed down as a result. But the college kids occasionally got out of hand with drunkenness, water balloons and bared breasts—so much so that in 1990 then-mayor Sonny Bono criminalized water toys and thong bikinis, effectively stamping out youth from what was already considered by then a retirement community.
BMW Courtesy of the BMW Performance Center; San Jacinto State Park Courtesy of Greater Palm Springs; Coachella 2016 Photos ©Getty Images; Splash House Courtesy of Greater Palm Springs
Local government couldn’t be more different today. “We are changing with the times,” says Robert Moon, the newly elected mayor of the city of Palm Springs. Moon was a retired IT executive when he moved here in 2001, and he’s excited about the regenerative power of millennials. “People used to come to play golf and tennis and to party long ago, and it’s happening again now,” he says. Moon cites the region’s natural splendor, with three mountain ranges surrounding the Coachella Valley, as one of the biggest attractions for the younger set looking for hiking and biking opportunities. He also seems to have no problem with bikinis. One of the biggest summer tourism draws, he says, is Splash House, two massive pool party weekends in June and August. “It’s amazing how many people can fit in a swimming pool.”
There may be no better indicator of Palm Springs’ appeal among millennials than JetBlue. The airline’s target customer base has always skewed young—executives say it is on average upwardly mobile 25- to 54-year-olds—and this past January, the carrier opened its first route into Palm Springs, a nonstop flight from New York, after examining the market’s potential due to all of its winter and spring events. “It has been a great success. Our flights have been over 80 percent full since we launched the market,” says John Checketts, director of route planning for the airline. “It exceeded our expectations out of the gate.” The seasonal route ended on May 1 and will resume service in November.
Besides festivals and hikes, younger people have other reasons to travel to and live in greater Palm Springs: an expanded California State University campus in Palm Desert, as well as strong income and job growth. These developments have increased the population in the valley and bolstered entrepreneurship, attracting young professionals from communities such as San Francisco.
The millennial effect benefits everyone in the region. The primary residents of greater Palm Springs’ communities such as Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage and Indian Wells are affluent baby boomers. But prior to this tourism renaissance, there was a dearth of sophisticated hotels and restaurants in the Coachella Valley. Now there seems to be no end in sight to the hospitality properties being developed, with major and boutique brands all opening locations here within the last few years: Ritz-Carlton, Ace Hotels, Avalon, Arrive. Kimpton will open next year; Virgin Hotels will follow in 2018.
“We have a concentrated downtown,” says Mayor Moon. The city of Palm Springs’ core sat empty for decades, but it is now packed with so many restaurants and lounges that the city provides a trolley service to shuttle visitors to hotels.
All the attention has also attracted luxury developments and brands. Palm Desert has the El Paseo shopping district, with boutiques from brands such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Tiffany. Last year, BMW opened its second U.S. Performance Center at the area’s Thermal Club. Located in the community of Thermal, the club is a car enthusiast’s retreat, with luxury homes attached to a racetrack so residents can easily get on the course and race their high-performance vehicles. After scouting numerous western areas such as Las Vegas and Orange County, the German automaker chose Thermal for its center. “Palm Springs had the best infrastructure for what we wanted,” says Dan Gubitosa, director of the BMW Performance Center. “You have the hotels, restaurants, good cultural events, without that big city feel. It just made a lot of sense.”
This level of luxury is a far cry from what most millennials can afford. Is it risky to bank on such a young demographic? Not according to White. “Millennials are going to want to be homeowners and their priorities change,” he says, despite reports that the Coachella Valley is gentrifying so quickly that millennials wanting to move there could find themselves priced out by higher rents. Another issue with youth-oriented music events is the concern that people come for the music—and little else. Even with its nearly 125 golf courses, greater Palm Springs struggles to attract meetings and conventions. “The cities that make up the Palm Springs area aren’t working with each other as effectively as they should be,” says Jeffrey Adam, director of global accounts for HelmsBriscoe, the world’s largest venue-sourcing company for meetings. To attract a diverse group of travelers, he says, Palm Springs can’t depend on good weather and Bob Hope references. “People don’t know who Bob Hope was anymore. They barely know who Frank Sinatra was.”
Yet the history of the greater Palm Springs area is part of its mystique. Another festival, Desert Trip, has been announced for this October, which will bring together rock icons including Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan in what should be a legendary event—for baby boomers. Some people in the media have dubbed it “Oldchella,” but authenticity and history are two things that everyone agrees millennials value, making this a music event that might just bridge the area’s age gap. “Greater Palm Springs has really grown,” says White. “The individuals who are coming here are starting to shape it.”
This article originally appeared in the 2016 June/July issue of Worth.
This branch of the College of the Desert fosters the development of renewable energy through workshops on wind and solar power as well as workforce training. 43-500 Monterey Ave., Palm Desert, 760.346.8041, collegeofthedesert.edu
An incubator from the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership, iHub helps develop startups in the area that are focused on renewable energy and clean technology. 3111 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Joe Wallace, managing director, firstname.lastname@example.org, 760.340.1575, cvep.com/iHub.html
A nonprofit dedicated to preserving the architecture and history of the Coachella Valley, the foundation also helps organize the annual Modernism Week festival in February. 1775 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Suite 110-195, Erik R. Rosenow, president, 760.837.7117, pspreservationfoundation.org
This historic property in downtown Palm Springs was founded in 1933 as the Estrella resort and spa. Revamped by interior designer Kelly Wearstler, it is the latest chic addition to the resurrected center core of the city. 415 S. Belardo Road, 760.320.4117, avalonpalmsprings.com
A quintessential Hollywood retreat since its opening in 1926, the massive 45-acre villa property—now run by Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts— remains one of the choice golf resorts in the valley. 49499 Eisenhower Drive, La Quinta, 760.564.4111, laquintaresort.com
Opened two years ago, this architecturally stunning property is perched on the cliffs overlooking the valley and set a new standard for contemporary luxury in the region. 68900 Frank Sinatra Drive, Rancho Mirage, Kelly Steward, general manager, 760.321.8282, ritz-carlton.com
Located at the new Arrive hotel, Reservoir’s eclectic menu serves up “Southern California cuisine,” a global collection of tastes that, somehow, works just right. 1551 N. Palm Canyon Drive, 760.507.1640, reservoirpalmsprings.com
This beautiful alfresco space at L’Horizon Resort & Spa takes full aesthetic advantage of the natural environment while bringing the Michelin-starred expertise of chef Chris Anderson to the table. 1050 E. Palm Canyon Drive, 760.323.1858, lhorizonpalm springs.com/sopa-restaurant
A local favorite, Workshop’s elegant, seasonal food, served in an equally sophisticated environment, almost makes you forget that you’re not in the big city. 800 N. Palm Canyon Drive, email@example.com, 760.459.345, workshoppalmsprings.com
Six legendary names in rock— Paul McCartney, Roger Waters, the Who, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young and Bob Dylan—will come together in October at the Empire Polo Club in Indio. deserttrip.com
This January 5–16 festival is considered a warm-up to the Oscars. 1700 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Suite 3, 760.778.8979, psfilmfest.org
The former home of philanthropists Walter and Leonore Annenberg continues to host world leaders, as it did when they lived here. 37977 Bob Hope Drive, Rancho Mirage, 760.202.2222, sunnylands.org
A legendary golf resort, Bighorn has opened the Vault, a club-within-a-club for supercar enthusiasts. The 24,000-square-foot space showcases members’ classic and super cars. 255 Palowet Drive, Palm Desert, 760.341.4653, bighorngolf.com/thevault