Hot Air Balloon Rides RiverWalk at Loon Mountain

What does it take to be a top resort? Both new and legacy resorts share their secrets with Resort Trades.

When the American Resort Development Association recently recognized RiverWalk on Loon Mountain as the winner of its coveted ACE Domestic Project of Excellence Award, Dennis Ducharme surely took a moment to revel in the beauty of his creation. Over a decade in the planning, the stunning six-story resort with a bright red roof is located on 25 acres along the banks of the Pemigewasset River and provides easy access to skiing and outdoor activities as well as local restaurants and shops. Amenities include an on-site winery with tastings, full-service spa, 4,000 square foot fitness center, restaurant and lounge, game room, heated all-season pool, a one-of-a-kind skating rink with shows featuring past Olympians, and an owners club with personal storage lockers. When it opened last year, the luxurious units were already deemed worthy of RCI’s Gold Crown designation, and the top two floors are even included in RCI’s Registry Collection, the exchange company’s tier for elite travelers.

RiverWalk on Loon Mountain wows guests with unique activities, from hot air balloon rides to professionally produced ice skating shows. During winter, one of the pools is converted into an ice rink for guests, and the resort even has a custom-painted Zamboni machine for smoothing the ice three times a day.

However, according to Ducharme, president of InnSeason Resorts, the key ingredient in their newest resort’s success is actually its staff. “I could give you the fanciest unit, but if you’re not greeted by a team with a smile on their faces, one that makes you feel welcome, you’re not at a true resort,” he says. “I get a million kudos for the building and the amenities, but I get just as many for the team of people who work here. It truly is a team effect. You really feel like you’re on vacation. Week after week culture that’s the culture that we have here; our staff is proud to be at one of the best resorts in the country.”

What are the ingredients for a top resort? One that consistently has happy owners, high exchange value and a sound balance sheet? Open just a year, RiverWalk on Loon Mountain has the advantage of being the new kid on the block, but there are many “high mileage” resorts out there that meet this criteria, too. What sets them apart? Here, Resort Trades identifies some key ingredients for success. (Spoiler Alert: They’re proud of their staffs too.)

A True Resort Feel

Gracing Southern California’s Pacific Coast is Marriott’s Newport Coast Villas. “The design creates a Tuscan village effect with statues and fountains,” says Ed Kinney, global vice president at Marriott Vacations Worldwide. “The units are terraced down the hill so that each one has sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and Catalina Island. It certainly doesn’t feel like a hotel, it feels like a true resort.”

Opened in 2000, the resort has four pools, a 4,000-square-foot spa, a fitness center, a bar and grill, tennis courts, access to Pelican Hill Golf Club, two activity centers including one specifically for teens, and Bella Vista Park with basketball court, putting green, sand box, fire pit, barbeque and picnic areas. Nearby area attractions include historical sites, arts, culture, nature, shopping and, of course, Disneyland Park.


Marriott’s North Coast Villas’ design by MBH Architects has a Tuscan vibe and takes full advantage of the site’s spectacular ocean views.

With so much to do at the resort and in the area, “a high percentage of owners come back year after year,” Kinney says. “The owners have a true sense of belonging, and the staff have such longevity that they have watched the owners’ kids grow up – now many of those ‘kids’ are the owners. There’s a sense of pride among the team; to them it’s a career not a job.”


Other factors that Kinney cites for the resort’s success include year-round appeal, the spacious (1,238 square feet), well-equipped villas, and skilled management that includes a very successful rental program. ” is one of the largest e-commerce sites in the world; it does $10 billion in transactions each year,” he says. ‘We are happy to rent for our owners who won’t be traveling this year or those who have opted for another use option, such as cruises. It’s exceptional marketing for us when these highly valued clients can experience our properties first-hand.”

Desert Dowager

Though they say in real estate that it’s all about location, location, location, Lori Entwistle, managing agent/general manager of Scottsdale Camelback Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona, begs to differ. “Our location is important, but I’ve had an epiphany that the reason our resort remains so popular is our resort staff,” she says. “Our owners, RCI guests and rental guests just rave about our staff. They’re so friendly; they wave to everyone and make them feel so welcome.”

Scottsdale Camelback Resort doesn’t show its age; owners are loving the addition of a miniature golf course. Relaxing poolside is also a popular activity.

Of course, the great location doesn’t hurt. “We’re just two hours from Sedona and Tucson, plus there are so many things to do here in the Scottsdale area,” she says. Although the summer temperatures can top 100 degrees, the resort runs over 80 percent occupancy year-round. “The Europeans really seem to love the heat, plus the only time you’re outside is when you’re outside. You can golf early in the morning and they sit by the pool for a while.” Guests also enjoy the fact that restaurant reservations and other activities are easier to book without the crowds that flock to the area in February and March.

There’s a lot to do on property, from tennis to spa services to restaurants to a movie theater. More recently, a miniature golf course was added. “A lot of our older couples like that we’re a smaller property so it’s easy to get around,” Entwistle says.

The resort was purpose-built in 1982 and originally sold to locals as a country club experience with opportunities for exchange. Now, exchange guests are purchasing with the intention of returning rather than exchanging most of the time.

Skilled management has kept the resort up-to-date and amenities and activities are always being added. “Today, resort management is a lot more than sending out assessments and hosting a weekly potluck,” she says. “Our business is only becoming more sophisticated.” The resort has an active program for resales and rentals.

On the Beach

Randy Chapin, general manager of the Carlsbad Inn Beach Resort, considers his property to be a “contemporary” of Scottsdale Camelback Inn. “Both resorts opened about the same time, and there are a lot of similarities,” he says. “Over the years, I’ve often connected with the management there to compare notes and strategize.” Given the resort’s RCI Gold Crown status and a TripAdvisor Award of Excellence, plus an ACE Spirit of Hospitality Award for himself, he must be getting great advice.

To Chapin, the key to remaining a top resort is consistency. “Owners and exchangers alike come to the resort with certain expectations; reasonable expectations developed through repeat visits or stories they’ve heard from previous visitors. Guest perceptions can only be maintained at a top level by living up to those expectations,” he says.

The Carlsbad Inn Beach Resort also belies its age; the resort recently renovated its activity center based on input from owner surveys.

“Our stated purpose as a company is, ‘Enriching lives by creating experiences worth sharing!’ Vacations should be special and a stay here is our opportunity to provide them with an experience that can actually change their lives; expose them to something they’ve not seen or done before, help develop new interests or hobbies, and provide them with a memorable vacation that they want to share with friends.”

With an extraordinarily busy activities program and 25 restaurants within walking distance, guests can park their cars and forget them until their stay is over. Most activities are free or the fees simply cover the cost of materials. “We don’t want to nickel and dime people,” he says. There’s live entertainment twice a week, surfing lessons, yoga sessions, boogie boards, bikes, sand toys, pool toys, beach chairs and umbrellas, and joggers are available for guest use.

To keep costs down, Chapin gets inventive, such as giving band members a free stay at the resort after their concerts. Surfing lessons are conducted on dry land and those who want to take it further can book an advanced lesson with the vendor.

Being innovative also comes into play when keeping the resort up-to-date. “The challenge is to maintain a balance of extending the life of property assets and staying on top of a long-term plan for the replacement of those assets,” he says. “We have to keep fees low enough that owners continue to pay, while still fully funding our reserve accounts. The best answer I have is constant inspection and tracking to maintain what you have, while being diligent about preventive maintenance for both in-room assets and common areas. There’s a proper way to plan future renovations. We usually do 60 or 70 rooms at a time over two years, and plan for that to last five to six years.”

“The best compliment I can get is when someone says the property looks better today than when they bought 30 years ago.”

Future Success

Perhaps it all comes down to remaining a place that people want to return to year after year. If that’s the case, RiverWalk on Loon Mountain seems poised to join these resorts as a standout property for decades to come. “We have outdoor fire pits, hot air balloon rides, helicopter rides up to Mt. Washington Hotel. You’ll be able to ride a gondola directly to the ski slopes. But most of all, we have a seasoned team with amazing resources who create a home-like feel,” Ducharme says. With a resort like that, who wouldn’t want to visit time after time?