DSS Wrap-up: David Philp (Cornell ’84) – Executive Vice President, Canyon Group

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Ryan Christopher Sequeira

MPS in Real Estate Candidate '20 at Cornell University Baker Program in Real Estate
Ryan Christopher Sequeira is a Master of Professional Studies ’20 candidate at the Baker Program in Real Estate at Cornell University’s SC Johnson College of Business. He has a professional degree in Architecture (Nagpur University, India) and a graduate degree in Urban Design (School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi). Over the last ten years, he has built an expertise at the intersection of planning, design and transportation, focused on infrastructure for sustainable transit, transit oriented development, and multi-modal integration. Upon graduation, Ryan plans on working towards economic rejuvenation of cities through innovative financing and urban renewal.

This week, the Baker Program in Real Estate welcomed another Cornellian and stalwart of the hospitality industry, David Philp.  Today, after a long and industrious career in luxury development, Mr. Philp serves as the Executive Vice President of the Canyon Group.  The Canyon Group services the ultra-luxury boutique hospitality development market and is focused on establishments of 150-250 rooms in leisure destinations.  The focus of the presentation to the Baker students was Amangiri – a luxury 5-star resort in southern Utah.  This prestigious project broke every aspect of conventional wisdom and needed to be ideated free of any preconceptions.  In true Field of Dreams style, the project was based on the philosophy of “build it and they will come.”  In a complete antithesis to the real estate adage of location, location, location, the Amangiri resort worked without an established market and instead functioned as the magnet itself.  This was of course aided by the 200 million year old desert landscape in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell on the Colorado River.

This approach required overcoming significant challenges at every stage of the development process.  Working with Aman Resorts, the project collaborated with the National Park Service to swap land and secure a site naturally adorned with the enormous rocks of the Colorado Plateau.  This was to fulfill a vision of the property threshold being a pool interspersed with rock formations mirroring the surrounding context.  This was only the beginning.  The first major challenge was that of accessibility.  The site was a 4-hour drive from the nearest major cities, and the local Page airport barely supported a regular commercial flight service.  This potential downfall became a significant revenue driver of the project though air, helicopter, and limousine services offered by the resort to the surrounding region.

The next hurdle was that of infrastructure – roads, power, and water.  This was as much an engineering issue as a legislative one.  Being so remote, the most suitable plan of action was of being off the grid and serviced by solar fields and ground water.  These needed to be administered at a more regional level though, and the Canyon Group answered this requirement by incorporating a town of its very own – Canyon Point, with an Improvement District to manage the new infrastructure put in place. Coming down to the real estate brass tacks, Mr. Philp discussed going through the process of feasibility, design, and construction.  The project had no market comparable with no existing demand and a virgin site and hence, the underwriting was kept extremely conservative.  This underwriting rigor itself enabled the project to be a financial success from the very beginning and has aptly set the stage for the upcoming phases that are being ideated.

In terms of planning and construction, the project did face some hard knocks on the way.  Conceptualized as being based on wind, water, and stone, the property aims to be one with nature mirroring the very landscape in which it is sited.  Matching these design visions to code while still retaining the ethos took some serious effort through changing architectural hands.  Complications continued with the Asian origin materials including the marble from India and the teak from Thailand being susceptible to the arid climes, therefore necessitating immense care, and eventually rapid replacement. The construction itself was heavily dependent on imported contractors with specific expertise and having to deal with the insufficient labor availability in the regional market.

Though the learning curve was extremely steep, the accomplishment is extremely sweet, and the project is now the highest revenue earning Aman resort in the world.  As the project looks to expand the 34-room resort with 36 luxury villas, and eventually a tented camp, the Canyon Group will continue to carve its name in the sands of time.  The Baker Program in Real Estate immensely benefited from the exposure to the ultra-luxury side of the industry. We thank David Philp for returning to his alma mater to share his knowledge and experience at the Distinguished Speaker Series.

David Philp presenting to a packed auditorium in Statler Hall
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