As I arrived at JFK airport Monday morning, I wondered if my bleary-eyed flashbacks of cacti, balmy weather and the shiny chrome had been a desert apparition.
But that earthy cigar smell lingering on my coat brought the second annual Men's Luxury Toy Expo into focus.
Arizona, or "the new Florida," is like a giant sunroom, my cab driver had explained as he drove me to Glendale's University of Phoenix Stadium the previous morning. He pointed out the housing developments popping up like daisies along the road and was apologetic about the overcast sky. This sort of thing (clouds) almost never happens, he explained.
Its vast blue sky, lakes and endless stretches of desert road make Arizona the perfect state for joy riding, boating, off-roading and just about any adrenaline tweaking sport you can think of.
Close to 200 exhibitors at the toy expo this past weekend created the perfect oasis for these activities, under the guise of
Procart Industries' slogan: "The only limitation is your wallet or your wife."
Retirees and celebrities "live here for the weather, for the golf ... and of course the basketball," says Gigi Rock, owner of
Gigi Rock Productions, an event-coordinating company. "To keep them in this area ...
you have to bring in toys that men really like, because they're the population."
Grinning exhibitors and expo attendees favored the term "up-and-coming" to describe host Maricopa County's demographic. Those in the real-estate business sported the widest grins.
Xanadu Goes Green
The attendees at the expo were nothing short of gentlemen to this (self-proclaimed) babe in boyland.
One example was George Bridges, former real estate broker and co-owner of
Mobile West, a maker of custom electric golf carts, including Escalades and limos.
He bills his golf carts, which go up to 25 miles an hour, as environmentally sound alternatives to second cars. While Americans won't pass up the SUV, he says, they should still balance their karma. Besides, insurance is only $50 a year!
The gated communities and golf greens of nearby
Scottsdale are a perfect market for Bridges, as is
Westgate, a 6,500,000 square foot area near University of Phoenix stadium that Bridges dubbed the Tomorrowland of Arizona.
The Ellman Companies, he explains, have been busy planning this urban village which, once completed, will include restaurants, commerce centers and the Glendale Arena.
Bridges envisions Westgate residents carting around in eco-conscious cars that aren't difficult to park and are flashy to boot.
A person can never
have to leave the five-square-mile area in his little green enviro-car," says Bridges.
Events like this, it's apparent, are vital for anyone wanting a piece of the future-land market.
Sold on the Expo
FasTrak Auctions' first venture with the expo drew a crowd. (I was most envious of the bidder that purchased a guitar autographed by the Rolling Stones.)
"Fat Boy!" yelled the caller. "No, no I was talking about the bike," he quickly added, addressing an insulted gentlemen in the first row.
Scottsdale resident and bidder John Tsaninos, owner of Procart Industries, said that he was here to see the latest and greatest. He had already bought a couple of Harleys the day before.
"This area used to be dairies and cotton fields," noted Lyle, another expo attendee. The auction prices were too high for his tastes, though. As the population goes up, so do the prices, he lamented, as a guy whose shirt proclaimed "Old Guys Rule" bid on a Corvette.
To view Annika Mengisen's video take of today's Top 1% segment, click here.
How They Play
The expo is a venue for folks of leisure to mingle and these members of the "New Florida" community are as laid back as they come. Here, any demographic can wear a Harley shirt.
Co-regional director of the
Ferrari Club of the American Desert Region Rick Mukherjee and members Allen Faulkner and Ron Stafford killed my idea of "that sports-car guy."
Mukherjee remains modest about owning a 1993 Mondial (one of only 30 in existence with a Valeo clutch).
These guys field every question like pros and explain that there are two kinds of Ferrari owners: collectors and drivers.
When I dared to ask what kind they were, they simultaneously yelled, "Drivers!"
Instead of waxing their cars in showrooms, these men tear rubber from Salt Lake to Monterey. "We always take the back road, with lots of curves," says Faulkner, with a grin.
So why the appeal of this toy to these Arizona residents?
"A lot of it is the Ferrari lifestyle and mystique," explains Stafford. "There are a lot of cars that are faster."
The club provides Ferrari owners in the area, most of whom are from Scottsdale and Paradise Valley, camaraderie and a break from the showy car-owner types.
The 200-member club has one meeting and drive a month, and dues are $135 a year.
High Rollers and Aviators
The two busiest exhibitors demonstrated that Arizonians love thrill rides and a good smoke.
Cigar smoking is popular in the state, as it's still not overly regulated. No small wonder
Payne-Mason's booth was buzzing all three days of the expo.
Owner and founder Bob Payne uses the event as an avenue to expose his cigars to the general elite, as opposed to the usual celebrity functions and five-star hotels.
Only 3% of cigars in the world are hand-rolled, and Payne employs the skills of master rollers and traditional Cuban wood presses to do it right.
Guillermo, a man who has been rolling for over 40 years, showcased this dying art while a lit cigar dangled from his mouth, making passersby drool.
Payne opened the company's members-only Web site to the public two weeks ago. "The affluent want to separate themselves," he says, and fine cigars, like most toys at this expo, are a good way to do it.
Payne's cigars are not in stores, but you can now buy them online or join the cigar club.
Expo goers were also busy booking flights with one exhibitor to see if they might like to try the pilot life for themselves.
For $1,700, you can learn to fly a plane (and gain an FAA sport pilot license) and be going cross-country in a matter of days (in a $55,000 Light Sport Plane) -- a perfect escape for the guy whose parents doomed him to business school for his own good.
Known as "The Garden Guy" on a local Phoenix TV station,
Sport Planes Unlimited owner Ed Snyder and his wife were completely booked on prospects by Sunday's end.
Snyder builds and sells light-category planes. What that means to the layman is that you can land the planes on a dirt road or at any airport and fill them up at a gas station.
I asked Snyder if he could fly me back to New York. "How big is your backyard?" he replied. He wasn't kidding.
Their youngest pilot is 16, so here's mud in your eye, Dad.
I ended my trip with a Stevie Nicks' garden burger at
Cooperstown, Alice Cooper's sports bar in Phoenix. Cooper, I learned, is a local celebrity and quite a golfer, which in a state like this didn't surprise me.
For those of you wanting in on the Maricopa County luxe toy scene, the next expo is July 20 to 22.
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