Ahh, Arizona. With more than 300 days of sunshine, world-renowned golf, spa and gaming resorts, cutting-edge venues, as well as outdoor amenities aplenty, the “Grand Canyon State” offers something for everyone when it comes to meetings and events.
According to Marla Harr, CMP, meeting and event management consultant with Business Etiquette International in Phoenix, the Arizona climate simply can’t be beat, and is one of the leading reasons that meeting and event planners turn to Arizona as an event locale. “Arizona has the high mountains of Flagstaff, the Grand Canyon, as well as beautiful Sedona and Tucson. Depending on your attendee profile and meeting objectives, you can find a region that will work for you,” Harr says. “This is a pretty diverse state — with a cowboy feel to the west to the more sophisticated city of Scottsdale. Plus, downtown Phoenix has really transformed over the last 10 years. It’s becoming a cool place to be.”
The state’s ideal weather is important for planning outside events or activities, especially golf and hiking. The flip side is the summer for the meeting and events market, which offers much lower costs for almost everything: sleeping rooms, meeting space, transportation, etc. Kayla Metli, buyer, event purchasing at ITA Group in West Des Moines, Iowa, also stresses that Arizona is a great destination for both incentive travel as well as business meetings. With great airlift, consistent warm weather and a great selection of hotel products, Phoenix and Scottsdale are always top of mind. “Arizona offers a vast number of things to do across the state from the Grand Canyon National Park, the spiritual vortexes and red rocks of Sedona to the lively metropolis of Scottsdale, known as the ‘South Beach of the Southwest,’ and the rich Southwest tradition in Tucson,” Metli says.
With the sunshine and warm weather, there is no shortage of outdoor activities. Attendees can explore the Sonoran Desert on a jeep or Hummer tour, try their swing at a championship golf course, enjoy the cultural scene at a local gallery, hike the iconic Camelback Mountain, or relax by the pool and enjoy the breathtaking sights Arizona has to offer. As Arizona is easily accessible by all major domestic carriers with multiple daily flights and affordable airfare, attendees are sure to have a smooth travel experience into the destination. Once they arrive, they have a short transfer, as most hotels and resorts in the Greater Phoenix Area are within 30 minutes of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
ITA Group operates several programs every year in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area for its clients. This past year, they’ve operated nine programs in the Greater Phoenix Area, including a mid-sized incentive program at the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Gainey Ranch last spring. “We have another client that regularly includes the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa in their rotation for two large incentive programs, and the hotel knocks it out of the park every time with fabulous food and beverage, flexible meeting space and top-notch service,” Metli says. “Southwest Conference Planners demonstrate their local knowledge and creative insight with fun optional activities and dependable airport transfers for the large incentive every time. We love the incentive quality and consistent performance that Arizona offers our clients.”
Indeed, Sarah Sebastian, meeting planner and owner of Rose Gold Collective, has turned to Arizona for several meetings and events she’s planned. Recently, she partnered in producing a two-day medical conference for more than 100 physicians to attend for continued education. “We learned there are a lot of smaller convention-type spaces and turn-key venues throughout the Phoenix area that are perfect for more traditional educational conferences,” Sebastian says. “Arizona also offers a great selection of indoor meetings space within hotels in Phoenix and Scottsdale, such as the Four Seasons and the Kimpton.
In addition, the region has a lot of unique, outdoor activities and a beautiful landscape for Zen and wellness, with Sedona as a unique destination. The area is known for their spas, golf and pools, so including some R&R time in the meeting agenda will be well received.”
Sebastian also stresses the array of outdoor team-building locations within the Phoenix area, as well as such unique gems as Tombstone and hiking tours along the Apache trail. For a group more interested in integrating wellness into their event, Sedona offers a more nomad vibe that could include yoga, wine tastings and glamping. “You can take these themes and really transform an incentive trip or a meeting into a really memorable destination event,” Sebastian says.
Odell Dickerson Jr., principal and meeting planner at OdellExec Enterprises, agrees that Arizona can truly make a memorable mark on meeting and event attendees. Arizona has played host to an annual meeting that he has helped coordinate for nearly 20 years. In his role, Dickerson orchestrates the annual pastoral summit conference called “Conversations” for Changes Can Happen Inc. This forum is held for some of the most influential African-American male pastors from around the country to come together to discuss relevant ministry, while simultaneously renewing themselves spiritually, mentally and physically.
The event is by invitation only, with approximately 100 pastors convening at the Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort & Spa, with an ongoing waiting list to attend. Some of ministry’s leading thinkers attend this gathering over a three-day period, and there is an abundance of learning, leisure, food, fun and fellowship. “Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort & Spa has become our home away from home,” Dickerson says. “We are approaching our 20th year of ‘Conversations,’ making us their longest-tenured group. Sanctuary understands relationships and, furthermore, they are matchless in their presence, luxury, attention to detail and customer service. Again, this is ‘home’ for us, so there is no other choice.”
Set high above Paradise Valley on iconic Camelback Mountain, Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort & Spa’s 9,000 sf of indoor/outdoor meeting and event space is an inspired choice for corporate gatherings and events. With a sleek, modern design that blends into the natural surroundings, the resort environment fuels creative thinking. Its intimate scale ensures privacy for every group.
The Tucson Touch
Many meeting planners are also drawn to Tucson. With many of the city’s resorts tucked in the foothills that surround the city, it is easy for groups to go from the ballroom to outdoor activities, such as biking or hiking at Saguaro National Park or exploring the various nearby attractions. The unique landscape also makes for a great backdrop for breakouts and team-building activities. From horseback riding to roping and cowboy cookouts, visitors are immersed in cowboy culture at several of the area’s ranches. Being surrounded by five mountain ranges also gives groups the opportunity to rent bikes, and go road or mountain biking, hiking or ATV riding.
Tucson is also enjoying a revival of sorts. Meeting and event planners will celebrate the $65 million renovation currently underway at the Tucson Convention Center. The plan includes $14.7 million in convention center upgrades, a $9.2 million meeting room expansion, a full replacement of the Tucson Arena ice floor and ice plant, a 300-plus-space parking garage, Tucson Music Hall, Eckbo Plaza and fountain, and the Leo Rich Theater. The entire project is expected to be completed in 2021.
A Tucson icon, El Conquistador Tucson, A Hilton Resort, remains a planner favorite. The resort offers 100,000 sf of flexible meeting and event space, and an 11,000 sf IACC-approved Executive Conference Center. Attendees looking for authentic entertainment can visit a mini Western village, part of the resort’s layout spanning 50 acres.
Health enthusiasts can enjoy the Elements Wellness Center, which features a range of spa services. Hikers will appreciate the Linda Vista Trails, with miles of paths meandering through high-desert landscape. Don’t miss the nearby self-guided hiking trails that enter the adjacent Catalina State Park, a true nature-lover’s paradise. There are also 30 miles of marked bike paths in Oro Valley.
Foodies will love the various dining options, which include the upscale Epazote Kitchen & Cocktails, which offers a Southwest-infused menu and breathtaking views of the 5,300-ft cliffs of Pusch Ridge. Other eateries open at this time include the poolside Desert Springs Bar & Grill; Colibri Lobby Lounge, with its outdoor patio, and Grab & Go for a quick bite.
In addition to well-loved Phoenix and Tucson, the city of Scottsdale also offers a wealth of meeting and event options. As Kelli Blubaum, CMP and vice president of convention sales and services at Experience Scottsdale, explains that Scottsdale is a short commute from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and offers all the outdoor recreation options you could dream of, and can easily experience thanks to more than 300 days of sunshine each year. What’s more, the McDowell Sonoran Preserve — untamed, protected desert land spanning 30,580 acres — makes up a third of the city’s land mass. There, travelers can find nearly 200 miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking of every level of difficulty, and hundreds of the city’s trademark, statuesque Saguaro cacti. “Then, you mix in an outstanding array of world-class resorts and cozy modest lodgings to accommodate groups of all sizes and budgets, 200 of the world’s finest golf courses, a plethora of luxurious spas and a dash of sophisticated cowboy chic, and meeting planners can easily keep meetings guests inspired and entertained,” Blubaum says.
It’s all topped off by the untamed beauty of the Sonoran Desert, with its wide-open spaces, diverse vegetation and unrivaled sunsets, providing a backdrop for events that is nothing short of invigorating. Because of Scottsdale’s increasing popularity within the meeting and events sector, there are always new venue options to explore. At the end of last year, The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa completed a transformation of its guest rooms, suites and corridors, with designs that present a striking new interpretation of modern eco-luxury.
At the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, Arizona’s largest and longest-running AAA Five Diamond resort, a renovation of guest rooms and suites, as well as the Princess Pool, was completed last fall. The new guest rooms feature a soft, tranquil desert décor with modern lines and furnishings. And Element Scottsdale at SkySong opened last summer as the latest addition to the 42-acre innovation and technology hub. This sustainable hotel takes a health-focused approach, offering a spacious on-site gym and natural saline swimming pool. Also, construction on Caesars Republic Scottsdale — Caesars Entertainment’s first non-gaming hotel in the U.S. — is well underway. It will be located adjacent to premier luxury retail destination Scottsdale Fashion Square Mall in the heart of Old Town Scottsdale, within walking distance to all of the unique shopping, dining and wine-tasting rooms, art galleries and the two art museums the area has to offer. Construction of the four-star hotel has been slightly delayed due to COVID-19, and a new opening date has not yet been announced.
To make the most of what Arizona offers attendees, Harr recommends meeting planners know their attendee profile, event agenda, objectives and budget. Then, do due diligence to research properties that fit an event’s needs. “Arizona has something to offer all planners. If it’s a larger event and you haven’t done events in Arizona, reach out to our local CVBs and DMCs. They are ready and willing to help you navigate through all aspects of your event and connect you to local companies,” Harr says. “Also, if you are a member of a professional organization, such as MPI or HSMAI, reach out to the local chapters as members will help.”
Metli also stresses that the time of year definitely matters if a planner ,wants to get the most out of Arizona as a destination. The best time to travel to the Greater Phoenix area is November through April, with peak season running from February to April for groups. If a group is flexible, try looking at shoulder dates or the off-season for more value. “The area boasts more than 450 hotels, with over 40 luxury resorts. With so many options to choose from, it is important to do your research and figure out what property is the best fit for your group,” she says.
Dickerson also recommends meeting planners learn Arizona’s seasons and know the season your group desires. “For example, a large portion of my group comes from the East Coast, where we experience harsh winters in the months of December through February. Our event is in February, so we desire the warmer climate that Arizona provides,” Dickerson says. “However, the group is not interested in being in Arizona in the months of June to August when the average temperature exceeds 105 degrees. Additionally, it’s important to understand that each season will affect affordability, level of experience, profit and overall budget.”
As Arizona venues, and other meeting and event establishments, eagerly await the “all clear” to reopen and welcome meeting and event attendees, meeting planners will be encouraged to follow the CDC guidelines and local restrictions in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. “The key here is communicating to your attendees and management what the restrictions are and how your organization will enforce them,” Harr says. To make attendees feel safe when meeting in person, Harr suggests meeting planners establish clear guidelines for the attendees and have available what they may need: mask (with logo of course), gloves, hand sanitizers, and let them know about the physical spacing. “As an event planner, your No. 1 responsibility is the safety and security of all individuals attending your event,” Harr says. “This time, it’s a more difficult task dealing with the unseen risk factor.”
Visit Tucson is helping individual properties and brands throughout the region communicate their cleaning and safety plans/guidelines to existing customers, as well as new prospects. They’ve partnered with the American Hotel & Lodging Association and the Arizona Lodging & Tourism Association to promote the SafeStay program to area hotels and businesses throughout the region. “Negotiating the landscape of new government orders, and regulations, is a challenge for meeting and event planners, so we’ve created a comprehensive and current resource with the most recent, and accurate, information about what’s going on in Southern Arizona,” Aguilar says.
For Metli, the key to planning an event during uncertain times is being proactive and prepared for a variety of potential scenarios. It is best to look at each event on a case-by-case basis and evaluate potential risks based on the current situation. “At ITA Group, we have a range of tools to evaluate and mitigate COVID-19 health risks. Our comprehensive approach includes a propriety risk assessment tool, client-customized strategies and guidelines, and effective implementation methods to manage health risks associated with event operations and venues,” she says.
Experience Scottsdale also recently launched a “Be Scottsdale Safe” landing page. The site offers information on mask mandates, what is open and closed, local businesses’ safety protocols and the Safe Traveler Pledge, which asks any visitors in Scottsdale to wear their masks, wash their hands and frequently touched items, practice social distancing, use contactless payment, and to be patient and kind. What’s more, the team at Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, one of Scottsdale’s most desirable meeting locations, will collaborate with planners to reimagine their meeting space, including food service, entertainment and team-building options, all that enable social distancing. These protocols are part of their newly established ACCOR “Stay Well” experience.
And the Phoenician’s “Taking Care of You” program features a host of new protocols, including satellite check-in, customized floor plans for each individual event, and the ability to livestream to complementary ancillary spaces. All meals will be modified to single-serve, pre-packaged or buffets with servers, Plexiglas shields, hand sanitization stations and queue management. “Keeping our meeting attendees, tourism community and residents safe is our No. 1 priority. As Scottsdale continues to reopen, we will follow all CDC guidelines, along with the additional guidelines implemented by our world-class resorts,” says Blubaum, of Experience Scottsdale. “We have put in place a ‘Health & Safety Info’ section of the member listings on our website that provides guests with specific partner safety guidelines and procedures.” C&IT