As the chill of winter settles over most of the U.S., one state is assured to be enjoying milder months and outdoor environments at its peak: Arizona.
An enviable blend of desert and mountain settings, Mexican and Native American cultures, and iconic sights ranging from the Grand Canyon to Monument Valley, Arizona offers a surprisingly exotic backdrop for memorable meetings.
The Phoenix-Scottsdale metropolitan area, home to more than two-thirds of Arizona’s population, holds the bulk of the state’s meeting space, but don’t overlook outlying cities for something different, especially for small and mid-sized events.
Such was the case for the Advertising Specialty Institute (ASI), which normally alternates East and West Coast sites for its Power Summit.
“It’s a networking event and a bit of a reunion each year,” says Tricia Walter, MASI, manager of corporate events for ASI. “We bring in decision-makers, the owners and presidents, and we’ve had multimillion-dollar deals done at the events. But we were looking for a different destination.”
The company has been heavy on California and Florida locations, and for last October’s meeting, Walter says ASI wanted a change — a “newer, sharper, hotter destination. We wanted warm weather so we could do outside activities, and last year we received an invitation from Visit Tucson to check out several properties. It gave us a chance to check out the dining and activities like horseback riding.”
ASI chose the JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa for the Power Summit. At 575 rooms, the resort is Tucson’s largest, located in the saguaro cactus-dotted foothills overlooking the city, yet just six miles from downtown. The property has 80,768 square feet of event space, including a 19,836-square-foot ballroom, while other features include 27 holes of championship golf at the Starr Pass Golf Club and a 20,000-square-foot, full-service spa, which just completed a renovation in September.
“It’s a beautiful resort,” says Walter. “We’ve stayed at a JW before but we’re not loyal to any one specific brand. We needed a hotel with enough ballroom space to build a stage for our Power Summit. It’s a different stage every year with panelists and keynote speakers, but we need a minimum of 11,000 to 12,000 square feet in the ballroom, so the JW’s was big enough.
“We also require dinners to be held outside if possible, weather permitting,” she continues. “For our welcome night reception, we brought in a mobile escape room, so we needed the square footage — the Starr Circle and Foyer area was more than enough to accommodate this.”
ASI’s annual event draws 200 suppliers and distributors of promotional products. “Anything you can put a logo on — that’s our people,” says Walter. One piece of the resort’s AV arsenal proved ideal for the Power Summit.
“They had an LED projector for a filtered gobo image, so our logo could be projected,” explains Walter. “It was significant in price, but being a promotional product company our specialty is that we can brand anything. The resort said we’ve got this beautiful mountain to light up, so we could actually brand a mountain!
“We’ve heard nothing but terrific things about the food at the JW,” she adds. “The first night welcome dinner was a buffet-style barbecue, and all our people could not stop raving. The second night was our awards dinner, a plated dinner with assigned seating.”
Walter says ASI likes to keep its 200 attendees close but planned two offsite activities — guests could choose between horseback riding and autobahn racing. Horseback riding was offered at Cocoraque Ranch, a 45-minute ride from the resort, while the Autobahn Indoor Speedway was 15 minutes away in Tucson.
“It was adult go-carts,” explains Walter. “They went about 40 mph, and there were a few minor accidents but no injuries. They enjoyed it. We have a pretty competitive group, and they took great pride telling us about the collisions. The horseback riding was a lot of fun, but those horses had a mind of their own.”
Stephanie Turner-Scott, ASI’s director of corporate marketing, says there were other advantages to holding the Power Summit in Tucson.
“The cost was a little cheaper, and we probably had a little higher attendance from the West Coast,” suggests Turner-Scott. “East Coast attendees don’t mind traveling west, but our West Coast attendees don’t like traveling east in the fall as much.”
“Some of the feedback we got before the event was a little apprehensive about Tucson,” notes Turner-Scott. “But once they arrived, and they got a chance to relax, calm down and settle in, they said, ‘Wow, look at this view.’ It’s just that they’re used to California and Florida, and this was a totally different experience — they didn’t know what they were walking into.”
One other amenity at the resort proved helpful for the budget. “Kudos to the JW for having a UPS Store on site,” says Turner-Scott. “We had a presentation that was going to be handled like a Publishers Clearing House, with an oversized check for a local charity. By the time we got the check printed, it would have cost us a lot to ship it. I worked directly with Melissa at the UPS Store, and she saved us a significant amount of money.”
The JW Event Concierge meeting services app was designed with planners in mind and another asset for the ASI team.
“Even if I was in middle of a session, I could key in requests — whether it was moving boxes or asking them to start the coffee break early,” explains Walter, who downloaded the app prior to arrival. “Andrew Lopez was our events services manager, and he was amazing. No sooner did I send a request through the app, and he was on it and making whatever I requested or needed happen.
“The staff that assisted me the most at the JW was our Event Manager Kenzie Swenson,” Walter continues. “I had a few last-minute changes with menus, seating set-up, etc., and no sooner did I let Kenzie know, she was quick to make the changes. Her assistant, Eli Moreno, was also very helpful and would step in and assist when I couldn’t reach Kenzie. And Rena Caldwell is the sales merchandiser — she assisted me greatly with our golf outing activity that we offered to our attendees on the first day of our event.”
Tucson’s tourism picture lagged the rest of Arizona’s following the 2008-09 recession, but a resurgence of interest has bubbled over the last couple years. The opening of a 136-room Marriott-operated AC Hotel Tucson Downtown last fall — the first new hotel downtown since the 1970s — has helped lure locals and visitors into the city, as has a growing menu of restaurants and bars. The Arizona Daily Star reports that five additional hotel projects are in the pipeline for downtown, including a sorely needed $20 million, 125-room hotel adjacent to the Tucson Convention Center.
Existing properties are also getting fresh attention. The DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Tucson – Reid Park is currently undergoing a $16 million renovation that will enhance the hotel’s common areas, including the lobby, restaurants, meeting facilities and courtyards. The hotel offers more than 22,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space, and a new dining venue, Crystals, has been added. Improvements to the expansive pool area and landscaping are underway and a remodel of the 287 guest rooms will be completed in early 2019.
Meanwhile, the Hilton Tucson East, in midtown Tucson, celebrated its 30th anniversary with an $8 million makeover that was unveiled in April. The renovation covered all 232 guest rooms, and upgrades to meeting rooms and the 4,743-square-foot Rosewood Ballroom and swimming pool area, plus a new restaurant and bar, and modernized HVAC and water systems.
Sedona, renowned for its scenic beauty but perfect for smaller meetings, is a city of just 10,000 residents set amid red rock landscapes and swaying sycamore trees, and tempting with endless outdoor adventure activities. Just three Sedona hotels offer more than 5,000 square feet of meeting facilities, including the 137-room Poco Diablo Resort and the Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock, which has more than 14,000 square feet of indoor event space.
For a meeting of 30 hotel suppliers last April, Liza Lampi, with Eventive Meetings, brought her group to Sedona with “truly memorable” results.
“We chose Sedona for its unique beauty of the red rock country, which was different than previous incentive trips that had been offered,” explains Lampi, who booked the incentive group into the destination spa retreat, Enchantment Resort. “This was a VIP trip, and Sedona offered relaxation and adventure all in one close area. Enchantment is far from the city itself, but the Sedona atmosphere and experience encompasses you as soon as you drive in.
“The resort is located in Boynton Canyon amid large red rock formations,” adds Lampi. “The rooms are uniquely designed casitas equipped with fireplaces and private balconies, and nestled right in the red rocks so you can walk out your door and go on a hike. Our attendees were only there for three days, but the location really made them feel like they unplugged from the world, which is unique in such a short time span.”
“We chose Sedona for its unique beauty of the red rock country, which was different than previous incentive trips that had been offered.”
— Liza Lampi
The 218-room resort offers a variety of conference facilities located within the Meeting Village, including three separate ballrooms ranging up to 5,100 square feet and each with floor-to-ceiling windows.
In total, Enchantment has 12,000 square feet of indoor meeting space and an additional 32,000 square feet of outdoor function space, perfect for events under the stars. In addition to of the renowned spa, activities available at the 70-acre resort include golf and yoga, with hiking and mountain biking on abundant trails.
For Lampi’s group, the attention to detail started right on arrival. “We like to have a private check-in for our guests to minimize the amount of time they spend traveling and maximize the time they have enjoying their trip,” she says. “The hotel pre-assigned rooms and set up an exclusive hotel registration desk right next to our hospitality desk so we could streamline the process and get attendees started on their relaxation. Because the property is so spread out, they use golf carts and bell staff to bring guests and their luggage to their rooms. In addition, you can call any time to be picked up and brought somewhere on property — all the bell staff were extremely friendly and engaging.”
The biggest challenge Lampi says she encountered at Enchantment was transportation. “The resort is 129 miles from the Phoenix airport through canyons and long roads. We only had three days, with attendees flying in from all over the country. Therefore, timely and flexible transportation was necessary,” she says. “We worked with Hello! Arizona, who did a great job monitoring flights and making changes to keep attendees moving on this short trip.” At 34 miles, Flagstaff Pulliam Airport is closer to Enchantment, but offers only limited air service, all via Phoenix.
The location also meant that Wi-Fi and cell access was constrained inside the canyon. “The hotel was fully communicative about this, but in this day and age, you rely so heavily on your phone that it’s hard when you don’t have it. We had to be proactive and hope that things were coming together as planned, as we didn’t always have communication of what was happening elsewhere,” she says.
But otherwise, the remote location lived up to the resort’s name. “Our welcome dinner was outdoors nestled among the red rocks,” adds Lampi. “The hotel decked out the outdoor patio with a mixture of seating lounges, table centerpieces and custom lighting. It really gave a relaxed and upscale feeling for the first evening.”
Lampi also organized an offsite open-air jeep adventure with Pink Adventure Tours.
“We took the group through the Broken Arrow Trail in Coconino National Forest,” explains Lampi. “It was amazing and picturesque, combined with rugged, off-road adventure. The certified interpretive guides were extremely knowledgeable and entertaining with facts ranging from Arizona’s history, to Hollywood movies shot on the trail, to geological rock formations. We ended the jeep tour with an outdoor lunch on the red rocks. Pink Adventure Tours and a local caterer were able to set up a full, functioning barbecue and cooked onsite along with full seating and buffets. Our guests enjoyed a delicious meal among a majestic backdrop of blue skies and red rock formations. It was truly memorable.”
With more than 40,000 hotel rooms combined, the Phoenix-Scottsdale Metropolitan area represents the vast majority of Arizona’s bounty of meeting options. The combined destination is percolating with real estate developments.
In June, the area’s largest hotel, the 1,000-room Sheraton Grand Phoenix was acquired from the city by Marriott International for $255 million. A “significant” renovation of the 10-year-old hotel is planned for 2019, and will include updates to the 110,000 square feet of meeting space. Also next year, a 200-room AC Hotel Downtown Phoenix is slated to open at Arizona Center, providing visitors an urban-inspired, select-service lodging option.
In Scottsdale, the 250-acre Phoenician resort just completed its most extensive renovation since the hotel opened in 1988. A redesign of guest rooms and common areas was completed in 2016-17, while last spring saw the opening of a new athletic club and three-story spa facility. The Phoenician Golf Course was also redesigned and re-routed from 27 to 18 holes, a 10-month project that was completed in November.
This year, the JW Marriott Camelback Inn Resort & Spa unveiled its new 15,000-square-foot Paradise Ballroom, along with another 20,000 square feet of outdoor and prefunction space. The additions bring the resort’s total meeting and event space to 95,000 square feet. Floor-to-ceiling windows radiate natural light and provide views of Mummy Mountain, and the ballroom is the first in Marriott’s portfolio to display artwork from J. Willard “Bill” Marriott Jr.’s personal collection.
“Phoenix-Scottsdale is always a solid choice to hold meetings,” says Randy Meacham, president of World’s Finest Meetings, a Colorado Springs-based meeting and incentive planning company.
Last December, Meacham organized a last-minute VIP meeting for 15 of the top executives from a large company specializing in supply chain technology solutions. “Their preference was warm weather and an easy location for airlift. Since the CEO and other top VIPs were attending, I had to find a unique, high-end property. It had to have meeting space that was amazing and offer our attendees privacy to get to work.”
Meacham’s solution: The 119-room Royal Palms Resort and Spa, part of Hyatt’s Unbound Collection.
“The architecture defines individuality from start to finish,” says Meacham. “From meeting space, guest rooms, dining and common areas, Royal Palms defines the phrase one-of-a-kind. The service levels of the staff make you feel special and valued, and the food and beverage is outstanding. My client wanted all of their functions in-house and, as a result, was not disappointed.”
Situated below Camelback Mountain, the Mediterranean-style Royal Palms caters to smaller groups, with 10 indoor meeting spaces, multiple outdoor patios, along with garden and pool settings. The largest meeting room is the Estrella Salon, topping out at 2,450 square feet, but the property’s total event space covers more than 20,000 square feet, much of it facing mountain views. The resort’s various meeting options blur the lines between indoor and outdoor, including two new spaces added this year, Camelback Vista and Orange Grove — 3,600 square feet of outdoor areas that offer the requisite mountain vistas.
“My clients deserve the highest ethics and standards the hospitality business can bring, and it is our duty to recommend properties that will deliver and exceed their expectations,” adds Meacham. “The result was a successful meeting and a happy client. A day after the meeting concluded, the CEO personally wrote me an email and thanked me for arranging their meeting at the Royal Palms and wants to go back. These comments were music to my ears.
“It’s gratifying when hoteliers take pride in their properties and go overboard to assure success,” he concludes. C&IT