L’Auberge de Sedona was the venue of choice for Ensign Services Inc.
What makes Arizona an ideal place for a meeting? Planners who have booked events there will tell you there are many reasons, including near idyllic weather, a range of lodging possibilities from rustic western ranches to luxury high-rise resorts, a mix of adventure and culture adding color to any event, and towns and cities throughout the state each offering something unique.
Downtown Phoenix is a thriving, revitalized urban center and the location of multiple group-friendly hotels. Amanda Solon, senior manager of events for Netsmart, brought her attendees for a meeting there headquartered at the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown and Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel. Both are a short distance from the Phoenix Convention Center, where conference sessions took place.
“Phoenix was a great fit in terms of airlift and ease of access from the airport to downtown,” Solon says. “And the hotels downtown, from a quality and accessibility standpoint, were very easy to navigate. This was our first program going from a hotel to a convention center with attendees split between two hotels, and it was very simple for the attendees and for myself as the planner. I also really appreciated the walkability and safety in downtown Phoenix.”
The CVB was an important partner. “The folks at Visit Phoenix took great care of me and my group,” Solon says. “They offered many services that made my program even more memorable for the attendees such as discounts at local venues, information on when and where to go and how to take advantage of the city.”
The two downtown hotels worked well for the group, but in different ways, Solon explains. “The Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel is unique and has a super-friendly staff that I’ll remember forever. The Sheraton Phoenix Downtown was just the right size and price for many attendees. Both hotels are in great locations and an easy walk to the convention center.”
As for the convention center, Solon adds, “The stacked space there is very easy to navigate.”
While all three venues worked for the program, Solon thinks that bringing all three together is important to facilitate the best coordination throughout the event. “I think one thing planners should know is to bring all the groups together — the hotels and the convention center — at some point and make sure everyone is on the same page and collaborating,” she says.
Solon’s group made use of multiple offsite venues as well. “We hosted our large offsite event at Corona Ranch outside of the city by a few miles,” she says. “It was an amazing event and I would highly recommend this unique venue to any group coming to Phoenix. We also hosted multiple dinners at various restaurants throughout the city, with groups ranging from 10 to 50 people. All them had great service and food quality.”
Although there were a few challenges, Solon thinks that at least some of them resulted from the fact that she was a first-timer planning an event at a convention center. For others in the same situation, she says, “Talk with a planner who has done this or call me and I can help make sure the right questions are being asked. There were small issues I ran into that could have been avoided if I knew what I was looking for versus facing the issues at times when I didn’t really have time to face an issue.”
One standout of the event for Solon was the experience at the Renaissance. “My advice would be to stay at the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel. I received some of the best service I have ever had. I think it comes from the top down there — happy people making other people happy,” she says.
And then there’s Phoenix itself, which Solon thinks is underrated. “From my perspective, the entire city was very welcoming and valued my group. The focus on human directional signage and safety was unmatched. My group really appreciated the hospitality,” Solon says.
The Sheraton Phoenix Downtown is just wrapping up a comprehensive renovation. Rooms have been refreshed and feature such forward-thinking amenities as height-adjustable tables that transform into standing desks. The final phase of the renovation, slated for a spring/summer completion, will turn the lobby area into a welcoming space for community networking and co-working. Among the features are community tables and charging tabletops, as well as multipurpose studios. On completion, the redesign will have revamped rooms, F&B outlets and lobby space.
The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess’ Copper Canyon hosted DIRTT Environmental Solution’s Partner Camp 2019. Courtesy of DIRTT Environmental Solutions
Scottsdale has its own persona that manages to meld uber upscale properties, spas and shopping with its historic western roots in Old Town Scottsdale.
Laura Bartley, leader, client experience, with DIRTT Environmental Solutions, a manufacturer of customized interiors, chose the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess for the company’s partner event last fall. Before last year, Bartley says, “We hosted our event at a wonderful property, but we had outgrown the space, which meant we had to split our attendees between three different locations and shuttle them to the conference location each day.” She called that scenario “a logistical nightmare.”
The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess was the solution. “We wanted all of our attendees under one roof. This property allowed for that. We also wanted our conference rooms grouped together instead of sprawling across the property, and we were able to accomplish this at the Fairmont,” Bartley says.
She also notes the ease of accessibility. “It was easy to get to the property whether we were taking a chartered bus, which we could book directly through the Fairmont, Uber, a taxi or were driving ourselves,” she says, adding, “We had everything we needed under one roof, including enough hotel rooms, tons of meeting space, fabulous reception venues, and world-class food and beverage. And, I cannot say enough about the staff at this property.”
There was a great deal more that made the Fairmont a good fit. “The rooms were clean, modern and beautiful. The meeting spaces were spacious and had great access to the outdoors, which is always a plus when attendees are in meetings all day. The food and beverage during the day and at the receptions was exceptional, and the onsite entertainment and events team were with us every step of the way,” she says.
Bartley calls the resort PSAV team “absolute rock stars who brought our vision to life,” adding, “The onsite graphics team and print shop made our lives significantly easier, and the sales team, event coordinators and concierge staff were like family. We truly didn’t know how we were going to function without them once our program was over.”
The pricing was just right as well. “The team was flexible with pricing to ensure we were staying on budget while still delivering an excellent experience to our attendees. Everything from room pricing to menu selection, to print needs to entertainment options were very competitively priced,” she says.
From start to finish, all functions were set on the Fairmont property. “Our welcome reception was a beach party at the Sunset Beach pool, which has its sand flown in from California. It offers a relaxed, tropical atmosphere and was the perfect way to welcome our attendees. Our second-night reception was a dance party at The Plaza Bar. We hired DJ Mars through the Fairmont and he was fantastic. We ended up extending his play time by an hour because no one wanted to leave,” Bartley says.
The group’s final reception was staged at one of the property’s most engaging venues. “Our wrap-up reception was a western-themed event at the Fairmont’s western village, Copper Canyon. This space is something to be seen. We hired the Mogollon Band to play country and rock music for us and we had an absolute blast,” she says.
Bartley thinks this property has so much potential. “If you can dream it, odds are the Fairmont can bring your dream to reality,” she says. “We were able to bring the themes of our events to life thanks to the wonderful kitchen and bar staff. Each theme was really obvious and beautiful each night. And the PSAV team was such a pleasure to work with. They ensured we had music bumping at every turn during our receptions.”
Bartley thinks much of the success of her programs has come down to the staff. She thinks others will experience the same level of service. “You’re in good hands. The staff will treat you and your attendees with white gloves from the minute you begin your planning journey with them and even after you’ve returned home. Onsite, you’ll have a dedicated concierge team at your service. All you need to do is send a text to the group and whatever you need is handled for you. Our devoted concierge team was spectacular. No request went unanswered and was taken care of within seconds. The banquet teams were super friendly, helpful and fun,” she says.
Bartley also liked that she and her team were able to honor an exceptional member of the resort staff thanks to a program designed for exactly that. “Fairmont also has an MVP program where the planner gets to identify a member of the service team that was outstanding during the event. At the end, you get to recognize them and present them with an MVP button. It was a wonderful experience,” she says.
Even in a scenario where almost everything is fabulous, there can be challenges. In this case, it’s important to note that some partnerships simply work better than others. “The only challenge we experienced was that our original Fairmont contact was not a good fit for our team. We ended up getting paired with Stephanie and immediately our perspective changed. Stephanie turned us from being skeptics of the property to fanatics,” she notes.
Bartley believes groups will have a positive experience at the Fairmont. “You’re going to love it. It was truly a seamless and pleasant experience from beginning to end. Put your trust in the team at Fairmont and you won’t be disappointed. Our attendees said that our program at the Fairmont was by far the best one yet.”
She strongly advises going on a site visit and touring the entire space. “Taste the food at the different restaurants as well as what offerings are available from the banquet menus. To see it is to believe just how amazing this property is,” she says. “But be honest about your expectations and what you’re trying to achieve. This team is here to help you and to make your vision become a reality. They’ll strategize with you to ensure you’re delivering the proper message while sticking to your budget. Enjoy it and put your trust in this amazing team. They won’t let you down,” she says.
Last year, Fairmont Scottsdale Princess completed a room and pool renovation. Technology was bumped up in all rooms, including the addition of an Echo Dot with an “Ask the Princess” menu and a resort text service making it easier for attendees to connect with resort staff for requests and questions. The recent upgrades were a continuation of improvements and upgrades made over the past several years.
Another Scottsdale property with something new is the mid-century modern, with a touch of contemporary pizzazz, Hotel Valley Ho, which relaunched its completely revamped signature restaurant, ZuZu, last fall. Highlights include The Kitchen Table, an action station where the chef cooks tableside each evening. Planners can also take advantage of The Rosie Room, a chic new private dining space.
The Phoenician, a Luxury Collection Resort, in Scottsdale, another favorite of groups, wrapped up a three-year resort-wide renovation last spring and the opening of its new tavern. And, the city-owned Talking Stick Resort Arena is embarking on a $230 million renovation over the next two years. Stay tuned.
Also of interest to planners is The Scottsdale Resort at McCormick Ranch, which just completed renovation of its meeting and banquet spaces, and added a third break station; the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Gainey Ranch completed renovation of its suites; and the Westin Kierland Resort & Spa revealed its newly designed rooms. Perhaps, the biggest news is that Caesars Entertainment announced plans for the Caesars Republic Scottsdale, scheduled to open in 2021, which will be the company’s first non-gaming hotel in the United States.
Near Scottsdale, Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort & Spa features inspiring Paradise Valley views and the surrounding mountains. The resort offers 9,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting space, and is ideal for small groups, business professionals and associations who seek a productive, focused and well-orchestrated meeting.
For team-building exercises, attendees can participate in an “Iron Chef America” inspired food battle, and enjoy hiking and other activities. Attendees can also enjoy Sanctuary’s private upper lawn, which can accommodate up to 80 attendees for a seated event, or 120 for a standing reception or buffet, and overlooks Mummy Mountain and the valley. A larger, lower lawn overlooks the McDowell Mountain Range and can handle 100 attendees for catering and 200 for receptions and buffets.
Sedona is best known for its rumored mysterious vortexes, places of spirituality and healing resulting from unseen energy. Whether you believe that or not, it’s inarguable that Sedona is a place of extraordinary natural beauty and a fine place to meet.
One of the town’s most engaging hotels for groups is L’Auberge de Sedona, set along Oak Creek. That’s where Kelly Wallerstedt, therapy resource assistant with Ensign Services Inc., brought a leadership group last fall. “Our group is made up of therapists in skilled nursing facilities,” Wallerstedt says. “They’re selected by performance and a lengthy application. L’Auberge is the perfect destination for them to get completely away from everything and recharge. This is our fourth year coming to Sedona, and we have several people who continue to apply just because of the location.”
One of Sedona’s top attributes is its wealth of activities that take visitors deep into the region’s compelling landscape. This group took advantage of several adventure- and nature-oriented options. “We sent a group on a Pink Jeep Tour with a cookout. We also had a group go on a horseback ride with a cookout and music. That one was with M Diamond Ranch. It was our first time using them, but we’ll definitely go back. We also had a few different groups go out hiking with Trail Lovers Excursions. The groups were based on skill level, and everyone enjoyed it very much. All the activities provided a different look at what Sedona has to offer and views of the beautiful red rocks,” Wallerstedt says.
This was the third year the group was based at L’Auberge. “We love the location and the staff, and it’s perfect for what we want to accomplish during this type of meeting,” she says. “L’Auberge is a great place for getting away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Set by the creek in Oak Creek Canyon, it lets you really take in the location and focus on the meeting. I think our best meeting outcomes are in Sedona. The scenery is inspiring.”
All of the meeting functions were held within the hotel’s meeting space, with A/V provided by PSAV, which Wallerstedt notes “met all of our needs.” Catering was also excellent and, thanks to Sedona’s idyllic weather, the group was able to use outdoor space. “Breakfast and lunch were provided outside every day, and dinner was down by the creek. You definitely want to have the F&B part of the meetings outside,” she says.
The resort’s staff also earned Wallerstedt’s praise. “I worked with Julianne Ryan. She was very attentive to the needs of our group and made sure everything happened as planned. We give our attendees a welcome gift when they arrive and Julianne and her staff made sure each package was delivered to the specific individual,” she adds.
If booking L’Auberge is a consideration, Wallerstedt advises starting the planning process early since the location is in demand. Not only is L’Auberge an excellent choice for businesses wanting to recharge or motivate their groups, but also for Arizona locals wanting to get away from the heat of the valley. “The weather is always beautiful and so many offsite activities help bring your group together,” she says. “Offer yoga in the morning, an afternoon hike and some downtime for attendees to explore Sedona. Just sitting down by the creek with a glass of wine was enough to keep us coming back.”
Tucson is another city with plenty to entice meeting planners and groups. Like Sedona, it has a wealth of outdoor activities, as well as the stellar Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which offers group programs. Also of interest is the multimillion-dollar renovation of the Tucson Convention Center, including a $9.2 million expansion of meeting rooms, slated to be completed next year.
In lodging news, DoubleTree by Hilton broke ground last spring adjacent to the convention center. The six-story hotel will feature a second-story pool, 4,000 sf of event space, a restaurant and two bars. It’s expected to open later this year. The DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Tucson – Reid Park in midtown is undergoing renovation and will also reopen this year. And, at Tanque Verde Ranch, a popular ranch option for groups, a new 20,000-sf event barn opened last fall.
The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain, 30 minutes north of Tucson, wrapped up a room renovation. A favorite of incentive groups, it’s one of only eight properties in the world to make it onto Forbes Travel Guide’s verified lists of the World’s Most Luxurious Hotels and World’s Most Luxurious Spas. This year, it’s offering planners an incentive package for meetings and events booked in May, June, July, August, September and December that includes a variety of upgrades, concessions and perks. Ranger Ainsley, the resort’s new yellow lab “guest ambassador,” is a perk everyone can enjoy. C&IT