Numbers can be crunched, products marketed, hard work honored and new ideas vetted in any room in any city or town anywhere. But when a meeting takes place in a destination offering an authentic sense of place, attendees are engaged in surprising ways, and outcomes can soar beyond expectations. From Denver to Colorado Springs to Rocky Mountain towns tucked into humbling landscapes, Colorado offers groups a powerfully engaging sense of place.
Denver was built at the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek, where the amber waves of the Great Plains crash into the base of the Rocky Mountains. Long a conduit between the two geographical areas, Denver is neither a city of the plains nor of the mountains. Its history derives from both, and its energy and spirit follow suit.
Denver is not lacking in historic hotels and venues that capture the long-ago essence of the city, but no lodging more completely connects Denver’s past to its contemporary sophistication than The Crawford Hotel, which opened July 2014 inside historic and meticulously renovated Denver Union Station. That made it appealing to Nicole Pribble, who planned the February senior leadership meeting for Nelnet Inc. About half of the 16 attendees came from headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska, the rest from the company’s south Denver location. As one attendee put it, “The Crawford maintained the history aspect of the hotel including historic photographs behind the check-in desk. This really gave a sense of preserving the history while incorporating a modern flair!”
“The Crawford had a great energy from Union Station and gave the feel of being really connected to the city.”
— Nicole Pribble
In addition to being a new and uniquely Denver location — elements the group wanted — The Crawford stood out for service. “The staff was amazing,” Pribble says. “My first contact was with Michelle Baca, area senior sales manager. She was unbelievably nice, pleasant and answered all of my questions patiently. She walked me through the whole process from start to finish, including meeting-room requirements, parking and options for meals outside The Crawford. I mentioned one other hotel I had called, and she was so friendly and helpful about it because she had worked there previously. I thought that was such great customer service to be so positive about all the options in Denver.”
That level of service, Pribble says, continued throughout the two days of the meeting. “The second day, we had not ordered snacks because it was a short day but the group decided they did want them so I called our event manager, Taylor Niceforo. She was immediately on it even though she had other meetings and site tours going on. We also had a few rooming-list changes that were immediately accommodated, and I never felt like I was putting anyone out by asking. We also changed the start time to earlier than we had originally planned. Again, no problem whatsoever.”
The Crawford’s location within walking distance of many restaurants and bars was a plus. “Our group had dinner at Venice Ristorante, & Wine Bar across the street,” Pribble says. “It was amazing. The staff was very accommodating and reserved a perfect table overlooking the window for the whole group.”
Most meals and snacks came through the hotel and eateries in Union Station that service the hotel. “The items were very ‘local,’ which is exactly what we were hoping for,” Pribble says. “The food consisted of items such as elk jalapeno cheddar brats, Colorado pork green chili and chicken spinach sausage for breakfast. We had the Mountain Standard menu option for lunch and the Horizon Continental Breakfast, which includes whole-grain oatmeal and delicious sweet breads.”
For Pribble and her colleagues, the only downside was not discovering The Crawford sooner. “If planners want a unique Colorado experience, this is ideal for that,” Pribble says. “The Crawford had a great energy from Union Station and gave the feel of being really connected to the city, yet was still comfortable and allowed the group to get a great night’s sleep — something that doesn’t always happen at hotels!”
Perhaps no venue exemplifies the moniker Mile High City better than the Pinnacle Club — former home of the storied and private Petroleum Club — located on the 38th floor of the Grand Hyatt Denver. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, visitors to the Pinnacle Club can see from the mountains to the prairies for an estimated 7,500 square miles. The view from the club’s 17,000 sf of conference rooms and ballrooms is even more magnificent — spanning 10,600 square miles of snowcapped peaks and prairie, taking in 200 named mountains, including Pikes Peak more than 100 miles away. The Pinnacle Club, which can accommodate 650–700 attendees, is currently under consideration by The Guinness Book of World Records for designation as the greatest view event facility in North America.
In September, the Grand Hyatt Denver completed a makeover of its two largest ballrooms, accompanying foyers and 11 breakout rooms as part of an estimated $5.4 million redesign of the hotel’s 30,000 sf of meeting space. The update follows a $28 million renovation of guest rooms and public spaces. Sister property Hyatt Regency Denver at Colorado Convention Center, which redesigned all 1,100 guest rooms in 2014, also completed a renovation of 100,000 sf of meeting and function space this fall, including the Capitol and Centennial ballrooms. The design for both renovations evokes the textures and hues of Colorado.
Denver voters recently gave approval for the expansion of the Colorado Convention Center and construction of a new National Western Center, a year-round facility for events and entertainment. Suggested improvements, with input from more than 120 meeting professionals, include the development of new flexible meeting space of up to 85,000 sf and the addition of 120,000 sf of new prefunction and service space, including a 50,000-sf outdoor terrace, all to be located on the roof of the existing convention center.
Colorado Springs history is rooted in the Gold Rush of 1858 and in the great age of railroads — seven met here in the 1800s. As a center of patriotic spirit, Colorado Springs is hard to beat. Katharine Lee Bates was inspired to pen “America the Beautiful” after standing at the top of Pikes Peak. Today, the city is the location of the U.S. Olympic Training Center and of the U.S. Air Force Academy and NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command), which provide another kind of patriotic vibe. The city’s sense of place is also defined geologically in the magnificent Garden of the Gods with its soaring red-rock formations and archaeological evidence dating to 1330 BC.
Hotels and lodges offering meeting venues and a palpable sense of place, either for their location or well-preserved history, include Cheyenne Mountain Resort, The Broadmoor, The Cliff House at Pikes Peak in neighboring Manitou Springs and The Mining Exchange, a Wyndham Grand Hotel, located downtown. For exclusive VIP and executive retreats, The Broadmoor offers offsite wilderness experiences for small groups at its Ranch at Emerald Valley; Cloud Camp; The Broadmoor Fishing Camp; and Seven Falls. Available for private events, Seven Falls features Restaurant 1858 and The Broadmoor Soaring Adventure — a course of 10 zip lines, rope bridges and a rappel. Other Colorado Springs VIP options include the intimate Garden of the Gods Club and Resort, and The Lodge at Flying Horse, now partially open. Four villas opened in May and 40 hotel rooms will follow this fall.
Each of Colorado’s resort mountain towns has a distinct personality, history and contemporary presence. Some have roots in mining, others in ranching. All offer a full menu of invigorating outdoor activities, not the least of which is exceptional skiing. Culture, too, is embedded in the mountain experience.
Historic home to globally recognized leadership conferences and tucked into one of Colorado’s most dramatic settings, Aspen capitalizes brilliantly on its combo of rugged nature and extraordinary luxury.
In March, 35 incentive qualifiers from Health-Mor Inc.’s FilterQueen Thousand Council Program met at St. Regis Aspen Resort. For Andy Bountogianis, in charge of worldwide sales promotions for Health-Mor headquarters, high expectations were definitely met.
“We wanted to go to a ski area and city with a lot to offer,” Bountogianis says. “We also wanted a hotel with service and amenities second to none. The St. Regis Aspen Resort offered that and more. The staff, led by General Manager Heather Steenge-Hart, Anita Savanyu, Kim Pantages, Sean Clark, Tamara Ische and others, treated our guests and staff spectacularly. The attention to detail was superb.”
The hotel served as the group’s primary venue. “All was fantastic, from the spa to the meeting rooms to the farewell gala dinner,” Bountogianis says. “The food was fantastic for all of our group functions. The breakfast buffet was wonderful as well — a lot of food and value for a good price.”
The group also experienced Ellina Restaurant +Bar in town, which Bountogianis calls “fabulous,” and spent a day skiing, which included eating at Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro at Aspen Highlands, one of the four ski areas.
In some ways, Aspen was a surprise. “I had never been to Aspen prior to my site visit,” Bountogianis says, “but I can tell you that I truly enjoyed everything Aspen and the St. Regis had to offer. Our group had a memorable experience and we would surely go back. The people who work and live there were so friendly and down to earth — not what stereotypes of Aspen suggest. Everyone as a whole made our experience a great one.”
Typically, the town can accommodate groups up to 500 attendees.
Beaver Creek is intimate and secluded with excellent skiing, fine dining and dramatic settings galore — with all that Vail famously offers just 10 miles away. Although founded only in 1980 as a ski resort, pioneers settled in the valley a century earlier. Frank Bienkowski, aka Beano, arrived in 1919. His homestead on the mountain is still visible and inspired what may be Beaver Creek’s most notable dining and event venue, Beano’s Cabin, available for up to 150 attendees. Groups of up to 98 can also book Allie’s Cabin, named for the wife of one of the first settlers in the area.
The resort accommodates groups up to 500 across small lodges, condo units and the 167-room Park Hyatt Beaver Creek Resort, which features more than 20,000 sf of flexible indoor/outdoor space. Nearby, The Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch offers 180 guest rooms and 26,000-plus sf of indoor/outdoor space.
A bonus for planners is that the Beaver Creek community works together to manage village-wide meetings. Groups of up to 500 might have a general session at the Park Hyatt or Vilar Performing Arts Center and take advantage of dining, conference facilities and function options throughout the resort’s partner properties and venues. Even the village ice rink can be tented as event space. The goal is a campus environment that makes multiple options within Beaver Creek accessible and easy to book.
Breckenridge has 100,000 sf of meeting space, 40,000 of it at Beaver Run Resort & Conference Center, and can accommodate groups up to 1,000. Like other mountain resorts, it offers a ton of activities, dozens of restaurants and diverse accommodations, from resorts and lodges to spectacular private homes. Breckenridge was founded in 1859 to accommodate miners flocking to the area, and its colorful boom-and-bust history is part of the town’s ambience. Breckenridge is the only municipality in the world to own a 27-hole Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, and it’s one of the highest towns in Colorado at a lofty 9,600 feet above sea level.
Breck’s reputation as a center of craft brewing makes it a draw for attendees who can hop on free in-town transportation to access stellar local breweries. Multiple festivals throughout the year, including an international snow sculpture championship, pro cycling championship and Oktoberfest, provide an energetic backdrop — and affordable entertainment — for groups in every season.
Keystone’s location 90 miles from Denver International Airport means attendees can be on the slopes, in meeting rooms or gathering for a function in under two hours via scenic drive. A ski resort since 1970, Keystone retains evidence of its mining and ranch history, including historic buildings integrated into Keystone Ranch Golf Course.
Amenities include a range of lodging and dining experiences and activities, as well as attributes that first-timers to the resort might not expect, such as the freestanding Keystone Conference Center with 60,000 sf of meeting, exhibit and event space. Across the resort is another 40,000 sf. Keystone accommodates groups up to 2,000, with three ballrooms providing reception space for 400–2,066 and theater-style setup for 400–2,250.
As for activities, CBST Adventures offers teambuilding experiences such as orienteering, bike challenges, winter Olympics and road races, and Keystone’s two stellar golf courses offer the best in mountain play, including group tournaments. A highlight of any meeting here may well be the dining, especially at Alpenglow Stube, highest AAA Four Diamond restaurant in North America, accessed via two gondolas.
Steamboat Springs’ ranching heritage is matched only by its Olympics heritage — it’s been hometown to more Olympians than any other U.S. town. Both aspects are celebrated, giving groups an only-in-Steamboat experience.
Together, The Steamboat Grand and Sheraton Steamboat Resort (which saw $24 million in upgrades last year) offer more than 38,000 sf of flexible space and a mix of hotel rooms and condo units. Additional accommodations include two recent luxury options, One Steamboat Place and Edgemont Condominiums. Steamboat has more than 100 restaurants and bars — 21 new in the past year — where attendees can gather together or on their own.
Steamboat is the epitome of the work-hard, play-hard ethic, perfect for mixing meeting time with adventure, from hiking, biking, rafting and hot air ballooning in summer to ice climbing, dogsledding, night skiing and Olympian-led ski clinics in winter. When it’s time to kick back, the weekly summer pro rodeo draws crowds, but there are also several ranches where attendees get a hands-on feel for the lifestyle that helped shape the West.
There’s no mistaking Vail’s European-inspired upscale aesthetic. Amy Dowell, vice president groups, meetings and events for ARTA Travel, brought 60 incentive qualifiers to The Lodge at Vail, a RockResort in 2014, with another trip already planned for 2016. The group wanted a ski resort and chose Vail for many reasons. “It’s a quaint town and the lifts are convenient — you can’t get any closer unless you’re in a full ski in/ski out resort,” Dowell says. “Restaurants in town are outstanding, there’s lots of shopping and activities are diverse in nature so there’s something for everyone.”
“People and service go hand in hand and Lodge staff members genuinely care about making the client happy. ‘No’ was not in their vocabulary.”
— Amy Dowell
The Lodge at Vail was also a standout, especially the staff. “People and service go hand in hand,” Dowell says, “and Lodge staff members genuinely care about making the client happy. ‘No’ was not in their vocabulary. If we needed something that was not quite possible, the staff offered a feasible compromise. They accommodated all our needs with a smile and a rare ‘no problem’ attitude. The venues are beautiful and certainly a plus, but the staff and service level provided was amazing.”
Catering stood out as well, according to Dowell, who typically doesn’t rely on standard banquet menus. “I like to use our budget and ask the chef to be creative and come up with a specialized menu for our functions,” she says. “We had unique menus and the staff offered flexibility in working with our budget and strict dietary needs.”
The group also checked out Vail’s highly regarded restaurant scene, including La Tour and Mountain Standard, which Dowell calls easy to work with. Direct flights into both Denver International and Eagle-Vail airports gave the group flexibility. Dowell worked with Colorado Mountain Express to transport attendees from airport to resort. “They are great to work with and offer fair pricing,” she says.
Getting everyone on the slopes, of course, is crucial on a ski-resort trip and Dowell says Vail made it easy. “Lift tickets were arranged through the hotel and rentals were super easy; the group came to our welcome dinner, fitted everyone and delivered all the equipment by the time our participants were ready to ski the next day.”
Other activities included spa time, a snowmobile tour with Sage Outdoors that Dowell calls fabulous, “and the hotel helped me put together a private beer tasting/cheese-making class, which was really cool,” she adds.
One of the best aspects of the meeting for Dowell was working through the hotel for everything. “I didn’t have to go through multiple vendors,” she says. “I had a lengthy and detailed conversation with my conference manager, who helped to complete my activity ideas and went above and beyond by contacting vendors to put it all together. She simplified my job and at the same time helped maintain the unique elements specific to this group. It was a fantastic experience and I look forward to working with the Lodge at Vail again and again.”
Whether planners choose the cities or mountains, it’s impossible to go wrong.
Colorado’s core essence is a heady combination of history, incredible nature and urban and resort sophistication that meets and exceeds the needs of today’s discerning and tech-savvy groups. C&IT