From the mountains to the prairies, and from tiny ski resorts to laid-back dude ranches, when it comes to hosting meetings against a variety of memorable backdrops, Colorado just about has it all.
Though solidly identified as one of America’s Western states, Colorado is not far from the geographical center of the countryFrom the mountains to the prairies, and from tiny ski resorts to laid-back dude ranches, when it comes to hosting meetings against a variety of memorable backdrops, Colorado just about has it all.
Though solidly identified as one of America’s Western states, Colorado is not far from the geographical center of the country, making it a prime target for a centrally located meeting site. The farthest major cities from Denver — Boston and Miami — are just a 3.5-hour flight.
“Hotel Talisa is an upscale, beautifully renovated hotel with gorgeous meeting, banquet and guest room space. The décor speaks of a calm stream in the Colorado mountains on a perfect day, with a soothing color palette and simply stunning design.
But in the end it was strong support from the team at VISIT DENVER and other local players that ultimately sold the SAS Institute on the city — enough so that the analytics software developer subsequently booked two more conferences at the Colorado Convention Center, in 2024 and 2028.
I think it’s important to reach out to a local CVB,” says Ken Bland, principal events project manager for North Carolina-based SAS Institute. “A lot of people don’t use the local convention and visitors bureau. They’re not all equal, but they know how the city operates. We had one of our best experiences working with them in Denver. They introduced us to a lot of people, and provided a wealth of information.”
The company’s annual SAS Global Forum was held last April at the Colorado Convention Center, drawing 3,500 attendees. Bland says that Denver’s location and accessibility were important considerations for his event.
“We are a global company,” Bland adds. “Around 30 percent of our attendees are international, so we try to find destinations that would be a good draw for both our domestic and international attendees. Colorado is certainly a draw, and Denver is a good hub — it’s easy for our international guests to get to.”
How connected? In 2018, Denver International Airport celebrated a milestone when it became the fifth airport in the country to serve 200 destinations, with flights to 26 international cities. And in November, DEN was named the country’s best airport in The Wall Street Journal’s first-ever airport rankings.
Another criterion: walkability. VISIT DENVER reports that downtown Denver boasts 11,000 hotel rooms within walking distance of the convention center.
“We don’t want to provide mass transportation to and from hotels and a convention center, because that can get quite costly,” explains Bland, who says the SAS Global Forum spread guests into 28 different hotels at a range of price points around downtown Denver. “We want walkable cities.”
SAS Institute used the 1,100-room Hyatt Regency Denver at the Colorado Convention Center as the anchor hotel for the event. Bland notes there are no hotels connected directly to the convention center, but the Hyatt Regency is across the street, and the hotel gave SAS a large block, “almost 1,000 rooms on peak,” says Bland.
Although SAS used the Hyatt Regency for only one smaller partner forum, the hotel features more than 60,000 sf of meeting space, including the 30,000-sf Centennial Ballroom, with its 30-foot ceilings. Built in 2005, the hotel received a renovation last year. Bland calls the Colorado Convention Center “a beautiful facility,” and that it met all the needs of SAS Global Forum.
In December, the convention center drew national attention for allegations of collusion and bid rigging at the start of construction on a $233 million expansion. The work, originally projected to be completed by late 2022, was intended to add an additional 235,000 sf of usable space to the facility (which currently totals 2.2 million sf). As the scandal continues to play out in the pages of the The Denver Post, the project’s future is uncertain.
“At a lot of the convention centers we use Centerplate is the caterer and they have a lot of history and data about our event,” Bland says. “For example, Denver Centerplate was able to share data from our Dallas event — the number of meals served; the menus. They’re all independently managed, but when we run into Centerplate we alert them to our past events and they work their magic.”
SAS Institute also worked with local DMCs.
“We don’t usually work with more than one DMC, but what we like to do is bid out all parts of the program,” Bland explains. “As we started going through proposals, it was very clear to us that some were stronger in one area than another. In the end we used Imprint Group for our welcome reception and Kick Back party, and then Access Destination Services had a really good proposal on airport greeters and temp staff. Another DMC, Max/Livie, Inc., was also able to provide us some significant savings.”
Bland says the SAS Kick Back party was held at Broncos Stadium at Mile High and offered gaming activities both virtual and physical. One corner depicted winter, and had skiing games; the corner for spring offered mountain climbing, etc.
“Our attendees loved that,” he adds.
But it was the support from VISIT DENVER that sealed the deal for SAS Institute.
“That’s one of the reasons we decided to sign two more years,” Bland says. “We had terrific service from corporate citywide sales manager, Tyler Adams and convention services manager, Theresa Blankenau. When you work with the folks who are trying to attract business for the town, they can offer a nice package from a branding perspective, and they were willing and able to step in for negotiations with individual hotels.”
Just a few decades ago, Denver was often mocked as a cow town. In 2016, U.S. News & World Report named the city the best place in the nation to live. Denver is also one of America’s fastest-growing cities, and its 12-city metropolitan area has become the nation’s 15th-largest, with a population of 3.5 million.
One of these outlying cities is Aurora, a major suburb, located southwest of the city, and roughly equidistant to both the Denver International Airport and Denver, the state capital.
The big recent news, of course, is the opening in December of the state’s largest convention hotel, Gaylord Rockies Resort & Convention Center. Offering 1,501 guest rooms and more than 485,000 sf of meeting and convention space, Gaylord Rockies is situated just seven miles from the Denver airport (compared to 24 miles for the Colorado Convention Center). The resort works hard to capture the local setting, which includes waterfalls over boulders, elevators designed to look like old mine shafts, and guest rooms with aspen tree-inspired carpets. In the convention center, elements depict ski tracks, snow drifts and snowflakes. Gaylord Rockies features eight dining venues, and such local F&B partnerships as a collaboration with Aurora’s award-winning Dry Dock Brewing Co. Sprawling over an 85-acre property, the resort includes a full-service spa and fitness center, a 22,000-sf aquatic area with a lazy river and three waterslides, an arcade, miniature golf, and bike rentals.
But although much of the state is defined by what happens in the Denver metro area, there is much to draw meeting planners to other destinations spread around the state, including to the second-largest city, Colorado Springs. Located 72 miles south of Denver, the city is also home to one of the state’s largest meeting properties, the Broadmoor, the “grand dame of the Rockies,” built in 1918.
“The Broadmoor is a venue unlike no other,” suggests Cindy Wilhelm, executive assistant to president and CEO and special events coordinator for TWO MEN AND A TRUCK, the nation’s largest franchised local moving company. The company held its annual meeting at the resort in 2017 and returned this month. “We [went] back to the Broadmoor this year because we experienced the best customer service we have ever received and we absolutely love this property,” Wilhelm adds. “The accommodations are first class, the meeting space works very well for us, and there are so many fun things to do right on site.”
Wilhelm says the annual event draws between 450 and 525 attendees, flying in from across the U.S., and from Canada, Ireland and the U.K. The company typically alternates its meeting between the east and west, but the proximity to Denver provided an opportunity for some attendees to drive and save on airfare.
Although Colorado Springs is not the easiest airport to fly in and out of, Wilhelm notes that Denver International is not far from the Broadmoor, and flights are usually more affordable. Colorado Springs Airport has increased service and now makes the destination more accessible. The airport is now served by American Airlines, Delta, Frontier and United Airlines.
“The first year, we had a lot of attendees fly into Colorado Springs and there was some weather in the area,” Wilhelm says. “Several attendees were delayed due to cancellations and delays.”
This year, Wilhelm is recommending Denver as a gateway, and the Broadmoor offers shuttle service to and from the airport, which can be booked in advance.
“Once you arrive at the Broadmoor, all of your worries go away,” Wilhelm says. “The first time we went for a site visit, we were hooked.”
Wilhelm gushed enthusiastically about the Broadmoor’s meeting space.
“I can’t say enough about it. All the meeting space we need is available to us and is always in great condition and set up in a timely manner. We are considered a medium-sized group but we do require a lot of space — they offered us as much as we needed and we used it. I have never found this ideal of a space at any other venue in my 12 years of meeting planning.”
Wilhelm says the Broadmoor’s F&B offerings are first-class and she appreciated the resort’s on-site A/V services. But it was smaller touches — from booking certain attendees near specific facilities, or providing refrigerators in rooms — that won her over.
“We are a pretty easy group, hard-working and very appreciative, so any little extra things a hotel does, does not go unnoticed,” Wilhelm adds. “[Their staffers have] been a godsend. The experience these [staffers] have, and the knowledge, sets me at ease. I know they will take care of our needs, whatever they are.”
While TWO MEN AND A TRUCK did not use the space, the Broadmoor’s Cloud Camp provides an intriguing option for smaller groups looking to “head to the hills” for a quintessential Rocky Mountain experience. Perched at 9,200 feet, groups can stay and meet at Cloud Camp where 22 well-appointed lodge rooms, cabins and the epic one-of-a-kind Fire Tower Suite provide rest and relaxation in luxury accommodations.
The 1,500-sf Overlook is a dedicated space for small meetings of up to 60, with spectacular 360-degree views and guest/group activities such as pickle ball in the clouds, hot tubbing among the pines, hiking, and dining in grand style.
Although Colorado Springs is set against a backdrop that includes both the sculpted rocks of Garden of the Gods Visitor & Nature Center and the massive flank of Pikes Peak, for a true Rocky Mountain experience you’ll want to head for the hills — to one of the resorts that caters to both skiers in the winter and hikers in the summer, and meetings and conventions year-round.
The allure of the mountains even inspired Denver-based online teaching company Pfiedler Education to review in-state options for a recent event.
Bonnie Zeigler, senior project coordinator at Pfiedler, says the company chose Vail and Hotel Talisa, A Luxury Collection Resort, for its Fellows Symposium in February.
“We rarely do meetings in our home state,” Zeigler says. “But Vail is a great destination, and preferred by our faculty. Hotel Talisa is not in Vail Village, but a little ways down the road. There is a shuttle that runs often from the hotel to the village, and I found this to be a benefit because it adds to the feeling of calmness and remote mountain feel. For a hotel to have both an airport nearby and be a ski location is somewhat unusual.”
“Hotel Talisa is an upscale, beautifully renovated hotel with gorgeous meeting, banquet and guest room space,” Zeigler adds. “The décor speaks of a calm stream in the Colorado mountains on a perfect day, with a soothing color palette and simply stunning design. Talisa has ski-in, ski-out capability as there is a lift right to the hotel, and a rental shop on site.”
With its 58,000-sf athletic club, Hotel Talisa is ideal for active meetings. In addition to ski slopes, the hotel offers snowmobiling and dog sledding. While in summer, cattle drives, mountain bike tours, fly fishing, golf and rafting round out the activities. The hotel has three restaurants, but with so many dining options in Vail, dine-arounds and progressive dinners are also popular.
The 285-room resort encompasses 40,000 sf of indoor and outdoor function space, and every meeting room has extensive windows providing natural light, many with views onto Gore Creek.
“There are numerous options within the hotel to host events of varying sizes,” says Zeigler, though she cautioned on the ceiling height in the Zermatt Ballroom, the middle-sized of three ballrooms. “We used a set screen from the floor but will use the drop-down from the ceiling in the future for better visibility. Zermatt isn’t a great choice for projection, as there is much natural light in the room. However, all that light and the views make for a beautiful meeting or reception space.”
Hotel Talisa had a variety of pre-set menus but created menus to fill the needs of Pfiedler. Zeigler adds that the restaurant menus and menus for private events went far beyond typical hotel food.
“I highly recommend the game sausage on the breakfast menu,” Zeigler says.
She also praised the resort’s conference services staff. “Alexis Mackintosh-Zebrowski, the conference services manager, is simply delightful. She was so helpful in choosing our menus and helping to accommodate our course director with some very specific requests. Every single staff person I interacted with was pleasant, friendly and helpful.”
Zeigler notes that the only potential challenge to conducting an event in Vail, especially in winter, is the weather. Here, the Coloradan offers sage advice:
“Keep in mind, if a flight is delayed, the shuttle companies cannot always make changes to reservations. I always recommend flying into Eagle/Vail over Denver, as a trip to Denver can become gruesome in the winter due to weather and or traffic. Google Maps will say Denver to Vail is a couple of hours. However, ski traffic with good weather can still make for a very long drive and it is not uncommon to be sitting still on the I-70. If guests do choose Denver International, make sure they leave five to six hours prior for the flight home.”
Ironically, a Colorado location was intended to be a punishment of sorts for one recent leadership meeting. The team of a dozen from medical equipment provider Agiliti was told if they made their fourth-quarter 2018 numbers, they’d enjoy a meeting in Florida.
“They didn’t make their numbers,” explains Todd Gabello, director of meetings and events for Minneapolis-based Agiliti. “But we still wanted to give them a nice experience following a trade show they were attending in Denver. It’s a great city, and we started talking with the Hilton in Denver. But I got a proposal from the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek Resort and Spa and it intrigued me. Talking to Robert Rapp, the Park Hyatt’s meeting connection manager, about what the experience could be is what sold me. Rate-wise, they were higher than going to the Hilton, but when I spoke to our team leader he felt that it could be cool.”
Following the trade show in January the group drove to the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek, just west of Vail. The 190-room hotel offers a state-of-the-art conference center and more than 20,000 sf of meeting space, much of it with floor-to-ceiling windows.
“Because we were a group of 12 people in a resort that was large, I was concerned that we would be sidelined by a larger group that was spending more money,” Gabello says. “But although there was another big group in-house at the time, we weren’t overshadowed, and we felt like we were the only group in the entire hotel — we never felt ignored or that we weren’t important.”
A highlight for the group was an off-site team-building event with Sage Outdoor Adventures. The outfit operates a private ranch and offered a snowmobiling adventure for the Agiliti group, along with horseback riding, fishing and rafting in summer.
“The team loved every second of it,” says Gabello, who adds that he had only two weeks to turn around plans for the meeting. And yet, “I’ve been doing this for nine years and this was one of the easiest meetings I’ve ever done. Robert [Rapp] checked in with me every day, before he was going home — he’s one of the top three people I’ve ever worked with.”
“And at the end when I talked to our vice president he said to me, ‘Remember how we said we were going to punish them? They all want to come back here next year.” C&IT