A conference in the Southwest draws attendees for many reasons, not the least of which are the abundance of sunshine and dramatic landscapes with the power to inspire. Affordability and easy airlift mark some destinations, while arts or a focus on wellness or Native American influences set others apart.
In Phoenix, reliably sunny weather is matched with affordability. “The value and flexibility Phoenix offers corporate meeting groups has never been greater,” says Steve Moore, president and CEO of Visit Phoenix. “Among the top 10 airports in America, Sky Harbor consistently has the lowest round-trip airfare averages, so it’s more affordable to fly here than to other incentive markets. And our resorts compete so much for incentive business, not just against other destinations but with each other, that they stay on top of trends, such as offering activities for families or weaving desert adventures into itineraries.”
When Andrea Jung, special events planner for Northeast-based Silhouette Optical, was considering cities in which to hold the company’s December 2013 national sales meeting, Phoenix stood out for its airlift ease and weather, as well as the availability of golf, hiking and biking. “Warmer climates in the winter months are preferred by our attendees, and the opportunity to plan events outdoors was an incentive to look into Arizona,” Jung says.
Phoenix Marriott Tempe at The Buttes offered what Jung needed in a hotel. “I liked that the Marriott had a trail for walks and hikes. Also, just the trek to and from the meeting space was seen as a positive — a chance to stretch legs and get some fresh air,” Jung says. “I found this property of all that I sited to meet most of our needs. It’s the perfect marriage of resort and conference center. The close proximity to a major airport was a bonus for attendees and a cost savings for Silhouette. But the property doesn’t feel like an airport hotel due to its location in the buttes; it was quite nice, peaceful.”
From the start, Visit Phoenix smoothed the way for Jung. “My contact at the CVB, Chris Robertson, assisted me in site visits. He oversaw the setup of the site tours, transferred me to and from locations and made recommendations for ground transportation if necessary. He also worked well with my Conference Direct contact, meaning my RFP did not get sent out to every Arizona property, only to those that fit our needs.”
The hotel staff also helped. “Tamra Carter, the event manager, and her team were hands-on from day one, working with each other and me to make the meeting a success,” Jung says. “In doing so, they made me look like a rock-star planner! They were always available when needed. The culinary team exceeded my expectations in quality, creativity and service.”
It’s easy to stand out when things are going well, but staff members who shine in the face of challenges can save the day, as Jung learned when there was a problem related to the in-house AV. “Fortunately, it was only one person,” she notes. “The AV support team was amazing and made up for this person’s lack of attention to detail and poor listening skills. I noticed this from the start and should have received a quote from an outside company; however, the staff at the Marriott listened to my concerns and rectified the situation immediately.”
What Jung hadn’t counted on were cool December evenings. Quick changes had to be made for one evening event, and both the hotel and Allied PRA Arizona, which supplied décor and production needs, were agile enough to quickly kick the backup indoor plan into action.
Challenges aside, Arizona was a great match for Jung’s group of 80, and she’s already creating an RFP for 2015. “There are many great properties in Arizona and the Phoenix area in particular,” she says. “I hope to be meeting there again in February.”
“There are many great properties in Arizona and the Phoenix area in particular. I hope to be meeting there again in February.” — Andrea Jung
Nearby Scottsdale, Arizona, has similar attributes but its own vibe.
Libby Crooker, V.P. of international support for Minnesota-based Anytime Fitness, brought 2,100 attendees to The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess Resort in September for the company’s annual conference — its largest to date. She says Scottsdale was an ideal location thanks to ease of travel into the city and close proximity of hotels to the airport.
“Our goal was to have a resort property that we could essentially take over and fill with our company culture,” she adds. “The Fairmont Princess, which recently expanded its meeting space and could accommodate most attendees, was a perfect fit, and neighboring Scottsdale Marriott at McDowell Mountains partnered to handle the overflow.”
Crooker had high praise for the Fairmont staff, noting that the culinary and banquet team provided “fantastically healthy food,” important to a fitness organization’s attendees, and each meal was served “with a strategic plan in place so that there were no long lines and the food was always warm and fresh.”
The staff also kept Crooker’s budget firmly in mind. “Michael Saam, the resort’s director of adventures and experiences, was particularly helpful in working within our budget to create the right amount of ambience and activity. His assessment of our needs proved to be right on the money — literally.”
Although all located in the Southwest, Scottsdale properties are not mono-themed. The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa, for example, celebrates all things Scottish, bringing a wee bit of the British Isles to the Sonoran Desert and creating a memorable place for meetings, especially those that include golf. Or surfing challenges on the super-cool FlowRider. Or VIP Scotch tastings in the 160-bottle Scotch Library, overseen by highly knowledgeable, kilt-wearing Scotch Ambassador Guy Sporbert. In addition to Scottish ambience, the 732-room resort with 200,000 sf of indoor/outdoor meeting space now offers vastly increased Internet speed and improved access to high-def video, high-quality voice and high-data-rate wireless channels via mobile devices, thanks to a $1 million technology upgrade.
It may surprise planners to know that there are moderate lodging options in tony Scottsdale. The Saguaro sits at the edge of Old Town, the city’s original downtown and now a lively district melding history, art, a trendy food scene and a little bit of kitsch. The 194-room Saguaro provides 10,000 sf of meeting space and a sort of festive Mexican motel aesthetic enhanced by complimentary Wi-Fi, handcrafted furnishings, an inviting restaurant and a recently refreshed expansive pool area where groups can get social.
If gathering at an offsite restaurant fits the agenda, there’s Citizen Public House in Old Town, a hip eatery with gastropub cuisine and a highly creative beverage program. Groups can choose an 18-seat semi-private alcove, 12-seat table or the restaurant’s hidden gem, a private upstairs 30-seat speakeasy.
Jennifer Wesselhoff, president and CEO of the Sedona Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Bureau has one question: Who wouldn’t want to meet in the most beautiful place on earth?
“Sedona is a premier destination with world-class accommodations, fine dining, top-notch amenities and a special energy that attendees feel the moment they arrive to red-rock country,” she says. “Attendees won’t deny the ultra-eclectic feel of Sedona, and we guarantee that they will feel rejuvenated and inspired long after they depart.”
The city, with 46 hotels, resorts and motels and 50 restaurants, is ideal for groups of 400 or fewer. Sedona is a favorite with outdoor enthusiasts, art lovers — there are more than 80 galleries — and groups with a spiritual bent.
Arizona’s second-largest city is an out-of-the-box destination with range and depth in terms of activities, culture, dining, accommodations and meeting venues.
“Tucson is breaking the tired mold of a traditional site selection,” says Brent DeRaad, president and CEO of Visit Tucson. “Tucson’s offerings are a little out there and provide a welcome change from the unoriginal. Planners are looking for meeting sites that inspire and rejuvenate their delegates. They want to experience places that are a bit off the beaten path. They want to see jaw-dropping natural surroundings and make the kind of powerful connections that stir the imagination and inspire creativity. They want authentic experiences that are memorable. They get all of that in Tucson.”
They also get more than 205,000 sf of space at the Tucson Convention Center.
Albuquerque is experiencing solid growth and continued popularity with groups that appreciate the sunshine, evocative landscape, history and rich cultural influences. The city offers 16,508 hotel rooms, 923,834 sf of meeting/function space, and its 600,000-sf convention center is wrapping up a $22 million renovation. Additionally, Albuquerque has invested more than $300 million in hospitality developments, including hotels, offsite venues and attractions.
Just outside the city, 20 minutes from the airport, Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort and Spa is part of the Santa Ana Pueblo. The resort features 350 guest rooms and 83,000 sf of meeting space, 50,000 of it outdoors. A new covered attached patio is currently being built off the Santa Ana Café.
The resort’s worthy Tamaya Horse Rehab Program, available to groups, provides shelter and care for horses abandoned and suffering due to drought and ongoing economic challenges. The teambuilding/CSR basic program requires at least two hours and includes attendees helping to care for horses or build shelters for them. Large groups can add a full-on team rodeo fund-raiser, and companies can adopt and name one horse, then follow its recovery post-meeting — win-win for all.
Affordable, low-key Oklahoma City is a top choice for Lauren Warkentine, director of operations at Computer-Rx, a software company serving independent pharmacies nationwide. Its 2014 Idea Exchange drew nearly 700 attendees in April; the meeting is scheduled to convene in Oklahoma City through 2018.
“In downtown, the hotels, food, nightlife, shopping and sites are all close and easily accessible,” Warkentine says, noting attendees don’t need a car, a huge plus for planners. She says the area is walkable, safe and provides visitors and their families a range of things to do. Bricktown, the area’s entertainment district, is an attendee favorite.
Warkentine calls the city an excellent partner. “Everyone involved has always taken great care of us and made sure we had what we needed. We’re on our fourth year and our event continues to be a huge success. A lot of that is the fact that the city is a partner; they take our business to heart and they make it affordable for us to continue here.”
One thing she has changed in four years is relying more on the CVB, which she says consistently goes above and beyond. “We lean on the CVB mainly for communication within Oklahoma City. They provide us marketing material, coupons, VIP packages for guests, promotion around the city and more. They work with us in the early stages to make sure we have hotels and other items we need prior to the event, and constantly check in to ensure everything is on track.”
Idea Exchange is based at Cox Convention Center and Renaissance Oklahoma City Convention Center Hotel, connected by skybridge. “The service of the hotel is always exceptional,” Warkentine says. “The location is fantastic to the convention center and all downtown locations, and there are shuttles so customers can easily get around.” As for convention staff, they’re “always available and provide us cellphone numbers so we’re never searching for them. They bring us coffee or drinks throughout the day. We even had one staff member take a call while off-shift and at home. Instead of being ignored, our question was answered and we got the help we needed.”
Computer-Rx has clients across the country but is headquartered in Oklahoma City. Warkentine says planners should give her hometown a chance. “It’s a wonderful city with a lot to do for attendees. It’s affordable, safe and a great venue for an event. Most people just don’t know all that Oklahoma City has to offer. Take the time to experience what Oklahomans are so passionate about!”
In Scottsdale, Talking Stick Resort has expanded its casino-level lounge, Palo Verde, with two multicolored LED staircases activated by motion, deejay booth for live entertainment, oversized couches and seating for more than 100 guests.
Tucson’s Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa completed a $35 million refreshment of its public spaces and all 487 guest rooms. The 60,000-sf conference space and the resort’s banquet amenities received significant upgrades. One striking new feature in the hotel lobby is a living wall, displaying an array of plants; outside, the resort’s Sonoran Desert Walkway, a partnership with the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum, gives guests an up-close look at yucca, agave, flowering cacti and other natural elements of the Southwest desert.
The Hilton Sedona Resort & Spa unveiled a new lobby, its focus on relaxation and rejuvenation. The Living Room area encourages social gatherings. New restaurant SaltRock opened in September at Amara Resort & Spa in Sedona.
In New Mexico, the Santa Fe Convention Center, with 40,000 sf of indoor meeting space, added high-density Meraki cloud-based Wi-Fi hotspots so now more than 100 people can connect per hotspot. Next: upgrading the bandwidth to be able to grant online access to as many as 960 people in the ballroom. C&IT