As the warmth of summer settles over most of the U.S., one state is looking forward to the milder months of fall, winter and spring, when its outdoor environments are at their 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.
“Arizona is known for its sunny, warm days, which allowed us to arrange outside events without hesitation.” Shannon Burnham
With more than 40,000 hotel rooms combined, the Phoenix-Scottsdale metropolitan area represents the vast majority of the state’s meeting options. And for BridgeForce Financial Group, a program last October in Scottsdale met the goals cited by Shannon Burnham, vice president and corporate planner for the company.
“One big plus for us was the weather,” Burnham explains. “Arizona is known for its sunny, warm days, which allowed us to arrange outside events without hesitation. Also there are direct flights to Phoenix Sky Harbor (PHX), so it was very convenient as far as ease of travel was concerned. And it was also a destination that many of our qualifiers had yet to explore, making Scottsdale a perfect location to relax, unwind and enjoy.”
For her 120-attendee event, Burnham selected the Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia, a 293-room property that effectively utilizes the Sonoran Desert as its backdrop.
“Once you arrive in Phoenix the Omni Scottsdale Resort is only a short, 20-minute transfer,” Burnham says. “We have had a relationship with the Omni chain for years and have taken conferences to their San Antonio, Nashville and Toronto properties. Our goal is always to immerse our guests in the energy of the destination and for them to walk away with an authentic experience. Omni does a great job of exhibiting their local culture and of combining a boutique hotel experience with all the amenities of a big resort. We also love the style and sprawling footprint of this hotel, and you can’t beat the views of Camelback Mountain.”
The atmosphere of this desert oasis is inspired by Spain’s Andalusia region, reminiscent of a picturesque village with arching entryways, tranquil fountains and floral walkways. The resort features a 24-hour fitness center, three swimming pools and the Moroccan-inspired Joya Spa, while the six culinary options are influenced by the flavors of Spain and Mexico. The Omni Scottsdale Resort features 27,000 sf of flexible meeting space, including the 9,216-sf Alhambra Ballroom, plus 75,000 sf of outdoor space and several unique private dining spaces.
“Every day during our event I received emails from our conference or sales manager asking how things were going and if they could do anything for our group,” Burnham says. “As planners know, there are always last-minute changes or additions and they were quick to help with these when necessary. The general vibe was very friendly and accommodating and everyone was willing to help make your event a great one.”
“Another factor that is very important to us is event spaces on property,” Burnham adds. “We loved their options for our cocktail party and ended up on the Valencia Lawn, with beautiful views of the mountains. It was also a treat to enjoy breakfast and lunch outdoors in their courtyard. Whenever we can escape the generality of a meeting or boardroom we jump at the chance. Many of our guests told us they wanted to share the experience with their own friends and family and would be back to the Omni Scottsdale Resort.”
But the destination beyond the resort was also important for Burnham.
“We give our guests a lot of free time, so we needed a destination that had a variety of activities to offer,” Burnham says. “For the outdoor types, and to create picturesque memories, we had Camelback Mountain within walking distance for hiking. And there were deserts to explore where you could ride ATVs or do jeep tours. For the urban types, we had luxury shopping at Fashion Square or Kierland Commons, and there was row upon row of different restaurants, breweries and bars in Old Town.”
Burnham adds: “We broke out into smaller groups for dine-arounds one evening and hit up some of the best restaurants Scottsdale has to offer. We had several groups go to elements, another group at Mastro’s Ocean Club restaurant in the Kierland Commons, and one last group at El Chorro. We try to incorporate a happy hour event within our program and usually hold it at one of the local ‘dive’ bars. We chose Giligin’s Bar for this event. We described it in our itinerary as a combination of a dive bar, carnival and frat house. If you want something completely out of the box, but at the same time a great networking opportunity, I highly recommend them. The service and food were great, the atmosphere was fun, and the price was even better.”
Burnham adds, “Our final night event was at Desert Foothills, a unique event venue. They have large fire pits for roasting marshmallows, picnic tables with red-checkered tablecloths for an old-fashioned barbecue, Western-style games and a band shell for entertainment. They also have a beautiful barn facility in case of inclement weather. We hired a live karaoke band called Instant Classics and our guests got to sing and dance underneath the stars. Guests raved over the ribs, one of their specialties. Their coordinator was extremely organized and updated me constantly on changing weather patterns and provided last-minute alternatives and solutions.”
Burnham says the only challenge for her group was transportation. “Scottsdale is very sprawling, so if you are going off property for free time or a planned event then transportation is required. Luckily, we hired Southwest Conference Planners to assist us with the busing of our guests, and Ollie the Trolley for a customized hop-on/hop-off loop around the city.”
While the Phoenix-Scottsdale metropolitan area is home to more than two-thirds of Arizona’s population and holds the bulk of the state’s meeting space, don’t overlook outlying cities for something different, especially for small and mid-sized events.
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, $38 million, 170-room DoubleTree by Hilton adjacent to the Tucson Convention Center. Following its May 2019 groundbreaking, the six-story hotel will have 4,000 sf of meeting space and is expected to open by the end of 2020.
Existing properties are also getting fresh attention. The DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Tucson – Reid Park recently started 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 sf 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 is planned.
Meanwhile, the Hilton Tucson East, located in midtown Tucson, celebrated its 30th anniversary with an $8 million makeover unveiled last year. The renovation covered all 232 guest rooms, and upgrades to meeting rooms and the 4,743-sf Rosewood Ballroom and swimming pool area, plus a new restaurant and bar.
The 575-room JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa is the destination’s largest hotel, located in the saguaro cactus-dotted foothills overlooking the city, yet just 6 miles from downtown. The property has 80,768 sf of event space, including a 19,836-sf ballroom, while other features include 27 holes of championship golf at the Starr Pass Golf Club and a 20,000-sf full-service spa, which completed a refreshing last September.
At Canyon Ranch in Tucson, a full renovation of all 166 guest rooms will be completed at this end of this year, highlighting a clean aesthetic, personal patios and high-end amenities throughout, to foster a modern atmosphere of well-being. Cuisine is also being elevated with the arrival of new executive chef Russell Michel, a leader in the farm-to-table movement. The famed resort and spa can accommodate groups of up to 80, with total meeting space of 10,590 sf.
Tanque Verde Ranch, one of two dude ranches on the outskirts of Tucson, is currently building a new event venue, The Barn. Set in the rolling foothills next to Saguaro National Park, The Barn will offer stunning views and sunsets when it opens in November this year. The purpose-built facility, which includes a full kitchen, will have an indoor dining room measuring almost 8,000 sf to accommodate up to 350 seated guests at a time, plus a lawn area measuring 4,000 sf. Tanque Verde is located just 18 miles east of downtown Tucson.
One of the key advantages in using an Arizona dude ranch for events is that most of these outfits operate year-round, in contrast to dude ranches to the north, which are usually summer-only. And a winter escape is what Casper, WY-based Hilltop National Bank has in mind in returning to White Stallion Ranch, also outside Tucson, for its Board and Senior Staff Meeting in January this year.
“Coming from a northern climate in the winter makes Arizona an ideal spot for a brief retreat to concentrate on business while enjoying some much-desired warmth and sunshine,” says Dave True, chairman of Hilltop National Bank. “Tucson has good air service and is not a huge metropolitan area, but yet has many area attractions. We have used White Stallion Ranch for our gatherings, and it provides many, varied activities which are enjoyed by all ages.”
Built in the early 1900s as a cattle ranch, the property was converted in 1945, when more than 100 dude ranches were in the Tucson area. Starting in this period, dozens of movies and TV shows were filmed at the ranch, most notably “Winchester ’73” starring Jimmy Stewart. In 1965 the ranch changed hands and grew from 200 acres to its present-day 3,000 acres, and it houses one of Arizona’s largest private herd of horses, along with a herd of cattle.
The ranch is 18 miles northwest of downtown Tucson, and the property abuts the northern edge of Saguaro National Park. Accommodations include 43 rooms and a five-bedroom hacienda, wrapped by lovingly tended desert gardens. Rooms are modern and comfortable and feature patios with fireplaces, there’s an indoor-outdoor dining area, with themed meals created daily.
“White Stallion Ranch has a perfectly sized, separate meeting center within the overall complex, yet apart from other guest areas,” True says. “It’s set up with needed technology, including good internet connectivity. All of the guest rooms and dining facilities are immediately accessible. The western décor and outdoors environment adds significantly to the overall enjoyment.”
Team-building activities are central to the experience at White Stallion Ranch.
“A great enhancement for attendees is the great and varied activities,” True adds. “These range from the usual horseback riding, hiking and swimming pool to recently added options of e-bike rides, pistol/rifle target shooting and rock climbing.” All are available on an a la carte basis or as part of the ranch’s inclusive Adventure Package, and evening entertainment and a weekly rodeo are also offered.
“The White Stallion Ranch is not a typical hotel,” True says. “It has a very down-home feel and the family members who work and live right there make it a wonderful, individualized experience, no matter the age of the guest.”
But it is the Phoenix-Scottsdale area where most of the meeting and development news is found, and last year Marriott International acquired the area’s largest hotel, the 1,000-room Sheraton Grand Phoenix, from the city for $255 million. A significant renovation of the 10-year-old hotel began in June this year, and will include updates to the 77,000 sf of meeting space. The hotel remains open during the work, expected to be completed by early 2020. The Arizona Republic reports that Sheraton executives hope the Sheraton Grand Phoenix will be the chain’s “jewel box” to display the concepts they’ve envisioned for the entire brand.
In Scottsdale, The Phoenician, a Luxury Collection Resort, Scottsdale, completed its most extensive renovation since the 643-room hotel opened in 1988. A redesign of guest rooms and common areas was completed in 2016-2017, while last year saw the opening of a new athletic club and three-story spa facility. The Phoenician Golf Club was also redesigned and re-routed from 27 to 18 holes, a 10-month project completed last November. The Phoenician boasts approximately 160,000 sf of signature indoor and outdoor space including the Grand Ballroom, which hosts up to 2,500 for gala celebrations.
Last year, the JW Marriott Scottsdale Camelback Inn Resort & Spa unveiled its new, 15,000-sf Paradise Ballroom, along with another 20,000 sf of outdoor and pre-function space. The additions bring the resort’s total meeting and event space to 95,000 sf. 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 the personal collection of J. Willard “Bill” Marriott Jr.
The Arizona Biltmore, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, is in the midst of celebrating its 90th anniversary. The historic resort, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, has been a time-honored destination for presidents, dignitaries and celebrities alike, as well as meetings and conferences. The resort has more than 200,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting space, including the 24,576-sf Frank Lloyd Wright Ballroom, one of Arizona’s largest. I&FMM.