It’s no accident that Arizona has become, along with Florida and California, one of the most popular statewide meeting destinations in the U.S. In addition to its inviting climate, formidable airlift, and vast array of hotel product, Arizona also offers a range of unique options when it comes to local destinations.
Along with nearby Phoenix, Scottsdale ranks as one of Arizona’s two largest and most utilized meeting destinations. For the last three years, Lisa Livingstone, founder and owner of Golden, Colorado-based independent meeting planning firm Livingstone & Associates, has been bringing a group of 170 community bankers and guests to Scottsdale every October for their annual three-day, two-night educational conference. The group had already been going to Scottsdale for seven consecutive years before Livingstone inherited the meeting.
Why such loyalty to the destination? “The climate in Scottsdale is perfect in the fall when this meeting is held each year,” Livingstone says. “That’s a great time of year to be there. Another reason why my client and I like Scottsdale is its airlift and value in airfares from around the country. There is also a lot of variety in Scottsdale, in terms of hotel product and also in terms of things to do. It’s also an upscale destination. It’s very popular with our attendees because of things such as the golf courses and spas.”
In particular, Livingstone says, one of the factors that makes Scottsdale so popular with meeting planners and their upscale clients is its range of hotel product. For her first meeting with her banker group in 2015, she chose the JW Marriott Scottsdale Camelback Inn Resort & Spa. “Attendees loved the property and the history of it,” Livingstone says. “It also has a lot of character. It’s a very unique property.”
For the 2016 meeting, the group used The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa Phoenix-Scottsdale. “One of the unique things about that property is its outdoor areas, especially the atrium area, which are very beautiful. But it’s also an excellent meeting property.”
Last year, Livingstone used the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Gainey Ranch.
“This group always selects a four-star luxury property,” she says. “And in this case, it was a resort property rather than a typical corporate/meeting style hotel. I call it tasteful elegance.”
A key factor in the selection of the Hyatt Regency was budget. “The pricing they gave us for the room rate was really important,” Livingstone says. “Another thing that is very important to this group is Wi-Fi availability in the meeting space at no cost. They also waived their resort fee.”
Both Livingstone and her attendees gave the property high marks after the meeting. “The rooms are lovely,” Livingstone says. “They are very bright and spacious. The bathrooms are updated and very modern. And most of the rooms had balconies.”
All of the food and beverage for the meeting was done onsite. “The food and beverage was excellent,” Livingstone says. “It was also very creative. It was also highly rated in our post-meeting survey.”
A highlight of the meeting was an outdoor opening night reception with heavy hors d’oeuvres. “The setting was gorgeous,” Livingstone says. “We had beautiful weather and it was a very successful event. It got rave reviews from attendees in our post-meeting survey.”
The layout and configuration of the meeting space also worked very well, she said. “In my experience, Hyatt properties are very generous with their meeting space, so we used a lot of space, even though we only had 115 actual meeting attendees. The others were spouses and guests. So in terms of the meeting, we had a lot of room to move around in. Things weren’t crowded or cramped. That was the best thing about this particular meeting. We did both general sessions and breakouts and nothing was uncomfortable. And the meeting space was just excellent.”
Finally, she says, the level of service she and her client received at the Hyatt Regency were truly exemplary. “I am a fan of the Hyatt brand,” she says. “In the case of Scottsdale, I have been to a number of the resort properties there with this group. And they are all excellent. But the Hyatt is my favorite, because most of the staff has been there for a very long time. They are very personable and there is a lot of attention to detail. For example, instead of just giving me an app to use when I needed to contact somebody or get something done, they assigned me a meeting concierge, who was always there at the ready. She just did a great job of taking care of me and the group. I could not have been happier with the service.”
Because her client likes to move to a new hotel each year, Livingstone will not return to the Hyatt Regency this year. As of mid-January, the hotel had not yet been selected. But as for Scottsdale, her loyalty to the destination remains unshakable. “It’s just a fantastic place to hold a meeting,” she says.
Most meeting planners are familiar with the intimate resort enclave of Sedona as a world-renowned wellness and spiritual center, famous for its breathtaking landscape and “magical” aura.
For the last two years, Lisa Barot, executive assistant at Tempe, Arizona-based TruWest Credit Union, has used Sedona as the destination for the company’s three-day, two-night annual top management executive conference for 20 attendees plus spouses and guests.
“Because of the nature of the attendees at our management conference, we always want a sophisticated and relaxing destination,” Barot says. “Sedona meets that definition, but it is also very beautiful. Because of the landscape and things like the red rocks, there is no other place like it. It also has cooler weather in the summer than most of the rest of the state. It might still be 100 degrees, but that’s still better than the 120 degrees down in the valley where Phoenix is.”
Another factor in TruWest’s embrace of Sedona two years ago was the value it offered. “That was one of the most important reasons why we chose it,” Barot says. “You get a lot for your money, and you also get the incredible beauty and serenity.”
For both 2016 and last year, Barot and her top executives chose Poco Diablo Resort Sedona as their hotel. “It is a gorgeous property,” Barot says. “It’s also a very serene and relaxing place, which is also important to this group and also important to the meeting itself. It’s surrounded by the red rocks and it also has a small nine-hole executive golf course. And golf is very important to this group.”
One of the things that surprised Barot and her executives when they went to Sedona the first time in 2016 was the sophistication of its local dining scene. Two years ago and again last year, the group went offsite for a dinner in a private dining room at Cucina Rustica, which serves Italian food. “It’s a phenomenal restaurant,” Barot says. “And the service is also superb. Last year, they knew we were crunched for time because we had an event scheduled back at the hotel, and they got us in and out according to our schedule. But even though they had to get us in and out very efficiently, the food and the service were just outstanding. Everybody loved the place. I just can’t rave enough about it.”
In 2016, Barot planned a second offsite dinner at Mariposa, a high-end Latin grill. “That was another wonderful experience,” Barot says. “The food there is also exceptional.”
After dinner in 2016, the group returned to Poco Diablo for a private star-gazing event. “We hired a local astronomer through the hotel,” Barot says. “He came out with a telescope and gave a presentation about the universe and the stars. We got to see things like Saturn and its rings. It was just amazing.”
After the offsite dinner last year, the group participated in a murder mystery dinner hosted by national company THEY Improv, which hires local talent to produce events in individual destinations. “That was a lot of fun,” Barot says. “And again, it was something unique for a meeting.”
Barot also praised Poco Diablo for the quality of its F&B. “Both the food and the service are excellent,” she says. “They did wonderful buffets for us. One was a Mexican buffet that was just fantastic. The breakfast buffets were also very good. And in terms of service, they were on top of everything.”
As for activities, golf, spa treatments and exploration of Sedona were popular. “One of the cool things to do in Sedona is the hiking trails,” Barot says. “We had a number of attendees who did that. But other people just took it easy and went to the spa to just enjoy the serenity of the place.”
For Barot as the planner, the most important factor in the success of her meeting was the service and support she got from Poco Diablo. “The customer service at the hotel was phenomenal,” she says. “I knew from the time I went on the first site visit for the 2016 meeting that the service would be excellent. As the meeting planner, I just immediately felt more comfortable there than at other properties because of the way I was treated and how well my needs were taken care of. Then, once we went there for the first meeting, all of our executives loved it so much that they wanted to go back immediately.” In fact, they liked it so much last year that they will go back for a third time in 2019.
For planners unfamiliar with Sedona, Barot encourages them to investigate the destination. “The thing that really defines it is its serenity and artistic flair,” she says. “It’s a very relaxing and creative place. You go there and you just automatically feel at one with nature and relaxed. It’s very special.”
Another unique and spectacular Arizona destination is Tucson, whose illustrious history dates back to the most famous days of the Old West.
Lisa Browne, events manager at Gainesville, Florida-based CPAmerica, a coalition of independently owned U.S. accounting firms, hosted a three-day, three-night meeting in Tucson last November for 135 tax accountants, plus spouses and guests.
Why Tucson? “We let our member firms choose the destination, by vote,” Browne says. “We narrow it down to the top two or three choices, then at the current year’s meeting, we pick the destination for the following year. At our 2016 meeting in Santa Rosa, California, attendees overwhelmingly chose Tucson. The main reason was that we have a very active accounting firm member in Tucson. And they wanted other members to learn about Tucson and get excited about it, so they led the cheerleading for selecting it. Then I went on a site visit with my boss. And from the minute we arrived in Tucson, we both immediately became big fans of the place. It’s very naturally beautiful. And all of the hotels we visited were not just beautiful themselves, but they are surrounded by beauty everywhere you look. It is just a gorgeous place.”
One of the things that makes Tucson unique, Browne says, is that its hotels are all designed and built to take full advantage of the destination’s rugged natural beauty. “For example,” she says, “they have hiking trails and gardens operated by their chefs.”
As for airlift from around the country, she was surprised by how easy it was to get to Tucson. “Once we realized that we could easily get there from Gainesville, Florida,” she says, “we also realized that anybody else from around the country could get there easily, too. And that turned out to be true.”
The hotel Browne chose was the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort. “It is a fabulous hotel,” Browne says. “We did an RFP process and before I went for the site visit, we had narrowed our selection down to seven or eight properties. And because we were not familiar with Tucson, we looked at downtown properties and resort properties and one casino property.”
One of the key reasons why Loews Ventana Canyon won out was the layout of its meeting space. “It was just perfect for us,” Browne says. “The rates we got at the hotel also were very attractive. And it also has a very nice spa. So when we added up those factors, it was just the right choice for us for this particular meeting.”
After the meeting, both Browne and her attendees gave excellent reviews to both the room product and food and beverage at Loews Ventana Canyon.
A highlight of the meeting was an evening “food truck rally” recommended by the hotel and executed by its in-house destination management company. “One of our service reps at the hotel told us that foods trucks are kind of a big thing in Tucson and we had also seen them in other destinations,” Browne says. “So we decided to do it because it was something different that was also fun. We brought in three local food trucks and the hotel also provided an taco and fajita station. We also had a s’mores station for dessert. People just loved it.”
Another highlight, suggested by the local CVB, Visit Tucson, was an offsite event at Cocoraque Ranch & Pavilion, a working cattle ranch. “The owner of the ranch decided at some point that he had this great property that could offer something truly unique to meeting planners,” Browne says. “They do cattle drives and cookouts and it’s a very cool unique venue. We had a little mini-rodeo, then a ranch-style buffet dinner that included steaks. And we had a guitarist come out and provide entertainment. And I never would have known about or found the ranch if it were not for Visit Tucson and their creativity. Our attendees loved it. It was a very unique and special experience.”
Visit Tucson played a major role in the success of her meeting, Browne says, particularly when it came to making the best possible use of the destination. Browne singled out her lead representative, Brooke Sauer, for praise. “She arranged our site visit and also helped us in planning things like the food truck rally and our offsite event at the ranch,” Browne says. “She just did a spectacular job. But everyone at Visit Tucson was fantastic. I work with CVBs across the country all the time. And I rate them as one of the best I’ve ever worked with, especially in terms of their knowledge of the area and their attention to detail and their creativity. I can’t praise them highly enough. They just go above and beyond the call of duty in every respect.”
For meeting planners not familiar with Tucson, based on her experience, Browne has a clear, simple message. “It’s a very beautiful and unique place. And they also have a wonderful local food scene. The resorts and other hotels are top-notch. And most of all, you get a lot for your money as a meeting planner. It’s a great value in addition to being a very special place.”
And she backs her up her opinion with her business. This September, CPAmerica will go back to Tucson, this time using The Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa. And once again, Browne will enthusiastically work closely with Visit Tucson. I&FMM