Sure, you can lump it all together into one region and call it the Southwest. But this area of the United States is wildly diverse in almost every way. Landscapes differ, prices and amenities come in a huge range, cultures and weather vary, towns and cities have distinct, identifiable personalities, and the reasons for meeting here are as limitless as sunset across the Western sky.
Here are three states, each one defining an engaging brand of Southwest meeting.
Phoenix has lured discerning travelers for decades with its idyllic winter weather and expansive resorts. The Arizona Biltmore and The Wigwam opened their doors in 1929. Today those resorts still flourish, but downtown Phoenix also is in revival mode, and the city is a full-on, year-round destination.
Encore Capital Group has met in Phoenix before and wanted to return to the area for its December 2014 meeting. This time around, The Phoenician fit the bill.
“The client was seeking a hideaway for its board of directors meeting,” says Nancy Nachman, CMM, CMP and founder of The Meetings Concierge, who brings many groups to the area. “They requested a luxury property with dining options, a spa and golf, which led us to The Phoenician. Although a small group, they like to be at a property that is large enough to offer a range of amenities and options. The Phoenician has a gorgeous boardroom with windows and a great view of the city.”
Nachman, who worked in the hotel industry at top brands before founding The Meetings Concierge, understands what groups need and has a long list of what excels at The Phoenician. “Incredible service, location, privacy, accommodations and the boardroom are all standouts,” she says.
Additionally, the group met off-property at Steak 44 on N. 44th Street in Phoenix. “Steak 44 is awesome and has a couple of private dining rooms as well,” Nachman says.
She calls travel in and out of Phoenix “super easy,” a bonus for out-of-state attendees. But the highlight was The Phoenician and its staff. “If you are seeking the finest luxury hotel, it doesn’t get much better than The Phoenician. Other luxury brands exist but this resort, hands down, still is the leader.”
Scottsdale, northeast of Phoenix, is sophisticated and surprisingly eclectic. When Michelle A. Wiltgen, assistant vice president and national marketing manager for National Interstate Insurance Company, wanted a setting for the Spring 2015 Venture and National Accounts meeting with about 130 attendees, Scottsdale was the choice.
“What we love about Scottsdale other than the climate,” Wiltgen says, “is that the city is friendly and accessible. We look for venues that are easy in and out (airport), easy to get around and have plenty of things to do. Scottsdale fits every criteria.”
The meeting was based at the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Gainey Ranch. “I sited several properties for this joint meeting,” Wiltgen says. “Factors considered were room rates, room product, meeting space, overall value, quality and service levels as well as the overall feel of the property. I know all of our attendees personally as we have been meeting with them biannually for several years. I look for properties that I think our attendees would like and be comfortable at.
“What stood out to me was first of all how beautiful the property is…we prefer outdoor spaces, and the Hyatt has several.” — Michelle A. Wiltgen
“What stood out to me was first of all how beautiful the property is, but more specifically, the room product was very nice as well as the meeting space (windows are always a plus) and the venues for meals — we prefer outdoor spaces, and the Hyatt has several.”
The group used the Arizona Ballroom for meetings and several outdoor spaces including the Palm Grove, Upper Pool Deck, Lawn Court, Terrace Court and South Foyer/Desert Garden — all at the Hyatt. Wiltgen calls them “beautiful and inviting spaces that fit our group but would have also been able to accommodate many more.”
The resort also delivered on food and service. “We used the Hyatt for all food functions,” Wiltgen notes, “and the service and food were excellent. We had everything from plated to buffet to stations for different meals. All events were handled professionally, on time and the service staff could not have been more accommodating. Our guests felt welcomed and comfortable.”
This was essential for this meeting because of its setup. “Because our meetings don’t have much activity time, we place a big emphasis on the F&B and venues used,” Wiltgen says. “I have never liked the concept of the ‘meal room,’ and this property has several options for menus and venues we could utilize that didn’t require a lot of additional lighting (or expense), were beautiful and had that wow factor we were looking for.”
The group also met for meals outside the hotel. “We had two events utilizing outside venues,” Wiltgen says. “One was a small dinner for approximately 20 at Mastro’s City Hall, a very elegant dinner that was handled with the highest level of customer service and professionalism. The other was with Western Destinations in Black Canyon City. It was a fabulous, active event including horseback riding, skeet and other activities.”
It’s always a bonus for planners when expectations are not only met but exceeded, which was the case for Wiltgen at the Hyatt. “Keep in mind, our meeting had very little activity time so the meals were a highlight and the Hyatt didn’t disappoint,” she says. “As planners know, hotel sales and marketing staff tell you what their hotel can do, why you should choose them and how great a job they are going to do. While it has been my experience that most of the time my expectationsare met, I was pleasantly surprised that the service level at the Hyatt exceeded my expectations. Every person that interacted with our group was pleasant and professional and really took ownership of our group and our experience. I also was pleasantly surprised with the quality of the food and presentation.”
This wasn’t the first time Wiltgen has brought National Interstate Insurance groups to Scottsdale. “We have probably had five to 10 meetings in the Scottsdale area over the past 10 years and have two more planned for next year,” she says. “While our groups pick where we meet, they repeat with Scottsdale because they are comfortable coming here for several reasons. Not only are there great options for all size groups and price ranges (we have utilized several different properties), our groups appreciate the ease of getting to Scottsdale and they feel safe moving around the city.
“There are plenty of things to do for people who come in early or stay late that range from less active to the most active,” she continues. “We have several age groups so we have to take this into consideration. Additionally, our experience with the (Scottsdale) CVB has been one of the best in the country from a planning standpoint. We utilize CVBs in many cities. There are not many who exceed our expectations in assisting with our meetings.”
Another planner favorite in Scottsdale is the AAA Four Diamond, Native American-owned Talking Stick Resort on the Salt River-Pima Maricopa Indian Reservation. The 496-room resort offers nearly every must-have amenity for corporate groups: golf at the adjacent Talking Stick Golf Club; The Spa at Talking Stick, a 13,000-sf open-air venue on the 14th floor that highlights products made with ingredients that are culturally significant to the Pima-Maricopa Indians; gaming at the onsite casino; a 650-seat Showroom; and 100,000 sf of indoor/outdoor meeting space.
Distinctive among the 11 restaurants and lounges is the signature restaurant Orange Sky, located on the 15th floor with floor-to-ceiling windows and available for private events. The casino-level lounge, Palo Verde, was expanded last year.
Largely defined by striking red and pink rocks and high-desert terrain, Sedona is a place of seductive beauty. It lends itself to privacy and a feeling of getting away from it all, yet it’s just a two-hour drive from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. In town, one of the biggest draws for attendees during free time is Tlaquepaque, the popular arts and crafts village with excellent shopping and dining. The village is undergoing an expansion with completion expected in early 2016. The result should be even more options for planners and attendees.
Centrally located, Albuquerque is set along the Rio Grande at the foot of the Sandia Mountains. Among major cities in the United States, it has one of the highest elevations, ranging from nearly 5,000 feet above sea level along the river to 6,700 feet in the foothills.
Considering Albuquerque’s rich cultural heritage, the area was a fitting choice for Wells Fargo’s Leadership, Diversity and Inclusion Conference last summer, with 200 attendees taking part. The meeting was based at Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort and Spa, about 30 minutes from the Albuquerque airport, a resort offering an ideal combination of ease of access and seclusion.
“The big draw was that the resort is on sacred pueblo land and is owned by the Pueblo of Santa Ana,” says Adelle Heinz, Wells Fargo’s V.P., meeting and event planner, enterprise meetings and events. “That unique business model and the Native American culture experiences really added to our meeting. The meeting was focused on diversity and inclusion. The fact that the hotel is Native American-owned carried through the message being discussed in our meetings.”
Also pertinent to the meeting theme, each participant received a corn necklace greeting upon arrival at Tamaya, a tradition within the Santa Ana Pueblo. “We also had a flute performance by William, a tribal member, which also made our evening events special and unique,” Heinz says.
“The other key aspect,” she adds, “was the solitude and outstanding natural setting. Being so remote kept our people together and focused on each other and teambuilding, so the meetings were productive and on-task. The hotel is absolutely gorgeous and the grounds are beautiful!”
Because the resort is outside the city, all aspects of the meeting took place on hotel grounds, but that didn’t mean lack of variety. “We were not staring at the same four walls of a windowless ballroom day after day,” Heinz says. “The resort offers tons of venues and variety, each one better than the next. We were at Oxbow Pool for dinner and did a reception in the House of the Hummingbird within a butterfly garden. We had an event at the Corn Maiden restaurant. There is also the Cottonwoods Pavilion along the Rio Grande that I was dying to use, but we ended up not using that space. Long story short, we were very happy with all the options we had onsite. Every place that I went on-property was fabulous. There were so many great spaces. It’s really nice to break up the meeting spaces yet remain intact at the same time.”
Heinz also describes the resort’s venues as “plentiful and not too spread out, so the participants never have trouble finding their room or getting to the next breakout session on time.”
The food was definitely a hit. “We do a survey after each meeting and everybody raved about the food,” Heinz says. “I’ve done hundreds of meetings in the past 14 years. People are constantly referring back to this meeting saying, ‘Remember the food we had at the Hyatt Regency? That is what we want again.’ The chefs at Tamaya are innovative and prepared tasty breakfasts, lunches and dinners. The food was delicious with lots of healthy choices. It’s true that many hotels are starting to pay attention to (healthy options), but it’s not across the board — especially in the Northeastern and Midwestern states where the entrées can be very heavy and fatty. We were blown away by the food.”
Native American cultural events were a major part of the activities available to attendees, and there was a chile-roasting demonstration, too. Activities also were built around giving back to the community. “Corporate social responsibility is usually a part of our meetings,” Heinz says, noting that it was even more important for this meeting given that it was focused around leadership and diversity. Client experience, teambuilding and giving team members who are spread across the country face-to-face time were also a focus, and all of these elements were served by programs designed to help others.
“Coming together to help those in need really brings everyone together,” Heinz says. “Doing good builds team moral and creates similar experiences that teams can build off of.”
The group engaged in several CSR activities. “We did donations and worked with PBJ Family Services in Albuquerque to help purchase a bookcase and children’s books. We partnered with Bernalillo Schools in Bernalillo, New Mexico, putting together teacher packs for the coming school year. And we made donations to the Stables at Tamaya horse rehabilitation program. We toured the horse rehab facility and were able to rescue an abandoned horse — our donation saved his life. It was wonderful to have a CSR activity right at Tamaya.”
When all was said and done, the only regret Heinz had was being unable to use the resort’s Cottonwood Pavilion because of the group’s number. “I’d go back no question about it,” she says.
In general, Heinz’s advice to planners is, “Find a property that aligns with your goals and values and offers a unique experience that everyone will remember…and consider the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa. It worked out just perfect for us,” she says.
It’s a beguiling mix. Art, Spanish and American history, and ancient and contemporary Native American culture all combine to give Santa Fe a distinctive ambience. The city offers groups a rich cultural backdrop that enhances meetings and free time. And though history informs much of the city, Santa Fe is still evolving. Last August, Drury Plaza Hotel opened — the first new hotel in downtown in 18 years. This May, Chef John Sedlar opened Eloisa at the hotel, creating a menu that pays homage to the Southwest cuisine of his childhood and to his grandmother, who cooked for Georgia O’Keeffe. In June, Bar Alta opened, the hotel’s new rooftop venue with impressive views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Other restaurants recently opened include Radishes & Rye, Taberna and Paper Dosa.
Oklahoma’s capital is one of the great value destinations in the Southwest. Meetings infrastructure is expansive, the CVB works hard to meet planners’ needs and goals, and there’s been more than $5 billion in investments and improvements over the past couple of decades with more yet to come, not the least of which is a new convention center currently slated to open in 2019.
Meanwhile, the current Cox Convention Center provides more than 1 million sf of meeting and exhibition space, and downtown Oklahoma City offers several engaging entertainment and dining areas, including Bricktown, Automobile Alley and Film Row. A variety of cultural attractions add value to meetings here, perhaps especially the powerful and moving Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. Along the Oklahoma River at the southern edge of downtown, the Boathouse District offers space for meetings and teambuilding activities. New to the district is the CHK/Central Boathouse with indoor and outdoor rentable space. And in 2016, a whitewater rafting facility will open, providing even more options for teambuilding and bonding.
The Southwest is endlessly alluring but decidedly not all the same. From urban sophistication to extraordinary rural settings, the Southwest delivers a diverse meetings menu for planners to choose from — over and over again.
Phoenix. The Arizona Biltmore, a Waldorf Astoria Resort, completed a major renovation in November to modernize and refine accommodations and public spaces while preserving the historic architecture and design for which it is known.
The stellar Musical Instrument Museum added 3,400 sf of event space to its existing space. The renovation included the addition of three private meeting rooms, each with full AV capability. Total indoor and outdoor function space is 40,000 sf.
Scottsdale. Scottsdale Resort & Conference Center began a renovation July 1. In September, the property will unveil its updated look, a new restaurant and new function space along with a new name: The Scottsdale Resort at McCormick Ranch, a Destination Hotel.
Tucson. Loews Hotels & Resorts purchased Loews Ventana Canyon Resort in November, which it had been managing since 1984. The resort will undergo a significant renovation this year.
The Westin La Paloma Resort and Spa completed a $30 million rejuvenation of public spaces and private rooms and upgraded its banquet amenities. The 60,000-sf conference space received new carpeting and AV equipment among other upgrades.
Santa Fe. In June, the Eldorado Hotel & Spa announced completion of an extensive renovation that includes a new 7,000-sf ballroom — the city’s largest — with a sophisticated, programmable LED lighting system.
Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi redesigned its Anasazi Restaurant and Bar including an added lounge area and dedicated tequila table.
Oklahoma City. In Bricktown, construction is set to start this fall on a Hyatt Place and an AC Hotel, the European brand that’s part of Marriott. Also on tap is a 21C Museum Hotel at the edge of Film Row, currently under construction and scheduled to open in 2016 in a renovated historic building that once housed a Model T assembly plant. I&FMM