Destination: ArizonaMay 20, 2021

Offering the Perfect Mix of Indoor and Outdoor Activities By
May 20, 2021

Destination: Arizona

Offering the Perfect Mix of Indoor and Outdoor Activities
Tucson Sunset

A saguaro cactus sits in silhouette during a sunset. Photo Courtesy of Visit Tucson

Arizona has gorgeous scenery, tropical-like conditions with palm trees and pools everywhere you look, golf courses, hiking and plenty of outside activities to entertain attendees. So, it’s the perfect place for meetings and conventions.

Arizona’s wide spaces and an abundance of outdoor activities is a draw for leisure guests and conference attendees alike. Add the unique blend of distinctive cultures — Western, Native and Mexican as experienced through art, architecture, entertainment and cuisine — and each visitor will define their perfect Arizona experience.

Leigh Wickersham, CAE, executive director of the National Institute of Oilseed Products, based in Columbia, South Carolina, has been planning meetings and conventions in Arizona for more than 20 years, and admits it’s a struggle for a meeting planner to keep the attendees at the hotel because there’s so much to do outside. “Our meetings are generally in March, and most of our members can’t wait to get to Arizona, and enjoy the sunshine and warmer weather,” she says. “They enjoy the natural opportunities, like hiking and sightseeing, as well as the unique events like spring training.”

Tonya Almond, vice president, knowledge and experience design for the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA), notes accessibility is always critical for holding events, and the proximity of convention centers to airports is great in Arizona. “Plus, there’s a uniqueness of venues with wide-open spaces and combinations of desert and city skyline backdrops that makes it special,” she says. “Of course, the sunshine is always a draw, but so are the myriad of hotels and resorts which each offer outdoor space. It’s easy to do business in Arizona as the hotels understand group business and are great to work with.”

The activities participants can do while visiting are also enticing, from hot air balloon rides to golf, to hiking, and of course, dining, where there have been a number of great additions to the dining scene. Bennell LaPorte, CEO and event fusion specialist at LaPorte & Company LLC., has been orchestrating events ranging from multi-day conferences to large nonprofit fundraisers in Arizona for more than a decade. “Through my travels planning events in a multitude of places, I have found that Arizona is one of the easiest cities to coordinate events in,” she says. “From a myriad of ideal locations to choose from to vendors that fit every budget, the ease with which I’ve been able to produce events in Arizona has been one of the primary reasons why this remains at the top of my locations list and why I chose to base my company here.”

Westward Look Wyndham Grand Resort and Spa in Tucson, Arizona.

Westward Look Wyndham Grand Resort and Spa in Tucson, Arizona.

Whether she’s planning an event 10 months out or on a short lead time from a client and only has three months to pull off a spectacular event experience, LaPorte has never seen a time when she hasn’t been able to find both venue and vendor options that wowed and delighted a client. “One of the biggest draws for hosting an event in Arizona is the abundance of sunshine and warm weather we enjoy throughout the year,” she says. “Outside of a few months during the summer when temperatures are sweltering, there’s truly never a bad time to host an event in the state.”

Plus, due to the diversity of the state itself, there are countless venue options throughout, so you’re always bound to find a venue or locale that meets your budget. From high end, resort-style venues to more casual and relaxed spaces, there is something for everyone. “Arizona is also a cost-effective option if you’re looking for your budget to stretch further,” LaPorte says. “Unlike other metropolitan areas — say New York or San Diego, where event costs tend to be much higher due to their location — here you can get a bigger bang for your buck when it comes to venue options, hotel rates, dining options and more.”

When attendees are not running between sessions, you can likely find them outside enjoying the gorgeous weather. With multiple award-winning golf courses to choose from, along with hiking in the mountains or on various trails, sightseeing in Sedona or enjoying a few hours at the spa, there are plenty of options for attendees who choose to stay active while in the state.

Phoenix is Perfect

Lorne Edwards, senior vice president of sales and service for Visit Phoenix, notes when one thinks of the city, it conjures up the beauty and splendor of the Sonoran Desert with lush desert landscape and jaw-dropping sunsets and sunrises with orange-and-purple hues bringing the rugged mountains to life. “In Greater Phoenix, we celebrate the outdoors, and we want our meeting planners and attendees to come discover, and immerse themselves in our playground,” he says. “Whether it is a 50-person meeting at one of our world-class resorts, or a large trade show for 5,000 attendees at our award-winning Phoenix Convention Center in the heart of our thriving walkable downtown, [there are] over 4,000 new or newly renovated hotel rooms and over 200 restaurants, many with outdoor patios.”

With Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport offering service to more than 120 domestic and international destinations, getting to the city is easy. “We have a walkable urban downtown where attendees can experience local culinarians and exotic artisans honing their craft,” Edwards says. “For those craving to learn more about our culture and history, attendees can discover Taliesin West, where you will uncover Frank Lloyd Wright’s mark on the destination. The Heard Museum, The Phoenix Art Museum, The Musical Instruments Museum and the Desert Botanical Gardens are great immersive experiences that honor our rich and diverse community and history.”

Prior to COVID-19, Arizona was a highly desirable destination. Now, having a destination like Phoenix be open for business and doing it in safe manner is a huge asset for event professionals to know they have a partner to work with them to bring their business. Almond is a big champion of Phoenix, and has a lot of experience hosting meetings in the city. “As a past member of the Phoenix Advisory Board, I have been watching the destination develop over the past 20 years, including the beautiful convention center and hotels, the district downtown, and of course, the surrounding resorts,” she says. “Prior to joining PCMA, I held a number of events in the area at different hotels and resorts plus attended other events in the destination.”

PCMA has held several events in Arizona over the years, and Almond is very excited to bring its upcoming EduCon event to the Phoenix area at the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa this year in midsummer. “Phoenix’s airport upgrades have made it so much better to travel to and from with lots of options,” Almond says. “The mountains offer a beautiful option for activities too, whether it’s just a background for photos or going on a hike.”

Event Fusion Specialist Bennell LaPorte created an experience that incorporated both indoor and outdoor programming at the Arizona Biltmore, A Waldorf Astoria Resort.

Event Fusion Specialist Bennell LaPorte created an experience that incorporated both indoor and outdoor programming at the Arizona Biltmore, A Waldorf Astoria Resort.

One of LaPorte’s favorite events she produced was a fundraiser for a nationally recognized educational nonprofit in Phoenix. The ability to host the event in Arizona at the beginning of March, when many other states are still dealing with frigid temperatures, allowed for greater flexibility. “This event is the organization’s largest fundraising event of the year, bringing in the Who’s Who of prominent figures in the political, educational, sports, business and philanthropic spaces,” she says. “This event usually welcomes 500 guests and has traditionally been held in late February or early March before temperatures rise and the majority of fundraising season kicks off in the city.”

Hosting this event at the Arizona Biltmore, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, allowed her to create an attendee experience that incorporated both indoor and outdoor programming. “We held a cocktail hour outside on the lawn that had guests enjoying the amazing weather in the warm spring breeze while musicians and violinists from a local music academy provided the music for the evening to set the tone,” LaPorte says. “Once inside, guests enjoyed programming that was accentuated by state-of-the-art audio and visual equipment that elevated the feel of the space, and brought the keynote speeches and talent performances to a new level.”

JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa offers 240,000 sf of event space and 60 breakout rooms, while Arizona Biltmore offers nearly 318,000 sf of event space and 78 meeting rooms. Other venues in Phoenix include Courtyard by Marriott – Phoenix Downtown, Hampton Inn & Suites Downtown Phoenix, Cambria Hotel Downtown Phoenix Convention Center and AC Hotel by Marriott Phoenix Downtown.

JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa hosted the National Institute of Oilseed Products’ convention in early spring. It was one of the first in-person events to return to the venue since the start of the pandemic.

JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa hosted the National Institute of Oilseed Products’ convention in early spring. It was one of the first in-person events to return to the venue since the start of the pandemic.

Terrific Tucson 

Tucson has long been known as a resort destination boasting some of the industry’s most iconic brands, unique independent boutique properties, world-class spas and authentic working dude ranches.

It’s a city surrounded by mountain ranges, some reaching elevations over 9,000 feet. It’s also bordered to the east and west by Saguaro National Park, so meeting attendees are never far from a bike path or trailhead. Combine all this access to the natural beauty of the Sonoran Desert, with a thriving cultural and food scene, and attendees are left scrambling to extend their stays for an extra few days. “What some planners may not know is that the city has a robust offering of full-service meeting hotels featuring brands like Hilton, Marriott and Sheraton Suites,” says Graeme Hughes, senior vice president, sales for Visit Tucson. “Also, new for this desert destination, are urban meetings with a desert vibe.”

The National Institute of Oilseed Products held its convention in Tucson at the JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa early this spring, becoming one of the first to come back after the pandemic. “My group was one of the first to be closed down by COVID-19 last March, and we pride ourselves on being one of the first to come back,” Wickersham says. “We had about one-third of our normal attendance, but the hotel worked with us in every possible way so that we could host our meeting. They proved to us the they wanted us there — regardless of the number.”

Working closely with the hotel, she focused extra effort on hosting more food events so members would not struggle finding downtown outlets that were still working their way back to larger capacities due to COVID-19 restrictions. “The hotel’s F&B team and chefs knocked it out of the park,” she says. “The chef himself was seen grilling at several of our events. I had one attendee tell me that he had been to 30 or more conventions in his career, and this one had the best food.”

Many of the attendees took advantage of some fun activities, with the jeep tours into the desert being a favorite. “One family called it ‘bucket-list material,’” Wickersham says. “While at the hotel, we saw a lot of unique wildlife — up close and personal, but not dangerous. Between the hotel property and the golf course, we saw javelina, road runners and deer. We even had a bobcat walk by our reception.”

She also describes the dining scene in Tucson as being first-rate, and notes many of the attendees plan weeks in advance where they will take their clients for a unique dining experience that can’t be found anywhere else. “The resources of Visit Tucson were very helpful throughout the entire process,” Wickersham says. “They showcased the entire area and really drove home the differences that make Tucson stand out. They met with me several times after selecting the city to help me brainstorm marketing efforts, activities and reminding me of local resources.”

JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa offers nearly 81,000 sf of event space. Other venues in Tucson include El Conquistador Tucson, A Hilton Resort; Loews Ventana Canyon Resort; and The Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa.

Scottsdale and Tempe

Two other major cities popular with meeting planners in Arizona are Scottsdale and Tempe. Since coming aboard Washington, D.C.-based Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), Lindsay Gold, CMP, director of meetings and events, has hosted two meetings in Arizona — the 2019 September Executive Committee Meeting and the 2020 Leadership Institute in November. The programs took place in Scottsdale at The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess and Westin Kierland Resort & Spa. “The properties in Arizona, Scottsdale in particular, are conducive to hosting a meeting,” she says. “The weather is a huge draw and allows for socially distanced events outdoors, and multiple amenities are within walking distance of the properties. It feels exclusive when you are at these secluded resorts, yet in reality, you are still so close to a major airport.”

She says attendees like to take advantage of the amenities on-site and within a reasonable drive of the area. “Many arrived early for our November program to take day trips to Sedona, see the Grand Canyon or enjoy the championship-caliber golf courses both on-site and in the area,” Gold says. “Any time that I can book a location that attendees want to extend their time in is a win.”

According to LaPorte, both Scottsdale and Tempe are host to a thriving food scene. “From fusion restaurants that mix Japanese and Mexican cuisine to food trucks and award-winning restaurants that require reservations months in advance, these cities are definitely the place to be if you consider yourself a ‘foodie’ and enjoy trying out and savoring new and innovative fare,” she says.

Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia was selected for HPN Global’s annual conference in December. There were daily health screenings and many sessions were held outdoors.

Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia was selected for HPN Global’s annual conference in December. There were daily health screenings and many sessions were held outdoors.

Nestled at the base of Camelback Mountain, Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia is a favorite spot of many meeting planners, such as Desi Whitney, senior vice president, sourcing operations and industry relations for HPN Global, which held its annual conference in December. “Capitalizing on majestic views, Spanish cultural infusion and inspiring event locations, this property tests the boundaries of what’s possible in meetings execution and experience,” she says. The venue has more than 102,000 sf of total meeting space, and its outdoor conference space allow for inventive conventions, productive board meetings, and unforgettable social occasions.

The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess offers 316,000 sf of event space, while The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa offers 132,000 sf and 33 event rooms. Other venues in Scottsdale include Boulders Resort & Spa Scottsdale; The Phoenician, a Luxury Collection Resort, Scottsdale; Talking Stick Resort; and Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain Resort & Spa.

Impact of COVID-19

Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic was devastating to the meetings and events industry throughout the state over the past year. For instance, the greater Tucson area experienced well over 300 group cancellations, losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue. “For those groups that were able to go forward with events, the availability of outdoor meeting spaces, and a robust health-and-safety program made available to meeting and event planners by our county health department, helped to ensure the safety of guests who did chose to travel,” Hughes says. “We’re fortunate that we’ve re-booked approximately 45% of those meetings and room nights, so the future is bright.”

During HPN Global’s event in Scottsdale, rapid COVID testing was done for all attendees, and once a negative result was received, they proceeded to the registration table. There was also a daily health screening and temperature checks at the registration desk, where attendees were given a colored bracelet for that day’s sessions. The event also utilized outdoor space as much as possible, and the hospitality suite was held in the resort’s Kasbah Terrace, outdoors in the fresh air with space to spread out. “The group also asked attendees to keep masks on unless they were in the act of eating or drinking,” Whitney says. “They had event monitors that would roam the event and remind attendees if they had their masks down to put them back on.”

At ABC’s 2020 Leadership Institute conference, held at Westin Kierland Resort & Spa in Scottsdale, it was a hybrid meeting with 120 on-property and 150 participating virtually. “We had many safety logistics and virtual processes to think through — from how we set the rooms, to how to make the virtual audience feel just as engaged as the in-person audience, to meal functions and more,” Gold says. “Our team at ABC had ideas on how we wanted things set and to run, but the team at Westin Kierland proved invaluable as we brainstormed together. The attention to detail and customer service was wonderful and made the experience, as a whole, even better.”

The largest event Tucson hosts annually is the Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil showcase usually held in early February. It attracts buyers and vendors from all over the world, and can be the catalyst for the region going above 90% occupancy during the peak period of the event. “Proactive planning by local officials, Visit Tucson staff and the primary showcase operators has allowed at least 50% of the original participants to move [the event to mid spring] as a way to avoid major limitations due to the pandemic,” Hughes says. “With all primary indicators continuing to improve, this event [served] as a great example of how Tucson is bringing back meetings and events to the region.”

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