By all accounts, last year started off looking to be a great year for travel, hospitality, tourism and meetings. Instead, a pandemic swept the world; our nation and every state, including Arizona, suddenly faced enormous challenges. There may now be a light flickering at the end of the long, dark tunnel that was 2020, but everything won’t miraculously change in the months ahead. Rather, some things will change and some will continue as part of the “new normal” meetings landscape.
“Three trends emerged [last year] that we believe will extend into the new year,” says Rachel Sacco, president and CEO of Experience Scottsdale. “Comfort and safety will continue to reign in Scottsdale’s meetings sector, leading to smaller, regional and short-term meetings. Scottsdale is primed to host these smaller meetings, such as executive retreats, board meetings, incentive programs and think tanks. With our casita-style resorts and wide-open spaces, our destination is one in which these groups feel secure.”
Outdoor programs will also continue to be emphasized, another plus for Scottsdale. “Our year-round sunshine and unique outdoor venues allow [groups] to host all of their programs outside,” Sacco says. “Though we’re hopeful things will normalize once [the] vaccine is widely distributed, Experience Scottsdale recognizes this ever-changing landscape will likely remain for the first few months of this year. We created the MeetScottsdaleSafe.com website and virtual toolkit to help planners navigate this time as our partners do everything possible to keep their attendees safe from the moment they arrive until the moment they depart.”
Scottsdale’s strict adherence to health and safety protocols, as well as Marriott International’s, is one reason Associated Builders & Contractors set its annual Leadership Institute program at The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa late last year. The hybrid meeting was almost evenly split, with 115 attending in person and 121 attending virtually. “I think the fact that Scottsdale has a mask mandate in place, as do Marriott hotels, was the first step in looking at the location and venue and saying ‘Will our people be safe when they’re outside of the meeting space as well as inside of it?” says Lindsay Gold, CMP, director of meetings & events for Associated Builders & Contractors (ABC). “Marriott’s Commitment to Clean was emphasized both in the common areas of the hotel as well as guest rooms, and we stressed that staying within the group block was part of our health and safety plan. One other element that was great was how flexible the hotel was in working to our level of comfort. For example, we had all of our meals and receptions outside, and though Arizona allows up to six at a round, we chose to put only four at each round. We wanted people coming from a state that might have had stricter protocols to feel just as comfortable as those who were coming from down the street.”
In addition to protocols the Westin Kierland had in place, such as mask requirements in all public spaces and attended meal functions, Gold worked with the hotel on additional safety enhancements. They included attended beverage breaks, an isolation room in the meeting space staffed with local emergency medical personnel, coordinating with the event services and [other] teams to create a specific path into the meeting space daily for temperature checks, and safety signage. “I felt comfortable hosting this meeting because I knew between the processes already in place at the hotel and what ABC did on top of that, I felt safe on-site. I would never want to put my attendees or co-workers in a position to make them feel we hadn’t thought it through as much as possible, and I think we accomplished that.”
Gold is also grateful to the hotel for its flexibility related to the original contract. “We booked this about three years ago, and the meeting we ended up having was not the meeting we originally booked. The hotel was more than flexible in working with us on our food and beverage minimums, space requests and hotel pick-up,” she says.
But it’s not all about the COVID-19 response. Scottsdale has always been, and continues to be, a highly desirable destination. “Scottsdale is a great location because it has several amazing properties in a small area. In addition, our attendees come from all over the country, so the easy airlift and great weather help to make it a popular destination for our last meeting of the year,” Gold says. And the hotel is well situated. “The location is great because there’s so much within a short walk or Uber ride for attendees to do in their free time.”
Even with stringent virus protocols in place, she adds, the meeting got raves. “Oftentimes, we have a big opening reception on the property to kick off the event. This year, we chose to not do a lot of the bells and whistles we normally offer at our opening reception, such as lawn games, activities, photo ops, etc., so people could space out and feel comfortable. That said, the beauty of the venue, and the way the hotel set up the event lawns and pavilion, had people raving about it even though it was shorter and less elaborate than our typical opening events.”
Gold says she doesn’t have one negative thing to say about the Westin Kierland. “The hotel is in wonderful shape — both meeting space and recently updated sleeping rooms — and the staff at the Westin Kierland is just leaps and bounds ahead of so many other teams I’ve worked with over the years. We’re still getting survey data back, but I’ve never seen so much positive feedback on the hotel staff from our attendees as I have so far for this meeting.”
The fact that the meeting was hybrid created its own challenges. “This meeting was one of the most chaotic I’ve ever planned given the hybrid format and not being able to finalize room sets and meal counts until we closed registration because each body made an impact on where we put things. Yet,” she adds, “the experience was not nearly as stressful as many others I’ve planned.”
Challenges aside, Gold says she had a lot of enthusiasm for this particular meeting because it was the only one held last year, and she wasn’t alone. “You could feel that same excitement from the staff at the hotel. It wasn’t just the banquet staff, it was at check-in, at the food and beverage outlets, etc. They genuinely seemed so happy to have our group in, and it was a sentiment not missed by our attendees.”
With in-person events still scarce, there were other positives. “There was a lot of flexibility opened up to us because we were the only large group in the building. We were able to socially distance and use a lot more space than we had originally contracted, and didn’t need to worry about other people who may or may not have been in nearby space with less stringent protocols than ours,” Gold says. “Moving forward, my big question will be what happens when groups start to be stacked again, and how will costs, power and internet, for example, be adjusted to account for a hybrid model, which I think is here to stay.”
However things evolve, Gold says groups shouldn’t hesitate to meet at the Westin Kierland. “From the GM down to the hourly staff, the entire hotel was excited about having us on property and let it be known. And the property is just as lovely as the staff who work there.”
Scottsdale is well suited for multiple outdoor functions. Heather Husom, DMCP, CITP, CIS, principal of Imagine Event Partners in Cave Creek, Arizona, says, “Scottsdale’s best story is that the town dedicated 43% of the land as open space and preserves. Even if you’re in downtown Scottsdale enjoying the galleries and shops, it is only a short drive to be surrounded by the Sonoran Desert’s natural beauty.”
And being outdoors doesn’t mean lack of cultural or authentic local experiences. Ranches, Husom notes, offer settings where ATV tours, horseback riding and skeet shooting can be combined with Western, Mexican and Native American entertainment. “We like to interweave the culture and/or state’s popular events into experiences. For example, we have an amazing dark sky here and have been holding celestial-themed evenings for years; but we’ve created an event that also includes exploring the spectacular, and powerful, monsoon season with lighting and pyrotechnics.” On a practical note, Husom points out that Sky Harbor Airport offers nonstop service to nearly 130 cities worldwide, and that the area offers a range of hotels.
While many of the area’s most famous resorts fall in the luxury range, Husom emphasizes that planners can find lodging to meet any association’s budget, and that’s just one element of what Scottsdale offers groups. “In one simple sentence,” she says, “Scottsdale recognizes the value that meeting and events bring to our community, and we give our full attention, support and effort to ensure guests enjoy their experience.”
Mountain Shadows Resort Scottsdale in Paradise Valley is another resort with plenty to draw planners and groups. It recently unveiled a host of new on-property experiences. The Graduate Management Admissions Council held its Leadership Conference there early last year with 174 attendees, just before the pandemic hit. Kim Struble, CMP, global account executive with ConferenceDirect, cites “the airlift, and quality of the facility and location,” as assets that make the hotel and destination a good fit for this conference. “Mountain Shadows has a tremendous staff, most of whom have been there since it opened. They’re extremely customer-service focused in every department. Their efficiency is tremendous,” she says. “Mountain Shadows is a great venue for groups of 150 or so. You’ll ‘own’ the facility. The outdoor function options are set to incorporate beautiful Camelback Mountain.”
The group held its meeting a few years ago at the resort and wanted to return. “Every department is on top of their game,” Struble says. “We wanted to include wellness activities in our program, for example, and the director of the fitness center made that very easy.” Struble’s advice to planners considering a meeting at Mountain Shadows is simply to book it. “You’ll truly enjoy planning and executing the event,” she adds.
In terms of looking ahead to the coming year, Struble says she’s currently rebooking meetings that cancelled last year due to COVID-19. “My clients have either already decided to go entirely virtual or are considering a hybrid event as their meetings are in Q3/Q4 [of this year] and are still on the fence.”
She thinks hotels and destinations are doing a good job of making people feel safe, and points out how challenging that is. “Hotels have a huge job in updating capacity charts for their meeting space and also catering menus as the way food and beverage can be served has changed,” Struble says. “With each jurisdiction having its own social-distancing guidelines and requirements for the number of people permitted in a room, it’s a never-ending updating of materials.”
Echoing Sacco, Struble says some in-person meetings are happening, but on a small scale, and mostly as part of hybrid events. “I think [this year] will continue with smaller meetings with a hybrid component in Q2, depending on how we fare this winter. Q3 and Q4 may see an increase in in-person events depending on the status of [the] vaccine, but until people feel comfortable to complete the entire travel experience, I don’t think in-person meetings will flourish.” That, she says, could take a couple of years.
“While the destination and hotel can be as clean as can be,” she says, “you still have to get there. If you can’t drive, thereby controlling your environment, and have to fly, that could be a game changer for people. I don’t mean to downplay how much airlines are doing to keep their planes clean; however, you still have people packed like sardines on planes right now, which does make people second guess a plane trip.”
The infinity pool and lush scenery of Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort and Spa presents an oasis of calm and serenity.
In many areas, athletic and competition events are among the first to return to in-person status. The Southern Arizona Irish Dance Association, in partnership with the Maguire Academy of Irish Dance, held its annual Irish Dance Competition for 150 in Tucson late last fall at the Sheraton Tucson Hotel & Suites. Cathy Schlatter, with the Southern Arizona Irish Dance Association, says both the hotel and Visit Tucson, the city’s CVB, were extremely helpful in making the event successful. The group typically hosts four annual competitions, two of them in Tucson.
“We needed a venue in Tucson with ballroom space, adjacent hotels rooms, and easy access to the airport and restaurants. Visit Tucson has always been helpful in our search for finding the perfect venue,” Schlatter says. But, this year, was especially challenging, she said, adding, “We found that not many hotels in Tucson during [the fall] could accommodate our needs due to the pandemic. The state, county and city guidelines were very strict, with good reason.”
Schlatter is grateful the Sheraton came through. “The meeting space is lovely and quite large. We needed a large space to keep within COVID-19 guidelines, and to keep our dancers and their families safe. The Sheraton has newly renovated guest rooms, and a Starbucks and restaurant on-site. It’s located in a great central location surrounded by restaurants and shops with convenient access to the airport,” she says.
Schlatter says the hotel made everyone feel safe. Hand sanitizer stations were set throughout the hotel, there was signage about wearing masks, bottled water was offered rather than dispensers with cups, and use of the swimming pool required advance sign-ups. “Everyone at the Sheraton was amazingly helpful. [The staff] gave us two tours to make sure the space would work for us, answered countless questions, gave us a great facility rate and was always responsive. [They were] fantastic helping us plan the setup for the space and ordering extra tables, podiums and the dance floor and gave us an additional meeting room at no charge so we could keep dancers, and spectators, separate and distanced. When we arrived at the Sheraton to set up, we were greeted by [a staffer] who was in charge of the facility that weekend.”
Schlatter says people may think, “It’s just a silly dance competition. But these dancers had been dancing via Zoom for seven months at that point. Their academic schools were shut down, the world as they/we knew it was changing and not for the better. Our committee was very cautious in planning this event and everyone that attended was grateful for the gift of a little normalcy for just a weekend. Our attendees had to fill out health waivers, we only allowed one spectator in the ballroom to watch each dancer, and everyone wore a mask except for the dancer while dancing. We take this pandemic very seriously and were extremely happy that we were able to host a successful, safe event.”
What’s New in Arizona
COVID-19 notwithstanding, Arizona has not been at a standstill. There’s plenty of news planners should keep in mind when considering a meeting here.
Hyatt Regency Phoenix, located steps from the Phoenix Convention Center, completed a major renovation of its 693 guest rooms, revitalized its meeting space, and added a new restaurant and market. JW Marriott Scottsdale Camelback Inn Resort & Spa, wrapped up a $12.5 million renovation of all 453 guest casitas and suites before last year, following a $17.8 million renovation of its meeting space. In the fall, Canopy by Hilton Scottsdale Old Town opened — the first hotel to open in Old Town in a decade. The vibe is mid-century modern meets authentic Southwest, and it features an expansive rooftop bar and lounge. Also last fall, ADERO Scottsdale, an Autograph Collection property, opened as the city’s first Dark Sky Zone resort. Spread across 17 acres, it offers 177 guest rooms, a spa, 16,800 sf of flexible space and up-to-the-minute technology. It’s ideal for groups wanting a base for meetings with easy access to outdoor adventures.
The 1,003-room Sheraton Downtown Phoenix is due to reveal its major enhancements early this year as part of Marriott’s portfolio-wide rebranding of Sheraton. Guest rooms, public spaces and restaurants are all being updated to reflect the new brand identity. Also slated for completion early this year are renovations at the 500-room Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass. Located just 11 miles from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, the resort is home to the state’s only AAA Five Diamond/Forbes Five Star restaurant, Kai. It also features a Native American-inspired spa and Koli Equestrian Center. The inimitable Arizona Biltmore, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, is undergoing extensive renovations that will bring online a new spa and fitness center, new pools, updated cottage accommodations, and a reimagined Catalina Event Lawn and Bar for alfresco gatherings. The reopening is scheduled for the spring.
Set to open later this year, The Ritz-Carlton, Paradise Valley sits on 20 acres overlooking Camelback Mountain and will feature 215 rooms, a spa and 20,000 sf of function space.
In Tucson, the meeting rooms and ballroom at the Tucson Convention Center received their final touches of a refresh, and Exhibit Hall construction was completed late last year. The DoubleTree by Hilton Tucson Downtown Convention Center is scheduled to open later this year. Last fall, El Conquistador Tucson, a Hilton Resort, unveiled its innovative spa facility.
Arizona is open for business and ready to welcome in-person groups. “The pathway for in-person meetings may cause hesitation, but we’re in this together,” Husom says. “The entire industry — airlines, hotel, CVBs, DMOs, DMCs, suppliers, venues and entertainers — is ready to plan and make your attendees feel comfortable and safe returning to in-person engagements. In Arizona, we offer all that the industry is striving for, plus the open air and beauty of the Sonoran Desert.” | AC&F |