Things are different in Arizona: The mountains are sharper, the desert more dramatic and the contrasts greater. The destination is where the afternoon sky paints a reddish patina over this setting known for its Native American heritage and perpetual sunshine. Celebrating a plethora of perks — from authentic cowboys, distinctive cuisine and fashion-forward shopping to championship golf courses, palm-tree appointed resorts and spring training baseball, Arizona is a meeting planner’s dream.
Encompassing 2,000 square miles and more than 20 incorporated cities (including Scottsdale and Mesa), Greater Phoenix may represent the nation’s fifth-largest city, but it is anything but a hustle-and-bustle kind of town. With a lifestyle that is relaxing, scenery that is radiant and an ambiance reflective of the Southwest’s quiet serenity, civilization seems a world away. However, don’t mistake the beckoning comfort of Arizona’s epicenter, and capital, for a lack of worldliness — for it’s a hub of sophistication. Physically defined by arid landscape, scattered cacti and architecture that blends, here you are never far from reminders that the desert lives within this city surrounded by the Sonoran Desert and three mountains, including iconic Camelback.
Attracted to everything that is Scottsdale is Samantha Moore, CMP, senior director, meetings and education, American Bakers Association (ABA), a 122-year-old organization serving as the Washington, DC-based voice of the wholesale baking industry. Having taken the Annual ABA Convention to this Arizonan city many times: the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess in 2012; The Phoenician, a Luxury Collection Resort, Scottsdale for several years, including last year and returning in 2020; and the The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa in 2024. Moore is obviously committed to this destination. “Our members are mainly located in the grain belt, Chicagoland and mid-Atlantic corridor, and after a long winter, they love nothing more than coming to Scottsdale for a sunny, mild weather getaway, while getting down to business. These are people who are avid sportsmen and women and are well versed in golf, tennis and the area’s various sport teams’ training camps. Our annual convention often serves as a spring board for our members’ leisure travel on the front and back end.” And it’s about the old and the new as Moore’s group enjoys the mix of tried-and-true spots, but they also appreciate that there’s always something new in Scottsdale.
As the ABA has been working with The Phoenician — often times consecutively on even-year rotations since 2002 — its planner deems it natural that with its repeat hosting and genuine hospitality always extended by the property, it is a member favorite. “That said, with Scottsdale’s incredible resort inventory and today’s market, we’ve had the opportunity to branch out and work with other exceptional properties too.”
In the food and beverage (F&B) arena, this group is attentive. “We are bakers, so anything baked is exciting for us. At all properties I challenge the CSM team to incorporate baked goods into displays, décor, in-room amenities; everything. I also routinely create a custom menu on Tuesday evening for our always-themed Farewell Reception.” Citing specifics, she mentions a “Hipster” theme where the group was treated to “too-cool-for-school” food trucks, micro foods, mustaches, suspenders; the works. And a 1940s “Bon Voyage” party for which the hotel served foods popular at the time such as spam fries. With respect to corporate social responsibility programs (CSR), Moore mentions a spousal event arranged by Event Team Inc. — building bikes for underprivileged kids and participating in a sandwich/lunch kit-building program with a local food kitchen.
While five years out, The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa made a significant impression on the ABA planner. “That hotel is a hidden gem. It feels like a Ritz-Carlton or a Luxury Collection hotel, but it is designed for group business. And it’s attractive due to the golf layout, meeting space, outdoor spaces, room renovations and the price point.” Located near the McDowell Mountains, it offers 41 meeting rooms; the award-winning Agave, The Arizona Spa & Salon; 10 food or drink outlets, including The Scotch Library, an impressive collection of more than 300 labels imported from all six whisky regions of Scotland and projects a sense of place. It’s also the recipient of consecutive Corporate & Incentive Travel magazine’s Award of Excellence for the last three years.
In the end, Scottsdale, Moore and the ABA are a winning trifecta: “I work very closely with hotels to realize our ideas and I can say with confidence that we have not had a partner in Scottsdale who has let us down.”
Another Scottsdale devotee is Erik Samdahl, vice president of marketing, Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) who has repeatedly taken members of his group — a research firm and membership organization focused on discovering next practices in human capital — to the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. The most recent visit this year, was for its i4cp Next Practices Now Conference of 400 attendees. Seeking to provide a superior experience for attendees, most of whom are executives from large organizations, Samdahl calls out the Fairmont as one of Scottsdale’s best. “We’ve considered changing venues in the past but always return to the Fairmont for that reason.”
While days are spent in one of the resort’s two 23,000-sf ballrooms, the planner’s aim each evening is to entertain. “We provide plenty of food, drink and entertainment, typically local bands or other performances that add a unique spin to things. We stay on property from start to finish — there’s no reason to send people elsewhere.” The association also strives to incorporate the desert into its themes. Case in point is Fairmont’s Western-style event center, Copper Canyon, where they actually brought in cattle and donkeys to authentically stage the theme of the night.
Samdahl’s parting advice to planners is to take advantage of the area’s distinctive outdoor locations. “Keeping people locked in a room all day is a crime given the property and the weather in general.”
An additional option, Sanctuary Resort & Spa on Camelback Mountain offers meeting planners a luxurious combo of accommodations: 109 casitas and eight private homes, many with wood-burning fireplaces and outdoor terraces and all complemented by the newly renovated Sanctuary Resort Spa, where its menu features Asian-inspired treatments. The resort also offers such dining choices as elements, Praying Monk and XII, a private, intimate dining room.
Further detailing Scottsdale’s appeal, Kelli Blubaum, CMP, vice president of sales and services, with Experience Scottsdale, references these high points. Scottsdale is a short, 10-mile commute from the nearest international airport, as well as any outdoor recreation of your dreams — enhanced by 300-plus days of annual sunshine. “We work closely with Arizona Outback Adventures, which leads group hiking and mountain-biking adventures in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, a protected desert that comprises nearly a third of our city’s land mass.”
Louis Mengsol, SMP, president of the U.S. Sports Congress, selected Sheraton Mesa Hotel at Wrigleyville West for his association’s meeting of 125 two years ago. An organization designed to produce boutique meetings and events in the sports market that provide opportunities for C-suite candidates to discuss the business of sports, as well as attend professional development sessions and trade shows, Mengsol says: “Our conference is sports based, so having a host property within walking distance of Sloan Park, the Chicago Cubs spring training venue, was a bonus.” The Sheraton Mesa Hotel is located in the Northwest corridor of Mesa and adjacent to Scottsdale and Tempe. It offers 180 rooms, three restaurants, three pools and 16,000 sf of meeting space at Wrigleyville West Conference Center.
Extending a day of networking with activities, choices were home-grown Arizona: a jeep desert excursion or a round at Las Sendas Golf Club, with its Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed course that has been ranked the nation’s 12th-most challenging course; and a local beer tour. The opening reception was at the Tempe Center for the Arts, and continuing the sports theme, were the closing events at Topgolf in nearby Gilbert and an after-hours poolside party and putting contest.
As home of the Fresh Foodie Trail, a route that connects Mesa to regional communities, delicious day trips offer group opportunities from pizza- and pasta-making classes to culinary seminars. There is also team building with Green Zebra Adventures via Tomcar, an off-road vehicle originally designed for the Israeli Special Forces, along trails of the 25,000-acre Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation reservation.
About 100 miles south is Tucson, a low-key desert town known for its more than 340 days of annual sunshine, relaxing resorts, prime-time golf, renowned spa getaways Miraval Arizona Resort & Spa and Canyon Ranch Tucson and an authentic Mexican flair only a destination 60 miles from the border can possess. Named a UNESCO “City of Gastronomy,” — the nation’s first — and known for its selection of eateries along “The Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food,” its Hispanic fare is beyond impressive. Equally impressive are such one-of-a-kind attractions as Biosphere 2, described as “the world’s largest living research center focused on the future life of our planet” and the Pima Air & Space Museum, one of the world’s largest aviation and space museums with more than 350 historical aircraft sitting on 80 acres.
And the price is right. Generally less expensive than Greater Phoenix, it’s a match for clients on a tight budget looking for a AAA 4-Diamond rated hotel. With great room rates in summer (June–August) and possibly shoulder season (May, September and December) and a temp averaging five to 10 degrees cooler than its sister to the north, it can be an irresistible offer.
A planner repeatedly attracted to Tucson is Kimberly Pierce-Boggs, executive director, Alliance of Independent Academic Medical Centers (AIAMC), a national membership organization of independent teaching hospitals that held its 2019 Annual Meeting and 30th Anniversary Celebration and its recent AIAMC National Initiative VI Meeting Four at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort. A 93-acre luxury property with 37,000 sf of interior meeting space built within the Catalina Mountain range, it was designed to celebrate its natural surroundings and for guests to enjoy the beauty of the Sonoran Desert. With more than 80 institutional members, the AIAMC exec explains that the association’s size provides an environment that encourages and supports networking and collaboration. “This is our fourth meeting in 10 years at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort. The reason we have returned in the past and plan to do so in the future is simple: the people. I have worked in the meetings industry for 30-plus years, and it’s a rare privilege to work with the same people over a decade’s time.”
Its physical comforts are equally appealing to Pierce-Boggs’ group — oversized guest rooms, private balconies and the surrounding setting, punctuated by the resort’s dramatic 80-foot waterfall. “We held our 30th anniversary celebration and annual awards dinner under the stars on the Kiva Patio. The conference services staff worked with us to create outstanding food stations and it fit into our limited budget,” explains the planner.
“The actual meeting time is quite full and there is little downtime. However, several of our meeting attendees took advantage of the guest room conference rate three days-pre or three days-post and enjoyed nearby Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, Reid Park Zoo and more. Our conference chairman brought his family and visited the Grand Canyon before driving south to Tucson,” said the AIAMC planner.
Touting the area’s serenity, Pierce-Boggs concludes: “The theme of our National Initiative was well-being, and we encouraged attendees to be mindful of their own wellness. We hope the AIAMC and the beautiful setting at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort helped ‘care for the caregivers,’ as our members are primarily physicians who experience high rates of burnout.”
Another area option is the AAA Four Diamond El Conquistador Tucson, A Hilton Resort, which is nestled in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Voted Best Experiential Hotel 2018 by Hotel Interactive, among its perks for the planner are 45 holes of nearby championship golf, 31 lighted outdoor tennis courts, five outdoor swimming pools, horseback trail rides and lessons, Elements Wellness Center and more than 100,000 sf of flexible indoor and outdoor meeting space.
Among the resort’s consistent fans is Michael Nave, sales manager, Nitro Technologies NA, who has selected El Conquistador for 14 of the 26 events of the Nitric Acid Users Group (NAUG), including its most recent NAUG XXVI May 2019 annual conference, which typically attracts between 65 to 80 attendees. In addition to excursions to Kartchner Caverns State Park, the Titan Missile Museum and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, the planner elaborates on on-property meals usually with a southwestern flair and an always-welcoming staff. “We host nightly outdoor dinners for the group onsite. The venues offer spectacular sunsets, along with mountain and valley views you cannot get anywhere else in this city.”
Nave’s final advice for Tucson-bound planners: “Don’t take the endless views from the resort for granted. Your guests will appreciate them more than you realize.”
Located away from Tucson and Phoenix but within proximity to six state parks, five national monuments, seven wilderness areas and only a two-hour drive from the Grand Canyon is Sedona. With four mild seasons marked by sunny skies and clean air, more than 4,000 rooms, 50 restaurants and up to 33,500 sf of flexible meeting space, Sedona is consistently ranked in Top Ten lists from Best First Impressions to Most Stunning Views. Naming the Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock for the upcoming July summit of 125 attendees of Receivables Management Association International, Executive Director Jan Stieger, CAE, CMP, explains her choice. Limiting the group to 125 paid attendees, “We look for a resort in a rural setting that keeps the attendees onsite to encourage networking throughout the conference, especially during outside formal group events. This is our first time to Sedona. The scenery is a huge draw and the fact that it is at a higher elevation of 4,500 feet to avoid Arizona’s summer heat is attractive.” With the addition of stunning views from almost anywhere in the valley and top-quality shopping in downtown Sedona, the decision was not a difficult one.
“I plan to encourage attendees to come early and/or stay late to explore the area, especially the Grand Canyon,” Stieger says. What else is on the agenda? “Our family-friendly Wednesday night event including Native American dancers will be at the golf course to capture the natural beauty and there will be jeep tours. We also have a children’s reception at the same time as the attendee reception, featuring kid-friendly food, so the children can create friendships, too, during the conference.”
Sedona offers custom jeep tours through red rock wilderness where attendees can stop for a grounding group meditation session, taste local wines at a creek-side winery and finish with a Wild West chuck wagon supper while taking in a breathtaking sunset.
Weather is a big factor in attracting groups and meetings, summates the Arizona Office of Tourism. In winter when people are battling cold weather and storms, the desert communities of Tucson and the Phoenix metro area attract those who want sunshine. For the budget conscious, the desert communities offer the same stunning resorts, hotels and attractions but at a fraction of the winter rates. Sedona is a red rock mecca at any time. But no matter what time of year an association visits Arizona, outdoor recreation can be found at or near a hotel’s doorstep. Alfresco activities allow meeting attendees to get into the desert or the mountains in just a hop, skip or jump. And Arizona’s most famous attraction — the Grand Canyon — lures many to come early or stay late, though it is accompanied with a warning. “Be prepared to be inspired” is the refrain — a sentiment that applies statewide. AC&F