From Tucson to Sedona, Phoenix to the Grand Canyon, Arizona offers everything meeting and incentive planners could want — outdoor adventure, healing spas, urban sophistication, diverse culture, downtown hotels and expansive resorts from budget-friendly to super luxe.
The state’s reputation as a top-ranked meeting destination is well deserved, says Danny T., principal creative at Imagine Events DMC, a Global DMC partner. He works with groups throughout the state and points to the sun, weather, beauty of the Sonoran Desert, diverse cultures and easy access via Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport as just a few of Arizona’s compelling attributes.
As for hotels, there’s a huge range of options. “From basic hotels with basic meeting necessities to lavish, luxurious resorts and spas with full amenities and services, planners can find what they need to give their attendees the perfect program experience,” he says.
For high-end incentive programs there are Five-Star resorts, spas and retreats. Standouts, he says, include “The Four Seasons Resort in Scottsdale, Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain in Marana and L’Auberge de Sedona. All of these provide exclusivity and solitude as well as luxury away from the hub of city life. And Sedona’s Ambiente A Landscape Hotel has yet to open, but is on the horizon of what looks to be an incredible and unique experience as well.”
For planners needing a secure location for high-level corporate meetings, he suggests The Phoenician, a Luxury Collection Resort, Scottsdale, which has a separate wing of boardrooms away from the main convention area, and the Arizona Biltmore, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, with its famous “hidden room,” — it was once a speakeasy — in an undisclosed location on the property.
Additionally, he says, “Our boutique and historic resorts, such as Sanctuary Camelback Mountain and Hermosa Inn in Paradise Valley and Royal Palms Resort & Spa in Phoenix, offer the perfect backdrop for board meetings with award-winning restaurants on property, board rooms and personalized experiences.”
If privacy and seclusion are paramount, he notes, “Castle Hot Springs is the ultimate oasis in the desert. It has just 30 rooms and the room rate includes all meals [not beverages], the hot springs, on-site activities, farm and Via Ferrata course.”
Arizona also offers a slew of one-of-a-kind venues and experiences, “starting with the obvious,” Danny T. says, “one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon. We are the ‘Grand Canyon State’ after all.” To that he adds, “Antelope Canyon, where you can see the wind-sculpted canyon walls; Horseshoe Bend, one of the most photographed places in Arizona and Havasu Falls, with its blue-green waters cascading more than 100 feet.”
Of course, there’s the Sonoran Desert itself, where groups can take advantage of hiking, rafting, paddleboarding on the Salt River and dining outdoors in the desert. He suggests the annual Waste Management Open golf tournament, dubbed “The Greatest Show on Grass,” as a perk for attendees, and points to the Phoenix Art Museum, Heard Museum and Desert Botanical Garden, all in Phoenix, as venues planners can incorporate into programs.
Finally, he says, Arizona’s most precious resource is its people. “We’re proud to be a diverse people with so much to offer, and that permeates the moment business travelers step off the plane and are surrounded by this energy. Our hope is they take some of it back to their homes and lives when they leave, but it also stands as a beacon for them to return to this amazing state.”
The post-pandemic recovery is strong, says J. Felipe Garcia, CTA, Visit Tucson president & CEO. “Our brand — outdoor adventure and nature — really resonated with leisure travelers as well as group clients, so the initial rebound was dramatic. Many Tucson properties took advantage of slower times and invested in major upgrades and renovations. We also launched our ‘Destination Downtown’ meetings package, featuring two new hotels in the downtown core — and more in development — to complement an expanded, renovated Tucson Convention Center. ‘Urban meetings with a desert vibe’ is an entirely new option for planners considering Tucson.”
Kay Mayes, meeting planner and executive assistant with conduit manufacturer Dura-Line, brought a group to the Omni Tucson National Resort last spring for an annual sales meeting. Mayes says her company goes into the office when needed for meetings, etc., but emphasizes that her team does not hesitate to travel these days.
She says Tucson is always a good fit for the company’s spring meeting thanks to the climate, and the Omni’s indoor and outdoor spaces meet her group’s needs. “The meeting space, the rooms, the outdoor space, the beauty of the space, the graciousness of the staff — all played a role in choosing this hotel,” she says. “The staff is the most gracious I’ve ever worked with.”
Mayes says she’d definitely meet at the Omni again. To planners considering Tucson, she says, “Use this hotel. It’s in a great location, it has great rooms for meetings, excellent service and is absolutely lovely with helpful, gracious staffing.”
Watch company Citizen held a national sales conference for 180 in Tucson in late spring. Heidi Gerritt, senior vice president, sales operations, notes the company is proceeding with its meetings in the same manner as pre-COVID-19, “except for scaling back attendees that we can have virtually attend meetings.”
Gerritt says Citizen is at pre-pandemic levels as an organization, but notes, “We hold many hybrid meetings for those who work from home and those in the office.”
About Tucson, Gerritt says, “The destination fits our needs for cost, weather and location,” and she calls the CVB “very knowledgeable in directing us for events and suggestions.”
For the spring meeting, the group was based at The Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa, and Gerritt calls the staff there “outstanding,” but says they chose another venue for their next event. “Our Tucson meeting [this year] will be at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort. It’s clean and up-to-date with great pricing. The services, staff and cleanliness of the hotel made the decision for us to hold our next meeting there.”
She advises planners to do their homework and arrange a site visit. “A site visit is critical to ensure that expectations are met.”
Caterpillar Inc. met at JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa in mid-fall with about 250 attendees. Angela Baer, CMP, CMM, says her meetings are back to normal, fully in person and exceeding pre-pandemic levels. “Hybrid can be very expensive depending on the type of show, so those are rare, and everyone is very sick of virtual. Everyone,” she adds, “wants to travel.”
About the JW Marriott, Baer says, “This property is really good as their ballroom space cannot be beat in Tucson, and the resort offers ease of getting to and from the airport. On top of that, the food is excellent, and the staff is excellent, too.” Baer adds that the sales staff is willing to work with her when necessary, “and that’s a big deal in terms of my contracting somewhere. I always want to work with people … not properties.”
Although she didn’t utilize Visit Tucson for this meeting, Baer says she has worked with the CVB in the past, and calls the staff “really responsive and knowledgeable.” She has high praise for the JW Marriott staff as well.
“All the staff here — front desk, banquet, sales, CSMs, accounting, all the people in the restaurants and bars — are super great to work with and so very nice. They often remember us from event to event, sometimes years apart, and that’s a huge draw. Again, I like to work with people, not properties if I can. Starr Pass is a great example of that. I work mostly with [their] director of group sales, and she’s amazing. We can be honest with each other, and we know what’s a firm yes or no and what has some wiggle room. These are things that come over time with a property and are priceless to planners. I have great relationships with some of the CSMs and even some in the front office doing reservations. They just understand more than most what we all go through and how best to help.”
To create a successful meeting, Baer says it’s important to be honest with hotel staff, including those at JW Starr Pass Tucson. “Be honest — they will truly work with you to the best of their ability if they know what you really need or want. There’s no need to ‘pad’ anything here as they really understand what planners are looking for and how to present them in the best light. They want you to win as they win, too.”
Omni Tucson National Resort is undergoing a multimillion-dollar renovation, with completion slated for early this year. Loews Ventana Canyon Resort completed a renovation of its F&B outlets, and Hacienda Del Sol Guest Ranch Resort wrapped up a multiyear renovation and expansion that added 40 new guest rooms.
Due to open early this year is The Leo Kent Hotel, Tucson, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel downtown, and The Eddy Hotel Tucson, Tapestry Collection by Hilton, a boutique property in the foothills. Wine-centric The Citizen Hotel Tucson opened last year and features a 5,000-sf tasting room.
Rachel Sacco, president & CEO of Experience Scottsdale, says meetings are back, but there are also challenges. “In many ways, Scottsdale’s meetings landscape has returned to form, with our hotels and resorts playing host to groups of all varieties and sizes. However,” she cautions, “the entire industry is likely to see challenges with availability and pricing in 2023 due to strong leisure demand and inflation, but Experience Scottsdale is prepared to help planners navigate any challenges ahead.”
Jeff Welger, director, meetings and events, with a New Jersey-based organization, set a small meeting at Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Gainey Ranch last fall. Since the pandemic, Welger says, some aspects of choosing destinations and venues have changed. “We consider locations that allow for direct flights or no more than one air transfer. Additionally, we look for properties that have a larger space and more space options so the group can spread out more than average. We also seek venues that have outdoor/open-air space(s) to hold events if desired and weather permitting.”
The group currently meets fully in person, though Welger says they’ve had a few virtual meetings for events that were shorter in duration with less interactive content. He doesn’t think hybrid meetings provide the same experience for virtual and in-person participants, so those are not part of the repertoire; however, in-person meetings are sometimes recorded for on-demand viewing. And though he saw some hesitancy to travel in late 2021 and early 2022, he’s not seeing much hesitation to attend in-person events now.
As for Scottsdale’s attributes, Welger says it’s a good location for groups looking for a blend of business, networking and social activities. “Airlift is good, the destination is well-liked and well-received by attendees and the choice of venue options is plentiful. Also, hotel options align with the varied requests for resort, traditional, mid-century modern and even newer/contemporary. Equally, the location allows for varied group activities and experiences from the more traditional golf and spa to alternative options like wine tasting, hiking, off-roading, etc.”
In the initial selection and planning process, Welger worked with Experience Scottsdale, which he calls “an invaluable asset with the wealth of knowledge of the area, options and partnerships. Experience Scottsdale is my go-to team whenever doing an event or program in Scottsdale.”
The recent meeting wasn’t the first at Hyatt Regency Scottsdale, which Welger attributes to a combination of factors, including past positive experiences and the resort’s variety of indoor and outdoor spaces. “We were able to hold two evening events outdoors in different locations on property, and when planning the meetings, we had over six outdoor options to choose from.”
Welger’s group was also offered a larger space than would be typical for a group of that size. “They understood our request for a larger space and were willing to accommodate us; they listened to our needs,” Welger says. Additionally, “The property was an acceptable distance from the airport and had a variety of activities and amenities for attendees to take advantage of — golf, spa, multiple pools and relaxation spaces — as well as varied on-property outlets for F&B. We will definitely consider the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort for future events.”
Welger says one Hyatt staffer who stood out was the senior event planning manager. “She was my contact for planning and on-site for the program. She’s excellent at listening to and assessing the needs of the group, and often provided proactive suggestions on ways to best manage the program,” he says. “An example of her engagement and dedication was exemplified in the welcome amenity she selected for me. During my planning visit, we had the opportunity to get to know one another over lunch. We discussed a special connection I have to the Olympics and Paralympics and how we had a combined unique connection to the Broadway show, “Wicked.” He continues, “For my welcome amenity, she asked the chef to prepare two large cookies with the Olympic rings on them and paired that with a ‘private label’ beverage for which she crafted the label to reference the drink based on “Wicked.” Not only was the effort so very appreciated, it demonstrated how dedicated she is to knowing her clients and making sure they have a unique, special and memorable experience.”
Welger calls Scottsdale an excellent option for meetings regardless of size, industry, focus and/or attendee profile. “It truly has options for everyone that will be well-received and enjoyed. There are many choices, and I encourage everyone to include the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale in that process.”
The 119 new luxury suites of Privado Villas at Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, a boutique hotel within a hotel, will have a grand opening early this year. Hilton North Scottsdale at Cavasson recently opened with 237 guest rooms and a 15,000-sf event center, while The Ritz-Carlton Paradise Valley, The Palmeraie is slated to open in the fall with 215 guest accommodations. A first for Ritz-Carlton, this resort will feature ionized air throughout, part of a health and safety system designed to eliminate over 95% of airborne viruses and bacteria within 60 minutes. The resort is within the $2 billion Palmeraie community. In early 2024, Caesars will open its first non-gaming property in the U.S., Caesars Republic Scottsdale, with 256 rooms. Additionally, Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa Montelucia and The Scottsdale Resort at McCormick Ranch will undergo extensive renovations and upgrades to be completed in this year.
Like everywhere else, things in Mesa changed during the pandemic, but are now shifting back. “The first market segments to recover after the pandemic were sports and leisure, core groups for Mesa visitation, meaning the normal pre-pandemic stay patterns shifted from strong weekday occupancy to Thursday to Sunday,” says Dávid Kolozár, director, national sales for Visit Mesa. “We’re now seeing the pattern normalizing back to Monday to Friday driven by the return of group meetings and individual business travel.” Overall, he adds, “year-over-year occupancy is up 3.5% and average daily rate is up 7.5%.”
The newest addition to Mesa is expansive Bell Bank Park, a 320-acre complex geared for youth and amateur sports, community activities, events, concerts, tournaments and more. The facility, which opened a year ago, is a terrific spot for team-building programs or other group activities across the 2.7-acre Great Lawn. It also has a multipurpose arena, and many spaces within the complex are available for group events.
Ron Price, CDME, president & CEO of Visit Phoenix, points to phenomenal growth in the Greater Phoenix area as an indicator of market strength. “Since March 2020, the Greater Phoenix area welcomed more than 30 new hotel properties with over 3,000 rooms. In the next three years, more than 14,000 hotel rooms will enter the market, with brands including The Ritz-Carlton Paradise Valley, The Palmeraie; The Global Ambassador hotel; Omni Tempe Hotel at ASU and VAI Resort, all bringing elevated stays and amenities for group business.”
Renovations are completed or underway at several properties. Gila River Resorts & Casinos – Wild Horse Pass just doubled the hotel’s capacity and added amenities, including a massive pool area and revamped guest rooms. JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa completed phase 1 of a renovation that focused on enhancements to guest rooms, suites and the lobby, as well as a new restaurant. The next phase wraps this year. Footprint Center, home of the National Basketball Association’s Phoenix Suns and Women’s National Basketball Association’s Phoenix Mercury, completed a $230 million renovation with nearly 70,000 sf of new space available for groups.
Recently opened venues include Caesars Sportsbook at Chase Field, a 10,000-sf, multilevel venue that includes a VIP Sports Lounge reservable by groups. Warehouse 215, a venue in the city’s Warehouse District, held a huge launch party in early fall to unveil its updates and renovations. Also, multiple new food and beverage outlets have recently opened in Phoenix.
Late this year, the aforementioned VAI Resort will open as the largest resort in Arizona, with 1,050 guest rooms, a Mattel Adventure Park, 20 dining venues, a massive artificial island surrounded by “Caribbean-style waters” and a 20,000-sf spa, among other amenities.
Wherever you meet in Arizona, the weather is bound to be sunny and the options many, from upscale restaurants and compelling venues, to one-of-a-kind attractions and hotels with spectacular outdoor spaces. That makes setting a meeting in Arizona an easy decision. C&IT