Wrapped in the raw beauty of desert settings, offering more than 300 days of sunshine, and with championship golf courses and cosseting spa facilities alike, it’s no wonder the “Grand Canyon State” is a favorite for meetings, conferences and incentive programs. Throw in a well-connected hub airport, a wide variety of meeting facilities and resorts at all price points, and outdoor activities ranging from hiking and biking to hot air balloon trips, and Arizona is a reliable backdrop for memorable gatherings of all sizes.
The Phoenix-Scottsdale metropolitan area, home to more than two-thirds of the state’s population, holds the bulk of Arizona’s meeting space. But outlying cities offer something different, especially for small and mid-sized events, and that’s what keeps planners like Luciana Osborne, event director for Bond Events, coming back to Tucson. “Initially, we were attracted to the price point,” says Osborne, who organizes 11 distinct networking events annually in different locations around the world, connecting architects, designers and suppliers in an intensive, speed-dating setting. “One of our events was in its second year of decline, so we really wanted a beautiful venue but with a lower price point. El Conquistador Tucson, A Hilton Resort, ticked all of the boxes. There was sufficient meeting space, a good price point, but it still had the ‘wow’ factor. We tend to take people to beach resort-y places, but the scenery is stunning in Tucson.”
The risk paid off. “Our clients absolutely loved it,” Osborne says. “Every single client on feedback forms responded saying they loved being taken to Tucson. It was also the highest uptake for people extending their stay; people were in awe of the scenery in Tucson.” Bond has now used El Conquistador four times, and is scheduled to return again in the fall with BOND Multi, a networking event focused on multifamily dwellings. It will mark only the company’s second event this year — the pandemic led to the company placing in-person events on hold for 17 months, with virtual meetings conducted for most of the past year.
Coming off the peak of the pandemic in the U.S., Osborne says her familiarity with the resort has provided a level of comfort that she wouldn’t have if she hadn’t used the property previously. “I feel like I know how we can accommodate our group,” Osborne says. “We’re not sure what restrictions will be around, and we know we’ll be making adjustments. So, from a logistical and event-planning standpoint, and making it COVID-19-safe, going to Tucson is helpful — it’s a really nice way of easing back to being around people. Going to places like downtown Miami can be quite overwhelming. In Tucson, you don’t feel overwhelmed, like you’re going to wind up in this hustle and bustle, which most people are not prepared for right now. The resort itself is very spacious, and the meeting space has access to doors and windows.” Osborne continues: “We’re pretty basic in our needs — we don’t have lots of crazy A/V requirements. Every architect owns their own table, and to give a sense of privacy, we calculate that they each require 120 square meters per table.”
El Conquistador’s two 12,000-sf ballrooms provide sufficient space for this kind of networking, and next door, the resort’s 11,000-sf Executive Conference Center offers an additional eight meeting rooms, ranging up to 1,880 sf in size. Osborne calls her event “quite hotel restricted,” and counts on the location to provide solid dining and on-site activities for her captive audience. “I think El Conquistador is far more luxurious than the website makes it out to be,” Osborne adds. “The website makes it look outdated or too child-oriented, but it has different vibes and settings. One of my worries with a VIP conference is you don’t need kids running around and screaming. At El Conquistador, I never felt like our event was compromised. The service is on par with most five-star hotels, every single staff member is courteous.”
Planners working with continuing education for the medical field have been particularly challenged by the pandemic, as they offer ongoing training in specific disciplines, and courses can’t always be taught online. For its annual Medical and Surgical Aspects Meeting, the Foundation for Research and Education in Esophageal and Foregut Disease typically meets in Hawaii, with plans for its February 2021 meeting set for Kauai. But by last summer, it became apparent that quarantine and travel restrictions were going to make gathering in person difficult. “Our course is designed to be classroom style, with lots of interaction and discussion between the participants and the faculty,” says Lisa Leeth, course coordinator for the foundation. “We were not looking to transition into a virtual platform, so we began looking for alternate options in August .”
Leeth says she looked for an alternate location that would offer a lot of outdoor activities, great food, access to a major airport, and with a conference room and event space to support the course. Set alongside the colorful rock formations of the Red Rock Scenic Byway, the Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock filled the bill. The 221-room resort, located 90 minutes north of Phoenix, offers more than 25,000 sf of flexible meeting indoor/outdoor meeting space, including two ballrooms measuring up to 4,992 sf. Two restaurants, two pools, a 25,000-sf athletic club, full-service spa and 18-hole golf course round out the facilities. The Hilton Sedona offers a Backpack Breakout package for small groups of up to 50 guests for half-day meetings, with the second half of the day comprised of outdoor team-building activities. Excursions are tailored to group interest, and can include hiking, biking, off-roading jeep tours and more, offering guests an opportunity to get outdoors and recalibrate amid Sedona’s famous red rocks.
“We really liked the outdoor options at the Hilton Sedona, having our receptions amid the beautiful landscape, along with so many amazing food options,” adds Leeth, who says the February event drew 50 participants, down from the typical attendance of 100 to 120. At the last minute, the foundation decided to offer a virtual aspect, due to last-minute travel restrictions for some of the guest faculty and participants. “The hotel was very supportive, and worked quickly to help make this happen,” Leeth says. “I worked closely with the event coordinator to walk through different scenarios to ensure that we had the safety of our guests as the No. 1 priority. We carefully considered social distancing, food-handling precautions, and maintaining a safe and clean environment; all the while being able to keep the spirit of the course and have an opportunity to connect in person with colleagues and friends safely. We worked with the head chef to make the dining experience and the course meals exceptional. We wanted to celebrate and make this course as special as it is every year, even though we were still in the middle of a pandemic.”
Although Sedona is a city of just 10,000 residents, two more hotels have more than 5,000 sf of meeting space, and other properties are upgrading. The 137-room Poco Diablo Resort and Spa is undergoing a complete renovation. The first phase is designed to open up public areas, including the lobby, gallery and restaurant, and is projected to be completed later this year, to be followed by the addition of a resort-style pool and room renovations. The resort features a total of 8,500 sf of flexible indoor-outdoor meeting space.
Other Sedona properties with more limited meeting facilities include Amara Resort and Spa and L’Auberge de Sedona. Sedona Rouge is currently undergoing a renovation and rebranding, and will reopen in early fall as The Wilde Resort & Spa. The 105-room property has a newly conceived culinary approach overseen by James Beard Award-winning Chef Mercer Mohr, 2,500 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting space, and a new, full-service spa. Late this year, Ambiente, a Landscape Hotel, will open, combining luxury with environmental sustainability. The locally owned hotel is comprised of 40 cube-shaped atriums sitting off the ground, each constructed of matte charcoal or rust metal and floor-to-ceiling bronze-tinted glass. Each one can be rotated, allowing guests to enjoy 360-degree views of the treasured landscape.
Earlier this year, Enchantment Resort closed its renowned spa Mii amo for a complete refresh. The existing 16 treatment rooms are being renovated, and new facilities will be added, arranged around private courtyards that create an intimate spa experience in a magnificent setting, set to reopen next spring. That will be in plenty of time for TDS Telecom, which hopes to return to the resort in 2023 for its annual peer and management recognition program. Scott Young, owner and president of The Meeting Company, says the pandemic prompted TDS to shuffle locations for its events this year and next. “We had booked a much smaller hotel in Montreal that could provide an environment that was almost exclusive to the group,” Young says. “The event was ultimately cancelled due to the pandemic, which gave the CEO reason to rethink the city location. He ultimately decided that resort properties with better weather and outdoor activities would provide a more comfortable environment for attendees, both mentally and physically. What makes Arizona a great location for meetings and incentives is the weather, the number of great resort choices, the wide-open spaces and seemingly unending outdoor activity options.”
TDS previously held a program at the resort in 2019, and Young says Sedona is a great fit for an incentive or executive group due to its location and backdrop. “The elevation creates a more temperate climate, surrounded by some of most spectacular natural beauty to be found anywhere,” Young adds. “This provides an individual the ideal environment to disconnect and think more clearly and creatively. Most attendees would never get to see or visit this location on their own. The unequalled natural beauty of Sedona and the activity options, restaurants and local community provide a truly unique, and in some cases, life-changing experience.”
The 218-room Enchantment Resort offers a variety of conference facilities located within the Meeting Village, including three separate ballrooms ranging up to 4,880 sf, and each with floor-to-ceiling windows. In total, Enchantment has 12,000 sf of indoor meeting space, and an additional 32,000 sf of outdoor function space, perfect for events under the stars. In addition to the renowned spa, activities at the 70-acre resort include golf and yoga, with hiking and mountain biking on abundant trails. “We are planning outdoor activities and potentially utilizing restaurants for lunches and even have preliminary street food tours scheduled,” Young says. “We have back-up options prepared in case we don’t feel we can safely make this happen. The hotel’s layout, with individual outdoor access to each guest room, helps to naturally create a more exclusive and safe atmosphere. In addition, the outdoor function spaces, as well as meeting space exclusivity, makes this a natural, safer fit for the current conditions. This is where strategic and preferred partnerships are instrumental in working as part of a team to create experiences in which the only goal is to do whatever it takes to deliver the utmost positive, unique and safe experience for the client.”
Of course, the Phoenix-Scottsdale Metro Area remains the hub for meetings, conventions and incentives in Arizona, and major developments have been underway as the pandemic sidelined events for the past year. In May, Ron Price was appointed as the new president and CEO of Visit Phoenix. Price has 25 years of tourism experience, and joins following stints as president and CEO of Arlington Texas CVB and assistant executive director of Visit San Antonio.
Noteworthy is the transformation of the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown, Arizona’s largest hotel, which reopened in the spring following a 13-month renovation. The 1,000-room property, just steps from the Phoenix Convention Center, is at the forefront of the 446-flag Sheraton brand’s $1 billion investment to refresh its guest experience, particularly in public spaces. In the 19,000-sf lobby, a community table encourages guests to mix and mingle as they work and relax, while soundproof booths around the lobby allow for private phone calls. Studios can be booked for spontaneous small meetings. In September, one of the final elements of the Sheraton’s overhaul arrives, as the 276-seat restaurant Carcara opens with a menu featuring Native American and Sonoran-inspired food of the Southwest. The hotel’s F&B offering has been upgraded with grab-and-go options, rooms have been overhauled, the fitness center received an $850,000 remodel and now features Technogym equipment, and the Sheraton Club Lounge has been updatded and relocated to the lobby area. The hotel also features more than 110,000 sf of flexible meeting space.
Earlier this year, the Arizona Biltmore, A Waldorf-Astoria Resort, reopened following a 15-month renovation. The hotel’s acclaimed, nearly 100-year-old architecture and design — by Frank Lloyd Wright and Albert Chase McArthur — was left intact, with guest rooms treated to a muted motif of earth tones, stucco walls and wood accents. New F&B options have been added, the Paradise Pool area has been refreshed, and gold leaf has returned to the historic Gold Room, part of the hotel’s 200,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting space, which includes the 24,576-sf Frank Lloyd Wright Ballroom.
In nearby Scottsdale, Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort and Spa offers 109 casitas and suites, and eight architecturally distinctive private villas spread across a 53-acre property at the foot of iconic Camelback Mountain. The resort’s Sanctuary Spa has 12 treatment rooms, a Watsu immersion pool for hydro treatments, fitness center, lap pool, and the spa provides consultations for yoga, fitness, nutrition, astrology and numerology. Meeting and event space is housed in a separate building accommodating up to 200 guests, and includes a 3,500-sf ballroom, The Views, which provides an outdoor panorama through floor-to-ceiling windows.
The appealing settings, amenities and services Arizona offers are invaluable components that will help the meetings, convention and incentive industry return. And although hybrid or virtual events will continue to be part of the mix for now, the pent-up desire businesses have to gather in person will be an undeniable catalyst for putting dates on the calendar. “People go to events because they want to be around people,” Osborne says, although her company is still considering hybrid or virtual events in the future. “It is a possibility, but we risk brand damage, and my gut says it doesn’t fit with our brand. People want to be served, they want to be looked after, and there are things you can’t do online, like reading each other’s body language,” she says. “I think there will be a strong bounce back to in-person events.” C&IT