Meeting planners agree: Sun-filled days are the No. 1 selling point for holding events in Arizona. But the state’s attributes don’t end with a pleasing weather forecast.
“Our culture is very unique,” says Nancy Nachman, CMM, CPP and founder of The Meetings Concierge, a Scottsdale-based DMC. “Between the Native American and Hispanic cultures, along with many others that have added to our beautiful city, people can take away a unique experience when they come to Arizona. And our flora is unique. The average person thinks Arizona is all rocks, mountains and cactus, dry and brown — then they get here and find we have plants that produce flowers, we have the most gorgeous sunsets in the world, and we have horseback riding, golf and other activities. It’s a guaranteed warm-weather destination, year-round, and my clients appreciate easy access in and out of our fabulous airport.”
Harboring more than two-thirds of the state’s population and the bulk of the meeting space, the focus for meeting planners tends to land on the Phoenix-Scottsdale metro area, cities joined at the hip and offering 40,000 rooms in more than 200 meeting hotels. But there are other locales worth investigating. Renowned for its scenic beauty and ideal for smaller meetings, Sedona is set amid red-rock landscapes and swaying sycamore trees, and tempting with endless outdoor adventure activities. And Tucson offers something different for events, a city set amid the Sonoran Desert and surrounded by mountain ranges that invite outdoor activities in neighboring Saguaro National Park.
Although, as everywhere, Tucson’s meeting business slowed considerably in 2020, the destination has seen a fleet of improvements and additions of interest to meeting planners, starting with an ongoing, $65 million expansion and renovation project at the Tucson Convention Center, projected to be completed in 2022. A face-lift for the center’s 89,760-sf of exhibit halls is nearing completion, as is renovation of the 20,164-sf ballroom. The center’s existing meeting rooms have been refreshed with new carpet, window dressings, air walls and state of the art technology, while a new building starting construction in early 2021 will add additional meeting rooms on the west side of the facility adjacent to Exhibit Hall C. And, opening in late winter, the DoubleTree by Hilton Tucson Downtown Convention Center is the first hotel adjoining the facility. The hotel has 3,800 sf of meeting space, including a conference room with full windows and view of downtown Tucson.
In the fall, El Conquistador Tucson, a Hilton Resort, unveiled a multimillion-dollar amenity, SpaWell. The newly constructed spa facility features a salt therapy room, pool deck with mountain views, and wet steam room. The adults-only sanctuary offers a total of eight treatment rooms, including two facial rooms and a couples treatment area. The design and décor positions the facility with the Sonoran Desert through the use of natural wood touches, refined finishes and soaring ceilings offering natural light and accentuating the resort’s mountainous backdrop.
For an annual customer appreciation gathering, the amber-hued sunsets and starry night skies of Tucson fills the bill for Doosan Infracore North America, which is holding its upcoming meeting in late winter at the JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa. “Our annual customer appreciation event brings together the top sales people and best customers from the past year,” says Chad Kurle, training site manager for Doosan. “It’s our way of saying ‘Thank you’ for their continued support of the Doosan product line. Guests come from all over the United States and Canada, and we have internal staff that comes from Korea as well. The 300-plus days of sunshine annually in southern Arizona allows us to hold events almost year round. It gives our customers coming from cold-weather areas a nice escape during our winter events.”
With offices in southern Arizona, Doosan Infracor is an international manufacturer of construction equipment, such as excavators, loaders, and diesel and gas engines. Kurle says the company was lucky with the timing of its 2020 customer appreciation event, held last winter. But with the onslaught of COVID-19, Doosan canceled all events planned for March through November. “We were able to hold a customer experience event at Starr Pass in December for about 20 guests, and we were able to do it safely with no reported incidents,” Kurle says. The upcoming event is projected to draw 100 to 120 attendees, and Kurle anticipates that the availability of a vaccine will increase the comfort level for attendees. “The biggest consideration is the ability to get this group together safely. All my discussions with vendors seem to revolve around the question of how we do this safely — what are their cleaning procedures, how do they incorporate local COVID regulations into their new procedures. We are looking at adding more buses for transporting guests, larger venues to facilitate social distancing, and using outdoor spaces where applicable.”
The JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort is the city’s largest hotel, located in the foothills overlooking Tucson, yet, just 6 miles from downtown and 12 miles from the airport. The property has 80,768 sf of event space, including the 19,836-sf Arizona Ballroom, while other features include 27 holes of championship golf at the Starr Pass Golf Club and a 20,000-sf full-service spa. Hiking trails lead right from the porte cochère into the spectacular, saguaro cactus-dotted scenery of Tucson Mountain Park.
Kurle says the group will spend the first full day of the event traveling by bus to the Real Operations Center, the training and testing facility for Doosan. A short program highlights some of Doosan’s new equipment, followed by a catered lunch. A group activity such as TopGolf follows, and the next day attendees have a choice of four or five different activities, including golf, shooting and a UTV tour or the Pima Air & Space Museum. The gathering concludes with a cocktail reception and awards dinner. “Because of the location of Doosan’s Real Operations Center, our events are always held in the Tucson area,” Kurle says. “We continually look at the best possible hotel properties. We have had a long-standing working relationship with the JW Marriott Starr Pass. They understand our business and our customers, and the staff goes out of their way to support me and our events. Because we are fortunate to have had a recent event at the hotel, we are confident in their COVID procedures and the steps they will take to keep our guests safe.”
Kurle says the nature of Doosan’s hands-on events does not allow for a hybrid gathering, and like many meeting planners, he anticipates increased costs in 2021. “Social distancing alone will cause increases in transportation costs, both from our bus rentals to our airport transportation,” Kurle says. “We will need to keep groups smaller, and therefore will be having more trips. Additionally, we’ve increased our spend on cleaning and sanitizing at our training facility.”
Kim Haulk, CMP, senior vice president of operations at Connecting Point Marketing Group, a part of EMERALD, which organizes and hosts trade events, also says that costs will continue to be a focus for her clients going into 2021. “We’re faced with the potential for limited air travel based on airline schedules, providing PPE items as a commitment to our attendees safety, and offering additional transportation and wayfinding signage to promote social distancing,” Haulk says. “All will be incremental costs to doing business in 2021.”
Connecting Point’s first event for 2021 will be a 500-person conference of retail executives and suppliers, and client BuildPoint chose The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa in Scottsdale. Located adjacent to Kierland Commons, a popular upscale mixed-used mall, the 732-room Westin offers more than 200,000 sf of meeting space, including a 25,000-sf Grand Ballroom and 41 meeting rooms for smaller sessions. The resort is set on 250 acres and features a spa, golf club and water park. “The Westin Kierland has long been a preferred destination for our events,” Haulk says. “The level of customer service and detail delivered to our attendees, from the moment they walk in the front door until the day they depart, is the standard by which we measure other venues against. The Westin Kierland staff has grown with our team over the many years we’ve been hosting events with them, and coming to the Westin Kierland Resort is like coming home — for our team as well as our attendees. The focus on the customer experience . . . [is] felt throughout the resort as you connect with each and every team member.”
Haulk says BuildPoint will be connecting retail executives responsible for architectural design, construction, renovation and facilities with suppliers seeking to innovate, and expand their relationships and business. Conducted in a business-intensive format, the event includes executive board room presentations to preview company innovations, private one-on-one meetings, content sessions around industry trends and relevant topics, and networking opportunities in a casual environment designed to maximize interaction. “Our team is closely monitoring Arizona state and local city restrictions as it relates to executing our event,” Haulk says. “Working in partnership with the Westin Kierland to manage capacity restrictions, we have modified our space plans, agenda and format to ensure a safe, productive event.” Haulk notes that, because state and local restrictions remain fluid, Connecting Point will continue to be focused on the guidelines leading up to the conference. “We are working directly with the resort to ensure the proper measures are in place around meeting space capacities and social distancing, cleanliness and ability for the needs of the program.”
Attention to safety and cleaning was an important component for Nancy Nachman’s client, the Greenfield Group, a Dallas-based experiential-events services company. Greenfield chose The Phoenician, a Luxury Collection Resort, Scottsdale, for an upcoming spring incentive program for top sales reps at a mortgage lending company, a gathering that will host about 150, including guests. “During our site visit, it was so obvious that the hotel was staffed at its regular, pre-pandemic level,” Nachman says. “Unfortunately, that cannot be said about all hotels and resorts. They’re not open at 100%, staffing levels are down, there’s no room service — all those things you want to have functioning and open. At the Phoenician, staff levels were apparent.” Nachman continues: “A lot of Phoenician’s restaurants are outdoors, and the way they presented cuisine, napkin, silverware, and the QR code on the table for the menu showed me that they are completely aware and catering to our world today. We talked about what we hope things will be in April. We’ll be using outdoor spaces for almost all the functions, except for the final night, which is in a room with doors that can be opened.”
Nachman says she finds a lot of groups are looking to hold meetings but not asking the right questions. “We’re still wading through unknown waters,” she suggests. “That’s why I talk to my clients in-depth about the what-ifs. It’s like the old saying, ‘If you don’t bring an umbrella, it’s going to rain.’ So I ask things like, ‘What hospitals are nearby?’ Planning for these possibilities is extremely important. At the Phoenician, we met with a lot of executives on the site visit, from F&B to security, and they talked in-depth about what they’re doing to ensure guest safety is No. 1; that they’re not ignoring the issues.”
The Phoenician, part of Marriott’s Luxury Collection, completed an extensive renovation of guest rooms and common areas in 2017, followed by the opening of a new athletic club and three-story spa facility. The golf course was then redesigned and re-routed from 27 to 18 holes. The Phoenician boasts approximately 160,000 sf of signature indoor and outdoor space, including the Grand Ballroom, which hosts up to 2,500 attendees for gala celebrations.
For Carolyn McCaslin, client services & meeting coordinator with NCM Associates, one challenge during COVID-19 has been hosting meetings in cities or states without travel restrictions, affecting some within a group. Those impacted have to self-quarantine when they arrive back to their hometowns. “This has caused a decrease in attendance in a few of our groups, and has led some to even cancel the meeting,” McCaslin says. “There are other groups of ours though, like Toyota West Management Group, who have committed to their meetings, and with great attendance. They have met in Scottsdale for their winter meeting for several years in a row. They love being in a warm location where there are many restaurants to enjoy. They know they can expect a fantastic hotel stay, a great location for nearby entertainment, and they can be in the great outdoors hiking in the desert or enjoying nine holes of golf. And, for many West Coast dealers, it’s an easy direct flight for most of our attendees.”
Toyota West’s upcoming gathering is expected to draw about 45 attendees to the 326-room The Scottsdale Resort at McCormick Ranch, part of the Hyatt portfolio. Amid hacienda-inspired décor, the resort offers 80,000 sf of flexible meeting space, and includes the Grand Coronado Ballroom, with seating for up to 1,000 attendees. “The hotel has been fantastic, offering us a larger meeting space to accommodate one attendee per 6-foot table in our standard U-shape seating arrangement,” McCaslin says. “Usually it’s pretty difficult to expand into larger meeting spaces, but with the vast availability at hotels these days, it’s been a great amenity to have for our groups. Hotels offer hand sanitizer in the meeting rooms, masks at check in, sanitization between break periods, or before and after the meeting. For most of 2020, our company decided not to host any welcome receptions, group dinners, or group activities to help contain the spread of the virus and for the safety of our members. So far, we have avoided booking any group activities outside of group dinners or a short welcome reception in 2021.”
Set west of the Phoenix metro area, in the suburb of Litchfield Park, 24 miles from Phoenix Airport, The Wigwam is a historic hotel, originally built in 1929 as an intimate guest ranch for employees of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. Today, the Wigwam features three restaurants, three pools, nine tennis courts, 54 holes of championship golf, and a 26,000-sf spa spread across 440 lush acres. The Wigwam occupies a soft spot in the heart for some regulars. “It’s a pretty cool place,” says Jeff Peters, power industry leader for West with Suez Water. Peters says he has been conducting meetings regularly at The Wigwam for about a decade. “Nothing else compares to it, and the history of the place is incredible. It started when Phoenix was just a whistle stop on the way to L.A. It was just six rooms, then the executives started bringing their families; they added rooms, and then put in some golf. Being able to walk outside and see the beautiful landscaping, and flowers and trees, and not see the usual convention facilities is just great. We generally have a cookout in the evening, eat lunch outside, then everyone walks these serpentine paths back to their rooms.”
Guest rooms are found either in one-story casitas bisected by various gardens, or in two-story buildings surrounding the Oasis Pool. The resort features 30,000 sf of indoor meeting space, including a 10,800-sf ballroom and 25 breakout rooms in a variety of sizes, along with 55,000 sf of outdoor event space. Wi-Fi is available throughout the spacious property.
Peters has been doing customer seminars for about 10 years, with upward of 100 attendees at his Wigwam events. A customer seminar planned for last spring was postponed to early fall, and Peters says he is now pivoting to make it an internal meeting next spring. “I kept the contract open and just kept rolling it forward, because our company isn’t allowing us to travel in groups,” Peters says. “Many of our customers won’t even see us; won’t allow us to enter their building, so we haven’t really been traveling. But our company has not come together since February or March — even our smaller meetings of 15 to 25 people were canceled. There have been a lot of changes in our company, and it’s all been handled through conference calls. We have new people who haven’t met anyone outside their immediate supervisor. We need to pull our people together in person.”
Peters can tick off the attributes of a meeting at Wigwam easily. “The weather in April and May is guaranteed,” he says. “Phoenix is generally fairly inexpensive to fly into, with lots of flights. It’s an attractive destination for people to fly to from North Dakota or Wyoming, a good alternative to Vegas, which isn’t really our cup of tea,” he says. “The Wigwam is very unique; very friendly. The staff is outstanding, the food is good, and it’s reasonably priced. And, the availability of three golf courses on property is really great. I like to come in early and play some golf. Then I’ll stay late and play a little more golf.”
Another legendary Phoenix hotel that has just completed extensive renovations, reopening early in 2021, is the Arizona Biltmore, A Waldorf Astoria Resort. As one of the only existing hotels influenced by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the dramatic grounds serve as a historic setting for meetings and events. More than 200,000 sf of indoor/outdoor space and 20 meeting rooms can be leveraged for intimate and large groups alike. Facilities include the 25,000-sf Frank Lloyd Wright ballroom, and the reimagined Catalina Event Lawn and Bar will serve as an alfresco space for gatherings against a backdrop of mountain views. C&IT