The magic of the Southwest’s desert cities, with their warm weather and strikingly beautiful landscapes, provides a special allure for meetings and events that is even more enticing this year as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes.
“Desert locations are ideal for meetings and events because they provide a very unique type of experience,” says Marian Vrabel, director of sales for The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain in Marana, Arizona. “Many event attendees are used to city or beach locations, and are usually mesmerized by the Rocky Mountain landscapes, cacti framing the horizon, blue skies and stunning sunsets. Additionally, desert locations offer very stable weather conditions, with very little or no chance of rain, which offers planners the ability to enjoy outdoor events and activities that may be risky in other locations.”
Laura Schield, chief operating officer at Bank Director in Brentwood, Tennessee, says her company holds its annual event in late January or early February, making Phoenix an ideal location. “When so many places across the country are cold and/or covered with snow, our attendees love the fresh air and the outdoor spaces,” she says. “And what is not to love?”
David Sobek, director of sales at The Phoenician in Scottsdale, notes that the desirable weather facilitates a plethora of options for planners. “Weather is a major attraction, allowing for unique outdoor events from both a culinary and meeting perspective,” he says. “It also provides the opportunity for a variety of outdoor activities, such as golf, tennis, pickleball, desert tours — hiking or by vehicle — and hot-air ballooning. Of course, spending a relaxing day at the pool enjoying one of nearly 300 days of sunshine is popular, as well.”
Karolyn Kiburz, CMP, president of Meetings & Concierges Source LLC in Scottsdale, says the company plans 90% of its events in Arizona. “There’s so much to do and see,” she says. “Attendees are not only interested in the actual meeting, but in the destination. We have so much to offer in the state, which I think is a big draw to meeting attendees. They often tag on a pre- or post-trip to enjoy all that Arizona has to offer.”
Many Southwest properties have been eagerly awaiting a chance to show pre-existing and exciting new features for meeting groups. Here’s a look at some of the main attractions at stellar Arizona and New Mexico properties.
Phoenix offers a renowned collection of resorts that cater to corporate and incentive groups. “Most properties have lush lawns and/or themed outdoor venues that help drive a unique experience,” says Deborah Lahti, director of hotel and resort sales for Visit Phoenix. “The properties also offer a variety of amenities to attendees, from sparkling pools and lazy rivers to horseback riding.”
JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa features 950 guest rooms, including 81 suites, along with 241,106 sf of indoor and outdoor event space. “Expansive meeting spaces provide for creativity and flexibility, complemented by equally as many outdoor event spaces to immerse in the beauty of the Arizona skies and Sonoran Desert landscape,” says James Anderson, director of sales and marketing for the property. April was a big month for the resort, which completed a $60 million guest-room transformation and opened Tia Carmen, a contemporary Southwestern restaurant by celebrity chef Angelo Sosa that will celebrate the stories of farmers, the community and the land.
After holding its annual 1,200-person event at the resort, Bank Director plans to hold it there through 2028. “The space is perfect for what we need,” Schield says. “It’s expansive, all under one roof and has spaces in many different sizes. The rooms are outstanding — and will be fully renovated by the time we return in 2023. But above all is the team at Desert Ridge. At Bank Director, we provide a very high level of service, but we are a small team, so we look at their experienced and service-focused team as an extension of our own team.”
Schield was particularly impressed with the resort’s JW Griffin Club. “It’s much more than an executive lounge; it’s a place to meet with food and drink throughout the day. From made-to-order omelets to concierge-level service, from know-your-name and favorite-drink-type hospitality to comfy indoor and outdoor seating options, there is no other adults-only club lounge like this in the brand.”
She highly recommends the resort to other planners. “For a meeting planner, it’s the whole package, Schield says. “It has marvelous amenities, including a spa, cabanas, pool, golf, biking, a variety of restaurants and so much more. There are indoor and outdoor spaces for meetings and activities, luxury-level service, spacious meeting rooms and gorgeous guest rooms, with many different types. But above all, it has a proactive and service-focused team.
Set on stunning 440 acres in Litchfield Park, adjacent to Phoenix, The Wigwam is known for its wellness offerings for the mind, body and soul — including mid-day massages, yoga breaks, team building, wellness activities and customizable wellness menus — during meetings and events. “There continues to be a large demand for wellness for the business traveler,” says Katy Powers, managing director and general manager of the property. “We’ve seen great success in offering the customizable wellness menus for meeting groups on the property as the way we work continues to shift, and employers begin to realize the importance of putting a focus on both the mental and physical wellness of their employees.”
The Wigwam offers 331 casitas and suites as well as 100,000 sf of flexible indoor and outdoor meeting space, including 25 meeting rooms and 10 event gardens and lawns. Groups can also enjoy three pools, 54 holes of championship golf and the LeMonds Aveda Salon-Spa, featuring hair, skin care and body treatments that incorporate natural ingredients from pure plant and flower extracts.
Located 12 miles northeast of Phoenix, Scottsdale is a very desirable meetings destination in its own right. “Scottsdale offers corporate groups advantages that few other destinations can match — fresh air, sunny skies and the luxury of space,” says Rachel Sacco, president and CEO of Experience Scottsdale. “From campus-style resorts to lush outdoor meeting spaces, Scottsdale is the ideal choice for groups ready to convene.” She adds, “The city has all the services and amenities meeting groups expect: top-tier accommodations for groups of all sizes and budgets, state-of-the-art meeting facilities and hassle-free transportation both in the air and on the ground. These conveniences are coupled with world-class golf, an acclaimed resort and day spa, and award-winning dining and nightlife to keep attendees engaged and entertained.”
Lindsay Gold, CMP, director of meetings and events for Associated Builders & Contractors in Washington, D.C., has hosted meetings at two Scottsdale properties — The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess and The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa — during the past three years. “Scottsdale is a great location because it has several amazing properties in a small area,” she says. “In addition, our attendees come from all over the country, and so the easy lift and great weather help to make it a popular destination for our last meeting of the year. Attendees like to take advantage of the amenities on-site and those within a reasonable drive from the area. Many of them arrived early for our November 2020 program to take day trips to Sedona, see the Grand Canyon or enjoy the championship-caliber golf courses both on-site and in the area. Any time that I can book a location where attendees want to extend their time in is a win.”
One of the city’s top luxury properties, Boulders Resort & Spa Scottsdale, Curio Collection by Hilton, sits on 1,300 acres of the Sonoran Desert. “Meeting planners searching for unique destinations choose Boulders Resort, where guests can feel safe in a peaceful, natural environment,” says Harold Fehr, the property’s director of catering and conference services. “Our unique layout offers an area focused on meetings. Then, when guests leave the meetings, they have a sense of vacation and/or retreat.”
The property features pickleball tournaments, two world-class golf courses, and a 33,000-sf spa that offers customized treatments and notable culinary selections. “Our talented culinary team creates healthy menu options where meeting guests can indulge in healthy, fresh meals prepared with just-picked plantings from our expansive, certified organic garden while chefs conduct organic cooking demonstrations and interactive classes in the garden’s outdoor chef’s kitchen,” Fehr says.
Boulders Resort has 219 guest rooms and 50,000 sf of meeting space, including the 5,600-sf Latilla Ballroom. “Mid- to small-size groups can be self-contained and feel like the ‘big fish’ here, as opposed to larger convention hotels,” Fehr says. “Smaller, more boutique events are our forte, in which we can customize events on every level. For example, taking meetings and breakouts outside is huge now. Groups enjoy getting in touch with our desert environment.”
Another outstanding property, The Phoenician, is nestled at the back of Camelback Mountain. It provides 645 guest rooms and 160,000 sf of meeting space. “The Phoenician is a great place for meetings, both large and small, in that it offers a personalized AAA Five Diamond experience within a luxury resort setting,” Sobek says. “Overall, customers have responded to the results of the major renovation undertaken from 2016 to 2019 — the largest since the property opened.”
Renovations were done on the 18-hole golf course; the only Forbes Five Star spa in Scottsdale, featuring a rooftop pool and a dry bar; the athletic club, with a 4,600-sf fitness center; and public spaces. The Phoenician also features flexible and functional meeting facilities, two ballrooms, multiple breakout room capabilities, 13 unique outdoor locations for group events, and activities such as tennis and pickleball.
Three other attractive properties for meetings are in the works. Hilton North Scottsdale at Cavasson, with 237 guest rooms and a 15,000-sf events center, is schedule to be unveiled late this year. The Ritz-Carlton Paradise Valley, featuring 215 guest rooms and 20,000 sf of event space, is on tap for the winter late this year or early next year. Slated to open in February 2024, Caesars Republic Scottsdale will offer 265 guest rooms and a 7,000-sf conference center with sliding doors that open up to a 7,000-sf lawn area.
Boasting more than 550,000 residents, making it the second most-populated city in Arizona, Tucson is situated 116 miles southeast of Phoenix. “The weather in Tucson is warm and welcoming,” says Kay Mayes, executive administrative assistant at Dura-Line, which held its 2022 United States/Canada Sales Summit at Omni Tucson National Resort in early spring. “The sunsets are fabulous, with stars gazing above you, like nowhere else in the country. This is the perfect setting for an outdoor event.”
Mary Meade, director of sales for Visit Tucson, also lauds Tucson’s weather. “Our weather and unique landscapes bring the groups here, but the friendly locals bring them back,” she says. “As a college town with 40,000 students attending the University of Arizona, the energy is vibrant, young and optimistic. You must experience enjoying a prickly pear margarita, watching one of our next-level sunsets and eating the famous James Beard award-winning Sonoran hot dog — preferably doing all three at the same time.”
Tucson also offers a great variety of hotels, resorts, destination spas and dude ranches. One of the most spectacular properties, Omni Tucson National Resort, will begin undergoing a multimillion-dollar renovation next year. “Tucson’s stunning natural beauty is the inspiration behind the upcoming transformation,” says Sandy Shipman, director of sales and marketing for the resort. “Resting at the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, the color palette and landscape of this idyllic locale will inspire the newly designed spaces, which will include the lobby, restaurants and lounge, meeting space, spa, fitness center, and casitas and haciendas. The relaxed yet inspired ambiance of this Southwestern destination will create an ideal backdrop for leisure, golf, the spa, dining, wellness, and corporate and groups stays.”
Omni Tucson National Resort offers 79 guest rooms and 10,500 sf of meeting space, including many outdoor venues. Papago Ballroom & Terrace features 2,870 sf of space and opens to a stunning 2,000-sf terrace, complete with sweeping mountain views.
Set deep in the canyon of the Tortolita Mountains in Marana, 2 miles northwest of Tucson, The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain offers a wide variety of activities, such as hiking trails that start on the property, as well as guided hiking options, 27 holes of championship golf, an award-winning spa, historic petroglyphs, stargazing and a nightly Spirit of Adventure experience that enlivens the senses. “Desert jeep tours, guided meditation hikes and horseback riding are some of our groups’ other favorite activities,” Vrabel says. “Some more unique offerings include glass blowing, jewelry- and perfume-making workshops and team-building activities. We partnered with one of the biggest destination management companies in the world, PRA, whose representative is based directly on the property and can provide many unique options.”
The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain has 253 guest rooms and 44,000 sf of meeting space, consisting of 20 indoor meeting rooms and three outdoor venues, the largest of which can accommodate up to 850 people.
Another leading Tucson property, historic Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort, is nestled at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountain Range. The resort recently added 40 new guest rooms, bringing its total to 99, all featuring luxurious appointments and Southwestern historic charm. Hacienda del Sol also has 14,000 sf of meeting space, beautifully landscaped grounds and an excellent restaurant, The Grill, with an extensive wine list.
Located in north-central New Mexico, Albuquerque is the most-populous city in the state, with more than 560,000 residents. It draws groups partly because of its warm weather and proximity to other attractions. “For our group, the weather played a role in our decision-making, given the equipment we bring,” says Dennis Ethier, director, plant engineering with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Aquarium, and president of Aquatic Animal Life Support Operators, which held its annual symposium at ABQ Biopark Aquarium in March. “I found that the culture and amenities in the area were fantastic and Albuquerque International Sunport [ABQ] was easy and convenient to get in and out of.”
The host hotel for the symposium was DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Albuquerque, with 295 guest rooms and 12,340 sf of meeting space. Ethier and many other members of his group enjoyed Albuquerque so much that they decided to extend their visit. “Some went sightseeing to the south and others went up to the mountains to ski,” he says. ‘I enjoyed the various restaurants in the area. I found that Albuquerque had much more to offer than I had expected. Personally, I would like to go back at some point for the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.”
Tania Armenta, president and CEO of Visit Albuquerque, emphasized the city’s uniqueness. “In Albuquerque, diverse cultures and centuries of history blend with boundless creativity and cutting-edge innovation to create an authentic destination like no other,” she says. “The city’s one-of-a-kind cuisine, unmatched weather and abundance of open space have the power to change perspectives. Both ancient and cutting-edge, equal parts cool and quaint, the city is an oasis in the high desert, full of people with rich histories and inspiring ideas you won’t find anywhere else. There is truly no other city like it.”
There’s plenty of recent hotel happenings in Albuquerque. Hotel Albuquerque at Old Town, which has 62,000 sf of indoor and outdoor event space, reopened in mid-spring after renovating its 188 guest rooms. Hotel Zazz, a boutique property with 50 guest rooms, an outdoor entertainment venue and a speak-easy, is set to open soon in historic Nob Hill, along Route 66.
The former Hyatt Regency Albuquerque, situated downtown, has been rebranded as The Clyde Hotel, paying homage to the legacy of Clyde Tingley, former chairman of the Albuquerque City Commission and the 11th governor of New Mexico. “A refresh of the lobby and ground-floor public areas is underway, with plans to renovate the 392 rooms in the coming months,” Armenta says.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Situated 64 miles northeast of Albuquerque, Santa Fe has long been a meetings magnet. “We enjoy our high-desert climate, [allowing us to] truly experience all four seasons, only a mild version of each,” says Kim Harmon, national sales manager for Tourism Santa Fe. “Because of our location and altitude of 7,000 feet elevation in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the sun shines brightly just about every day. The wide-open spaces and expansive views set the scene for beautiful sunrises and sunsets.” She continues, “Santa Fe boasts some of the best views and magical light; this is why artists are so strongly drawn to the area. Meetings held in Santa Fe take on a certain energy, as the city allows for a true refresh and reset, a chance to take deeper breaths and really settle in, either to immerse oneself in the moment and relax, or to focus and channel new ideas and direction.”
The city is particularly well-suited to small groups, since the largest hotel is still “on the boutique side,” with slightly more than 200 guest rooms. Larger groups typically utilize multiple hotels and the Santa Fe Convention Center — with 40,000 sf of flexible meeting space, fireplaces in some rooms and an open interior courtyard — and many unique venues are located within walking distance of downtown. “Meeting attendees can easily explore our very walkable city and take advantage of any free time with a variety of activities and experiences, including our newest activity, the Sky Railway, Santa Fe’s adventure train with options ranging from a sunset jazz ride to brunch rides and star gazing,” Harmon says.
One of the city’s iconic properties, Bishop’s Lodge, recently reopened with a lengthened name — Bishop’s Lodge, Auberge Resorts Collection — on 317 secluded acres that border the Santa Fe National Forest. “Auberge has done a fantastic job of preserving the history of the resort while offering amenities that are next-level comfort and beauty,” Harmon says.
The 100-room lodge offers a bevy of recreational options, including mountain biking, fly-fishing, hiking and horseback riding. Some 12,000 sf of meeting space is available, ranging from a secret garden with a wood-burning fireplace to a 3,000-sf restored event hall. C&IT