With idyllic weather almost year-round, championship golf courses and a panoply of lodging choices ranging from rustic western ranches to rejuvenating spa resorts, to modern high-rise hotels, Arizona is flush with options that keep meeting and incentive planners coming back for more.
While the Phoenix-Scottsdale metropolitan area is the state’s hub, and home to the major airport, outlying cities offer something different, especially for small and mid-sized events. Amelia Renfroe, member services manager for CPAmerica Inc., says although her group of CPAs held its 2020 gatherings virtually, she is looking forward to the annual CPAConnect Roundtable, to be held in Tucson this fall. The city is set amid the Sonora Desert and surrounded by mountain ranges that invite outdoor activities in neighboring Saguaro National Park. “We alternate West Coast and East Coast each year,” Renfroe says. “This group has not been to Arizona yet, so we are excited to show them the beauty that Tucson has to offer. It was a good fit for this specific event, because of its affordability — we are able to hold this meeting at a beautiful resort while staying in budget.”
Renfroe’s event, the CPAConnect Roundtable, focuses on ways to strengthen practice management, share best practices and network. She chose the 128-room Omni Tucson National Resort for the three-day event, although it wasn’t where she initially expected the group to land. “Site visits are so important,” Renfroe says. “The Omni Tucson National Resort was at the bottom of my list before making a trip to Tucson.” Renfroe says that, in her experience, meetings she has planned that were preceded by a site visit wind up being more successful than those where she didn’t tour in advance. “Site visits really help you visualize your event. There is huge value in seeing the meeting space and getting to know your event staff prior to planning.”
Situated near the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, the Omni Tucson National Resort has 10,500 sf of indoor meeting space, plus an additional 12,900 sf of outdoor areas suitable for gatherings. Amenities include a full-service spa, two swimming pools and the Omni Tucson National Golf Course. The Catalina Course serves as the host course for the PGA Tour Champions Cologuard Classic, while the Sonoran course features a desert-style layout.
“Since this is a smaller meeting, we really liked the size of this property,” Renfroe says. “I like the intimate feeling that our members will get. The Omni has great outdoor space that we can use for networking events in the evening, which is a huge plus, and they offered us a competitive rate and amenities, and this led to us ultimately picking this property. We have almost all of their rooms reserved for our meeting.”
Although, as everywhere, Tucson’s meeting business slowed considerably in 2020, the destination has seen a fleet of improvements and additions that will be 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 exhibit hall 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 this year will add additional meeting rooms on the west side of the facility adjacent to Exhibit Hall C. And, the DoubleTree by Hilton Tucson Downtown Convention Center, which opened in the spring, is the first hotel adjoining the facility.
The 170-room hotel has 3,800 sf of meeting space, including a conference room with full windows and views of downtown Tucson.
Last October, 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 incorporates 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.
Another Arizona location renowned for its scenic beauty but perfect for smaller meetings is Sedona, a city of just 10,000 residents set amid red-rock landscapes and swaying sycamore trees, and tempting with endless outdoor adventure activities. Three Sedona hotels have more than 5,000 sf of meeting space, including the Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock, which offers 14,400 sf of meeting facilities, plus outdoor venues.
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 was recently completed. This will be followed by the addition of a resort-style pool and room renovations. The resort features 8,500 sf of flexible indoor-outdoor meeting space.
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. The 218-room resort offers a variety of conference facilities located within the Meeting Village, including three separate ballrooms ranging up to 4,880 sf, 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.
Other Sedona properties with more limited meeting facilities include Amara, L’Auberge de Sedona and Sedona Rouge. Ambiente, a Landscape Hotel, is set to open at the end of this year. 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 of the accommodations can be rotated, allowing guests to enjoy 360-degree views of the treasured landscape.
Although most meeting planners have spent the past year pushing conference dates into the future and pivoting to virtual meetings, some have been lucky enough to move forward where state reopening mandates allowed. One such event was a trip offered by Guaranty Home Mortgage Corporation in February, a gathering of top executives and top-performing sales executives. “State and local regulations were important to me for this group, because it was the first event in almost a year where our employees would come together,” says Pamela Lopez, director of events and creative planning for Guaranty Home Mortgage Corporation. “I also wanted a location that would allow for as many outdoor gatherings as possible, and if not completely outdoors, a facility capable of having an outdoor-indoor area. We considered locations in California, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. Upon deciding for Arizona, I toured quite a few properties to decide what resort could best accommodate all my guests, keeping COVID-19 regulations in mind.” While many resorts had capacity limitations or amenities closed, Lopez says Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort and Spa in Scottsdale was best suited for her needs.
Sanctuary offers 109 casitas and suites, and seven 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 staff and service made the difference,” Lopez says. “When planning events, service matters, and the service we experienced at Sanctuary received five stars from my entire group. Furthermore, this boutique resort was very outdoorsy, but small enough to keep my group close to each other. All the rooms are like private homes, with enough space to make everyone feel safe and comfortable. I also knew that being at a smaller resort would mean that my 70-person group would be a big portion of the guest count, and it would keep things more private and COVID-safe.”
Lopez says she never considered a hybrid option for the meeting. “I wanted a hotel that would allow me to plan outdoor events as much as possible, while still providing an intimate environment. I did not plan any events in the city or in a restaurant, or enclosed venue that would require the group to be separated, but I did plan one event off-site at an outdoor venue. This desert site allowed seclusion and safety, and provided me with a blank canvas to create an intimate dinner under the stars.”
Lopez adds that Sanctuary did not feel crowded with guests, and the resort was able to accommodate her group’s special needs. “There were many food allergies and special considerations that were made, and fulfilled with everyone’s comfort and safety in mind. Ground transportation was socially distanced. While transportation could usually transfer all guests at once, we decided to minimize it to one-third capacity to allow for ample space and social distancing.”
Experiences like this were valuable to meeting planners who scheduled events for spring, such as Advantage Credit, which hosted its annual retreat in Phoenix. Originally scheduled for September 2020, owner Don Unger says he was able to move the event to April, and stuck with the original location, The Wigwam. “They were very accommodating,” Unger says. “They are dealing with a lot of clients that [were] having to cancel trips and events. On the other hand, we were postponing, so they weren’t losing a client.” Advantage Credit is a fast-growing credit reporting company of about 260 employees that operates virtually, so the annual gathering is vital for building esprit de corps. “If you’re an employee, you’re invited. Typically, we’ll get 70% of our employees taking us up on it, and the rest have other obligations or don’t like to travel.”
Set west of the Phoenix metro area in the suburb of Litchfield Park, 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 331 guest rooms, three restaurants, three pools, nine tennis courts, 54 holes of championship golf and a 26,000-sf spa, spread across 440 lush acres. Advantage Credit has previously held its annual retreat in Mexico and Texas, but Phoenix remains a favorite. “Travel-wise, it’s one of the best airports for most of the country to get to, and costs are generally less than average for accommodations,” Unger says. “And it’s warm, usually. A lot of our employees are from Colorado or Northern climes, so they enjoy going to Phoenix.” He adds, “We’ve tried to find boutique properties when we can, and we like smaller hotels, but The Wigwam kind of fits the bill for us with our size today. The Oasis area has about 130 rooms set around a pool, so we get to have that boutique feel within a somewhat larger hotel. We look for an area that everyone’s going to be going through during the course of the day, so that you’re always running into someone. In bigger hotels, you spend all your time on elevators. Wigwam offered a pretty good mix of accommodations with services like a big hotel, with multiple restaurants and dining areas, while allowing us to have our accommodations in a semi-private area.”
Although an off-site activity is usually planned for the group, Unger says this year he did not load the group onto buses. “We just decided to stay on property,” he says, “We’re not a golfing group — it’s mostly women over age 50 that don’t play golf.” The retreat is not strictly an incentive; there are meetings over two of the days. He adds, “We [operated] within the guidelines of the resort, so [we had] a slightly larger room than we originally contracted for. I can’t say enough about how Wigwam managed this.”
With his entire team working remotely, Unger says the annual retreat is important. “When we went virtual 12 years ago, with everyone working from home and spread out across country, I felt these retreats were even more important to create a bit of bonding with people who didn’t get to see each other otherwise. We want to be able to have some hugs and drinks together. We want to have fun,” Unger says. “I can’t prove this scientifically, but I stand by my theory that the retreat more than pays for itself in camaraderie and the ability to work together because they saw each other face-to-face.”
Pamela Lopez’s experience shows that meetings and incentives can go forward in Arizona — with careful planning. And she offers tips for those plunging into their first event as the pandemic starts to move into the rear-view mirror. “Keep an open mind — you will encounter more obstacles than anticipated,” Lopez says. “You must consider that while some people might not be as nervous about COVID as others, some guests have to be extremely cautious due to health or other reasons. Make sure to think about all types of guests and anticipate cancellations.”
Lopez continues: “Find great vendors with amazing staff willing to accommodate all needs. Privately owned resorts might have more flexibility with amenities than bigger chain resorts, but regulations are changing daily, so do your research thoroughly. We are still going through a pandemic and last-minute changes are going to happen, so be prepared and ready to roll with the changes,” she says. “Above all, keep your creativity alive and a positive attitude. Creating a magical experience is what it is all about. With COVID impacting everyone, these events keep spirits up and are more important now than ever.” I&FMM