The valley of the sun continues to add to its appeal
A bird of ancient myth, the phoenix was said to live in the desert and to rise, reborn in youth and freshness, from a pyre of ashes.
The dramatic rebirth of today’s cities of Phoenix, Scottsdale and the surrounding communities is no less fabulous. Multibillion-dollar investment in new downtown development is transforming the metroplex into a chic urban mecca of culture, business and tourism.“I call it the perfect storm, a massive transformation,” says Paul Peterson, the former public information officer at the Phoenix Convention Center. He says, “Everything is coming together at the same time, from new restaurants and retail to our $600-million expansion at the Convention Center. At the same time, the city’s room inventory is increasing by more than 40 percent. When I look out over the skyline, I see dozens of construction cranes!”
As seen from the slopes of Camelback Mountain, a Phoenix landmark, more than 20 cities sprawl across the desert, nearly to the rugged McDowell and Superstition Mountain ranges that surround the vast expanse, known as the Valley of the Sun. To the east of Phoenix are Tempe, Mesa and Chandler; Casa Grande is to the south, with Scottsdale, Paradise Valley, Carefree, Fountain Hills and Fort McDowell to the northeast.
Rooted in Native American and Spanish colonial history, and glittering with 21st century sophistication, Greater Phoenix is a gold mine for meeting planners who are attracted to the dependably sunny weather; the vibrant Southwestern style and culture; and the latest high-tech amenities at resorts, hotels and convention venues.
In a flurry of growth to be completed, for the most part, in time for the 2008 Super Bowl, Phoenix is experiencing a downtown renaissance. New high-rise hotels, a greatly expanded convention center, the addition of a light-rail system and other development will total about $4 billion in investment through the next three years.
Visitors will notice big changes in the 90-block downtown core known as Copper Square, a walkable district that comprises the convention center, a hundred or so restaurants and nightspots, shops, two dozen art galleries, theaters and such cultural venues as the Heard Museum and the Phoenix Art Museum.
Adding a thousand rooms to the more than 50,000 hotel rooms in Greater Phoenix will be the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown Hotel (starwoodhotels.com), with more guest rooms than any other hotel in the state. Close by the Convention Center, the seven-story W Hotel Phoenix (starwoodhotels.com) opens in 2008 and the 532-room Wyndham Phoenix (wyndham.com) has undergone $6 million in renovations. In addition, the ballroom, 22 meeting spaces and a soaring atrium at the Hyatt Regency Phoenix (hyattphoenix.com) remain popular gathering places.
“Meeting planners who brought groups to downtown Phoenix in the past won’t recognize it in two or three years. Light rail, the new convention center and the 1,000-room Sheraton hotel are just part of a revitalized urban landscape designed to cater to pedestrians and show off our sunny weather,” says Doug MacKenzie, director of communications for the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau (GPCVB; visitphoenix.com). “For a long time, Greater Phoenix’s desert scenery and luxury resorts have provided a spectacular setting for smaller conferences and meeting groups. Now the biggest conventions in the world will be able to tap into the same kind of memorable desert experience in the heart of a thriving downtown,” he says.
A sports capital, Greater Phoenix will roll out the red carpet for Super Bowl XLII, and for the annual games and tournaments of home-based professional teams––Arizona Diamondbacks baseball, Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury basketball, and Arizona Rattlers football. Cactus League spring training for nine pro teams, from the L.A. Angels to the Chicago Cubs and the Milwaukee Brewers, brings out thousands of fans in March. And, the largest spectator crowds on the PGA Tour turn out for the FBR Open on TPC Scottsdale’s Stadium Golf Course.
Whopping Expansion for the Phoenix Convention Center
Elevating the region to top-tier status in the convention market, the new Phoenix Convention Center (ci.phoenix.az.us) is undergoing a $600-million expansion project that will triple its meeting space to nearly 900,000 sq. ft. According to Paul Peterson, “People will see a different look and feel at the Convention Center, a more luxurious Southwestern cachet, with the 90-foot-tall glass and stone atrium and multicolored limestone wrapping the exterior. Accenting the interior spaces are the colors of the red-rock canyons and the Grand Canyon––even the carpeting has a fascinating ‘diamond back’ design. In partnership with the city and the state, and now in contention for the international market, we are going from 68th in size for convention centers nationwide to 20th.” (See smartmeetings.com for more details about this exciting expansion.)
More than $2 billion of new development on both sides of the Arizona Canal in Scottsdale is nearing completion. The development includes the 13-story Waterfront, the SouthBridge fashion and restaurant complex, and ultra-chic new hotels––the W Scottsdale Hotel (starwoodhotels.com), the Mondrian Hotel (mondrianscottsdale.com) and Hotel Valley Ho (hotelvalleyho.com). Remaining pedestrian friendly, the city has invested millions in an enjoyable “sense of place” concept on the canalside, with landscaped walkways, an outdoor amphitheater and scenic rest stops.
The Waterfront is a million square feet of upscale retail, condos and restaurants (P.F. Chang’s, Pink Taco, Sur laTable, Estillo Boutique and others) incorporating public art, notably a larger-than-lifesize bronze sculpture of Pony Express riders. Along the south bank of the canal, SouthBridge, a fantasy of food, fashion and entertainment, opens in October with a gourmet ghetto to include such eateries as Mexican Standoff, Shell Shock and a new location for Scottsdale favorite, Sea Saw. The restaurant Canal will feature a runway flanked by 30-foot-high projection screens broadcasting the latest Milan couture, international events and live kitchen shots. Trend-setting shops and boutiques will abound—no national chains allowed!
Connecting the “old town” streets lined with galleries, restaurants and nightspots with the new urban district and with Fashion Square mall is the Marshall Way Bridge, which bustles with pedestrians and the free downtown trolley. Later in 2008, a dazzling Paolo Soleri-designed “Sundial” suspension bridge will span the canal, its 64-foot-tall pylons creating a light beam on the walking surface.
According to Dan Tavrytzky, vice president of sales and services at the Scottsdale CVB (scottsdalecvb.com), “Visitors and locals are already meandering along the canal in the park-like setting, enjoying the views of Camelback Mountain and our incredible 330 days of sunshine a year, the new restaurants and shops.
“Our CVB offers one-stop services for meeting planners. We encourage them to let us know their specific needs in confidential RFPs, and we match them only with the most appropriate properties, off-site caterers and tour companies. We link them to providers of convention speakers, live entertainment, and even help them find cowboy hats, special name tags, ‘big shot’ celebrities, or a hundred bandanas, if that’s what they desire. We have more than 600 tourism and convention-oriented members and can make the process of connecting with them so easy.”
Diversity Flourishes: Multicultural and Religious Focus
Greater Phoenix is among the nation’s top choices for ethnic and religious groups. Marc Garcia, executive director of the Greater Phoenix Multi-Cultural and Arts Foundation (multiculturalfoundation.com), says, “I think what sets Phoenix apart from most other meeting destinations is our rich ethnic heritage and active multicultural community. We don’t just welcome meeting attendees of color, we understand them...our efforts to reach the ethnic meetings market go well beyond basic sales efforts.”
From the Asian American Small Business Expo to the National Congress of American Indians, groups representing a lively mix of cultures are welcomed. Phoenix has long been the site of the Hispanic Women’s Conference, the largest gathering of Latina business and community leaders in the country. This year, more than 2,000 attendees gathered at the convention center for their meeting.
Catering to the growing religious meetings market, the GPCVB recently confirmed that about 12,000 delegates will attend the 2011 Southern Baptist Convention, booking 15,000 room nights. Donn Oswald, associate director of sales at the GPCVB, says, “Phoenix has set a goal to become the premier western destination for religious groups and conventions. We have all the right components for them, from compact rooms packages that eliminate the need for transportation to and from the convention center to affordability. Phoenix has more low-cost air fares than any other domestic destination, and low summer rates. And, statistically, downtown Phoenix is one of the safest places to be. Plus, we provide Ambassadors who give directions, restaurant recommendations, and more, to enhance the downtown experience for our groups.”
Oswald continues, “Our religious efforts have morphed into ‘Team Faith in Phoenix,’ supported by the website, faithinphoenix.com, where planners can request a customized religious planning guide filled with information on places of worship, family-friendly activities, hotel and resort information, and more.”
Faith-based delegates often combine their attendance at conventions with family vacations, and they appreciate the easy accessibility to the Grand Canyon, to the red-rock buttes of Sedona and to three local waterparks.
Warm days and nights, cowboy spirit, Native American heritage and spectacular desert settings result in a wide variety of meeting and event venues throughout the Valley of the Sun. With seating for 1,800 people inside and 2,000 under the stars, Pinnacle Peak Patio Steakhouse and Microbrewery (pppatio.com) claims to be the world’s largest western steakhouse. Since 1957, the property has catered to groups, serving up mesquite-grilled steaks, chicken and ribs and live country-western music. Groups from Honeywell, Porsche, Wells Fargo and others have fun at team-building chili cookoffs, quick-draw contests and line dancing, in the Gunslinger Saloon, on outdoor patios and in the West 40 room, which has bars, fireplaces, a bandstand and views of Pinnacle Peak.
Cowboys don’t wear ties, so if you come wearing one, it will be cut off and hung up with thousands more in violation of the “no-ties” policy.
The Old West lives again at Tombstone, the “theme town” at Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort (pointehilton.com), an all-suite property adjacent to the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. For an evening or an afternoon of fun, the resort provides cowboy hats, fast-draw and tomahawk-throw contests, a mechanical steer and country-western bands. The elaborate sports swimming pool is the site of lively water Olympic games.
Perfect for small meetings, some suites at Squaw Peak have boardroom tables seating 10 people, while 48,000 sq. ft. of function space includes three ballrooms and 46 meeting rooms. Along with its sister property, Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs Resort (pointehilton.com), Squaw Peak has handy, in-house destination management, assisting planners with spouse entertainment and shopping expeditions, off-property activities such as hayrides and tours to the Grand Canyon, and a host of group services.
“Geo-caching” for gold in the Superstition Mountains foothills is one of the group expeditions offered by Apache Trail Tours (apachetrailtours.com), in addition to narrated Jeep tours to Bulldog Canyon in the Tonto National Forest, “steak-outs” and team-building adventures. On the Yavapai Indian Reservation, Fort McDowell Adventures (fortmcdowelladventures.com) is set up to entertain 100 to 1,600 people. Panoramic views of the surrounding mountain ranges and the desert landscape are backdrops for City Slicker cattle drives, hay wagon and trail rides, and Jeep tours, private rodeos, mesquite-grilled BBQ, and team-building games such as buckin’ barrel and shoot-outs. With country-western live entertainment, Rawhide at Wildhorse Pass (rawhide.com) in Chandler has been welcoming groups of up to 10,000 for more than 35 years. In addition to 52,000 sq. ft. of indoor banquet space, cookouts, rodeos, banquets and parties are held on the authentic Main Street, in eight separate outdoor venues and in the steakhouse and saloon.
In downtown Phoenix, the plaza at the new Herberger Theater Center (herbergertheater.org) is already in demand. Susan Patterson, booking and events coordinator, says, “Among many events we have produced was a ‘Phoenix Rising’ theme party for 90 people from around the country. We draped the theater steps and laid down a red carpet, arranged live music, special lighting and a dinner on the plaza. Outdoor events typically occur from October through April, involving sit-down dinners, buffets, receptions and live entertainment including bands, singers, dancers and actors on stages that can be set up in various locations. The plaza has real ambience, with festive lighting in the trees and sculptures adding to the cultural experience.”
Vacation resorts get into the Southwest spirit by offering one-of-a-kind activities. The president of Meetings & Incentives International, Inc., Joyce Spadoni recounts, “One of our clients held a chili cookoff for about 80 people at Four Seasons Scottsdale at Troon North (fourseasons.com/scottsdale). Everyone got custom aprons and chefs’ hats, they came up with recipes, shopped for ingredients and eventually were judged, all with the help of a great staff at the resort. A DJ emceed, played music and spurred on the cooks, and a grand time was had by all. There is no better ice breaker than a chili cookoff!
“The Four Seasons also arranged for the same group to spend an evening at a wonderful Arabian horse farm called Los Cedros and a fabulous afternoon at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Chandler.”
Of the more than 200 golf clubs in the Phoenix valley, many are popular for events on landscaped patios overlooking the fairways, and in gardens with water features and mountain views. Taking full advantage of near-perfect weather fall through spring, and stunning views of the 18th hole of the Raptor Golf Course and the McDowell Mountains, Grayhawk Golf Club (grayhawkgolf.com) is expansive enough to host several events at once, with 6,000 sq. ft. of indoor/outdoor space in the Fairway House, seating for 200 and a hardwood dance floor in the vaulted McDowell Room, and smaller meeting and boardrooms.
According to Amy Pesicka in the catering department at Grayhawk, “We hosted a four-day event with BMW, where they displayed their newest models, with full bars and dinners. We’ve done a celebrity golf event with an after-golf private party with stars like Toby Keith, Mark Wills, Duck Soup and Trick Pony. Business meetings can be any size from eight to a hundred people including breakfast, meeting setup, lunch and breaks.”
Octillo Golf Club (octillogolf.com) in Chandler is an upscale facility with 27 holes of Troon-managed golf, where groups of up to 300 are accommodated in the Crown Terrace ballroom and in lush, oasis-like gardens graced with waterfalls and landscaped pools.
Top of the Market
A legendary resort for nearly two decades, the AAA Five Diamond-rated Phoenician (thephoenician.com) hosts 180,000 meeting guests annually in luxurious surroundings. Southwestern-themed parties are casual affairs at the rustic adobe Jokake Inn, in the gardens and on the croquet lawn. Offering privacy and exclusive services, the Canyon Suites, comprising a “hotel within a hotel,” have recently undergone $5.5 million in enhancements of the 60 guest rooms, a private lobby and pool terrace.
Another Five Diamond property, the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess (fairmont.com/scottsdale) is notable for its stand-alone Conference Center, one of the largest ballrooms in the Southwest, and a top-rated Willow Stream spa. Newly renovated casitas are plush hideaways with fireplaces, living/dining areas and a designated butler. The resort works with the adjacent championship golf courses at TPC Scottsdale on corporate and group activities.
Recently becoming the first and only all-organic resort in the U.S., The Boulders Resort and Golden Door Spa (theboulders.com) tucks event courtyards and conference rooms into desert settings of towering saguaro cacti and building-sized boulders. A unusual site for special events is the adjacent courtyard and conference center at El Pedregal marketplace, where 12,000 sq. ft. of function space includes 12 meeting rooms and an outdoor stage and amphitheater, with catering provided by the resort.
Within Greater Phoenix, the cities of Mesa, Tempe, Chandler and Casa Grande are attractive meeting and conference sites. A half-hour east of Phoenix, Mesa attracts small-to-midsize groups to the Mesa Convention Center (mesaconventioncenter.com), where 40,000 sq. ft. of exhibit and meeting space and 15 meeting rooms are available. Next door, the 275-room Phoenix Marriott Mesa (marriott.com) has a separate convention center, an outdoor amphitheater, a 100-person conference theater, a ballroom and an exhibit hall.
“The words ‘value and convenience’ best describe why Mesa is a great meeting destination,” says director of sales for the Mesa CVB (visitmesa.com) James Tevault. “And, besides affordability, we offer a variety of experiences, from team building to dinner theater, museums, Southwestern art, shopping and dining. Among the free services the CVB offers are assistance with site visits, formal accommodation bids and venue selection, tour itineraries and local guides. And, we’re proud to announce the new Mesa Arts Center, a state-of-the-art venue for Broadway-style theater, classical and pop music, world and ethnic artists, dance and family entertainment.”
Plus, he says, there's a new Bass Pro Shops ‘Outdoor World’ in the new Mesa Riverview Center in northwest Mesa, which has hundreds of antiques and artifacts, trophy fish, wildlife mounts and grand murals.
Lakeside in Tempe
Just four miles from Sky Harbor airport, Tempe is the home of Arizona State University and to Tempe Town Lake, which is crossed by a new bridge that will soon carry Metro light rail. The Tempe CVB (tempecvb.com) makes it easy for planners by distributing RFPs, doing site inspections and producing collateral materials, preconference mailers and even welcome letters from the mayor. According to Elizabeth Weimer, director of meeting services at Site Search in Louisville, Ky., “My small groups need the same VIP attention as my large ones, but it is cost-prohibitive for me to do site tours. The Tempe CVB staff knows the city, knows the properties, and was able to quickly guide me to the perfect site to match my client’s criteria. They did me a huge service!”
Some of the largest event venues are ASU's Grady Gammage Auditorium (asugammage.com) and the brand new Tempe Center for the Arts (tempe.gov/tca), which has 88,000 sq. ft. of meeting space in Tempe Beach Park, with 200-seat and 600-seat theaters.
Major hotel renovations are on an upswing, led by The Buttes, a Marriott Resort (formerly the Wyndham Buttes Resort), which is getting a $6-million facelift. The Embassy Suites Phoenix-Tempe (embassysuites.com) and the Sheraton Phoenix Airport Hotel (starwoodhotels.com) are also undergoing multimillion-dollar redesigns/renovations.
An early 2009 completion date is scheduled for the 14-story Le Meridien at Tempe Town Lake (starwoodhotels.com), a luxury property in the new Hayden Ferry Lakeside development. Gleaming “blue sapphire” windows on the high-rise will mute airplane noise while providing views of the lake and Hayden Butte.
Chandler and Casa Grande
Bordering Phoenix, the city of Chandler is anchored by a historic downtown chock-full of galleries, shops and restaurants. Affordable choices right in town are the 1,550-seat theater at the Chandler Center for the Arts (chandlercenter.org) and the newly renovated Crowne Plaza San Marcos Golf Resort and Conference Center (sanmarcosresort.com), where a historic parkland golf course and 35,000 sq. ft. of function space are worth a look.
Owned by the Gila Indian River Community, the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort and Spa (wildhorsepassresort.com) in Chandler has on staff a cultural theming manager who helps plan authentic Native American activities, decor and music. Among the draws here are two Troon-managed golf courses, the Aji Spa and an equestrian center for horseback riding into the surrounding open space. Winding through the property is a 2.5-mile replica of the Gila River, where small boats ferry guests to the casino and the golf club.
About 15 miles from the town of Casa Grande, a good outing destination (November through May) is Casa Grande Ruins National Monument (nps.gov/cagr), where prehistoric structures and the 700-year-old, four-story Hohokam “Great House” showcase the history of the Hohokam people, who were prehistoric canal builders and farmers along the Gila River.
• The eighth busiest airport in the nation, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX; phoenix.gov/skyharborairport) has nonstop service to 106 cities and is served by 23 airlines––the largest are US Airways and Southwest Airlines. The new "D" concourse is the location of eight new gates for Southwest, which has begun new nonstop service to Boston and Salt Lake City; AirTran started flight service from Sky Harbor to Atlanta this year.
• December 2008 will see the launch of METRO light rail service from Sky Harbor into downtown Tempe, Mesa, Phoenix and the Phoenix Convention Center (valleymetro.org/rail).
• Tour the Sonoran Desert by Jeep, ATV, Hummer or hot-air balloon
• A sunset hike up Camelback Mountain or Pinnacle Peak
• Desert Botanical Garden, for the largest
collection of cacti in the world
• Grand Canyon National Park daytrip and the Grand Canyon Railway
• Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving
• Stroll along landscaped pathways on the Arizona Canal in Scottsdale
• Red rocks of Sedona daytrip
• Heritage Square, the Arizona Science Center and the Phoenix Museum of History in Heritage and Science Park
• Heard Museum, Native American and Southwest art, artifacts and fine crafts