Hold your meeting in an Arizona oasis
Drive south from Phoenix into the heart of the Sonoran Desert and you’ll soon come upon one of the giant saguaro cacti, arms pointing skyward, that can grow to an astonishing 45 feet tall and 10 feet around. Continue into the Saguaro National Park and you’ll soon be surrounded by vast forests of the enormous plants.
Found nowhere else in the U.S., it’s a sure sign that you’re now in Arizona (the saguaro blossom is the state flower), a vast place with wide-open spaces and wholly unique attractions.
For groups holding their meeting in Arizona, they’ll find a state with an impressive array of stunning scenery and unrivaled natural wonders, from its deserts in the south (with a surprising variety of plant life) to the pine forests and mountain ranges in the north. With numerous national and state parks, Arizona is both a perfect playground for the outdoor enthusiast and an ideal backdrop for a meeting or event. These include Coronado National Forest in the south, Catalina State Park just outside Tucson, the Petrified Forest National Park within the painted desert east of Flagstaff and the grandest site of all—the Grand Canyon in the northwest of the state. Due in large part to the Grand Canyon, for decades Arizona has been the quintessential American destination, equal parts Old West of cowboys and gunslingers and the new west of seemingly endless possibilities.
If sunshine is at all a factor for your group, there’s a strong chance you’ll get it—yearly averages of possible sunshine range from 86% to 92%, according to climatologists. And for warm winter weather, snowbirds have migrated for years to the cities of Phoenix, Scottsdale, Mesa and Tempe, which are clustered together in the south central part of the state, with Tucson farther south. If you think Arizona is too hot to handle in the summer months, just travel to the northern half of the state for cool mountain forests in places like Flagstaff, which has nearly the most days below freezing (in winter) as anywhere in the lower 48 states.
Phoenix Convention Center.
Regardless of the temperature outside, Arizona offers much more than just great weather and scenery. The cultural diversity and attractions of the state run the gamut from the whimsical to the prehistoric. A trip to Lake Havasu will no doubt include a visit to the London Bridge, the actual bridge built in London in 1831, which was sold, shipped and rebuilt in the Arizona desert in the late 1960s—and is the second most visited site in the state after the Grand Canyon.
Even older than the London Bridge, you’ll find ancient Native American petroglyphs at several sites around the state, including the Painted Rock Petroglyph Site near the Painted Rock Mountains southwest of Phoenix. For more modern cultural experiences, museums abound in all of Arizona’s major cities, from Phoenix’s Heard Museum, the Scottsdale Art District and the city’s 125 art galleries and studios, to the Center for Creative Photography on the campus of the University of Arizona in Tucson featuring works by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.
Whatever your reason to hold a meeting in Arizona, you’ll have plenty of options when it comes to impressive venues, attractions and activities. But be warned: you may have trouble explaining that winter tan to colleagues back home in Chicago.
There’s no mistaking Phoenix from an airplane on your descent—it’s vast, covering nearly 2,000 square miles of land in the Salt River Valley on the northeastern edge of the Sonoran Desert, a flat expanse located within several mountain ranges. The largest city in the Southwest, its location partly accounts for its nickname: Valley of the Sun. The “Sun” part of the moniker is due to the 300 days of sunshine the city gets every year, partly accounting for its high summer temperatures—the hottest climate of any major city in the U.S.—and warm winter days.
It’s these balmy days that prove so popular with groups, especially when attendees are coming from the cold in snowier climes to the north. And whether or not your group uses the Phoenix Convention Center, expanded in 2008 to 900,000 sq. ft. of meeting and event space, the convenience of the downtown core offers plenty of built-in attractions including restaurants, nightlife and shopping. The center added another high-end meeting option in January 2009 with the addition of its Executive Conference Center, which offers 21,000 sq. ft. of IACC-certified meeting space.
“We went [to Phoenix] because it was going to be warm, nobody needed to rent cars and all of our nightlife was reachable on foot or inexpensive by cabs. Everything was good, and it was cheap,” says Mike McKenna, who plans meetings for the National Fire Protection Association. He also adds that airlift to Phoenix, which is the hub city for US Airways and a major focus city for Southwest Airlines, is popular for the group’s East Coast attendees who appreciate the nonstop flight options.
The group held its meeting during the soft opening of the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown Hotel in the fall of 2008, and returned just over a year later. With 1,000 guest rooms and 80,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, the Sheraton is owned by the city of Phoenix and was part of an initiative to reinvigorate downtown while bringing in more meeting business to the convention center. The hotel features the 11,500-square-foot District restaurant and has extensive green initiatives throughout its operations.
“Our convention center went from being unknown to having about 900,000 sq. ft., competing on a level we’ve never been able to compete on before. So we badly needed the addition of 1,000 rooms [with the Sheraton],” says Kevin Kamenzind, CMP, senior vice president, sales and marketing, with the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We’re seeing a lot of interest from planners.”
Two other major downtown hotels are the Hyatt Regency Phoenix, which has 693 guest rooms and 48,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, and the Wyndham Phoenix, with 532 guest rooms and 60,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Both are close to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and within walking distance to the convention center. The hotels are also near the Metro Light Rail, which opened in December 2008—a 20-mile-long system that connects to Mesa, Tempe and the airport.
Meeting Venues and Activities
With the expansion of the convention center and addition of the Sheraton, downtown Phoenix has suddenly become capable of larger citywide events. But the area is more than just hotels and meeting space. Attendees will find plenty of restaurants, shops and nightclubs, as well as a number of museums and theaters that double as unique venues. The 1,364-seat Orpheum Theatre, for instance, has been carefully restored to its 1929 original splendor while upgrading its ability to handle modern productions. Similar in grandeur, the Phoenix Symphony Hall has 2,312 seats and offers state-of-the-art facilities.
Besides hosting the performing arts, downtown Phoenix is a sports fan’s paradise, with the US Airways Center, home of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, featuring the 14,000-square-foot Casino Arizona Pavilion. Nearby is Chase Field, where Major League Baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks play, which can host groups up to 74 in one of six luxury suites, or up to 12,000 for events on the field itself.
Other attractions and venues include the Heard Museum, one of the top museums in the country for showcasing American Indian arts and cultures, highlighting the state’s 21 federally recognized tribes. The 145-acre Desert Botanical Garden features desert plants from across the globe, especially from the Southwest, and can accommodate groups up to 400 in one of six venues.
West of Phoenix and part of the greater metro area, Scottsdale has long enjoyed a reputation as an upscale neighborhood filled with high-end resorts, tony shops and a happening nightlife, which makes it a natural as the new home of the first W Scottsdale in Arizona. The famously hip hotel has 224 guest rooms, 10,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and its signature Bliss Spa.
“I think one of the great things about us is accessibility—there are so many direct flights. And the proximity to the properties—generally there’s a long transfer to get to resort properties, but we’re only 15–25 minutes to Sky Harbor Airport,” says Kelli Blubaum, CMP, senior national sales manager with the Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Sixty percent of our business to Scottsdale is repeat business, because there are so many different things to experience here.”
With 330 days of sunshine a year, Blubaum says groups can count on the weather for spectacular outdoor events, with unique settings in the desert, on golf courses and poolside, “events you couldn’t do in Chicago in January,” she says. And while Scottsdale doesn’t have its own convention center, there is such a large number and wide variety of resorts that most any group up to 250 will find ample opportunity to have a successful meeting.
Besides the W Scottsdale, which opened in 2008, the InterContinental Montelucia Resort & Spa, which will be hosting the upcoming Smart Meeting, debuted around the same time, and features 285 guest rooms and suites and 27,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, all at the foot of stunning Camelback Mountain. Opening its doors this spring is the Talking Stick Resort, which will offer 497 guest rooms, 100,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, eight restaurants and 240,000 sq. ft. of gaming.
The Boulders Resort & Golden Door Spa, a desert hideaway named for the massive boulders piled up (by nature) near the resort, is celebrating its 25-year anniversary, and features 160 guest casitas, 60 villas and 12,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Other options include the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort and Spa at Gainey Ranch, with 490 guest rooms and 70,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, and The Phoenician, offering 647 guest rooms and 64,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
The Boulders Resort & Golden Door Spa.
Bordering Scottsdale to the south is the city of Tempe, known largely as the home to Arizona State University and where you can enjoy the shops and restaurants of the Mill Avenue District. The university has a number of venues available for meeting and events, including the 14,000-seat Wells Fargo Arena, the Memorial Union for groups up to 575, and the 3,000-seat Grady Gammage Memorial Union, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
For hotels, The Buttes, A Marriott Resort is the largest in town, with 353 guest rooms and 40,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, followed by the Aloft Tempe, the newest property in the city with 136 guest rooms and an executive boardroom for meetings. For outdoor recreation, Tempe Town Lake offers everything from boating and fishing to biking and rowing.
Directly east of Tempe is Mesa, a short rail-link ride from the airport (and Tempe and Phoenix) and offering a number of affordable options for groups. For meetings and events, the Mesa Convention Center has a total of 38,000 sq. ft. of space, and is adjacent to the 275-room Phoenix Marriott Mesa, offering 56,000 sq. ft. of its own meeting space. The future of meetings in Mesa may include a massive 1,200-room Gaylord resort, which got approval for the project in 2008. But due to the economy, the company has yet to begin development, and has until the end of 2011 to break ground.
One of the most western of towns in Arizona, and the entire Southwest for the matter, is the southern Arizona city of Tucson. Surrounded by craggy mountains, as well as the cactus-filled Saguaro National Park, the city has a rich cultural history from its mix of Native Americans, early Spanish settlers and American frontiersmen.
“Tucson is the authentic Arizona where we have a lot of premium open space. The emphasis is on the natural beauty of the Sonoran Desert—it’s a little more rugged and picturesque—and the vegetation a little lusher,” says Graeme Hughes, CTA, director of convention sales for the Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“Wherever you are in the community, you’re 20 minutes from a national park or national forest. The outdoors and natural elements of the destination are the showcase. All the other amenities are here, but they’re in such a dramatic desert setting that when people get here it really stands out to them,” Hughes says. “The other thing that’s really unique is the cultural experience. There’s a heavy influence of Native American, Mexican American and Western American cultures—a blending of those three cultures. They’re all authentic and unique, and people really respond to that.”
Hughes says the CVB is still offering its popular meeting planner incentive package through June 30, where groups can get as much as a $30,000 credit to their hotel master account. “It’s been a huge driver for us; it’s driven well over 200 leads and close to 100 definite bookings,” he says.
Tucson is home to the University of Arizona, which has a number of museums and venues for group meetings and events, such as the 340-seat Gallagher Theater. Otherwise, the largest venue in the city is the Tucson Convention Center with 205,000 sq. ft. of function space. Other options include the Omni Tucson National Reserve, featuring 279 guest rooms and 22,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, and the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort & Spa, with 575 guest rooms, 88,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and a 27-hole Arnold Palmer-designed golf course.
The biggest news for Tucson is the December 2009 opening of The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain on the northwestern outskirts of the city near the Tortolita Mountains. The resort has 209 guest rooms, 44 individual casitas and 44,000 sq. ft. of indoor/outdoor function space, and is located adjacent to the 27-hole golf course that is home to the PGA’s Accenture Match Play Championship.
Mii amo spa at Enchantment Resort.
Surrounded by the stunning Red Rocks, Sedona is a popular destination for an eclectic mix of artists and New Age luminaries, as well as groups interested in the beautiful setting and numerous outdoor activities. A two-hour drive north of Phoenix, the city has strong Native American influences, while offering a host of art galleries and spiritual and personal enrichment programs (which includes the area’s many spas). For meetings, the Hilton Sedona Resort and Spa has 219 guest rooms and 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting facilities. Another popular option is the Enchantment Resort, located on 70 acres in Boynton Canyon, with 236 guest rooms, 12,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and the acclaimed Mii Amo spa.
Just north of Sedona and at 7,000 feet elevation, Flagstaff is a cool summer alternative to the hotter regions of the state. In winter, the area gets plenty of snow, enough to support downhill and cross-country skiing at the nearby Arizona Snowbowl. For many attendees, Flagstaff’s close proximity to the Grand Canyon 80 miles to the north is one of its main attractions, with numerous organized tours available to shuttle groups to the canyon’s southern rim. For meetings venues, the High Country Conference Center, which opened in 2008, has 25,000 sq. ft. of total meeting space, while the Little America Hotel, Flagstaff offers 247 guest rooms and 10,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
One of the more curious destinations in Arizona is Lake Havasu City on the state’s border with California. A planned community established in 1964, the surrounding landscape is dry desert yet the city is popular with the boating and fishing crowd on the nearly 20,000 acres of Lake Havasu. Another popular attraction is the London Bridge, the original English span that was brought to the city and opened in 1971. The London Bridge Resort takes its name from the attraction, and offers 122 guest rooms and 12,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
For more information about properties, venues and attractions in Arizona, visit smartmeetings.com/showcases/arizona.