Featuring a score of new meeting venues and a rejuvenating environment, warm-weather Phoenix is a natural choice for groups. By Chris McBeath, September/October 2008
As one of the fastest growing regions in the U.S. – three times the national average, there’s plenty to be excited about in the sun-drenched lands of Greater Phoenix, Arizona. With a 3.8 million-population base that averages thirtysomething, all indicators are that this boom will continue its prosperity for some time to come.
“Phoenix is a great destination for so many reasons” enthuses Phyllis Senseman, sales and marketing director with Phoenix-based SCF Arizona, a workman’s compensation company. “When I was back east with New England Financial, we rotated our meeting schedule around the country, but kept returning to Phoenix and Tucson virtually every other year because of the beautiful weather, the outstanding facilities, the myriad of dining options, and direct, cost-effective flight access. Now I’m with SCF, I know the value of what we have right here, so organizing local meetings is a delight, especially with so much new product opening up.”
Indeed, by the start of 2009, Greater Phoenix will look and feel a lot different, especially downtown when METRO Light Rail, a new $1.4 billion electric-powered train system makes its debut on December 27, linking Phoenix to Tempe and Mesa, and providing direct route to the Sky Harbor International Airport. Perhaps most importantly, METRO will make Phoenix more pedestrian-friendly than ever. An expansion plan to link Scottsdale into the fledgling system is already in the works.
But that’s only the start of an upcoming year that promises a meeting planner’s Nirvana – an abundance of new looks and innovative facilities and programme elements. On January 1, 2009, the $600 million expansion to the Phoenix Convention Center will open for business, concluding a development plan that started in 2006 with an expansive exhibit hall with a pre-scored floor and a technological infrastructure that hosted the worldwide media during Super Bowl XLII as one of its first events. This final phase triples the center’s meeting space to nearly 900,000 sq. ft., making it one of the twenty largest state-of-the-art conference centers in the nation. Occupying an entire city block, its architecture is inspired by the colors and textures of the Grand Canyon; the center is a showcase of $3.2 million worth of public art, as well as ecologically friendly elements such as solar paneling and a water-harvesting garden. Its West Building recently was awarded LEED certification by the U.S. Green Building Council. The Center’s first unofficial ‘coming out’ event will be as the venue for the NBA All-Star Weekend in February, an event that is expected to attract 22,000 visitors, $40 million in direct spending, and $80 million in economic impact, as well as an anticipated 600 million television viewers in 200 countries. That’s some graduation.
Catering to the largesse of the new convention center just one block away, the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown opens its doors next month. With 1,000 guest rooms, and 80,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space, this property will be Arizona’s largest hotel to date and pushes Phoenix’s guest room inventory to nearly 3,000. For Kristie Cornelsen, meeting planner with New York-based Combined Insurance, it’s quality, not quantity that drives her choice. “We’re always looking for a nice four-star hotel in a beautiful town that has a lot to offer,” says Cornelsen. “Our training programs don’t allow for a lot of free time but during what time there is, we want to be able to offer good downtime options,” she continues, citing golf, shopping and hotel amenities such as a pool and spa. “With attendees coming from all over the U.S. and Canada, flight accessibility is important. Phoenix always delivers the right cost, and more than that, it delivers on relationship. The people are terrific to work with.”
Beyond downtown, about a third of Greater Phoenix’s 40-plus resorts have recently completed, or are currently undertaking, multimillion-dollar renovations to the tune of nearly $400 billion worth of upgrades.
Last spring, JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa unveiled its new $21 million, 53,000 sq. ft. expansion and new Saguaro Ballroom with the Muhammad Ali’s star-studded Celebrity Fight Night fundraising event last spring. At 24,420 sq. ft., the Saguaro is the smallest of three ballrooms at the resort; the other two being the largest in the state: the 33,218 sq. ft. Grand Canyon and 25,992 sq. ft. Grand Sonoran. Total indoor and outdoor event space here now totals 240,000 sq. ft.
Authenticity makes the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa one of the most intriguing luxury resorts in Phoenix. Run by the Pima and Maricopa Tribes, the entire resort is a showcase of their heritage, culture and art – they even have a Cultural Ambassador on staff. In addition to the Wild West Town, casino, and equestrian center, meeting facilities include two ballrooms (17,376 sq. ft. and 7,130 sq. ft.) and 21 meeting rooms. The expansion currently underway is set for completion June 2009, and will add more than 35,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including a third ballroom at 15,000 sq. ft., two additional meeting rooms, and a pre-function foyer with a circular design reminiscent of the traditional Pima roundhouse.
Even the venerable Phoenician is undergoing a $70 million update that includes a 42,000-sq.-ft. conference facility and ballroom. Located at the southeast base of Camelback Mountain, the new center will boast dramatic views of the surrounding Sonoran Desert landscape through skylights and high clerestory windows. The 15,000-sq.-ft. ballroom will be divisible into seven separate function areas and be complemented by a veranda for outdoor breakout sessions and receptions. Scheduled completion is October 2009.
TURNING UP THE DESERT HEAT
If Phoenix is hot, then Scottsdale is positively sizzling, especially when you see how more than $3.3 billion worth of development is shaping the Scottsdale Waterfront and Southbridge. It’s been 10 years in the planning, but along the shores of Scottsdale’s ancient irrigation canal system now stand restaurants, retail outlets, and a host of galleries. The public art programme and walkability of this area make it a terrific choice for ancillary off-site programmes.
“Scottsdale puts so much effort and enthusiasm into tourism that they help create a very exciting programme,” says Jennifer Thomas, event coordinator, Pharmasave Central Drugs in Winnipeg. “This is the first time our members have chosen to take our annual retreat outside of Canada, and Scottsdale topped their list of preferred destinations for several reasons. Golf is a big part of our agenda, as are young-at-heart activities, which this year will include jeep safaris, hiking, and a nighttime desert adventure. Warm weather was another deciding factor, as was the size of Scottsdale: Its small-city appeal helps keeps attendees together.”
The size of Scottsdale, however, belies its numerous resort upgrades. These include a $17 million makeover at the Four Seasons, an almost-complete $20 million renovation at The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess,
now known simply as Fairmont Scottsdale, and a $50 million renovation programme at the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Gainey Ranch. The latter now sees a totally new look for the 21,000-sq.-ft. Spa Avania, the lobby, guest rooms, suites and two restaurants, as well as a redesign of the 14,000-sq.-ft. Regency Ballroom.
The $45 million renewal at Camelback Inn, a JW Marriott Resort & Spa, will be complete later this year and heralds an exciting makeover for the 71-year-old property. As one of the country’s longest-running AAA Five Diamond resorts, Camelback remains devoted to its storied history and rich Southwestern style. A specialty mason was called in to salvage and repurpose Camelback’s original adobe brick. The salvaged materials have been reshaped by hand according to the original tradition. As part of the renovations, Camelback Inn debuted its new 20,000-sq.-ft. grand ballroom last February: it can accommodate meetings of 20 to 2,000, and has an additional 5,000-sq.-ft. foyer. Features include 24-ft. ceilings, keyless entry and security, full wireless connectivity, production-quality light and sound capabilities and electronic reader boards.
One of the largest investments belongs to InterContinental Montelucia Resort & Spa, which invested more than $250 million on the purchase and renovation of the former La Posada Resort, to create a luxury resort modeled after the whitewashed villages of Spain’s Andalusia region. You will find 293 guest rooms and suites, 40 luxury villas, a 31,000-sq.-ft. spa conceived by spa designer Sylvia Sepielli, and 27,000 sq. ft. of indoor meeting space. It is the first InterContinental Hotels & Resorts property in the U.S.
Another first, and certainly one of the most happening events in the region is the arrival of the W brand. W Scottsdale Hotel & Residences opened Summer 2008 – a seven-storey building with 224 guest rooms, a Bliss spa, and more. The first-floor centerpiece is a 2,500-sq.-ft. lounge bar with a sweeping staircase leading to the second level, where you’ll find an infinity edge swimming pool surrounded by a sand beach, private cabanas and Zen garden. Also on the ground floor are a small 3,500-sq.-ft. ballroom, three meeting rooms and a 2,500-sq.-ft. outdoor terrace. “These brands have loyal customers and strong reputations in the meetings market. They really add to Scottsdale’s cachet as a premier meetings destination,” says Laura McMurchie, vice-president, communications, Scottsdale Convention & Visitors’ Bureau. “Both properties are also very accessible to the city’s epicenter and the new pedestrian-friendly waterfront, which is enabling us to plan din e-around programmes, gallery tours and open-air functions which we haven’t been able to do before.”
Just south of Scottsdale, Tempe is regarded as a charming university town – home to Arizona State University, but the arrival of a hot new shopping-dining district called Tempe Marketplace has set a new pace. In addition, an aloft property opens this December on the north side of Tempe Town Lake, featuring a modular development based on a 138-room prototype with an urban-influenced style that’s geared to the hip and wired traveler. Other new properties include a new 185-room Marriott and the recent $10 million transformation of the Holiday Inn into the Four Points Sheraton Tempe, the first Four Points property to arrive here.
Rounding out the long list of projects underway in the Grand Canyon State, Tucson’s Westward Look Resort, the first resort built in Tucson in 1912 (the same year Arizona became a State), is just completing the first phase of a multimillion dollar, top-to-bottom renovation. Tucson is also getting a Ritz-Carlton, currently in development. Down south, in Yuma, the Cocopah Resort & Conference Center is a much-needed addition to a booming city. And finally, a special standout that’s more a local endeavour is The View, in Monument Valley, at Arizona’s north end. Opening in November, this 95-room hotel is the first in Monument Valley and will be owned and operated by the Navajo.
If Greater Phoenix already boasts a showcase of 205 golf courses, nearly 40 day and resort spas, and a 13,600 guest room count that increases by the month, it only seems to typify what’s happening in the rest of Arizona: desert development is growing at a scorching pace. The downside, if there is one, is simply keeping up, although for meeting planners, the challenge is an enviable one – so many choices that can deliver a piping hot agenda.
— Chris McBeath is a Vancouver-based freelance writer.