by Linda Hayes | September 01, 2015

As captivating as the Southwest may be—with its desert landscapes, adobe architecture and the promise of summer in the winter months—it’s the growing number of venues and amenities and areputation for attention to detail that have association planners and attendees coming back.

From Phoenix and Sedona to Albuquerque and Santa Fe, amazing opportunities await associations in these states.

Phoenix: Rising to Every Occasion

One of the fastest-growing cities in the nation, Phoenix draws visiting association groups with near-perpetual sunshine, modern city amenities and a picturesque location amid the Sonoran Desert. And making news of late is the metamorphosis happening in its urban core, resulting in new and improved hotel, dining, entertainment and meeting options.

Attendees arriving at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport can quickly access the PHX Sky Train, which now serves all airport terminals and also connects the regional Valley Metro Rail with Sky Harbor’s East Economy Parking. The PHX Sky Train operates every day of the year and is free of charge. Nearby, the Hilton/Phoenix Airport recently completed an extensive $8 million renovation that transformed its guest rooms, public areas and meeting space.

Just 15 minutes from Sky Harbor is the silver LEED–certified Phoenix Convention Center downtown. Designed with colors and textures that evoke the surrounding desert, the three-building complex includes 900,000 square feet of event space—including the state’s largest ballroom at 46,000 square feet—the 21,000-square foot Executive Conference Center, the 2,312-seat Symphony Hall and the historic, 1,364-seat Orpheum Theatre. Other large options in town include the US Airways Center, which can seat upwards of 18,000 and Chase Field, where 20 venues are available for group events including the field itself, which can accommodate up to 12,000.

Two blocks away from the convention center is the Sheraton/Phoenix Downtown, which recently added LED lighting and a state-of-the-art audiovisual system to its Valley Overlook, an outdoor space that can seat up to 450. In other hotel news, the Ritz-Carlton/Phoenix recently closed and is expected to reopen early next year as the Camby, a Marriott Autograph Collection brand, and the Arizona Biltmore, a Waldorf Astoria Resort, has undergone a major renovation of guest rooms, suites and meeting spaces. The rebranded Radisson/Phoenix North has opened its doors after an $8 million redesign and enhancement project, which included upgraded sound and audiovisual systems.

All kinds of cultural—and horticultural—attractions do double time as event venues. Popular picks include the Phoenix Art Museum and the Heard Museum, with space for up to 500 and 1,000, respectively; the Desert Botanical Garden, with more than a dozen spaces, the largest of which can accommodate up to 300; and, at the Phoenix Zoo, the Neely Education & Event Center, with space for up to 600.

Those who like to bike will appreciate the new Grid Bike Share, Arizona’s first bicycle share program, with 27 stations offering a pay-by-the-hour option. Plans to expand the program in Mesa and Tempe are underway.

Northwest of Phoenix, in Glendale, the 63,400-seat University of Phoenix Stadium features 20,000 square feet of meeting space, while the adjacent, mixed-use Westgate Entertainment District offers shops, restaurants and the open-air WaterDance Plaza. Other options for groups include Challenger Space Center, Gila River Arena, Uptown Alley and Camelback Ranch.

Farther west, in Litchfield Park, the landmark Wigwam Resort has amenities that include 54 holes of championship golf, a spa and a steakhouse. A recent renovation added several new restaurants and outdoor spaces, including private gardens, an al fresco terrace adjacent to a new pool and a grand lawn with new lighting and staging areas that can accommodate up to 1,000 people.

Scottsdale, Mesa & Tempe: Stylish Scene Stealers

Sunny Scottsdale is known for stylish desert resorts, pampering spas, top-ranked golf courses, fine art galleries and plentiful shopping. Lately, the local dining scene has been heating up as well, and groups can sample some of the best spots in town with Arizona Food Tours’ lunch or dinner walking tours.

One of the largest multiuse event centers in town is WestWorld, a 386-acre site with 300,000 square feet of continuous, climate-controlled space. A smaller venue is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West, with space for up to 120 people.

Always bustling, downtown Scottsdale is home to trendy venues such as the Maya Day & Nightclub, which offers more than 27,000 square feet of indoor-outdoor space. A new live-music venue in the Entertainment District called LiveWire has space for up to 1,100. The Venue Scottsdale is adding more than 6,500 square feet of new space to its existing 29,000-square-foot facility. Much of the work is expected to wrap up this fall, including a rooftop lounge and deck for up to 325 people.

Groups meeting in the spring might enjoy a Cactus League baseball game at either Salt River Fields at Talking Stick or at Scottsdale Stadium. Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, north of downtown, can accommodate special events of up to 20,000 and has several smaller spaces. The nearby Talking Stick Resort offers five dining options, a spa, casino and two golf courses. A mile away is the Octane Raceway at the Pavilions at Talking Stick, which offers team-building experiences for up to 500. Groups are also accommodated at the 12,000-seat Scottsdale Stadium, which has additional meeting space for up to 180.

With so many outstanding resort options in Scottsdale, choosing accommodations may be challenging, so recent improvements may be the deciding factor. The Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort & Spa is undergoing a $10 million renovation, with its new valley-view Camelback Suites and Camelback Casitas expected to debut this fall; in addition, the resort is converting one of its private residences into a spa and wellness compound, perfect for a group retreat beginning in 2016. The McCormick Scottsdale (formerly the Millennium Resort & Villas Scottsdale) has upgraded guest accommodations and public spaces, and the nearby Scottsdale Resort at McCormick Ranch, now a Destination Hotel (formerly the Scottsdale Resort & Conference Center), is scheduled to make its debut this month with improved guest rooms and a new, 10,000-square-foot outdoor lawn that can be used for events and a new restaurant and bar, all part of a $9 million renovation.

North of town, near Carefree, the Boulders Resort & Spa (formerly a Waldorf Astoria property) has begun a renovation project in honor of its 30th anniversary. Slated for completion by December, plans include upgrades to its 160 casitas and the main lodge’s restaurant as well as the addition of the Latilla Ballroom with floor-to-ceiling windows.

The Arizona Funeral, Cemetery & Cremation Association held its 2015 annual convention at the Carefree Resort & Conference Center, and Heather Long, the group’s executive director, attributed the three-day event’s success to the resort’s staff. “The entire team was friendly, professional and wonderful to work with. They did an excellent job of listening to our needs and helping us plan our layout for the speakers as well as the expo hall,” she said, adding, “A key component to our success are our vendors—we want to make them as happy as possible—and the majority of them said that the setup and location was one of the best we’ve had.”

Getting to Arizona’s third-largest city, Mesa, is easier than ever thanks to the recently expanded Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport and the Valley Metro Rail, which now extends into downtown Mesa, connecting the city to Tempe and central Phoenix. The 3.1-mile extension includes four station locations along Main Street, offering quick access to venues such as the Mesa Arts Center, which has four theaters, the largest with seating for up to 1,588; the Arizona Museum of Natural History, which can host up to 1,000 people; and the IDEA Museum, available for special events of up to 500.

Downtown, the Mesa Convention Center has 38,000 square feet of flexible meeting and exhibit space and an outdoor amphitheater that can seat up to 5,000. When combined with the adjacent Phoenix Marriott Mesa, the two offer 56,000 square feet of total event space.

A newer property is the Sheraton Mesa Hotel at Wrigleyville West, located between Riverview Park and the spring-training home of the Chicago Cubs, Sloan Park (formerly called Cubs Park). The hotel features three pools and three restaurants. In October, the Courtyard/Phoenix Mesa Gateway Airport is scheduled to open with event space for up to 40. Also new is the Beer Research Institute, a microbrewery and restaurant.

Arizona State University in Tempe is popular for spirited association events. Campus venues include the Wells Fargo Arena, Gammage Auditorium and Memorial Union. Off-campus choices include the new, 58,000-square-foot Main Event; the lakeside Tempe Center for the Arts; the Arizona Historical Society Museum; the Green at Hayden Flour Mill; the Yard at Farmer Arts District, a renovated warehouse that can host up to 250; and the Blasted Barley Beer Co. with 5,000 square feet of space.

A new hotel called Graduate Tempe has opened across the street from the Arizona State University/Tempe campus in what was formerly the Twin Palms Hotel. It has two event spaces, each able to accommodate up to 90 seated guests or up to 150 for receptions.

Organizations that have taken advantage of all the area has to offer recently include the Pediatric Endocrine Society, Printing Industries of America and FirstPoint Resources.

Tucson & Surrounds: Desert Beauty

About 110 miles southeast of Phoenix lies the city of Tucson. The beauty of its natural landscape draws visitors outdoors, while vibrant cultural and dining scenes offer plenty of inspiration for visiting groups. Planners will find everything from ranches to resorts befitting small to mid-sized groups.

The downtown Tucson Convention Center is a meetings hub with 205,000 square feet of space. Features include a 90,000-square-foot exhibition hall; two performing arts theaters, the largest of which can seat up to 2,289; and the Tucson Arena, which can seat nearly 7,500 theater-style and offers 29,520 square feet of flexible floor space.

Nearby accommodations include the 80-acre Westward Look Wyndham Grand Resort & Spa, a certified green hotel with three pools and a spa and meeting space for up to 400. The Lodge at Ventana Canyon, set against the Santa Catalina Mountains, has undergone a$4 million renovation of its guest rooms and dining venues. It also features a significant tennis program and two Tom Fazio–designed golf courses. The Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa wrapped up a $35 million renovation in late 2013, and the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort is undergoing a comprehensive renovation of its guest rooms, meeting space and spa, with completion slated for the end of the year. For a Southwestern ranch retreat, choices include the Tanque Verde Ranch and the Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort, which is scheduled to debut 32 new guest rooms next month.

About 20 miles northwest of Tucson, in Marana, is the Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain. In addition, the Golf Club at Dove Mountain has a 45,000-square-foot clubhouse that can be used for events and is home to a 27-hole, Jack Nicklaus–designed course.

Central & Northern Arizona: Allure of the Outdoors

A four-season destination at 5,200 feet, Prescott offers a delightful foothill setting complete with activities that range from horseback riding and winery tours to golfing and hiking on some 450 miles of scenic trails.

Associations will find it easy to get down to business at the remodeled Prescott Resort & Conference Center. Planners might also be interested in its 1,500-square-foot Presidential Suite, which features a private kitchen and can serve as a hospitality suite or dining area for up to 12 people.

Sedona is striking not only for the glory of its red-rock playground but for a diversity of outdoor offerings including adrenaline-inducing off-road tours and mountain biking. Those who prefer a slower pace can enjoy browsing more than 80 galleries and boutiques or heading to one of the town’s signature festivals.

One of Sedona’s best-known meeting properties is the Enchantment Resort & Spa, a luxury retreat tucked within Boynton Canyon offering meeting space for up to 540. The nearby Seven Canyons Golf Course is available to Enchantment Resort guests and has a new clubhouse with 14,000 square feet of space.

About 25 miles south and situated along the Verde River, Camp Verde is a pleasant spot for boating, hiking, biking and exploring a collection of wineries that make up the nearby Verde Valley Wine Trail. The Cliff Castle Casino Hotel offers a conference center, a 3,500-seat pavilion, a 20-lane bowling center and helicopter tours of the area.

Many groups find Flagstaff particularly appealing due to its proximity to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, about 80 miles away. Venues include the Lowell Observatory (where Pluto was first sighted in 1930), which offers group tours and telescope viewings for up to 50, and the 200-acre Arboretum at Flagstaff, where the historic Walter Reichardt House has 1,100 square feet of event space.

Large meeting sites include the High Country Conference Center at Northern Arizona University, with more than 25,000 square feet of event space and mountain views, and the university’s Du Bois Center, with a ballroom that can accommodate up to 750 people and an additional seven meeting rooms.

Four miles north of campus, the Museum of Northern Arizona has three event facilities, the largest of which can host receptions of up to 175 people. Another 11 miles north, at an altitude of 9,000 feet, the Arizona Snowbowl has indoor conference space for up to 300 people, outdoor space for up to 500 and overnight accommodations at the 25-room Ski Lift Lodge & Cabins. Groups that have held meetings recently in the Flagstaff area include the Arizona School Boards Association and the Universities Space Research Association.

Few attendees will decline a trip to or a meeting at Grand Canyon National Park. There are a variety of lodging options including the Yavapai Lodge on the South Rim, which recently reopened its restaurant after an upgrade. Lodges with the largest meeting space are Maswik Lodge, which can host events of up to 160, and the Bright Angel Lodge, with conference space for up to 100.

Lake Havasu & Yuma: Active Pursuits

Set along the scenic Colorado River, Lake Havasu City is known as “Arizona’s Playground” for good reason. Attendees will also undoubtedly want to take their picture in front of the original London Bridge, which spans the river. On the western shores of Thompson Bay is the Nautical Beachfront Resort or planners can also arrange events and banquets at the London Bridge Golf Club.

Downriver, in Yuma, the sunny clime encourages water-oriented sports like jet boating and kayaking, both offered through Yuma River Tours. On the riverfront, Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park has a day-use event area. Other meeting venues in town include the Yuma Civic Center, Arizona Western College’s 3C Community Center and the lawn at Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park, which can accommodate 1,000. For overnight stays, planners might consider the Homewood Suites by Hilton/Yuma, which recently renovated its guest rooms and public spaces.

Albuquerque, New Mexico: Going Above & Beyond

New Mexico’s largest city, Albuquerque, has long been known as a cultural melting pot and also welcomes diverse groups to town each year. Of late, a $300 million hospitality investment and revitalization plan is improving downtown offerings. Last fall, the 600,000-square-foot Albuquerque Convention Center finished a $22 million renovation. In addition to an improved facade—new massive windows offer panoramic views—groups holding events here will find a new entertainment deck, a redesigned ballroom, a fully remodeled lower-level atrium, a renovated kitchen and energy-saving LED lighting. Just down the street, the outdoor Civic Plaza can also be used for events.

William C. Johnson, executive director of the Sigma Tau Delta International English Honor Society, spoke highly of a gathering in town last March that drew approximately 1,100 members. “Our membership arrived from as far away as Kuwait and Alaska and were treated to Southwest culture, Southwest cuisine and Southwest hospitality at its best,” he said. “The Albuquerque CVB could not possibly have been more helpful—arguably one of the very best with which we’ve ever worked.” Johnson also praised the city’s accessibility and local transit system. “We’ve ‘done’ Albuquerque before and we’ll definitely do it again,” he said.

Holly Harding, office manager of Alliance Franchise Brands’ sign and graphics division, brought a group to Albuquerque recently as well. The group was based at the Hyatt Regency/Downtown and held off-site events at Hotel Albuquerque and Hotel Andaluz, which she liked for their dining options and historical décor.

Each October, thousands come to experience the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta at the 200-acre Balloon Fiesta Park, where more than 500 hot air balloons take flight. Another major fall event is the New Mexico State Fair, held at the 236-acre Expo New Mexico. Popular year-round attractions include the 2.7-mile Sandia Peak Tramway; the Albuquerque Museum, which recently added 8,000 square feet of meeting space plus a large multiuse space; and the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum, which is able to host as many as 1,000 people. Another setting is 516 Arts, a contemporary downtown gallery that features 5,500 square feet of space.

In hotel news, the Hilton Garden Inn/Albuquerque–Journal Center was recently renovated, and construction has begun on the Hotel Chaco in Old Town, scheduled to open in early 2017 with 118 guest rooms. South of Albuquerque, near Isleta, the Isleta Resort & Casino features a 2,500-seat multipurpose concert venue, a spa and newly enhanced public areas. Complimentary shuttle service is offered to and from Albuquerque International Sunport. About 20 miles north of Albuquerque, the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa in Santa Ana Pueblo has completed a renovation of its pueblo-style guest rooms and suites.

Santa Fe & Taos: Delightfully Different

There’s no excuse for ordinary meetings in Santa Fe, also known as “The City Different.” Where else can planners pull together agendas that draw upon 14 renowned museums, more than 200 art galleries, a Railyard District, world-class opera and award-winning Southwestern restaurants? On top of that, attendees can make easy road trips to explore the surrounding area; options include traditional pueblos, Spanish Colonial villages and New Mexico wineries.

During the warmer months, hiking is a favorite pastime, and in the wintertime, delegates can head to the slopes—Ski Santa Fe is just 16 miles away in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Custom guided day hikes and snowshoeing excursions can be arranged through the local outfitter Outspire.

In the heart of town, near the historic plaza, the LEED-certified Santa Fe Community Convention Center has 40,000 square feet of indoor space and can host groups of up to 2,100. The center recently improved its Wi-Fi capabilities and can handle more than 100 people connecting per hot spot. It’s also upgrading bandwidth that feeds the building in order to accommodate larger groups and grant online access to up to 960 people in its ballroom. A few blocks away, gatherings for up to 700 can be arranged at the New Mexico History Museum, which includes the landmark Palace of the Governors.

A fast, free way to get around town is the Santa Fe Pick-up, a shuttle that circulates around downtown. But some 1,500 guest rooms are within short walking distance of the city’s main plaza, including the Drury Plaza Hotel Santa Fe, which opened last year on five acres and offers meeting space for up to 350 people.

A number of top properties have been renovated in recent years, including the historic La Posada de Santa Fe, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa with five meeting rooms; the Eldorado Hotel & Spa, with redesigned guest rooms and suites and a new 7,000-square-foot ballroom; and the Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi, which debuted its reimagined Anasazi Restaurant & Bar this summer and wrapped up a renovation of all guest rooms last year. At the Hotel Santa Fe The Hacienda & Spa, the popular Amaya restaurant has a recomposed menu and is now located in an indoor-outdoor space available for group dining; additionally, all guest rooms are now solar powered and the hotel offers solar-powered charging stations for electronic devices. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the Inn of the Governors has made a variety of environmentally friendly improvements, and on the north side of town, Bishop’s Lodge is under new ownership and began a major renovation in April that is expected to wrap up mid-2016.

One group that likes meeting in Santa Fe is Dual Language Education of New Mexico, which began bringing its events to town 12 years ago and hosted a show with about 2,300 people last year. According to David Rogers, the group’s executive director, the convention center and several local hotels “pulled out all the stops” and welcomed attendees with great service, notably La Fonda on the Plaza, the Drury, the Eldorado and the Inn & Spa at Loretto. Over the years the group has also used and liked the Hotel St. Francis, Hotel Chimayo de Santa Fe and the Lodge at Santa Fe, he said.

About 70 miles north of Santa Fe, Taos welcomes small to mid-sized groups. The Taos Convention Center features three grand halls, the largest of which can accommodate up to 700 people or up to 500 trade-show booths. An abundance of restaurants, art galleries and attractions are all available within walking distance.

One of the oldest art colonies in the United States, Taos is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the formation of Taos Society of Artists, with dozens of events scheduled throughout the year. Other milestone anniversaries in 2015 include the 400th anniversary of the Spanish colonization of Taos Plaza, the 200th anniversary of the San Francisco de Asis Church, and the 50th anniversary of the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge.

Notable accommodation choices in town include the sustainable El Monte Sagrado Living Resort & Spa, which caters to meetings with ballroom space for up to 200, a wine room, a library and shady outdoor terraces. At the Taos Ski Valley, just 18 miles north of town, there’s 3,000 square feet of function space and room to roam via horseback, mountain bike or foot in the summer months. Other activities in the area include personal guided tours by members of the Taos Pueblo, hiking to Williams Lake and llama trekking through the Rio Grande Gorge.

Northern New Mexico: Heritage & Hospitality

Gallup is a good fit for associations hoping to draw attendees from both Arizona and New Mexico. Located near the state’s western border on Interstate 40 and served by a municipal airport, the city appeals to attendees with its mix of Wild West and Native American culture. Just east of town, Red Rock Park has a 5,000-seat arena and is home to the annual Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial—heading into its 95th year—as well as numerous rodeo events.

About 90 miles southeast of Gallup, groups can meet at the Acoma Pueblo, one of the oldest continually inhabited settlements in North America. Its Sky City Cultural Center & Haak’u Museum is available for private functions and staff can organize pueblo tours. In addition, the Sky City Casino Hotel offers meeting space for up to 300 people.

Farmington is another scenic small city, and its location at the confluence of three rivers means that attendees can spend their free time enjoying various water sports. Retreats of up to 20 can be held at the Soaring Eagle Lodge, set on the banks of the San Juan River. A larger option is the recently renovated Red Lion/Farmington, which has conference space for up to 600. In the center of downtown, the Farmington Civic Center has 23,656 square feet of function space. Just minutes away is the San Juan County Fairgrounds-McGee Park, home to a convention center, five multiuse buildings and two arenas. San Juan College has three theaters and conference space for up to 750. Fun networking functions can be held at the Three Rivers Brewery or the nearby Artifacts Gallery.

Southern New Mexico: Adventures, Aliens & Ale

Set between the Organ Mountains and the Rio Grande, Las Cruces is the state’s second-largest city. Large venues for meetings and trade shows include the LEED-certified Las Cruces Convention Center, which can host up to 1,450 within its 30,000 square feet of space; the Corbett Center Student Union at New Mexico State University, with ballroom space for up to 800 people and smaller breakout rooms; and the Southern New Mexico State Fairgrounds. Other options include the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum, which can accommodate up to 600, and the 422-seat Rio Grande Theatre. During their free time, attendees can explore the local wine trail as well as the growing Ale Trail.

To the northeast, Ruidoso is surrounded by more than a million acres of wilderness and national forest. The remodeled Ruidoso Convention Center has 24,000 square feet of meeting space and is located adjacent to the Sierra Blanca Golf Course. The Lodge at Sierra Blanca offers its own meeting space for up to 80 people. In nearby Ruidoso Downs, the Ruidoso Downs Race Track & Billy the Kid Casino and the Hubbard Museum of the American West can accommodate groups. In Alto, the Flying J Ranch offers chuckwagon cookouts, Western music and themed activities for up to 600.

In Mescalero, 20 miles south of Ruidoso, the lakeside Inn of the Mountain Gods Resort & Casino offers activities that range from championship golf to zip lining. Active members can go mountain biking in the summer or skiing in the winter at nearby Ski Apache.

While potential alien sightings and visits to the UFO Museum still draw many visitors to Roswell, the city is also home to a thriving downtown and a variety of recreational activities. For meetings, the main venue is the Roswell Convention & Civic Center, which has 35,000 square feet of space.

About 75 miles south, Carlsbad is a place for adventure and relaxation, which can be had at Carlsbad Caverns National Park (with 119 known caves) or on the banks of the Pecos River. For events, the Pecos River Village Conference Center offers space for up to 400 as well as a riverboat that can be chartered for banquets. Also in the area is the Walter Gerrells Performing Arts & Exhibition Center, with more than 14,000 square feet of space and seating for upwards of 2,000 people.

Lands of Enchantment

Rich Native American and Western heritage and spectacular desert and mountain settings remain two big enticements for attendees heading to Arizona and New Mexico for meetings. While gathering in these indisputably unique states with equally uncommon attractions and culture, planners can rest assured that delegates will have no trouble warming up to all the offerings of the sensational Southwest.