by Barbara Beckley | September 01, 2016

With year-round sunny weather, fabulous meeting resorts, award-winning golf, a wealth of fine art and still-vibrant native cultures, Arizona and New Mexico tend to leave a lasting impression on meeting attendees. So it comes as no surprise that groups return to these states year after year.

"We have groups that have met here 22 years in a row, three and four times a year," said Julie Garber, director of sales and marketing for the Boulders Resort & Spa in Carefree, Arizona.

Phoenix: Ahead of the Curve

With its skyscrapers gleaming in the Sonoran Desert sun, Phoenix is like a beacon for groups, especially those with great expectations. The silver LEED-certified Phoenix Convention Center boasts 900,000 square feet of space in three buildings, including Arizona's largest ballroom (46,000 square feet) and two theaters, with 2,312 and 1,364 seats, respectively. Just two blocks away is the state's largest hotel: the 1,000-room Sheraton Grand/Phoenix, which has its own meeting space for up to 2,800 attendees. Both venues successfully hosted the Society of American Military Engineers' Joint Engineering Training Conference & Expo in May and the American Public Power Association's National Conference & Public Power Expo in June. Additional large sites include the Talking Stick Resort Arena (formerly known as U.S. Airways Center), which can seat upwards of 18,000, and Chase Field, where more than a dozen spaces are available for events including the field itself, which can host up to 12,000.

Innovative event spaces in the trendy downtown Warehouse District are further enhancing Phoenix's meetings appeal. The new Desoto Central Market, a clutch of food vendor stalls in a former 1928 Desoto automobile dealership, can be booked for events of up to 800, and Warehouse 215 @ Bentley Projects, a 1918 laundry building, is now a popular event venue offering 10,000 square feet of space. Well-loved city attractions that welcome special functions include the Heard Museum, for up to 1,000; the Wrigley Mansion, for up to 1,500; and the Phoenix Zoo, with space for up to 5,000 people.

New hotel openings keep the city ahead of the curve. One example is the 170-room Hilton Garden Inn/Phoenix Downtown, set in a 1931 bank building with Phoenix birds carved into the exterior and now featuring a rooftop pool and event space for up to 200. And this fall, the art-themed FOUND:RE Hotel is expected to open with 105 guest rooms, an on-site art gallery, gathering space for up to 200, a pool and a hip restaurant serving globally inspired street food. In 2017, look for the Luhrs City Center Marriott to open downtown in the 1924 Luhrs Building with two brands under one roof: a Courtyard and a Residence Inn with a combined 320 guest rooms and a shared pool.

Over in the upscale Biltmore area, the new Camby Hotel (formerly the Ritz-Carlton/Phoenix) is punching things up with a playful mix of professional and avant-garde luxury. Features of the 277-room property include a rooftop pool and 20,000 square feet of function space as well as concierges on patrol in the lobby to check in guests with smart tablets. "It's an efficient way to minimize group check-in time since concierges can be added to meet a group's size," said Greg Miller, the Camby's chief inspiration officer.

The district's namesake, the famed Arizona Biltmore, plans to complete its second series of renovations this month. And at the Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs Resort, a guest-room refresh is set for completion in October.

In northern Phoenix, the JW Marriott at Desert Ridge Resort & Spa is a familiar favorite thanks to expansive meeting space, award-winning cuisine and environmental creativity ("Bee Breaks," featuring honey combs and cuisine from the resort honey-bee hives-located on the golf course-is a popular group option). "Our 240,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor function space and up to 60 breakout rooms gives groups tremendous flexibility," said Joe Serna, director of sales and marketing. "We've hosted 13 different events simultaneously, and all went off without a hitch."

In the natural rock formations of nearby Carefree, a new ballroom was added and a top-to-bottom renovation completed in May at the high-end Boulders Resort & Spa. Unique property activities include rock climbing, mountain biking with night-vision goggles, fly fishing in its bass-stocked lake and gathering at the new Night Glow on the 6th Fairway, a private event site on the golf course where a glowing hot-air balloon sets the scene.

Northwest of Phoenix, in Glendale, is the 63,400-seat University of Phoenix Stadium, which hosted the 2015 Super Bowl and is ready to greet group conferences with 20,000 square feet of meeting space. The Challenger Space Center in Peoria makes an inspiring 23,000-square-foot choice for gatherings. And west of Glendale, in Litchfield Park, wildly interesting is the Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium & Safari Park, home to Arizona's largest collection of exotic animals and featuring new rides and a 15-acre adventure area.

New Glendale hotels include the Home2 Suites by Hilton, set to open in early 2017, and the Comfort Inn & Suites at Talavi (formerly the Quality Inn). And both the Southwest Association of Rail Shippers and the Algae Biomass Organization have scheduled events at the Renaissance Glendale Hotel & Spa.

Scottsdale, Mesa & Tempe: Sun-sational Gatherings

Scottsdale is synonymous with Arizona chic and enjoys a 70 percent return rate for group bookings, said Kelli Blubaum, vice-president of convention sales and services for the Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. Among the regulars are the Truck Renting & Leasing Association and the Continuing Legal Education Regulators Association.

Established properties include the Phoenician Resort, which is expected to complete an update of all accommodations this fall, and the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, which recently added a 35,000-square-foot event lawn, a sixth pool with a sandy beach and 102 new rooms (raising the total to 750). It has also expanded and renamed its Old West-themed event area, now called Copper Canyon.

It's not just the big guns that have attendees returning for more. The newest kid on the block is the 201-room Andaz Scottsdale Resort & Spa, expected to open in this month with a mid-century modern flair overlooking Camelback Mountain. Amenities will include the Andaz Salon, the brand's signature cultural program, featuring events based upon themes unique to the Sonoran Desert in collaboration with local artists, musicians and designers; some 20,000 square feet of meeting space; and a spa and three outdoor pools.

While it's been around for 40 years, the Scottsdale Resort at McCormick Ranch (formerly the Scottsdale Resort & Conference Center) is a brand-new option for associations and leisure guests. Formerly available only to corporate groups, the Destination Hotel reopened in September after a $10 million renovation with improved guest rooms, a new landscaped event lawn, a transformed main pool and two new restaurants and a bar. Additional amenities include a spa, preferred tee times at the McCormick Ranch Golf Club and meeting space for up to 1,200. "Associations didn't even know we existed," said Patrick Connors, its director of sales and marketing. "Now that we're welcoming everyone, associations are impressed." The Western Association of Travel Agencies, the Arizona Education Association and the Metro Ethernet Forum are among the pleased new customers.

Mountain Shadows, another iconic property, is being rebuilt from the ground up in nearby Paradise Valley on the site of the demolished Marriott Mountain Shadows Resort. It is scheduled to open early next year with 183 guest rooms, two pools, 12,500 square feet of naturally lit indoor function space and 25,000 square feet of outdoor event space, including a 5,000-square-foot roof deck with a bar and views of Camelback Mountain. Also planned is the revamp of its 18-hole, executive-style golf course.

Westroc Hospitality, which operates Mountain Shadows, also owns the Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain, which debuted the 3,500-square-foot Spa House in April. The four-bedroom villa features extensive lawns, a pool, a spa treatment room and fully equipped movement studio. In addition, it is adjacent to four new 875-square-foot casitas, each with outdoor showers and patios with daybeds. The complex reflects the mind-and-body focus of the property's Sanctuary Spa and is ideal for gatherings of up to 16.

In other Scottsdale area hotel news, in February the FireSky Resort & Spa changed hands from Kimpton to Classic Hotels & Resorts. New team-building activities include fire building and a Roy Rogers' Sing-a-long. Resort-wide renovations, including the 22,000 square feet of function space, are planned for late 2016. The Hermosa Inn is celebrating its 80th anniversary with property-wide upgrades and 10 new guest rooms. The Embassy Suites by Hilton Scottsdale Resort (formerly the Chaparral Suites Scottsdale) recently completed a $25 million renovation, and the Saguaro Scottsdale has added 5,500 square feet of function space, boosting its event capacity to 500 attendees.

A new sightseeing and event venue, the OdySea Aquarium, is set to open this later year in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community east of Scottsdale. As the Southwest's largest aquarium, it will boast state-of-the-art technology, underwater see-through tunnels and interactive and educational marine experiences. Customized social events and meetings will be available.

Mesa, Arizona's third-largest city, appeals to baseball fans, especially in the springtime. That's when Sloan Park serves as the training grounds for Major League's Chicago Cubs; the stadium can seat up to 15,000 and has three special-event areas. The adjacent, year-old Sheraton/Mesa at Wrigleyville West features 37,000 square feet of meeting space, including rooms and a rooftop deck that overlook the park. Also used for social events is its one-acre, landscaped pool complex with fire and water features.

Downtown, the Mesa Convention Center has 38,000 square feet of 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 properties offer 56,000 square feet of total event space.

For alternative venues, the Mesa Arts Center has four theaters, the largest of which seats up to 1,588, the Arizona Museum of Natural History can host up to 1,000, and the IDEA Museum welcomes events of up to 500. A newer choice for small groups is the Courtyard/Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, which has event space for up to 50.

In Chandler, eight miles to the south, the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa is now a Sheraton Grand property, recognized for distinguished design and excellence in service and guest experiences. It offers 29 meeting rooms including a ballroom for up to 1,600.

Teresa Stephenson, executive director of the Destination Marketing Association of the West (DMA West), said that Tempe was "very accessible, just 10 minutes from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport." Stephenson also liked the warm winter weather and affordable hotels. "Our board members met in Tempe in 2013 and decided to return in 2016. The Tempe CVB was a great resource, and the attendees enjoyed the city's active college-town energy," she said, referring to Arizona State University.

Both times, the DMA West met at the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel. "The staff was responsive and attentive, and the board members enjoyed its layout and interior courtyard," Stephenson said. "The meeting rooms, guest rooms and breakfast buffet work very well for our group." She also said that attendees appreciated the hotel's central downtown location-they could walk to dinner at the Pedal Haus Brewery-and its proximity to a Valley Metro Rail stop.

The Pedal Haus Brewery is barely a year old and already expanding. It closed recently to renovate but is expected to open in October with a new private dining room, special indoor spaces for up to 70 and patio bungalows with fire pits in its beer garden for up to 200. Or full buyouts will be available for up to 600.

The ASU campus offers several facilities: the 14,287-seat Wells Fargo Arena, the 3,011-seat Gammage Auditorium and Memorial Union, with space for up to 575. Popular off-site gathering spots for groups include the Main Event, a recreational center with bowling, a ropes course, interactive games and event spaces for up to 1,000; the Tempe Center for the Arts, with space for up to 600 and a rooftop terrace overlooking the city; and the Yard at Farmer Arts District, which welcomes groups of up to 250.

The city is enjoying a calendar full of bookings, including those of the National Association of Latino Democratic Officials, the Tamarisk Coalition and the Teacher Educators for Children With Behavior Disorders. And new and improved hotels await. The Moxy/Phoenix-Tempe, Marriott International's new lifestyle brand, opened March 1 with an industrial-chic aesthetic, 186 guest rooms, Bluetooth keyless entry, an interactive digital wall streaming the #atthemoxy Instagram feed, and 4,000 square feet of event space for up to 150. The AC/Phoenix-Tempe Downtown opened in June at Tempe Town Lake-the first hotel on the lake-with 159 guest rooms, 650 square feet of function space for up to 50 people and a rooftop pool with views of the lake and ASU's Sun Devil Stadium (which is in the middle of a $256 million reconstruction).

The classic Phoenix Marriott Tempe at The Buttes is better than ever following a $15 million renovation. It was also named the 2014 and 2015 Community Service Leader of the Year for the State of Arizona by the Arizona Lodging & Tourism Association for its corporate social responsibility programs. One such example is Meet/Give/Local, where $3 from every attendee's meal is donated to a beneficiary of a group's choosing at no extra cost to the group.

Greater Tucson: Changing the Landscape

Desert landscapes embellished with legendary resorts and sophisticated convention space attract groups to Tucson, 110 miles southeast of Phoenix. Downtown, the Tucson Convention Center boasts 205,000 square feet of space, including 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 people theater-style or offers 29,520 square feet of flexible floor space. Nearby, the 80-acre Westward Look Wyndham Grand Resort & Spa, a certified green hotel with three pools, a spa and meeting space for up to 450, recently completed a renovation.

At the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains, two of Tucson's premier resorts are undergoing impressive changes. In March, the landmark Hacienda Del Sol Guest Ranch Resort completed an expansion aimed at group business. This included 32 new guest rooms with patios (bringing the total count to 59), including two-bedroom suites with conference-size dining tables and some rooms with private outdoor showers; a ballroom for up to 260 people; and, outdoors, a negative-edge pool area for up to 100, an event terrace for up to 30 and a garden patio and lounge for gatherings of up to 150.

The Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort is undergoing the largest renovation in its 34-year history, according to Ghee Alexander, its general manager. The project will introduce new amenities and outdoor event spaces, including courtyards and a sprawling lawn; see a redesign of the lobby, which will open to a patio with a fire pit surrounded by lounge seating; refresh all 428 guest rooms and casitas; and expand the main pool, which will now have cabanas. Completion is expected in spring 2017. Also forthcoming are new guest experiences to highlight the culture, nature and history of Tucson; some of the ideas planned are new wildlife programming, unique garden concepts and a formal adventure and activity, Alexander said.

Central & Northern Arizona: A Natural Fit for Meetings

Attendees can look forward to fresh mountain air and the scent of pine needles in Prescott, a city located at 5,200 feet just 90 miles north of Phoenix. For business, the newly remodeled Prescott Resort & Conference Center overlooks the city with 16,000 square feet of meeting space. For free-time fun, a historic downtown, horseback riding, winery tours, golf and hiking along some 450 scenic trails await.

The glorious red rocks set a striking backdrop in Sedona, 60 miles northeast of Prescott. Whether motoring over the boulders on a hair-raising ride with Pink Jeep Tours, contemplating the power of the vortexes or meeting at one of many fine resorts, the natural beauty is stunning.

One of Sedona's newest meeting options is the Courtyard/Sedona, scheduled to open this month with 121 guest rooms and 4,312 square feet of meeting space for up to 150 people. Favorites include L'Auberge de Sedona, located on Oak Creek, with event space for up to 200, and the Enchantment Resort & Spa, with meeting space for up to 540.

Flagstaff offers year-round outdoor options including hiking, snow sports and some of North America's best star-gazing. Groups of up to 50 can arrange private telescope viewings at the Lowell Observatory. The High Country Conference Center at Northern Arizona University is popular for conventions thanks to 25,000 square feet of space, as is the university's du Bois Center, which has a ballroom for up to 750 and seven meeting rooms. The Arizona Snowbowl, located at an altitude of 9,000 feet, has indoor conference facilities for up to 300, outdoor space for up to 500 and accommodations at the 25-room Ski Lift Lodge & Cabins. And the Little America/Flagstaff is the premier meeting hotel, offering elegant indoor conference space for up to 600 people and an event lawn for up to 500.

Just 80 miles away, Grand Canyon National Park is the ultimate in natural inspiration. On its South Rim, the Maswik Lodge can host events of up to 160, and the landmark Bright Angel Lodge & Cabins has conference space for up to 100. El Tovar, which can also host group functions, is scheduled to close January 1 for a renovation and reopen in April.

Lake Havasu & Yuma: Adding Splash to Events

The sparkling Colorado River sets a vacation-like tone to gatherings in Lake Havasu City, aptly nicknamed "Arizona's Playground." But there are good facilities for meetings as well. The Nautical Beachfront Resort has indoor-outdoor event space for up to 750, and planners can arrange private events at the London Bridge Golf Club.

Downriver, in Yuma, water sports such as jet boating and kayaking are the order of the day. And attendees who are birders likely already know Yuma as a world-class birding destination. Meeting space for smaller groups is available at several hotels including the Best Western InnSuites, with 3,700 square feet for functions of up to 140. Other meeting venues include the Yuma Civic Center, with 25,000 square feet of exhibit space, 15 meeting rooms and an outdoor terrace; the Arizona Western College's Community Conference Center, with more than 12,000 square feet of space; and the lawn at Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park, which can host up to 1,000 people.

Albuquerque, New Mexico: Having it All

Albuquerque was such a great host city for TechCon North America 2016 that its planner is putting it on his shortlist for a future event. "The city is small enough to become acquainted with quickly and large enough to provide the important aspects a conference requires: international flights, affordable and plentiful hotels, world-class museums and sights, and ease to get around," said Kevin Cohee, CEO of Do An Event, which plans TechCon.

"The CVB staff is seasoned and authentic about wanting to showcase Albuquerque's assets and hidden gems," he continued. "They love hosting guests and were willing to go above and beyond to be hospitable and creative."

TechCon's attendees took full advantage of Albuquerque's unique attractions. "We tore the town up!" said Cohee. "We took hot-air balloon rides, rode up the Sandia Peak Tramway, had our welcome reception at the National Nuclear Museum of Science & History-a new Smithsonian affiliate-took the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center tour, arranged our dinner gala at the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum and enjoyed a world-class dinner performance by the National Institute of Flamenco. We even flew drones at the fairgrounds."

Cohee was equally impressed with the hotel choice, the Crowne Plaza/Albuquerque. "My sales contact said (it) had a full-time upholstery and carpet cleaner. Who does that or who cares about that these days? This told me volumes about the management and staff. They truly care about the property and this clearly translates to caring about their guests stay," he said, adding that attendees appreciated the hotel's free shuttle service to downtown and the trendy Nob Hill neighborhood for shopping and dining.

A dedicated venue is the newly improved, 600,000-square-foot Albuquerque Convention Center, which features massive windows offering sweeping views. For small soirees, 516 Arts, a contemporary downtown gallery, features 5,500 square feet of space.

A new hotel, the Hotel Chaco, is scheduled to open in Old Town in early 2017. Plans include 118 guest rooms and 3,500 square feet of function space. It will also share a pool, chapel and 62,000 square feet of convention space at the neighboring Hotel Albuquerque. Newly renovated properties include the Hilton Garden Inn/Albuquerque-Journal Center, the Isleta Resort & Casino and the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa in Santa Ana Pueblo, 20 miles north of Albuquerque on the way to Santa Fe.

Santa Fe: Artistically Minded

It's not just the art of paintings and sculpture that makes Santa Fe, the oldest capital city in North America, an attractive destination for meeting-goers. The picturesque city has also mastered the art of meetings with ongoing facility and hotel improvements and new, exciting group activities.

Near the historic plaza, the 40,000-square-foot Santa Fe Community Convention Center has recently improved its Wi-Fi capabilities, upgrading its bandwidth to accommodate larger groups and grant online access to up to 960 people in its ballroom. Gatherings of up to 700 people are always memorable at the New Mexico History Museum. And a new off-site venue is the Santa Fe art collective Meow Wolf's first permanent installation, "House of Eternal Return." The interactive art experience, set in what was an abandoned bowling alley, has scores of immersive spaces, a 300-person music venue, a video game arcade, treehouses and more.

At the Drury Plaza Hotel, a recent addition is the 3,000-square-foot O'Keeffe Meeting Room, which increases the property's overall function space to 20,000 square feet. The La Fonda on the Plaza just completed a two-year refresh, which included an update of La Fiesta Lounge, a new coffee bar and an improved lobby. The Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year with a new fitness center and a new chef from a Michelin-starred restaurant. For gatherings steeped in Native American lore, the Hilton Buffalo Thunder Resort & Casino on the sovereign land of the Pojoaque has traditional pueblo architecture, a renowned Native American art collection maintained by an in-house curator, 27 holes of golf and a Pojoaque-influenced spa.

Northern New Mexico: Ready to Roll

"Great facilities" made Farmington an easy choice for the state conference of the New Mexico Recreation & Parks Association, said association president Cory Styron. "The Farmington Civic Center was just the right size for our 200 attendees. The new ballroom/exhibit hall was spacious and flexible. And the staff was very customer-service oriented," Styron said. Delegates enjoyed the area's activities, especially trout fishing on the San Juan River and golf at Piñon Hills, consistently ranked as one of the nation's top municipal courses.

The association left it up to delegates as to where to stay since all of the hotels offer easy access to the civic center and several overlook the Animas River and its scenic riverside trail for running, walking or biking, Styron explained. Organizers arranged a tour to the historic Aztec Ruins National Monument and social mixers at the Farmington Museum and Berg Park, both located along the Animas River.

For larger gatherings, like the Family Motor Coach Association's Rocky Mountain Area Rally this month, the San Juan County Fairgrounds-McGee Park is ideal. The venue features a 49,500-square-foot convention center, a multi-use building, a 68,000-square-foot coliseum and two arenas. The group selected Farmington because organizers liked its central location and the fairgrounds as an event site. "The San Juan County Fairgrounds provided excellent facilities for our stay, including facilities for vendor displays and meeting space for our seminars," said Jack Mayberry, the association's area president. "The facility coordinators were easy to work with, and the buildings are kept in great shape. We held all our meetings-including dining, entertainment and seminars-at the fairgrounds. They met all our requirements." As for the area, motor coach members enjoyed the abundant history and the opportunities for exploration, he said.

Groups that prefer holding events at hotels-as the Philanthropic Educational Organization and the New Mexico Recreation & Parks Association do when in town-the Red Lion/Farmington, the Courtyard by Marriott and the TownePlace Suites all offer meeting space. In addition, the riverfront Soaring Eagle Lodge east of town near the Navajo Dam can host small groups and is popular with avid fishermen.

Southern New Mexico: Free Spirits

The scenic mountains and the Rio Grande make Las Cruces, New Mexico's second-largest city, an ideal destination for mid-size and small associations that enjoy the combination of big-city amenities and unspoiled nature. Event facilities include the gold LEED-certified Las Cruces Convention Center, with 30,000 square feet of space, and the Corbett Center Student Union at New Mexico State University, with ballroom space for up to 800 people and smaller breakout rooms. When it's time to relax, the Las Cruces Wine Trail and Las Cruces Ale Trail are full of convivial spots.

To the northeast, Ruidoso beckons with millions of acres of beautiful wilderness, which is perhaps why it's the preferred destination of the New Mexico Sheriffs' Association, the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association and the Eastern New Mexico Dental Society, to name a few.

The remodeled Ruidoso Convention Center has more than 24,000 square feet of meeting space and is conveniently adjacent to the Links at Sierra Blanca and the MCM Eleganté Lodge & Suites (formerly the Lodge at Sierra Blanca), which offers additional meeting space. In Midtown, the Sanctuary on the River has a light-filled, octagonal-shaped meeting space, spa services and cooking classes. In nearby Ruidoso Downs, the Ruidoso Downs Race Track & Billy the Kid Casino is a major attraction, as is the Hubbard Museum of the American West, a Smithsonian affiliate. And in Mescalero, the Inn of the Mountain Gods Resort & Casino has 40,000 square feet of meeting space and a new zip line across Mescalero Lake.

In Alto, north of Ruidoso, the 514-seat Spencer Theater for the Performing Arts recently hosted the awards banquet of the New Mexico True Governor's Conference on Hospitality & Tourism. "It was outstanding," said Gina Kelley, Ruidoso Tourism's director of tourism. "We held our reception in the Crystal Lobby and the banquet on the stage. The food was amazing."

Enchanted

There's a mindset of making creative things possible at convention and visitors bureaus across Arizona and New Mexico, a mentality especially appreciated by planners intent on building an exciting and unique agenda for attendees. From organizing festive banquets that celebrate the region's cuisine to outings that take in the out-of-this-world scenery, these are destinations truly intent on enchantment.