by Tom Isler | March 01, 2006

Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort amd Spa

Why leave? Groups find plenty of ways to spend downtime at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa in Chandler, Ariz.

When the thought of coordinating a fleet of shuttle buses is too much to bear, consider just staying put. Indeed, at the right resorts, groups can tap into all kinds of unusual offerings to augment their itineraries without ever leaving the grounds, saving logistical headaches and high off-site prices.
    Want to treat a group to sailing lessons with America’s Cup champions? How about a guided art tour or nature expedition as a break in the meeting schedule? These are among the many options found at top North American properties.
    Some extras, such as a guided tour, often won’t cost a group a cent. Other activities, especially the more unusual offerings, can be expensive, even on site. A two-hour evening cruise with liquor for 100 people can run $2,300 at the Bitter End Yacht Club in the British Virgin Islands, for example. But, if the group is booking enough room nights at the resort, even the most extravagant extras like the cocktail cruise might be thrown in for free. Says John Glynn, director of special events at the Bitter End, “If you’re staying in the hotel with 100 people, chances are we’re going to give it to you.”
    Following are more ways to keep a group happy on site.

Culinary curricula
The Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, offering 127 guest rooms and more than 6,000 square feet of meeting space, is the longtime working home of chef Dean Fearing, considered the dean of American Southwestern cuisine by the James Beard Foundation. Fearing, known for inventive gustatory creations that fuse a variety of Asian and American flavors, also is the focus of the hotel’s popular culinary programs, which can be customized for use with groups. Guests can shadow the chef for a day in and around the bustling kitchen or enjoy a shorter session with him; either way, they will leave the venue happily satiated and likely toting an autographed cookbook or monogrammed chef’s coat. (214) 559-2100;

Mansion on Forsyth Park


Get cooking: The Mansion on Forsyth Park

    The 126-room Mansion on Forsyth Park in Savannah, Ga., offers the 700 Kitchen Cooking School, featuring themed classes for groups twice daily. The modern kitchen facilities are equipped with LCD monitors and video cameras to aid demonstrations. Throughout the year, the school rotates additional special programs, such as “Grains with Gusto!” for July and August, and “Autumn Harvest Supper” in September and October. The Mansion has nearly 7,000 square feet of flexible meeting space. (912) 238-5158;
    Many resorts are capitalizing on the craze for Iron Chef-style cooking competitions, including the 269-room Millennium Harvest House Boulder (Colo.), which also offers culinary activities for groups in a party setting. Chef Jason Morse will supervise and judge the cooking competitions, often held at the resort’s outdoor fire pit. Activities can coincide with the property’s summer Friday afternoon parties, complete with live music, volleyball and a rock-climbing wall. (303) 443-3805;
    The massive 4,027-room Venetian in Las Vegas arranges in-house dine-arounds that invite groups to sample the resort’s award-winning restaurants, 17 in all, which range from Asian fusion and California-inspired seafood eateries to classic American, authentic Northern Italian and three different takes on French cuisine. (702) 414-1000;
    Looking for an excuse to add a wine tasting to the schedule? At the 240-room American Club in Kohler, Wis., the in-house chefs conduct a wine demonstration, then the group breaks into teams to develop bottle labels and marketing schemes for certain vintages. Each team presents its creations, and judges awards points for best label, presentation and teamwork. (800) 344-2838, ext. 700;
    The 71-suite Las Ventanas al Paraiso, a Rosewood Resort in Los Cabos, Mexico, offers tequila lessons. So-called “trained tequileros” teach groups about the history, classification and distillation of tequila, as well as practical advice on how to drink it. Guests can earn Tequila Aficionado certificates, but only if they’re able to pass a quiz conducted after tasting three different kinds of the liquor. (011) 52-624-144-2800;

Culture clubs
Known for its sumptuous 31,000-square-foot spa facility, the 312-room Ojai Valley Inn & Spa has developed a series of classes dubbed “Short Courses in Living Better.” Local Ojai, Calif., artisans lead group workshops on drawing, painting to music and making sarongs using the batik dyeing technique. Other courses, which generally last 90 minutes, include horsemanship (the resort is on an 800-acre ranch), aromatherapy and golf etiquette. (800) 422-6524;
    At Robert Redford’s Sundance Resort in Utah, artists-in-residence have developed programs that combine art with nature for groups. Winter photography classes, for example, have instructors leading students onto the property’s 6,000 acres on a snowshoeing expedition with lessons in taking snapshots of nature. Other courses include jewelry making, watercolor painting and drawing. Planners also can arrange for an exclusive performance by musicians from Nashville’s famed Bluebird Café. Of course, groups can watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men or any other of Redford’s films (or other favorite flicks, for that matter) in a plush 150-seat screening room. The resort has 95 guest cottages. (801) 225-4107;
    Ginger Sunbird Martin was born and raised on the 2,400 acres of pristine Native American reservation land that’s now home to the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa in Chandler, Ariz. She currently serves as the 500-room resort’s cultural liaison to guests and will work with groups to incorporate Pima and Maricopa tribe culture into their meetings. During breaks, groups can partake of pottery, basket weaving or other artistic workshops. In addition, tribe elders are available to speak at meetings. Meeting planners also can arrange interesting team-building events that benefit the community, such as building bicycles for the children who live on the reservation. (602) 225-0100;
    The Royal Palms Resort & Spa in Phoenix offers an array of art workshops that are perfect for budding Rembrandts and Van Goghs. Beth Zink, a Scottsdale, Ariz., painter and teacher, starts by sketching a resort-specific view or landmark, which allows each participant to focus solely on coloring and shading the image. Among other classes: a “spray, splatter and sponge” paint workshop and an introduction to the art of papermaking. Corporate groups can arrange for customized classes; recent offerings at the resort have included astrology sessions and tango lessons. The resort features 117 guest rooms and casitas, plus 20,000 square feet of meeting and function space. (602) 840-3610;
    The Trump International Sonesta Beach Resort in Sunny Isles Beach, Fla., can take groups on tours of its contemporary art collection, comprised of some 1,000 pieces by the likes of Alexander Calder, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Mangold. The property offers 390 guest rooms and more than 20,000 square feet of meeting space. (305) 692-5600;
    The Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City can arrange a “Cirque du Beserk” show on multiple stages under colorful tents in the hotel’s ballroom. Inspired by the popular Cirque du Soleil spectaculars, the evening includes traditional circus acts, roving jugglers, stilt walkers, magicians and mimes, not to mention buffet stations adorned with whimsical sculptures. The 775-room resort offers 80,000 square feet of meeting and event space. (801) 258-6000;