Courtesy Visit Tuscon
Katherine Tandy Brown
Published April 12, 2016
Located in the high desert of southern Arizona, Tucson has a personality defined by colorful history and intriguing geography. Once part of Mexico, the town joined the United States in 1854, just before the Old West era of cattle ranchers, settlers, miners and Apache Indians. Other Borderland peoples followed.
“Tucson is a city with a soul,” said Dan Gibson, director of communications for Visit Tucson. “Native American, Mexican, Spaniard and Caribbean cultures all sort of collided here.”
Set amid five mountain ranges, Arizona’s second-largest city boasts elevations of 2,000 to 9,000 feet that make for a variety of ecosystems. The desert here is an entity, enticing people to explore. Outdoor activities abound, from horseback riding and rock climbing to spelunking and zip lining, plus 40 golf courses.
Saguaro National Park, protected home of the world’s largest cacti, lies to the east and west of Tucson, while the 90-acre Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum stretches 90 acres as a combination zoo, natural history museum, botanical garden, aquarium and art gallery.
“The Sonoran Desert is this beautiful, alive, green space,” Gibson said, “and the museum does an incredible job of showing it off.”
Tucked into the mountains with desert views, Tucson’s destination resorts and spas lure planners with all-inclusive meeting and corporate retreat spots sporting guest rooms, suites, casitas, team building, spouse itineraries, recreation and food. As Tucson is a dark-sky city with nighttime light limits, some resorts have telescopes to view hundreds of thousands of stars visible at night.
Home to the University of Arizona, the city has experienced a downtown rebirth in the past several years, and among 150 new storefronts are an assortment of restaurants for under-the-stars al fresco dining.
In 2015, Tucson became the first U.S. city to be designated a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, thanks to 4,000 years of agricultural history, native crop preservation and a variety of dining opportunities.
According to Gibson, eight out of 10 meeting planners bring their groups back.
“Organizers want to give attendees a great experience beyond just the ability to meet and learn and collaborate,” he said. “Tucson offers that — a million times over.”
Built in the heart of downtown, the Tucson Convention Center is a quick 15 minutes from Tucson International Airport and an easy walk to shops, restaurants and attractions such as the Arizona History Museum. Sparkling after a recent $9 million renovation, the center has 205,000 square feet of meeting and event space, including a 20,164-square-foot Grand Ballroom and three performance facilities: the 8,064-capacity Tucson Arena, a Music Hall that seats 2,289 and the 511-seat Rich Theatre.
“After a daytime meeting in one of our performance venues, attendees can stay for evening entertainment there,” said Kate Calhoun, the center’s director of sales and marketing.
Undergoing a 2016 multimillion-dollar renovation, the 428-room Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf and Tennis Resort has 100,000 square feet of meeting space, including an 11,000-square-foot executive conference center and an Old West event space.
“You can do yoga or water aerobics at the spa and still make your morning meeting,” said Tracy Kaltman-Ahmed, director of sales and marketing.
The Oprah-endorsed Miraval Spa and Resort adds meditation, innovative spa treatments and wellness workshops. Among dozens of team-building options are rock climbing on Mount Lemmon, myriad offerings on ropes courses, a desert walk, a yoga hike and cutting-edge classes with horses, including improving personal communication skills.
The third-largest aviation museum in the country, Tucson’s Pima Air and Space Museum houses one of the world’s largest collections of historic aircraft, including a well-maintained B-17 Flying Fortress and the 747 used as Air Force One by President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson.
“You can tour the Boneyard, an Air Force storage facility with miles and miles of decommissioned airplanes,” said Dan Gibson, director of communications for Visit Tucson.
For meetings and events, groups of 20 to 400 can gather in 20,000-square-foot Flight Central beneath the wings of a beautifully restored F-4 Thunderbird and the T-33 John Wayne flew in “Jet Pilot.”
An easy way to explore Tucson is on the Modern Streetcar. Its 23 stops provide access to 100-plus eateries, 150 shops, 30-plus museums and galleries, and 30-plus bars and clubs, all local, in the city’s four downtown entertainment districts: the University of Arizona area, with hip shops, coffeehouses and University of Arizona sporting events and concerts; Main Gate Square, home to ethnic restaurants, and art and music venues; Fourth Avenue, for eclectic shopping and vibrant nightlife; and Mercado San Agustin, known for its farmers market.
A must-stop is Pizzeria Bianco, where its James Beard Award-winning chef is reputed to make the world’s best pizza.
In February, James Beard Award-winning chef Janos Wilder opened a participatory off-site venue called the Carriage House. With brick walls, high ceilings, skylights and local art, this multiuse space features a cooking school, a private event/dining room and a patio. Chef Wilder and guest chefs offer cooking classes for up to 70 guests for demonstrations and 20 for hands-on cooking. In addition, wine experts, mixologists and culinary educators offer classes in a state-of-the-art demonstration kitchen and video studio.
Classes are recorded in real time and displayed on flat screens. Participants can take home digital copies of the class.
Home to more than 250 restaurants and eateries, Tucson is a foodie heaven with ethnic roots. Tucson Food Tours offers a spouse-friendly daytime walking tour of six restaurants, complete with historical highlights, but can customize postmeeting events with options for corporate groups.
“Recently, we arranged a sit-down dinner with a tequila toast and Mariachi band on a downtown rooftop patio,” said company rep Maria Lawrence. “A planner can add beer, wine or craft cocktail flights.”
Gray Line offers a Sonoran cuisine experience called Best of the Barrio, with tastings ranging from handmade pastries and tortillas to carne asada and Sonoran hot dogs. The final stop includes a make-your-own-tamales experience.
Location: Southeast Arizona
Access: Tucson International Airport; Interstate 10; Amtrak
Major Meeting Spaces: J.W. Marriott Starr Pass, Loews Ventana Canyon, Westin La Paloma, Hilton El Conquistador, Miraval Resort and Spa, Westward Look Wyndham Grand Resort and Spa, Tucson Convention Center
Hotel Rooms: 12,826 rooms
Off-site Venues: Pima Air and Space Museum, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, The Carriage House
Tucson Visitor Center