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The Group Travel Leader Going on Faith Select Traveler

Communing with cactus in Tucson, Az.

Photo by Fred Hood, courtesy Metropolitan Tucson CVB

An unexpected visitor showed up at a University of Arizona meeting held at Tucson’s Westward Look Resort last year. As attendees studied a PowerPoint presentation, one of the resort’s managers slipped through the door holding a Gila monster he had just found on the property.

“That kind of impromptu thing happens here quite a bit,” said Mary Beth Seamands, Westward Look’s director of sales. “We like to take every opportunity we can to educate our guests about the desert.”

“Guests come here to have an encounter with a cactus, and we don’t disappoint them,” said Raymundo Ocampo, landscape manager at Westward Look. “Many times, I’m invited into group breaks, and I bring along a California king snake or a tarantula to talk about the desert and its life.”

No one has to go far to find the desert in Tucson. Although it is one of the country’s fastest-growing cities, there’s plenty of desert left untouched and unchanged. The city, about 100 miles south of Phoenix, is in the Sonoran Desert, encircles by five mountain ranges and acres of saguaro cactus forests. But unlike other cities in arid climates, the desert is ever-present in Tucson.

An authentic desert destination

“To truly see the desert in Phoenix, you have to go to the outskirts of the city,” said Alan Klein, general manager at Westward Look. “Tucson really is an authentic representation of what the desert is. You see it everywhere.”

Courtesy Old Tucson Studios

The desert permeates any gathering, whether it’s a cocktail made with the nectar of prickly pear cactus at popular local restaurant El Charro Cafe; an outdoor party for 200 at Tohono Chul Park, a 49-acre desert preserve called “one of the world’s 10 best botanical gardens” by Travel & Leisure magazine; or the many “living fences” around town, made up of spiny ocotillo plants. Even the spas feature the desert, with Sonoran mud treatments, blue-corn facial scrubs and lots of aloe on hand for sunburns.

“People who come here are looking for something they can’t find anywhere else,” said Graeme Hughes, director of convention sales for the Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Tucson offers authenticity. We don’t build fountains or lakes, because those things don’t naturally occur in the desert.”

Because of the terrain’s natural beauty, meeting spaces bring the outside in, with glass walls providing desert views; terraces and patios are steps away for outdoor breaks. And although Tucson is a major city, its resorts decorate the outer fringes of the urban landscape with the mountains and desert as nearby neighbors.

People have been living in Tucson, one of the longest continuously inhabited areas in the Northern Hemisphere, for thousands of years. Home to Native American tribes as well as rowdy frontiersmen, these two distinct cultures coexist today as an Old West attitude tinged with spirituality.

The depth of the area’s history can be felt as soon as you walk into the lobby of the Westward Look Resort. Built in 1812 as a hacienda-style home, the property was later turned into a dude ranch and then, in the late 1960s, became Tucson’s first resort.

“Our guests embrace the story we have to tell,” said Seamands. “The original living room is now a sitting room, and people gravitate to it because it’s so comfortable.”

The hammered copper front desk was in the original home, as were the native ocotillo branches covering the ceiling, providing natural insulation. Each of the 204 guest rooms has either a desert or a mountain view, and landscaper Ocampo has incorporated natural flowering brush, mesquite and pomegranate trees to ensure year-round color.

The 16 meeting rooms, which total 20,000 square feet, feature natural light and outdoor areas steps away for breaks. A rooftop terrace above one of the two ballrooms offers views of the mountains as well as the city and is often used as a first-night cocktail venue.

But the desert is the real star, and there are lots of opportunities to learn more about it. An upstairs Desert Gallery displays pieces of cactus, birds’ nests and agave for the curious; Ocampo is often invited to bring some of these items into group breaks. An outside nature trail entices guests outdoors and has a labyrinth that’s been blessed by an elder from a local tribe. Guests walking the trail in the early morning hours have spotted bobcats, quail and javelinas.

“People really appreciate being outside here, and we encourage that,” said Seamands. “They want to enjoy what they came to Arizona for in the first place — sunshine.”

A resort at the end of the trail
Getting outside is also easy at Loews Ventana Canyon, a 398-room resort where one of the most popular hiking trails in Arizona starts. The Ventana Trail is about 13 miles long and connects with several other trails along the way. For the less adventurous, there’s a tram from the hotel to the trails. Sabino Canyon, surrounded by saguaro cactus, is a three-minute drive from the resort, with rental areas for barbecues.

By Rick Machle, courtesy Metropolitan Tucson CVB

Loews Ventana Canyon is the first environmentally conceived resort in the country. Bricks and dirt from the ranch that was originally on the site were used to build the resort, and hundreds of cacti were removed and then replaced to keep the area as natural as possible. An 80-foot-high waterfall was incorporated into the terrain, which nestles beside the Catalina Mountains.

“We’re always saying to ourselves, ‘What can we show our guests that’s different?’” said Jennifer Duffy, Loews’ public relations director. “We introduce them to the Native American culture, since the second-largest reservation in America is here. Loews has a program with the tribe, and our guests can go learn about their culture and have a bite to eat at their cafe. We also teach cooking classes using local ingredients and have a stargazing program.”

Tucson is known as the stargazing capital of the world because of its open spaces and clear sky. A city ordinance requires all signage to be extinguished after 11 p.m. so astronomers have an unobstructed view of the heavens.

“We have an astronomer come here every Wednesday and Saturday night to give a program, and we have our own telescope so our guests can learn more about the stars,” said Duffy. “We also incorporate stargazing into meeting programs, maybe at the first-night cocktail party, and it’s very popular.”

With 37,000 square feet of meeting space and many locations on the grounds for groups, conference director Geneya Sauro continually brainstorms creative ideas for gatherings with her staff.

Barbecue tastes better in Old West town
The Coyote Corral, which mimics an old Western town, is popular for barbecues. The Kiva Patio has been transformed into a Native American village complete with teepees and has also been a Mexican village. A croquet court is used for welcome receptions complete with fish taco stations and tableside guacamole.

Courtesy Tucson Westin La Paloma

The hospitality industry in Tucson universally plays on one of the area’s best assets: sunshine. At the 575-room J.W. Marriott Star Pass Resort and Spa, a huge canopy was set up outside the meeting space for the Association of Military Banks of America conference.

“We didn’t have time to do anything off-property,” said Paula Pair, who organized the conference. “But nearly everyone took the opportunity to go outside in the morning for a hike or enjoy the fire on the patio later in the evening. All of us were treated like we were special.”

The Marriott has 88,000 square feet of meeting space and attracts repeat business, according to Pair, who has been bringing groups there for years.

The venue of choice for the Modern Language Association (MLA) seminar last summer was the 487-room Westin La Paloma Resort and Spa, which has 64,000 square feet of meeting space.

“The hotel was lovely, and we received nothing but positive comments,” said Rosemary Feal, MLA executive director. “Many of our attendees went early or stayed after the seminar so they could explore the beauty of Tucson.”

All the Westin’s meeting spaces are conducive to the flow of foot traffic, so attendees can move easily between boardrooms, breakout rooms, foyers and outside decks. The contemporary Sonoran Room’s wood floor comes from a single huge tree in Indonesia, and the space is uplighted around the perimeter with lights of different colors.

More than 200 people can meet, eat or dance in the room, and it can also be broken into two spaces.

The newest resort in Tucson is outside the city limits in Marana, about a 40-minute drive straight west. The contemporary Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain Resort opened in December and has 250 rooms and 44 casitas.

If you prefer a slice of lemon in your club soda, like to play tennis and enjoy reading financial publications, you can be sure the staff will remember that on your next visit. Each employee carries a small pad of Quality Guest Preference notes, and fills them in as guests order a drink or chat with the bellman.

“We try to be very personal with our guests,” said public relations director Jennifer Pelczarski. “We don’t ask them how their trip was, we ask them how their daughter is doing.”

Three ballrooms and the Brisa Lawn are part of 44,000 square feet of meeting space. In February, the resort hosted the Accenture Match Play Championship on its Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Courses.

From desert museums to movie sets
There are notable venues for off-site gatherings in Tucson. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a 20-minute drive southwest of the city through miles of flowering cacti and desert plants, has acres of natural habitat with indigenous desert creatures easily viewed by visitors. Most of the museum is outside, and well-marked trails guide visitors through natural habitats for mountain lions, rattlesnakes and road runners — fenced off for safety, of course.

Indoors are meeting spaces and a theater that seats 300, along with a fine-dining restaurant.
“Our docents can bring a barn owl or a ring-tailed cat or even a raptor to a corporate event,” said visitor services supervisor Linda Meschino. “The animals are very popular at meetings. It’s both fun and educational.”

If getting down and dirty is the preference, Old Tucson Studios is a 10-minute drive from the museum. Some of the buildings may seem familiar, as more than 300 westerns have been filmed there. The town was built in 1939 for the film Arizona with William Holden and Jean Arthur. Movies are still filmed there, and guests are welcome to watch as the cameras roll.

Miss Kitty and the sheriff will greet motorcoaches and welcome groups to town, with cancan girls providing entertainment. The buildings are real, not facades, and corporate events are customized for each group.

“We do rodeos, biker bashes, gunfights and stunt shows,” said Gilbert LaRoque, group sales director. “We stage bank robberies and also get photos of the company VIPs and put them on ‘Wanted’ posters. That always gets a big laugh.”

Old Tucson Studios can accommodate up to 2,000 for picnics and 400 for a sit-down dinner at the Palace, built as a saloon. An additional 600 can be seated on one of the sound stages. Team-building events include Western Movie Magic, in which employees become actors in a real movie, often shown at the corporate meeting the next day.

Tucson is the place for an authentic taste of the Sonoran Desert. And with more than 350 days of sunshine each year, chances are good that the weather will match the pleasant surroundings.

“Tucson is the place for the ‘been there, done that’ traveler,” said Kimberly Schmitz, director of communications for the Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We have no beaches; we have no mouse ears. When you’re ready for the next destination level, come to Tucson.”