Hawk at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (photo by Phil Coleman Ferruginous)
Tucson’s award-winning resorts and F&B help events rock
The list of accolades heaped on meeting resorts throughout the Tucson region of Southern Arizona is almost as astonishing as the colorful sunsets painted nightly across the Sonoran Desert skies.
According to annual rankings by Forbes, AAA and Conde Nast Traveler, Tucson holds its own against meeting cities around the world. The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain, just outside Tucson in Marana, earned Forbes Five Star and AAA Five Diamond ratings this year. Casino Del Sol Resort garnered a Forbes Four Star rating, and The Spa at the Omni Tucson National and The Spa at The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain also were Forbes Four Star winners.
Tucson resorts earning AAA Four Diamond ratings were Arizona Inn, JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa, Loews Ventana Canyon, The Lodge at Ventana Canyon, The Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa and Westward Look Wyndham Grand Resort & Spa.
“When we’re reaching out to meeting planners here at Visit Tucson, it’s incredibly helpful to know that we have excellent, unique properties with sharp, hard-working staffs working alongside us to help create unforgettable experiences,” says Brent DeRaad, Visit Tucson’s president and CEO. “Tucson is a great place to meet for the same reasons that it is such a desirable place to visit. It’s a city and an area with heritage, culture, great food, incredible natural beauty and many places to experience it. Add the great people here in Tucson and excellent venues and hotels for meetings—what more could you ask for?”
Tucson’s star is expected to continue to rise with improved airlift. In October, American Airlines began daily nonstop service from New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) to Tucson International Airport (TUS). Mexican airline Aeromar has made Tucson its second U.S. destination, with flights to and from Hermosillo four times a week, and continued service to Matzalan and Guadalajara.
The Dish on Tucson
Westward Look Wyndham Grand Resort & Spa
Tucson’s food scene has something no other U.S. city can claim. A year ago, the second-largest city in Arizona earned UNESCO Creative Cities recognition for gastronomy. Among the reasons Tucson stands out are its 4,000-year-old agricultural heritage, University of Arizona’s research on sustainable growing practices and protection of historic crops.
“The immediate impression people get when they hear about Tucson’s designation as America’s first (and only) City of Gastronomy is that Tucson was picked for its restaurants,” DeRaad says. “That’s part of it, but the application also covered our 4,000 years of agricultural history, the efforts to preserve the native sources of ingredients of our region, the variety of international influences and cuisines, plus the innovation happening in kitchens and classrooms here today.”
James Beard Award winner Janos Wilder has certainly helped spearhead interest in Tucson food with Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, which emphasizes farm-to-table cuisine in a trendy downtown setting. Wilder recently opened nearby Carriage House, which has private event space and can accommodate 70 for cooking demonstrations led by the famous chef.
The Westin La Paloma Resort and Spa opened Latin-infused Contigo last year. The menu incorporates specialties from Peru, Brazil, Mexico, Cuba and Spain with elegant flair. The wine list features South American and Spanish varietals. The 487-room resort has more than 64,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and delicious catering for events.
PY Steakhouse at Casino Del Sol and Core Kitchen & Wine Bar at The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain earned Forbes Four Star ratings for restaurants.
DeRaad says the UNESCO designation for gastronomy has opened the door to introduce Tucson’s progressive F&B culture to the world. For example, locally owned and operated restaurants include Tucson’s self-proclaimed “Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food,” which dishes up the best Mexican food north of the border.
Casino Del Sol
It’s easy to focus on Tucson’s resorts, both in town and in outlying communities. But downtown Tucson has a buzz all its own, with a vibrancy that is appealing to millennials and unique spaces for cool events that attendees of all ages appreciate.
Just last month, The Hotel Congress was added to Historic Hotels of America after receiving National Historic Register designation in 2003. The hotel’s party vibe has been going strong since it opened in 1919, only seven years after Arizona became a state. One of the hotel’s most famous guests was gangster John Dillinger, who hid out there in 1934. (And ghosts of other guests serve as reminders of the hotel’s colorful past.)
There are 40 guest rooms above Club Congress, a launching pad for touring bands, and Copper Hall, which features Southwest elegance for groups of up to nearly 200. The outside patio is known for hosting nightly gatherings of locals, some who are a streetcar ride from University of Arizona and others who have been drinking at Hotel Congress for years. Everyone is welcome here for a mix that is refreshing and energizing.
Across the street from The Hotel Congress, Maynards Market & Kitchen sprinkles in a dash of sophistication to downtown. It’s located in the historic train depot, with an Amtrak stop at its back door.
Downtown Tucson is about to get another key addition when AC Hotel by Marriott comes online next summer. The sight of the eight-story, 137-room property under construction reflects excitement that palpates throughout downtown.
Tucson Convention Center, also conveniently located on the streetcar line, offers 205,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. The convention center and the entire downtown district are gearing up for the city’s biggest event of the year, the annual Tucson Gem & Mineral Show Jan. 28−Feb. 12.
“Tucson offers a sense of community and culture that’s unique,” DeRaad says. “We talk about the power of connection when we talk about meetings at Visit Tucson. That connection is to the Sonoran Desert, to people here who want to help make your meeting great, to activities and attractions that enhance attendees’ experiences. Plus, there’s great food everywhere, and that doesn’t hurt.”
Natural History Buffet
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum offers an all-encompassing natural history experience, featuring a zoo, aquarium, exhibits and botanical gardens with 2 miles of walking paths. It’s the No. 1 attraction in Tucson and No. 2 most popular place to visit in the state, trailing only the Grand Canyon.
The animal collection features 230 native mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and birds. The zoo is quite a treat, giving visitors a chance to see desert wildlife including a black bear, mountain lion, prairie dogs, javelina and big horn sheep.
There are more than 56,000 individual plant specimens, which are divided into biotic communities: mountain woodland; desert grasslands, agave and cactus; riparian corridor; and tropical deciduous forest.
Meeting and event space includes a 265-seat theater. By combining its restaurant and terrace spaces, the museum can host up to 450 for receptions and galas. Private events may include up-close interactions with a few of the residents, such as a barn owl, desert tortoise and tiger salamander. For events after hours, park entrance fees are waived and attendees are encouraged to come early to take full advantage of the many Sonoran Desert experiences on the 97-acre expanse.
Accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, the desert experience is adjacent to Saguaro National Park. While it’s possible to see Mexico from the viewing area overlooking the botanical gardens, it’s the museum’s comprehensive array of local natural history that leaves a lasting impression.
Hilton Tucson El Conquistador is Uniquely Southwest
One of the major meeting resorts in Tucson, Arizona, is actively going after meetings and events while it’s completing an $18 million renovation. By active, I mean that Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort is using onsite activities as a way to not only set itself apart from other properties, but also provide groups with a uniquely Southwest experience.
For example, after a 20-year absence, Hilton reopened its stables last month, and is now offering individual and group rides, plus private lessons. The resort has 18 horses and nearby trails, so it’s very easy to saddle up and explore Coronado National Forest, which is literally in the Hilton’s backyard.
Hilton also offers guided hikes on weekends and can arrange private outings with local outfitter Southwest Trekking. The scenic trails in the national forest provide insights about desert life from cactus to wildlife, especially if you take advantage of guided hikes.
“We have a lot of great resources we can take advantage of,” says Tracy Kaltman-Ahmed, director of sales and marketing for Hilton Tucson El Conquistador. “You can learn and participate.”
For lovers of more traditional resort activities, Hilton has its own nine-hole executive golf course and offers guest privileges at a nearby county club, which has two 18-hole courses. There are 34 lighted tennis courts, which are used for United States Tennis Association regional and national events in addition to private and group lessons.
During a recent site visit, a photography conference was on property, and attendees used the resort as their subject, especially native plants and landscapes that showcase the Sonoran Desert. Lectures were held indoors, but small groups broke away to put their new knowledge into practice. This conference even brought in wedding models, who posed for shots in the lobby and on the terrace outside the ballrooms. (The point is, this resort is a photo waiting to happen.)
Hilton, which will complete its renovation next spring, offers more than 100,000 sq. ft. of event space, including 46,000 sq. ft. indoors. There are three ballrooms, including two with 11,000 sq. ft. All three ballrooms have their own built-in registrations desks.
Hilton also has an IACC-certified executive conference center, which is separate from the main meeting spaces. There are eight meeting rooms, including five on the second level, just above the lobby. Outdoor event space is plentiful, including a spacious, manicured lawn that flows from the lobby bar.
But perhaps one of the coolest reception options is The Last Territory, which features a true Western experience. Guests are greeted by a working stagecoach and enter a mini-town that includes a jailhouse, which is always a popular photo op. There’s an indoor area that has a lodge/saloon feel and outdoor space that includes a stage.
There are 289 guest rooms that are spread out in separate buildings surrounding the pool and lawn areas. Hilton also features 139 casitas, which are separate from the main hotel buildings and even have their own adults-only pool. The casitas are perfect for executive buyouts, offering privacy and luxury.
Hilton’s F&B program embraces the Southwest, including tequila tastings at night. There are five restaurants, including Epazote Kitchen, which offers stellar outdoor dining and amazing views of the Santa Catalina Mountains.
Sitting on the terrace, sipping margaritas as the sun begins to set, the mountains switch from an almost copper color to purple. Borrowing from the song “America the Beautiful,” the Santa Catalinas exude “purple mountain majesties” that helped make my trip to Hilton Tucson El Conquistador uniquely Southwest.
Major Meeting Venues
Historic, boutique resort; 92 guest rooms and suites; 5,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; largest room can hold up to 200; located less than a mile from the University of Arizona; guests can take streetcar downtown; complimentary Wi-Fi.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Facilities interpret binational desert region; most exhibits are outdoors, including 16 gardens; collection includes 230 of native mammals, reptiles, insects and birds; fresh water aquarium; re-creation of underground caves; reception space for up to 450; 265-seat theater.
All-inclusive luxury health resort; single-story Southwestern-style lodging can host up to 240 overnight guests; 80,000-square-foot spa complex includes Pilates studio, weight-training room and racquetball courts; 10,590 sq. ft. of meeting space; 2,242-square-foot pavilion can host up to 200.
Casino Del Sol Resort, Spa and Conference Center
Operated by Pascua Yaqui Tribe; Arizona’s only Forbes Four Star and AAA Four Diamond rated casino resort; 5,000-seat open-air concert venue; Sewailo Golf Club designed by Notah Begay III; 215 guest rooms and suites; 65,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor event space; ballroom can host up to 2,000.
Desert Diamond Casino and Entertainment
Operated by Tohono O’odham Nation; Monsoon Nightclub hosts concerts; 148 guest rooms; more than 11,000 sq. ft. of event space.
DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Tucson−Reid Park
Complimentary shuttle to attractions within 3 miles; 287 guest rooms; 22,000 sq. ft. of event space, including 9,728-square-foot ballroom.
Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort
AAA Four Diamond resort will complete a multimillion-dollar renovation in spring; 428 guest rooms including 139 casitas; 100,000 sq. ft. of event space.
JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa
AAA Four Diamond property; 575 luxurious guest rooms and suites; 80,000 sq. ft. of versatile event space, including 13 meeting rooms and a ballroom that can accommodate 3,300; award-winning spa; pools with a waterslide and lazy river; three championship golf courses.
Loews Ventana Canyon Resort
398 guest rooms and suites; 37,000 sq. ft. of indoor meeting space, including a 10,800-square-foot ballroom; outdoor meeting space includes Coyote Corral, a 22,000-square-foot Western-themed venue; two Tom Fazio-designed golf courses; renowned spa; complimentary Wi-Fi in guest rooms.
Santa Catalina Mountains are the backdrop for this all-inclusive wellness resort; LEED Silver certified; completed multimillion-dollar renovation earlier this year; 118 casita-style guest rooms and suites; three pools; onsite ropes course; yoga center; Pilates studio; variety of small meeting spaces, including a 12-person boardroom and two 1,500-square-foot rooms that can seat up to 130 each.
Omni Tucson National Resort
Well-known golf resort that has hosted PGA events; two 18-hole golf courses, including one designed by Tom Lehman; 28 guest rooms; 11,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor event space; lighted tennis courts; four restaurants; spa; 30 minutes from Tucson International Airport.
Rincon Creek Ranch
Founded in 1950s as working cattle ranch; borders Saguaro National Park; seven guest casitas; meeting room with 1,200 sq. ft.; rustic Ranch House is unique venue; outdoor lawn can host up to 150; activities include horseback riding, Jeep tours, hiking and golf.
Tanque Verde Ranch
Located between Saguaro National Park and Coronado National Forest; dude ranch can accommodate up to 250 guests; 69 separate guest rooms spread out among five Southwestern-style buildings; great outdoor spaces, including terraces and a lawn; 7,547 sq. ft. of indoor meeting space, plus two large dining rooms.
The Lodge at Ventana Canyon
Semiprivate country club with 36 holes of golf; tennis center; 50 suites; more than 7,000 sq. ft. of event space; lodge hosts up to 200 for events.
The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain
Located in Marana, less than 30 minutes from Tucson; 253 luxurious guest rooms and suites; Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course; four restaurants; spa; 44,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
The Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa
Luxurious retreat, nestled in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains; 487 guest rooms and suites; five pools; 27-hole Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course; Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa; seven dining options; more than 64,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; can accommodate up to 2,000 guests.
Tubac Golf Resort & Spa
Located on historic ranch in the Santa Cruz River Valley about 30 miles south of Tucson; 98 suites; 8,000 sq. ft. of event space; 27 holes of championship golf; spa.
Tucson Convention Center
Primary event venue located downtown on the Streetcar line; 205,000 sq. ft. of space; 89,760 sq. ft. spread out among three exhibition halls; 20,164-square-foot ballroom; in-house catering and concession company.
Westward Look Wyndham Grand Resort & Spa
Property built in 1912; located on 80 acres at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains; 241 guest rooms; more than 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; Sonoran Ballroom complex has 12,650 sq. ft.; spa features cleansing muds from Sonoran Desert.
White Stallion Ranch
Acclaimed family ranch has been used as movie and television sets; all-inclusive resort; 41 guest rooms and a four-bedroom hacienda; 2,578 sq. ft. of event space; horseback riding.
Wyndham Canoa Ranch Resort
Located 30 miles south of Tucson in Green Valley; 98 guest rooms, including two-bedroom suites; 3,000 sq. ft. of event space; room for up to 100; two golf courses.
Hilton has just debuted two new Curio and one new Embassy Suites property with lots of space for meeting planners.