A wide variety of attractions, upscale accommodations and new restaurants meets expectations in Arizona’s Valley of the Sun.

When winter weather begins to engulf a large portion of the United States, thoughts turn to warm breezes and bright sunshine.

Phoenix and the surrounding region offers groups not only warmth, blue sky and sun, but also a myriad of indoor and outdoor activities, an expanding gourmet food culture and a variety of accommodations and meeting venues. The Phoenix area has been hosting groups of all sizes for decades, and the infrastructure is firmly in place to meet the expectations of virtually any size group that plans to meet there.

More than 16 million visitors annually come to America’s sixth-largest city to get out of the cold, take in the sights and utilize the 190,000 acres of recreational space the greater Phoenix region provides.

Valley of The Sun

Called “The Valley of the Sun,” the area, which covers 2,000 square miles, is centered on the city of Phoenix, and includes Maricopa and Pina counties. The latest Census Bureau figures estimate the Valley has 4.3 million residents and is one of the fastest growing major metropolitan areas in the U.S.

Phoenix, referred to as “the soul of the American Southwest,” is palm-canopied resorts, mountain trails, engaging pink sunsets, tall Saguaro cactus and bright city lights. The entire valley shares the sun with thousands of snowbirds who flock to the area for both pleasure and business.

The Phoenix Mountains Preserve offers an in-city hiking experience in the Sonoran Desert by Don Heimburger

The Phoenix Mountains Preserve offers an in-city hiking experience in the Sonoran Desert. (Photo by Don Heimburger)

With a variety of hotels and resorts (as many as 70), a growing upscale food scene and warm-weather attractions, this region has many of the amenities that groups of all kinds look for when booking a tour destination.

The new $1.4-billion, 20-mile Valley Metro project provides easy access between Phoenix, Mesa and Tempe, including four new stops. The station platforms themselves are adorned with $6.2 million worth of public art, with each installment designed to reflect the character of the community where it is located.

Where To Stay

Phoenix offers a wide range of hotels, from historic, to boutique, to business chic. More than 3,000 new or renovated hotel rooms are within walking distance of the Phoenix Convention Center. For large events, the Center, inspired by the red rock walls of the Grand Canyon, offers 99 meeting rooms, a performance hall that seats 2,400, and 900,000 square feet of exhibition and meeting space. The center also sports an airy food court with patio seating.

Here are details on three area resorts:

The Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs Resort is a Spanish-Mediterranean-designed, all-suite mountainside resort featuring 584 rooms. Located in the granite cliffs of the Phoenix Mountain Reserve, it offers dramatic views of the valley, eight pools and a championship golf course. Its distinctive Different Point of View restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows is located 1,800 feet above the city, provides breathtaking views and can be booked for group functions. There is also 65,000 sq. ft. of space for meetings and group activities at the resort, including a convention center and grand ballroom, a complete water village with pools and waterfalls and a full-service spa.

A large, inviting center court is featured at the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort and Spa at Gainey Ranch by Don Heimburger

A large, inviting center court is featured at the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort and Spa at Gainey Ranch. (Photo by Don Heimburger)

The Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Gainey Ranch is a sprawling 27-acre complex set near the McDowell Mountains, and includes a 2.5-acre water playground, 10 pools, a sand beach, a 27-hole championship golf course, world-class tennis, miles of jogging and bicycle trails, Spa Avania, a Native American Learning Center, Camp Hyatt for young guests, five restaurants, Venetian gondola rides and nightly entertainment in the Center Stage bar. Your group might enjoy margarita- or salsa-making classes sponsored by the resort. The Hyatt Regency, which just completed an $80-million renovation, features 70,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor function space with 33 meeting rooms and offers 493 guest rooms and suites.

The five-diamond Scottsdale Fairmont Princess has 649 rooms, four restaurants, a well-being spa, six pools, two 18-hole championship golf courses and is home to the annual PGA Phoenix Open. The addition of the new 53,000-square-foot Palomino Ballroom and Conference Center at the Fairmont makes the resort the largest meetings hotel in the Fairmont Hotels and Resorts portfolio. With more than 150,000 square feet of total event space, the Fairmont is geared for small and large groups. During the Christmas season, the Fairmont sponsors a holiday light show that features more than 2 million lights on the resort property. Thousands show up every evening to watch musical performances, skate on a 6,000-sq.-foot ice rink, take in a petting zoo, ride an express train to see the colorful lights or sit next to a warm fire and sip hot apple cider.

What To Do

Groups will find plenty of opportunities in the Phoenix area to entertain their members.

In downtown Phoenix, numerous building murals by signature Phoenix artists depict the history of the city and act as a sign of change as the area attracts new restaurants (there are more than 100), bars and boutique-type shops. A self-guided tour of the area is easily walkable.

Roosevelt Row, on the northern edge of the downtown and on the light-rail line, is a laid-back area defined by artist studios, galleries, coffee shops and small stage theaters. Every first Friday of the month Roosevelt Row sees large crowds come to participate in an Art Walk which includes colorful street performers and bands. And every third Friday is Gallery Night. To add to the fun, when strolling through the distinct you’ll find temporary art markets, festivals, and community gardens.

Places like the DeSoto Central Market with a selection of bars, restaurants and eateries all in one building, are growing in popularity here. For a unique experience, hop over to Bitter & Twisted, a one-of-a-kind cocktail lounge in the historic Luhrs Building, with concoctions such as a tasty Queen’s Park Swizzle, Slap N’ Tickle, or try the La Chocolat Sazerac.

Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour in downtown Phoenix serves up unusually good concoctions by Don Heimburger

Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour in downtown Phoenix serves up unusually good
concoctions. (Photo by Don Heimburger)

Arizona State University opened its downtown Phoenix campus in the summer of 2006 and is developing plans to create an environment for 15,000 students. Also, the University of Arizona and the City of Phoenix are developing the Phoenix Biomedical Campus, a 28-acre biomedical-research campus in downtown Phoenix.

A distinctive highlight of the Phoenix area is its Southwestern cuisine. The area’s cuisine first was influenced by the traditions of  the American Indians, then Spanish colonists, Mexican settlers and finally U.S. pioneers. So when your group is ready to eat, there is a number of unique places in Phoenix. La Piazza Locale is a brick-oven pizzeria and Italian kitchen downtown that serves dishes just like those found in the Old Country. At the Phoenix Public Market Cafe you’ll find a casual urban setting and menus offering breakfast, lunch and dinner, with many ingredients that come right from the adjacent public market itself. At Crudo, enjoy a fine dinner featuring housemade cheeses, wood-smoked meats and refined seafood dishes. It was named best new restaurant by Phoenix Magazine.

In downtown Mesa there’s a 30-piece sidewalk sculpture gallery, the Mesa Arts Center, four theaters, five art galleries and 14 art studios.

Hot air balloon rides are a popular activity over the Sonoran Desert. Sunrise and sunset are peak times to take to the air and see the Valley from a different point of view. You can even schedule a catered breakfast and a champagne toast as you land.

Or you can explore Mesa, Gilbert and Queen Creek’s fresh foodie trail that features peach orchards, dairy farms, citrus groves, and the popular, family-owned Queen Creek Olive Grove and Mill, where extra virgin olive oil is produced from 7,000 olive trees. Or visit the 160-acre Orange Patch, which started in 1965, to watch fresh oranges being picked and sorted and tour Mesa’s original citrus grower—the pleasant fragrance of the fruit is addicting.

Fresh oranges and lemons right off the tree are offered at the Orange Patch, the original citrus grower in the Phoenix area by Don Heimburger

Fresh oranges and lemons right off the tree are offered at the Orange Patch, the original citrus grower in the Phoenix area. (Photo by Don Heimburger)

An exciting new concept at Agritopia in Gilbert is Barnone, a craftsman community opening this fall at the innovative agricultural community. It will feature 14 resident craftsmen across a wide array of disciplines who will operate a micro-winery, micro-distillery, a medicinal garden and a culinary machinist who will design kitchen tools. In addition, two new restaurants are planned on the site, one featuring hearth-based cooking and one a vegan eatery.

In March, fans catch baseball fever and come by the thousands to Mesa stadiums to see the Chicago Cubs participate in spring training at Sloan Park, while the Oakland A’s come out of hibernation at recently renovated Hohokam Stadium. Both stadiums provide “ballpark bites” such as hot dogs and pizza for Cub fans, and A’s fans can sample Bay Area food and beverage choices while watching a game. In total, the area is home to 15 Cactus League teams.

Groups can visit the Hall of Flame, a museum of firefighting with more than 80 pieces of fire equipment on display, or tour Heritage Square, the oldest residential block in Phoenix, featuring 10 restored 1800 and 1900-era buildings, such as the Baird Machine Shop, an example of early commercial architecture.

Take an Arizona Outback Adventure (AOA) guided tour of the Sonoran Desert, or go mountain biking or kayaking. Easy, to middle-of-the-road, to more strenuous adventures can be arranged by this well-established firm. Also, the 34,000-acre Scottsdale McDowell Sonoran Preserve is often used by groups for hikes led by a conservancy steward. Or, your group can plan a day at TopGolf in Gilbert, a high-end sport facility offering 102 climate-controlled hitting bays and nearly 3,000 square feet of private event space. The Phoenix area has features more than 200 golf courses.

For a truly delightful desert experience, visit the Desert Botanical Garden on Galvin Parkway in Phoenix. This 140-acre garden showcases the world’s finest and most diverse collection of succulent plants, including beautiful desert wildflowers. For 24 evenings during the Christmas season the garden features Noches de las Luminaries, which comes to life with 8,000 hand-lit luminaria bags, as well as thousands of other lights. The garden also offers hands-on workshops and demonstrations for all ages and interests.

Gilbert's Art Walk and Farmers Market attracts hundreds of visitors looking for paintings, sculpture, calligraphy, photography, and jewelry by Don Heimburger

Gilbert’s Art Walk and Farmers Market attracts hundreds of visitors looking for paintings, sculpture, calligraphy, photography and jewelry. (Photo by Don Heimburger)

In Gilbert, visit the free, casual Art Walk and Farmer’s Market held at Water Tower Plaza from October to March, featuring paintings, sculpture, three-dimensional art, calligraphy, photography, printmaking and jewelry.

In nearby Scottsdale there are more than 100 art galleries, more than 50 public artwork displays, and drama, dance and concerts at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. Then there’s Old Town Scottsdale that holds an every-Thursday-evening Artwalk along Main Street.

Just sitting poolside with a good book is another relaxing way to enjoy the Phoenix area, or when you need a break from all the activity. But whatever your group plans, it’s bound to be a hit in this perpetually sunny region.

For more information, go to www.visitphoenix.com

By Don Heimburger