By Christine Loomis | Photography by Mark W. Lipczynski, courtesy of Arizona Office of Tourism
You can get “same old” anywhere. A ballroom, meeting space, tired ice-breakers and banquet food can all equal a humdrum gathering that won’t do much to keep attendees engaged or provide memorable experiences. If an out-of-the-box meeting is the goal, choose an out-of-the-box destination. Northern Arizona is just such a place. It offers a sense of adventure, a glimpse into America’s wild past and landscapes that humble and inspire. It’s also home to a collection of venues and curated experiences that are anything but same-old.
RIVER TO RIM AND BEYOND
The mother of all “out-of-the-box” venues, Grand Canyon National Park provides inspiration galore and a setting that can’t be replicated. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience for small and medium-size groups, but it challenges planners in several ways.
Room rates at the South Rim are set by the National Park Service, but not every lodge takes groups. Lodging in the West Rim is on Hualapai Tribe land, so rates are set by them or a management company. Still the park easily delivers that unmistakable wow. While the National Park Service isn’t in the business of developing singular corporate experiences, local destination management companies are—including inside the park.
Heather Husom, general manager of Hello! Arizona, a Scottsdale-based DMC, has a slew of ideas that provide wow and then some for groups. One experience proposed for a small corporate team meeting combines rafting through the Grand Canyon with lodging near and at the canyon, as well as private flights between venues.
Groups can start in Flagstaff or Sedona, depending on the setting and amenities desired. Then they’re transported to Peach Springs, Arizona, via private flight, to embark on a 40-mile rafting trip on the Colorado River through lower Granite Gorge. While 12 miles of that stretch is rapids and adrenaline rush, most is a scenic float through one of nature’s most spectacular efforts. The day includes a moderate hike to a waterfall followed by lunch on the riverbank. From there, attendees fly via helicopter to check into cabins perched on the West Rim of the canyon. The evening includes impressive sunset views and dinner overlooking the glass-floored Skywalk, also managed by the Hualapai Tribe. In the morning, there’s time to see Eagle and Guano points before flying out of the canyon and on to the next Arizona adventure or conclusion of the program. 480.949.9592, hello-dmc.com/destinations/phoenix-scottsdale.
Groups can also stay in the park and join available adventures, such as an overnight at Phantom Ranch, accessed via mule ride or hiking (maximum of 20 people). Mule rides, available on the South Rim year round, include three-hour Canyon Vistas rides, and there are many options for hiking at the rim and below.
MEETINGS IN MOTION
Is it the destination or the journey? On Grand Canyon Railway, it’s both. Between the Williams Depot and the national park lie 65 miles of pines, prairie and lofty peaks. When you travel it via train, it is nature uninterrupted, sweeping vistas of the American southwest framed in the windows of the historic train. The ever-changing canvas might include glimpses of grazing antelope and elk or birds of prey soaring above the trees. The trip takes about two hours and 15 minutes, allowing groups time to meet, bond and relax; ditto on the return. The Railway can accommodate up to 80 in a coach car, 50 in first class. First class passengers receive a continental breakfast on the way up and snacks on the return. Alcoholic beverages are available for an additional cost. 800.843.8724, thetrain.com.
BEARS & BIRDS
Also in Williams is Bearizona. In addition to resident wildlife, which visitors can view on foot, from their own vehicles or via park bus, Bearizona’s 6,000-square-foot Canyonlands Restaurant is a remarkable venue designed with soaring canyon walks and ancient ruins that evoke the majesty and history of the southwest. A two-story covered deck overlooks the jaguar exhibit with its 25foot waterfall.
Groups of up to 150 (50 per bus) can arrange a Bearizona after Dark private Wild Ride Bus Tour at sunset, when many park animals are particularly active. These are the only open-air vehicles allowed in the drive-through area, giving photographers their best shot at cool photos. Animals that might be seen on the 45-minute tour include bears, wolves, bison, Rocky Mountain goats and big horn sheep. After the tour, guests can gather at Canyonlands for drinks and hors d’oeuvres and experience an animal meet-and-greet with head trainers. Ask about birds of prey educational shows, including free-flight demonstrations. 928.635.2289, bearizona.com.
PERSONAL BEST, INNER COWPOKE
Time your meeting for early July to take part in Prescott’s Frontier Days, where you come face-to-face with the wild heart of the Old West. Sign up for the infamous Boot Race on Whiskey Row, with heats for all age groups. Leave your pricey running shoes at home—in this race you sprint in cowboy boots! Afterward, your group can head to what is touted as The World’s Oldest Rodeo, a tradition since 1888. However you did in the boot race, here’s your chance to watch authentic cowpokes successfully put their boots to work riding, roping and wrestling (steers, that is).
WATER, WINE & MIND
Among the many things that pair well with wine is outdoor adventure. Verde Adventures offers that exact sublime combo on its three-hour Water to Wine Tour. Attendees float down the Verde River in inflatable kayaks, experiencing the natural rhythms and beauty of the Arizona landscape near Sedona. A few riffles add excitement but this is kayaking almost anyone can do. The float is followed by wine tasting at a local vineyard, just off the water where Oak Creek and the Verde River meet. Consider a designated driver for the group. 877.673.3661, verdeadventure.com.
If you’re bringing your own mind-illuminating presentation to Sedona, pair it with a venue that will set the experience apart, such as city-owned Posse Grounds Pavilion. Designed to inspire, the pavilion, for day use only, offers festival-style seating for up to 300, a stage, parking, restroom facilities and panoramic views of Sedona’s famed red rocks. 928.282.7098.
In Prescott, groups could work with Visit Prescott on a mindbody adventure that begins with yoga and concludes with a hike at Watson Lake, about four miles from downtown, among the boulders of the Granite Dells. 928.777.1259, visitprescott.com.
The centerpiece at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff is the 4.3-meter, $53 million Discovery Channel Telescope, and that’s just one of the things that makes this a venue for groups seeking a memorable setting. Consider a private 90-minute evening program, which costs $300 for up to 50 participants and runs only on Sundays after 5 p.m. Well worth integrating into a meeting itinerary, the experience includes a multimedia presentation and exclusive access to the telescopes for viewing (weather permitting). The observatory also has a one-hour daytime group program. 928.233.3280, lowell.edu.
For groups committed to physical and mental challenges to facilitate team bonding or see who in a team rises to the top ready to lead, a challenge course is just the thing. Flagstaff Extreme Adventure Course takes groups (minimum eight) high above Coconino National Forest on a course with more than 70 elements including eight zip lines. These are active, strenuous experiences so participants must be physically able. In addition to the courses, groups can add on meals, ground-based guided team building and fun co-branded take-away items. 888.259.0125, flagstaffextreme.com.
For another adrenaline-pulsing airborne experience, groups can soar with Predator Zip Lines over Out of Africa Wildlife Park, above lions, tigers, wolves, hyenas, bears, leopards and giraffes. The zip line and park, located in Camp Verde, about 30 minutes from Sedona, sit in the heart of northern Arizona’s wine country (keep that in mind for a post-zip calm-down). The company works with corporate groups on retreats and/or team building and can accommodate up to 200 on the zip-line tour. Restrictions apply, so ask when you book the team adventure. 928.567.9947, predatorzipline.com, outofafricapark.com.
WHERE TO STAY IN NORTHERN ARIZONA
GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK: Maswik Lodge North and South, the park’s main group lodging, offer a total of 250 rooms.
WILLIAMS: The 297-room Grand Canyon Railway Hotel offers 800 square feet of meeting space.
FLAGSTAFF: Newly renovated, the 247-room Little America Hotel features 13,000 square feet of meeting space. In addition to 183 guest rooms, DoubleTree by Hilton has two restaurants and 6,243 square feet of meeting space.
PRESCOTT: The 160-room Prescott Resort & Conference Center includes 16,000 square feet of meeting space. Hassayampa Inn, a boutique option, has 67 guest rooms and 12,000 square feet.
SEDONA: Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock features 221 guest rooms and 20,000 square feet of function space. Enchantment Resort, with 218 guest rooms and 13,000 square feet of space, sits on 70 acres.
WHERE TO EAT IN NORTHERN ARIZONA
GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK: El Tovar Dining Room accepts groups at specific times with a minimum 30 days notice. Arizona Room at Bright Angel Lodge accommodates 20-100 for pre-scheduled breakfast buffets. For groups up to 160, there’s Maswik’s Santa Fe Room. Thunderbird Room’s banquet facilities accommodate 45 right at the edge of the South Rim.
WILLIAMS: Canyonlands at Bearizona offers wildlife views, plated meals or buffets, and a full bar for up to 500. The restaurant at Grand Canyon Railway Hotel offers buffet meals and can accommodate 60 for a reception.
FLAGSTAFF: Cottage Farmhouse French Bistro, housed in a historic bungalow, features seasonal bistro fare. The owners of Lumberyard Brewing Co. restored the last standing building from Flagstaff’s lumber era, melding history with craft beer.
PRESCOTT: Prescott Brewing Company ranks in Arizona’s top 10 microbreweries. Art Deco décor and chef-driven cuisine define the Peacock Room at Hassayampa Inn.
SEDONA: Saltrock Southwest Kitchen serves regional cuisine and craft margaritas. Private dining accommodates 125 for receptions, 85 for dinner. Cowboy Club melds high-desert cuisine with Old West history and hospitality.
Christine Loomis has written extensively about travel, food and meetings for national and regional online and print publications.