By Ron Bernthal
Large American cities have dominated the media’s “Best City” lists for decades, but Tucson, with a metro population of 980,263, is “out-besting” even the nation’s biggest cities in some of the rankings. In 2017 Tucson was named as one of the Top 50 Meeting Destinations in the U.S. by Cvent; #7 U.S. Best Weekend Getaways by U.S. & World News & World Report; #7 Destinations on the Rise by TripAdvisor; a Top Best Winter Trip Destination 2017 For the Food in National Geographic; and one of the Best Cities for Recreation by WalletHub.
Once a quiet Southwestern cowboy and ranching town, downtown Tucson has transformed itself over the past decade into a vibrant and diverse urban center where high-tech startups, new restaurants and hotels, revitalized neighborhoods and a gleaming Sun Link streetcar line have attracted thousands of young entrepreneurs, award-winning chefs, imaginative designers and ambitious university students who all want to be part of this metamorphosis in the desert.
Of course, while Tucson embraces the modern age, the city’s rich cultural history can still be seen (and heard) in a unique Mariachi mass, held each Sunday morning at the beautiful 19th-century St. Augustine Cathedral at 8 a.m. Residents and visitors flock to the restored 1920s-era Rialto Theatre and the iconic 1930s Fox Tucson Theatre for shows and concerts, and to the Hotel Congress, opened in 1919, for dinner and cocktails. Many of Tucson’s historic buildings have been beautifully restored and offer ideas for creative meetings and group functions.
The 428-room El Conquistador Tucson, A Hilton Resort, located on more than 50 acres north of Tucson in Oro Valley and tucked against Pusch Ridge, offers spectacular views and new, completely renovated guest rooms and public areas. The multimillion-dollar renovation encompasses all areas of the property including indoor/ outdoor amenities, guest rooms, gardens and new wildlife and nature viewing programs. The redesigned main Desert Springs pool has a larger pool deck with additional sunning areas and several outdoor firepits for poolside mingling after dark.
The property offers 100,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor meeting space, including the 11,000-square-foot executive conference center. The resort caters private dining functions, but also offers Epazote Kitchen & Cocktails, where the menu boasts tasty dishes such as ceviche, steaks, seafood and more, made with ingredients sourced from local vendors and farmers.
The 398-room Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, also coming off of major renovations and resort enhancements, provides planners with 37,000 square feet of flexible function venues, unique outdoor spaces like the 22,000-square-foot Coyote Corral and two sizable ballrooms (10,000 and 8,875 square feet), multiple boardrooms, plenty of creative banquet menu possibilities and two championship Tom Fazio-designed golf courses. The resort’s Flying V Bar & Grill offers the flavors of the Sonoran Desert with boldness and creativity—take the fried calamari rubbed in pasilla chile and served with a sweet orange glaze, or the diver scallops served atop a creamy polenta made with butternut squash, mushrooms and purple cauliflower.
With just 128 guest rooms, groups at the Omni Tucson National Resort can feel like they own the place. It has nearly 11,000 square feet of event space with eight meeting rooms, and the indoor ambience is intimate and serene, while the outdoor amenities offer unique opportunities for a Southwestern experience, from a traditional Tucson-style barbeque at the Mesquite Corral to team building and private fitness and meditation classes in one of the gardens, with views of the Santa Catalina Mountains. At the resort’s Bob’s Steak & Chop House that overlooks the golf course, the menu is filled with fresh, local ingredients straight from nearby farms and ranches.
At Primo, located inside the 575-room JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa, guests can order from the wine bar menu, dinner menu or just nibble on appetizers from the daily happy hour menu. As part of the venue’s 80,768 square feet of event space, the 12,000-square-foot Ania Terrace can handle 2,000 for a reception and 640 for dinner, complete with views of the mountains of Saguaro National Park, the resort’s golf course and the lights of Tucson below. Additionally, the resort offers 14 event rooms, 26 breakout rooms, and expansive spa, golf and dining facilities.
DINING AND DRINK IN TUCSON
Some of the newer dining venues in the city are proving quite popular for small groups and private events. Anello Pizzeria opened in the trendy Warehouse Arts District in 2017 and serves wood-fired, hand-tossed pizza made with fermented natural sourdough and fresh ingredients.
Culinary Dropout also opened in 2017 just north of downtown. The 20,000-square-foot indoor/outdoor space, with 12,000 square feet of enclosed seating for about 400, has a full dining room and bar, an outdoor gaming area and a 150-person private dining and event space. The menu features comfort food and gastropub fare and cocktails, including provolone fondue, 36-hour pork ribs and fried chicken drizzled with honey. On most nights there’s live music.
Another uniquely-named venue is the Martin Drug Company Restaurant and Lounge, which moved into a historic downtown space in early 2017. The new restaurant is named for the original family-owned-andoperated business, Martin Drug Co., which was Tucson’s first soda fountain, general store and pharmacy that occupied the space from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s. The new Martin Drug Co. serves classic cocktails and sophisticated AmericanSouthwestern comfort food. The space features an interior open-air courtyard and an outdoor patio.
For craft beer lovers, Old Pueblo Brew Tours offers a mobile artisan craft beer journey through some of Tucson’s best breweries. Participants meet at a designated brewery and are shuttled by van during the tour. Brewery participants include the established Borderlands Brewing Co. and newbie Dillinger Brewing Co.
MiAn Sushi & Modern Asian Cuisine is an upscale Asian bistro and bar that opened in March 2017 on the ground floor of the nine-story Tucson Electric Power headquarters. The modern 5,000-square-foot restaurant seats 160 diners inside and 120 on the patio. The menu features a non-traditional array of sushi, noodles and Chinese fusion.
Other new eateries include the beautiful and bright Bird Modern Provisions & Bar, which serves new interpretations of Southern dishes like deviled eggs, fried green tomatoes and creamy grits. Jackson Bar + Eatery, hiding in a strip mall on Tucson’s far northeast side, makes everything from scratch on its menu—down to the flatbreads and ranch dressing. Its location attracts local and out-of-town golfers from nearby courses with dishes like the black truffle burger and dry-rubbed hangar steak.
Meeting planners can now book the Sand-Reckoner Tasting Room for private functions. Located downtown in a converted loft space that doubles as an art gallery, the high ceilings, minimalist decor and rectangular layout give this wine bar a big-city vibe. The venue (that only serves Sand-Reckoner) is affiliated with Sand-Reckoner Vineyards in Wilcox, located at 4,300 feet elevation, about 80 miles east of Tucson. The tasting room or the Wilcox winery makes for a nice group experience.
REFRESHED AND RENEWED
Tucson offers many full-service, meeting-and-group focused resorts relatively close to downtown, or just outside the city limits. Although new and upgraded downtown properties are offering meeting planners new options, the dining, spa, golf and space amenities of the mountain resorts still attract much of the incentive and large group business.
Renovation and expansion projects are underway at the 287-room DoubleTree by Hilton Tucson Reid Park, including 25,000 square feet of meeting space, two restaurants and all guest rooms, with completion expected in fall 2018.
Tucson’s newest downtown hotel, Marriott’s AC Hotel Tucson Downtown, opened in fall 2017. The new hotel features 136 rooms, a pool and poolside bar, a restaurant, a fitness center, a 200-space public parking garage, and nearly 6,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor. The hotel’s amenities for business travelers and small groups include a business center and catering services for corporate meetings, training sessions or presentations.
The 120-room Embassy Suites by Hilton Tucson Paloma Village completed a $3 million renovation of its guestrooms and public spaces in 2016. The hotel is seven miles from the University of Arizona and 15 miles from Tucson International Airport.
The hotel features 2,700 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space, on-site catering, spacious suites, complimentary cooked-toorder breakfast and a complimentary evening reception that includes drinks and snacks daily. Other amenities include a heated outdoor pool, business center and fitness center.
For small executive retreats, the new Aravaipa Farms Orchard & Inn is a country-style boutique property featuring farm-to-table dining and hiking in nearby Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness. The venue opened in 2017 in Mammoth, about an hour from downtown Tucson. The 46-acre property re-established fruit orchards and vegetable gardens that provide fresh produce for on-property meals. It has a swimming pool, a working garden and casitas and bedrooms that can accommodate small groups up to 20 people.
GROUP-READY ACTIVITIES IN TUCSON
The trendy Mercado San Agustin, a public marketplace, offers live music, a farmers’ market and shopping events amid an array of interesting boutique businesses and food venues. The Agustin Kitchen is a busy restaurant specializing in New American and classic French cuisine with an emphasis on locally-sourced products like southern Arizona beef, olive oils, breads, flour and cheeses.
Corporate groups can visit the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2 and get a behind-the-scenes look at this amazing complex that’s three football fields long. Under 6,500 panes of glass is a rainforest, coastal fog desert marsh, a million-gallon ocean and other environments, all at 4,000 feet elevation at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains, about 50 minutes north of downtown.
Arizona’s oldest visual arts institution, the Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block, finished a $750,000 renovation resulting in an expansion of the museum’s Art of the American West collection, with works by artists that currently live or have lived in the American Southwest.
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, founded in 1952, is one of the nation’s leading outdoor living museums, featuring more than 230 animals and 1,200 varieties of desert plants. The Museum is located in Tucson Mountain Park adjacent to Saguaro National Park (west) and works with planners on special group events.
FLY THE FRIENDLY SKIES
One of the new pleasures of flying into Tucson International Airport has nothing to do with the airport’s on-time record (most flights are on time, thanks to the almost always sunny and dry weather). It’s because the city has almost completed spending its $28 million Brighter TUS project to improve the terminals and overall passenger experience at the airport. A Brighter TUS is comprised of three projects: a Solar Project, Terminal Optimization Project and the addition of new food and beverage vendors.
The remodel includes repurposing underutilized space in the ticketing lobby for expanded security checkpoints and adding new composure areas beyond the new checkpoints for seating and airside views for passengers after security. Concourse spaces which were used for security checkpoints now have new retail shops, food and beverage outlets, business centers and children’s play areas. New carpet and patterned terrazzo flooring has been installed throughout the terminal, and new solar panels capture the ever-present Tucson sun for added sustainability.
Ron Bernthal is a freelance print and broadcast journalist specializing in the hospitality industry.