Authentic Experiences You Can Only Have in Tucson

By Christine Loomis | Courtesy of Loews Ventana Canyon Resort

Today’s attendees demand meetings with a strong experiential component—and not one that’s “manufactured.” They want genuine experiences—the chance to be immersed in the local community, culture, history and traditions of the destinations in which they meet.

Planners don’t have to look far to provide attendees with a deep dive into authentic Tucson. History and art can be found in the 18th-century Mission San Xavier del Bac, still in use today, and colorful downtown murals reflecting the city’s heritage. A rich culinary history resulted in UNESCO giving Tucson the first City of Gastronomy designation in the country. The Sonoran Desert is a vibrant ecosystem and a place where Native cultures have lived for thousands of years—as one can learn at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

Dan Gibson with Visit Tucson, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, puts it this way: “Things here are all about culture. The deep sense of Tucson—its history, art, food, nature and music—isn’t some separate thing. It’s wherever you go around the city.” That holds true for a multitude of venues groups might choose for their meetings.

Where to Stay

THE RITZ-CARLTON, DOVE MOUNTAIN

The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain sits about 30 minutes north of Tucson in Marana. It has 253 guest rooms, more than 44,000 square feet of meeting space—and many ways for attendees to experience local nature and culture. Morning hikes go deep into the desert as the sun rises over the Tortolita Mountains. Another guided hike takes participants up Alamo Ridge and down into Wild Burro Canyon to explore the historic ruins of T Bench Bar Ranch, while a third provides an up-close view of rock art created by ancient Native people. Long-ago desert dwellers gave meaning to various gemstones and discovered their healing powers. Today, attendees can learn about that and create their own gem-based jewelry at the resort’s spa. Build- A-Bike Geocaching combines desert adventure and philanthropy.

OMNI TUCSON NATIONAL RESORT

Tucson’s take on Mexican food is just one of its culinary delights. At the 128-room Omni Tucson National Resort, that’s the focus of the Team Guacamole Challenge, an interactive event in which teams of up to six create their own guac using fresh and local ingredients. Their efforts are then judged by a panel of experts. Not only do participants learn to make a quintessential Tucson menu item, it’s a skill they can take home. The resort also has 10,500 square feet of meeting space.

LOEWS VENTANA CANYON RESORT

Meeting-goers at Loews Ventana Canyon dive into local culture and history via tours to Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Arizona State Museum and Biosphere 2, run by the University of Arizona Science Center. Biosphere 2 is a 3.14-acre facility with 7.2 million cubic feet of sealed glass and 6,500 windows where various research projects are underway. On the adventure side, attendees can take part in a cattle drive at a local ranch, tour the desert by Jeep, learn to skeet shoot at a local club, or descend more than six stories down into Colossal Cave, where the remains of an 86,000-year-old sloth and 34,000-year-old horse were found. The resort has 398 guest rooms, 37,000 square feet of flexible interior space and 23,000 square feet of exterior space.

WHITE STALLION RANCH

What’s more western than a ranch? White Stallion Ranch is the ideal combo for planners—authentic and group-friendly. Naturally, horseback riding is a core activity and there are rides for all levels. The ranch sits on the north boundary of Saguaro National Park West, and some rides take guests into the park to experience firsthand one of the Southwest’s most compelling and diverse landscapes. There’s also team cattle penning (an excellent team-building challenge) and cattle sorting, plus nightly entertainment options, like watercolor lessons, desert critter educational classes, entertainment by cowboys around the fire and a wild west show. Additionally, the ranch offers rock climbing, fat-tire biking and shooting.

“I can look anyone in the eye and say that any horseback ride, hike or nature-based experience on the ranch is iconic Tucson, as the ranch is on the border of the national park and, like the park, is classic Tucson and Sonoran Desert,” says ranch co-owner Russell True.

White Stallion has 44 guest accommodations of various sizes and can take as many as 100 guests.

HACIENDA DEL SOL GUEST RANCH RESORT

It’s hard not to feel immersed in Sonoran nature here. This historic guest ranch has 59 guest rooms and multiple meeting spaces, including a ballroom, outdoor courtyards and private and semi-private dining in the restaurant. It’s home to a variety of Sonoran Desert wildlife such as song birds, butterflies, humming birds and reptiles. The resort offers several guided walks on property, including a photography hike, arts and culture talk and history walk. The resort also partners with Southwest Trekking, a guide service, to provide off-property desert adventures, and Arizona Star Tours for immersive stargazing on the property over the Santa Catalina Mountains. Trail rides deep into the desert are available, too.

Taste of the City

Tucson may not rival Memphis or Kansas City, but barbecue is a long- tradition here.

R&R Family Kitchen & Barbecue Company has been providing catering—and real-deal barbecue—to groups since 2005. Owner Robert Ramos says, “We can handle any size event, anywhere it’s located.” On- site, there’s private dining for up to 30. Traditional Barbecue items include Barbecue pulled pork or chicken, hickory-smoked beef brisket, mesquite- smoked beef, Barbecue salmon and ribs. If you don’t want Barbecue (hard to fathom!), R & R has other menus, including a vegetarian one.

Catalina Barbecue Co. & Sports Bar is located at JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa, a popular choice for groups. A private dining area accommodates up to 40 for a seated event, 50 for a reception. A partial buyout accommodates 110, a full buyout 200.

Sip & Sample

Tucson is making a name for itself with award-wining spirits crafted with local ingredients.

Hamilton Distillers does everything in-house to create its single malt with a distinctive Sonoran Desert taste; the barley is malted over mesquite instead of traditional peat. Mashing, fermenting, distilling, barreling and bottling all take place under one roof. Groups can book private tours for up to 20 at a time.

Flying Leap Vineyards & Distillery is the best of both worlds—a place for whiskey lovers and wine lovers. It was founded in 2010 when its first grapes were planted. Distilling spirits from wine grapes, including brandy, liqueurs and vodka, began in 2016. There’s a Tucson tasting room but head about an hour southeast to Elgin and the winery estate, which can accommodate events for up to 300. Groups can customize their visit. Catering, boxed lunches and tours of the winery and distillery are all available.

What To Do

ARIZONA-SONORA DESERT MUSEUM

Few places immerse visitors in the Sonoran Desert as well as the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Its 98 acres are alive with plants and animals that thrive in this harsh environment. Hawks soar, wild desert flowers provide rich bursts of color, lizards skitter across the winding paths and museum staff provide insights and intriguing detail.

In addition to animal encounters with snakes, hawks and other desert dwellers, the museum offers groups a Sonoran Supermarket Experience, during which participants step back 500 years to learn how the desert once provided everything for its human inhabitants. “The program explores local resources that native peoples of the Sonoran Desert—Tohono O’odham, Yaqui and Seri—traditionally used for food, medicines and fibers. Guests experiment with ethnobotanical materials to make their own cordage and discover foods and tools they might find in their backyards,” says Anthony Peña, event specialist with the museum.

There’s a tasting portion where attendees try native foods such as palm seeds, acorns and nopales (cactus). The program for up to 50 guests lasts about an hour.

Additionally, the museum has spaces to rent and a catering service skilled in incorporating local ingredients.

OLD TUCSON

This “Wild West” town and movie studio has had some 400 movies and commercials filmed here. Created in 1939 by Columbia Pictures, it isn’t the same kind of “authentic” as other places, yet it brings to life an era when cowboys, gunslingers and the like populated the West. Live-action stunt shows, entertainment and a slice of history are part of its charm.

The Tucson staff of Arizona PRA, a destination management company, found it the perfect place to create a custom team-building event last May during which participants had several hours to explore town and complete various challenges. They wrote country songs, ate rattlesnake and competed in barrel racing—all while thoroughly immersed in this only-in- Tucson setting.

Using a different approach for a group with no time to go off-property, the PRA team brought Tucson to them at the Ritz- Carlton, Dove Mountain in an evening reception set up as a Tucson marketplace with local vendors. Guests could meander from booth to booth, cocktail in hand, interacting with artisans offering items such as custom-fitted western boots, Southwest pottery and Native American-made goods, and experiencing firsthand the city’s local artisan culture.

These are just a few options. Bottom line: When attendees ask for “authentic,” Tucson delivers.

Christine Loomis has written extensively about travel, food and meetings for national and regional online and print publications.

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