Changin’ It Up in Scottsdale

Changin It Up in Scottsdale Mike McGovern lives life in the fast lane, especially when he helps others take control and run full throttle as well. The 26-year racing pro serves as chief instructor at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving. Bondurant is geared to groups up to 400 with its stable of precision driving machines that range from small 125cc go-carts to the juiced-up, 6-speed Chevrolet Corvette Z51 coupes.

This is why I’ve come to Scottsdale—to see another side of the destination, beyond the vaunted golfing, restaurants and spas for which the region is deservedly famous. So I eye the bright yellow Vette warily because I’m not much of a speed freak typically. I explain as much to McGovern.

“It’s all about removing you from your comfort zone and giving you more confidence,” he says. “These teambuilding programs are designed to teach and thrill simultaneously.”

I can personally vouch for that. Participants can either man the wheel after a short lesson or ride shotgun with one of the pro drivers. I choose the latter, and after buckling up I quickly grasp why this is such a hot ticket. Blazing sometimes over 100 mph around a 1.6-mile, 15-turn course, it’s a high-octane adrenaline rush from start to finish.

“This is one of those premier, high-end activities that groups can’t normally do just anywhere,” says Lori M. James-Brownell, owner of Scottsdale’s AZA Events, Inc. “It’s so over-the-top from a thrill standpoint that people tell me they want to come back to do it all over again on their own.”

A DIFFERENT PACE Visionary architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed his winter residence Taliesin West in the late 1930s, literally erected from within the Sonoran Desert landscape. The staunch pioneer of “organic” architecture cemented freestanding rocks and boulders together with sand from the washes to balance the Modernist compound with its environment.

Docent Chris Adix recalls how Taliesin life was a fusion of manual labor and social functions.

“One of our jokes is that to be a Taliesin apprentice, all someone needed was a hammer, a sleeping bag and a tux,” he laughs. “Wright would invite potential clients to his home and have his apprentices decked out to serve cocktails.”

That entertainment tradition still thrives at Taliesin in event spaces revealing Wright’s peerless ability to blur lines between the inside and great outdoors. Artfully lit terraces and gardens make for pleasant evening function areas, while a pair of theaters handles performances, concerts, cocktail receptions and formal dining for up to 500.

“During the day, we’ll use Taliesin West for spousal activities and tours,” explains James-Brownell. “And at night, we’ve done cocktail receptions on the patio at sunset, followed with guests touring the site before heading into the amphitheater for dinner on the stage.”

She adds, “You really don’t have to create anything special here because the venue is such a unique experience in itself. But we’ll add to an event by bringing in entertainment like the Phoenix Boys Choir.”

COWBOY UP Arguably no DMC capitalizes on Sonoran Desert magic more than Fort McDowell Adventures (FMA). With exclusive rights to 25,000 acres amid the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, FMA lassoes groups and helps them cowboy up.

“When people meet in Scottsdale, they want to experience Southwest and Native American cultures unique to our region,” says general manager Rick Cibik. “We offer that in a natural setting only a half-hour from town.”

Amid Saguaro and sagebrush, attendees can kick up their heels with trail rides, rodeos, cattle drives, hiking, scavenger hunts and Yavapai cultural tours. “We typically take 100 people max on any activity at any one time,” Cibik says. “But we can really handle any size group by rotating attendees among our different activities.”

Our crew of 20 opted for FMA’s Jeep Orientating, with our chap-clad guide Wayne tossing in a rubber rattler or two to scare the bejesus out of us every so often. Afterwards, we all piled into the aptly named Tequila Bus, a rather colorful fiesta on wheels for shuttling to FMA’s La Puesta del Sol party venue.

“The Tequila Bus is definitely a mobile party,” says Cibik. “We don’t camouflage that. It’s a great way for us to transport attendees around during events.” Add in lively mariachi music, colorful sombreros and flowing south-of-the-border firewater, and the fun factor is hard to top.

Accommodating up to 1,600 pax, La Puesta is gussied up with indoor fire pits, a western saloon and spectacular 360° views. “To make it more indigenous, we’ll bring in tribal members for storytelling, nature walks and food tastings,” says Cibik. “Attendees leave with a better understanding and appreciation of Yavapai heritage.”

DESERT RETREATS Arriving at the InterContinental Montelucia Spa & Resort, the first thing that impressed me is how sweetly the property snuggles up to Scottsdale’s Camelback Mountain. But as twilight slipped into darkness, I grew downright mesmerized. Illuminated by the moonlight and Phoenix city lights, the landmark literally starts to glow after dusk, hence its Spanish-derived name translated as “mountain of light.”

“Many of our groups hike Camelback as an activity,” says Greg Hanss, director of sales/marketing. “It resonates with planners and corporate executives because it focuses on well-being, it’s a financially responsible activity, it’s green and it provides a great interactive dynamic.”

The product of a 5-year, $300 million revamp of the former La Posada Resort, this 34-acre sanctuary with its 293 plush guestrooms was inspired by the architecture and lifestyle of Andalusia in southern Spain.

Up to 1,000 can gather amid 27,000 sf of indoor meeting space, while 75,000 sf of outdoor space weaves throughout a labyrinth of sun-dappled courtyards and secluded gardens reminiscent of Old World Spain. Its crowning jewel is the 30,000-sf Montelucia Joya Spa, where attendees unwind in 19 treatment rooms and a rooftop pool gazing out on Camelback.

We like any place with the slogan: “Room to Groove.” The mid-century Hotel Valley Ho has been restored to its heyday vogue when Hollywood luminaries Bogart, Monroe and Gabor cavorted in its splendid seclusion. Groups can sip and sup like film stars on the signature 3,500-sf Sky Line Rooftop Terrace perched atop the 7-story tower with 360° views sweeping across Camelback and Old Town Scottsdale. Colorful cocktails, high-end hors d’oeuvres and massage stations added zing to our reception, but the dramatic desert sunset and stargazing pushes this 250-capacity reception site over the top.

The homage to hipster culture further spreads its retro-chic vibe throughout the 194 oversized guestrooms with all-glass walls opening to airy patios, the VH Spa & Fitness Center, and the swimming pool area with large, chic cabanas.

Bosco is more than a friendly Cocker Spaniel greeting guests at Kimpton Hotels’ 204-room FireSky Resort, located downtown. The pooch is tagged Director of Pet Relations to soften up clients like Aronel Taylor, events planner for the San Francisco division of GSA. She says, “We brought a group of 150 to the resort last July, and loved that it was pet-friendly.”

FireSky’s size is another big selling point. “They can take over and be the only group in-house,” says Tori McLaughlin, director of sales/marketing. Indoor space is 14,000 sf.

From the hotel lobby living room where Bosco lounges by the cozy stone fireplace, our group stepped into a lush garden courtyard for a lavish breakfast buffet with lots of healthy foods. The entire resort is themed around the natural elements.

“We’ll bring in organic products grown by local farmers and have them talk with guests about their olive oils, herbs, produce, and even wines and beers,” says McLaughlin. “This is always a hit since it has such a local focus.”

That vibe is what makes FireSky. It feels exactly like the Scottsdale I had hoped to discover.