The American West: Fresh Air Meetings & Outdoor Venues

The American West

Red Rock’s Amphitheater

In California during the 60s, there were a lot of people making noise about saving the whales, exploring the outdoors, eating healthy food and working together as a community toward a common goal. Looks like they were onto something. The word “sustainability” wasn’t common then, but we can attribute the birth of the megatrend in the U.S. to those free-spirited West Coast thinkers.


According to Trevor Hanks, CEO of 360 Destination Group, there continues to be an upsurge in demand for eco-friendly programs.

“We’re seeing a huge increase in requests for experiential and green types of activities that really give people good experiences in the outdoors, and not necessarily so much of the other more passive activities that we offer,” says Hanks. “We’re seeing a lot more of people wanting to get out on the ocean and couple it with anything from a beach cleanup to surf classes.”

Popular events include environmental guides explaining coastal ecology on nature hikes and accredited oceanographers escorting groups during whale/dolphin-watching cruises. And attendees are eager to learn how California is managing coastal build-out.

“We’re also seeing, certainly in our wine tours, an interest in doubling up tours at organic farms,” says Hanks. “We’re doing a lot of those organic tours, coupling them with wine tastings or wine lunches. You get a little of both and that’s been very popular.”

Hanks also likes Newport Beach’s large marinas because they’re well-suited for upscale, al fresco F&B events. Visit Newport Beach calls them “Docking & Dining” events.

“Newport Beach’s harbor is a dynamic attraction for meeting planners,” says spokesperson Cristen Stapp. “They can choose to set a meeting or after-meeting event onboard a yacht or in a scenic waterfront venue. Newport Harbor really offers a unique West Coast foodie experience with all of the lovely waterfront restaurants.”

Surf culture is making inroads into the corporate group market for two reasons. First, CSR-minded organizations like Surfrider Foundation are doing an incredible job educating companies about ocean sustainability through cool fundraising and volunteer events. Second, nothing in California gets an executive out of his or her head better than hanging ten on a breaking chest-high roller.

Grab some of that surf vibe at the edgy 119-room Hotel Erwin in Venice Beach. The 100-pax High Rooftop Lounge at this Joie de Vivre Hotel overlooks the boardwalk, and it’s ranked by everyone as one of L.A.’s top five roof bars. This is also the only corporate hotel we know that offers an “Ink & Stay” group tattoo package (bottle of tequila included), which we’re not advocating, but they can also hook you up with group surf lessons, bike rentals, etc.

Definitely check out Erwin’s Barlo Kitchen + Cocktails for their shrimp ’n grits with bacon lardon and brown butter jus, and caramel bacon burger with herb chevre from the nearby Drake Family Farm.


With so much focus on outdoor venues and experiences for large groups, Huntington Beach CVB is diving into the meetings market with its Beach Boys and Hotel California appeal.

“We’re fairly new into the meetings arena,” says Bob Wentworth, vp of marketing. “About a year ago we brought on board a director of sales and so we’re really gearing up in that area. There’s a lot of basic services that we provide that are similar to a lot of bureaus—sales campaigns for our properties, launching partnerships and working with planners to find out what it is they want to accomplish, what the profile of that group is, and trying to find the best match.”

Huntington Beach is HQ of the U.S. surfing circuit so there’s already a strong community commitment to the environment. The bureau publishes a sustainability guide for the community because the city’s most important resources are its natural resources.

But can they handle large groups?

“We just wrapped up the U.S. Open of Surfing, which is the largest surfing competition in the world,” confirms Wentworth. “We have in excess of 750,000 people over a 9-day period.”

For conference planners, Wentworth points out the 517-room Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort with 72,000 sf of indoor function space and three oceanview ballrooms—the largest ballroom space between Los Angeles and San Diego.

Just north, the 1.6 million-sf Anaheim Convention Center is the largest convention center on the West Coast, with 55,000 hotel rooms in the county—7,000 of which are within walking distance of the convention center.

“We are in the midst of creating a new outdoor venue space adjacent to the Anaheim Convention Center called the Grand Plaza,” says Elaine Cali, CTA, spokesperson for Anaheim/Orange County VCB. “That adds 100,000 sf of unique and flexible event and meeting space amid all of the lush landscaping, palm trees, iconic fountains and lots of warm, local sunshine.


Last year, tech giant Siemens named San Francisco the #1 Greenest City in North America. The big news this year, the 1.2 million-sf Moscone Center capped a $56 million renovation, with upgrades designed to LEED Gold specifications. Part of the spend included a $4.5 million WiFi system serving up to 60,000 devices at once.

“Our first step was to ask our customers what changes they’d like to see—the point of this whole project was to meet their needs,” says Joe D’Alessandro, president/CEO of San Francisco Travel. “Those suggestions were our guideposts every step of the way.”

D’Alessandro and his team are actively promoting the Siemens award and Moscone upgrades, along with the low cost convenient accessibility around the Center and throughout the city.

“San Francisco is a compact 49 square miles of everything, including unique venues to hold events, and we have a global reputation for award-winning restaurants and dining,” says Michael Thomas, executive associate, convention sales. He adds that there are 22,000 hotel rooms within walking distance of Moscone.

Plus, San Francisco boasts one of the largest urban parks in the world, Golden Gate Park. The 80,000-acre Golden Gate National Recreation Area is the second-most visited of the 396 parks under the National Park Service, and the Trust for Public Land Park Score rates San Francisco’s urban park system the best in the nation.

Gordon Thompson, DMCP/CMP, is co-owner of San Francisco-based Cappa & Graham DMC. He says his company offers a large menu of educational group activities that celebrate the outdoors.

“We have kayaking and sailing and we have an environmental tour up in Marin county where we can do everything from cooking classes to scavenger hunts,” says Thompson.

He adds that creativity and inventiveness are key in his market, citing a planner with a group of 300 who approached him with an RFP for something fun and sustainable in October.

“So, we’re going to theme that around the Pumpkin Festival down in Half Moon Bay,” he says. “We’re going to have square dancing, chili cook-offs and some other competitive things like maybe a pumpkin toss.”

Cappa & Graham is big on the gamification/city tour trend. The DMC recently brought in video pros who assigned to each team a various corporate goal relative to customer service and business development. Then each group visited sites in San Francisco to film 2-minute videos promoting their specific business objective.

“There was one group where three of them are wearing white hotel bathrobes, and they go rescue a female member of their team who’s held hostage by three guys all dressed in black,” says Thompson. “The guys in black represent an old processing system. The female hostage represents the customer and the guys in white represent the company’s new processing system—with the song “Kung Fu Fighting” in the background. It was hysterical.”


Nicole Marsh, CMP/DMPA, is CEO of The Arrangers DMC with offices in Denver, Colorado Springs and Vail. She says active outdoor programs are booming in popularity because executives are spending more time in the office together, so anything removed from an interior locale has better success in terms of teambuilding.

Colorado specializes in this. Just 20 minutes outside Denver, for example, the awesome Red Rock Amphitheater is set between two towering red-hued mountains. The 30,000 sf visitor’s center hosts 2,000 for receptions. Stay tuned for our “On Location” story.

“It’s that adventure and outdoor theme that’s the focus of much of the teambuilding programs that The Arrangers put together for our clients,” explains Marsh. “River rafting is really popular out here in the summer and there’s a ton of zip lines that have popped up across the entire state this year.”

For one group this summer, the DMC set up identifiers along a river rafting route that teams were required to spot, without falling overboard. The group with the most points afterward won a cash prize that they donated to a local charity.

“Obviously, Colorado is a great state for this kind of activity,” Marsh says. “We’re a green state with about 300 days of sunshine a year, even in the winter. In fact, we’ve done fun scavenger hunts on snowmobiles, where you’re digging in the snow for things. It’s all about embracing the great outdoors.

Owned by Discovery Channel founder John Hendricks, the Gateway Canyons Resort is a spectacular mountain resort located one hour southwest of Grand Junction at the confluence of the West Creek and Dolores River by the majestic Uncompahgre Plateau. Designed like a small village, Gateway just wrapped a $100 million expansion including the addition of adobe-style accommodations for a total of 58 rooms/suites starting at 475 sf. The units feature fireplaces, Peruvian furniture, oversize patios with hot spring spas and breathtaking views of the Palisade formation.

The expansion is the realization of Hendricks’ dream to create “a gathering place for the incredibly curious.” Onsite, there’s an auto museum housing 45 prized American vehicles from the 1906 Cadillac Model H Coupe to the 2008 electric Tesla Roadster. The museum is often used as a group venue, along with 8,800 sf of space in the Palisade Event Center and Mission Bell Amphitheater. There are also three restaurants including the upscale Entrada serving dishes like Colorado striped bass with country hash.

The resort specializes in outdoor teambuilding retreats with a full slate of group events such as rock climbing and rappelling, rafting, horseback riding, airplane tours and Jeep tours.

And we have to mention this because few things bring a group together like root beer float s’mores. The 190-room Park Hyatt Beaver Creek hosts a daily S’mores Happy Hour around their big fire pit overlooking the ski slopes. You have a choice of milk or dark chocolate and fresh handmade marshmallows created at 8100 Mountainside Bar & Grill. Flavors include vanilla, Grand Marnier, M&M and, thanks to a recent Facebook contest, the newly invented root beer recipe! Total indoor/outdoor meeting space is 20,000 sf.


Dana Parker is the director of corporate administration for Phoenix-based Southwest Conference Planners (SWC), and a big proponent of sustainability and green meetings.

“That’s how we not only run our programs but how we run our business too,” she says. “It simply fits in with everything we’ve always done. When groups come here, they want river floats, horseback riding, biking and jeep tours—those are the main tours that we do—and we make sure nothing gets ruined, nothing gets disrupted and the desert environment is very, very respected.”

SWC does a lot of eco-friendly scavenger hunt geocaching tours with iPads. They combine that with a desert tour and educational sessions about the ecosystem. Parker especially likes the cattle driving programs, where groups are broken up into teams to play cowboy and herd cows down the trail.

“So there’s a lot more to maneuvering your horse, which you learn how to do, and how to actually separate the cows and herd them to a certain spot,” she laughs. “It’s a really, really cool opportunity that not too many people get to do in their lifetime.”

In southern Arizona, Graeme Hughes, director of convention sales for Metropolitan Tucson CVB, points out that Tucson has always had to place a priority on resource management.

“With a disposition toward conservation, from water to open space, we focus as a community on preservation of the Sonoran Desert and its many habitats,” he says. “As a CVB, we pioneered “Green Tucson” dedicating resources to assisting professional planners meet their goals in sustainability.”

Hughes adds that the focus on outdoors teambuilding is a boon to Tucson because the popular activities have always revolved around hiking, biking, nature photography and bird watching.

“The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson Botanical Garden, Tohono Chul Park and Saguaro National Park all connect the visitor to a very authentic desert experience,” he says.

On the hotel scene, Miraval is a top-rated all-inclusive spa and meetings retreat in the shade of the Santa Catalina Mountains in northern Tucson on 400 acres of land. The 117 casual but elegant casita-style rooms and suites are grouped in six villages around the spa. Miraval’s indoor function space handles groups up to 130. The resort also offers a comprehensive ropes challenge course and various equine experiences at the resort’s horse stables.

Also just outside Tucson, The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain is nestled in the high Sonoran Desert against the Tortolita Mountains, featuring 209 rooms, 44 casita suites, a destination spa, Jack Nicklaus signature golf and 44,000 sf of indoor/outdoor function and meeting space. The hotel recently created a large new roster of activities designed specifically for groups. They include cattle penning and horseback rides at The White Stallion Ranch, geocaching, 4-wheel tours and chili/guacamole blending competitions.

They’re also doing a Splash Dining event where tables and chairs are placed inside the infinity pool for lovely groups dinners overlooking the valley as the sun sets over the Sonoran Desert.