Rich in Native American culture, arresting landscapes of red rock and palm oases, mineral springs and peppery cuisine, the desert Southwest is a vast and multifaceted region stretching from southeastern California across Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. It’s an inspirational canvas on which to create distinctive events and experiences that can’t be found anywhere else.
Greater Palm Springs
With its year-round sunshine and stunning juxtaposition of mountain peaks and desert terrain, Palm Springs and the surrounding communities of the Coachella Valley invite groups to break away from the indoor meeting room, according to Rick Blackburn, vice president of convention sales and services for the Greater Palm Springs CVB.
“Everything here is about enjoying the outdoors—even our airport is an outdoor experience,” he said. “Hotels will talk to you about using their outdoor space, not just for social events but even for actual meetings. It’s all about breaking out of the same old format.”
At the Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort & Spa in Rancho Mirage, the 262,000 square feet of outdoor space lends itself to a variety of open-air events, including carnivals held on the Pete Dye Driving Range with a Ferris wheel, food booths and balloon rides over the desert.
At Two Bunch Palms, a 70-room resort in Desert Hot Springs, events can be built around the property’s natural mineral springs. The many options for groups include yoga and movement classes, guided meditation, tai chi sessions and sunset wine tastings around the lake.
“We’re all about serenity and minimizing noise and clutter so that people can find their better selves,” said Katie Camarena, event and marketing manager at the property.
Local outfitter Desert Adventures offers myriad ways to delve into the heart of the desert, including the San Andreas Fault Jeep Tour, which winds through a labyrinth of geological cuts and canyons to the spot where the two massive tectonic plates of the San Andreas earthquake fault come together. Along the way, participants walk through a steep, narrow canyon created by powerful forces of tectonic activity and explore a natural oasis where clear waters bubble up from an underground aquifer in a grove of rare native palm trees. Along the way, naturalist guides speak about the geology, wildlife and culture of the Cahuilla Indians and how they use the desert plants for food, medicine, tools, weapons, shelter and more.
“Attendees can come back year after year and have a totally different experience, as each guide has a specialty,” said Kelley Howard, director of sales for ACCESSS Destination Services, which often incorporates the desert tours into meeting programs. “We’ll take up to 100 participants through twisting canyons through the fault and to a replica Cahuilla village on a historic Indian site.”
While known for its proximity to Lake Tahoe and alpine forests, Reno is also a place where wide-open stretches of high desert provide intriguing possibilities for events. At Animal Ark, a 38-acre sanctuary for injured and orphaned wildlife, groups can tour the preserve, learn about native black bears and other wildlife, and engage in volunteer activities.
Located at Animal Ark, Raptor Adventures offers falconry demonstrations, where attendees can witness falcons, owls and hawks taking flight over the desert and get the chance to launch and land a raptor.
“It’s a visually stunning experience where you see the birds flying in at 100 miles an hour,” said Jim Tigan, company founder and a licensed master falconer. “For large groups, we can do a cocktail hour where we bring in the birds and talk about the ancient sport of falconry. Smaller groups can really engage with the birds, which is an exciting, hands-on activity.”
Groups meeting in the midst of Arizona’s largest metro hub need not stray far to enjoy the wonders of the Sonora Desert. Just north of Phoenix and Scottsdale, the 3 million-acre Tonto National Forest offers abundant opportunity for float trips, paddle-boarding, hiking and teambuilding activities in a wilderness area that encompasses ponderosa pine forests, saguaros and other cacti, the Salt River and Saguaro Lake.
“We’ll take groups out in Hummer vehicles to Saguaro Lake for a four-hour experience where they can take pictures and learn about the desert flora and fauna and how the Native Americans lived off the land,” said Lori James, president and owner of AZA Events. “You can mix it in with a scavenger hunt or geocaching activity through the desert.”
Another great way to experience the region is via desert orienteering, in which teams are given a map, clues and a compass as they make their way through a predetermined course on foot, mountain bike or horseback, according to Loren Abbi, owner of Phoenix-based Circa DMC.
“The orienteering really encourages people to work as a team,” she said. “We can customize the clues and questions to reflect the objectives of the meeting. In particular, the desert vegetation fascinates people. To go out and see hundreds of saguaros as well as choyo and other plants is an amazing experience.”