Ask Graeme Hughes, vice president of sales for Visit Tucson, to define the destination where he has resided since his university days and two things immediately come to mind.
“If Scottsdale is your conservative dad, Tucson is your hippie uncle,” he said, in a show of friendly competition with his Arizona neighbor to the north. “What Austin is to Texas, Tucson is to Arizona. We’ve got a bit of a rebel streak.”
Renowned for its gorgeous desert setting, as well as its confluence of cultures—Mexican, Spanish American, Native American and cowboy—this Southwestern hot spot is buzzing with a continuously new and engaging vibe yet forever treasuring its rich heritage.
“We’re known for desert meetings and scenic beauty,” Hughes said. “We’re still going to have our desert roots, our desert bona fides. But how about that same climate, that same attitude, that same energy but in an urban environment that isn’t one of the largest cities in America?”
One of the destination’s most exciting stories is the emergence of downtown as an economic, cultural and entertainment hub, all of which bodes well for both leisure visitors and meeting attendees.
Three new hotels will come online in the downtown core in 2020, including a yet unnamed 150-room property on the campus of the Tucson Convention Center (TCC); a 100-room Moxy by Marriott, the sister property to the AC Marriott Tucson; and a Hilton project that will feature a Home2 Suites and a Hampton Hotel with a combined total of 200 rooms on a site right down the street from the TCC.
Additionally, several of the city’s midtown properties have also undergone renovations, including Tucson Hilton East, Sheraton Suites, Marriott University and DoubleTree at Reed Park.
Tucson has long been known for its variety of upscale desert resorts, so the new downtown properties are creating opportunities in other segments of the marketplace, allowing it to target new clientele and position itself as a convention center destination, according to Hughes.
“We had lacked the quality rooms in the downtown core prior to the construction of the AC Marriott and the planning of all these other hotels to really do anything of consequence from a traditional meeting standpoint at the TCC,” Hughes said. “So what we’re seeing emerge now is the infrastructure to support a compression builder in the core of the city that benefits everyone—even in the outlying areas.”
Tucson Keeps It Fresh With New Properties
New establishments are popping up all over downtown Tucson, particularly as the economic expansion of the city continues, with Caterpillar Surface Mining Division’s new headquarters opening downtown in six months.
In addition, Amazon is building a regional distribution center with plans to hire more than 1,500 people and Raytheon, the city’s largest employer, just added a new 2,000-employee division.
Caterpillar Surface Mining Division is being built out within the city’s vibrant Mercado District, where one new project has become a magnet for locals and visitors: MSA Annex.
The project features 13 new local shops and eateries housed inside converted shipping containers and located next to a new 500-seat outdoor festival grounds for public events.
“Mercado is becoming a dining and entertainment hub extending the reach of the downtown core to the west side of the Santa Cruz river, with the streetcar connecting it all,” Hughes said.
“We now have this contiguous four-mile entertainment district from the University of Arizona to Fourth Avenue to Congress Street to the Mercado District, and there are nearly 40 new bars and restaurants that have opened on that route in the past three years," he added.
As the culinary scene booms, so do the unique ways groups can experience it.
Group Dining Opportunities Abound in Tucson
MSA Annex has become a popular spot for private events, which allow attendees to sample food and drink from a number of unique local purveyors, according to Hughes, who added that Visit Tucson can also customize downtown festival-style programs with closed-off streets for groups, including food trucks and live bands.
Food and drink tours are another popular option, including a new culinary walking tour, The Presidio District Experience: A Progressive Food Heritage and History Tour. The tour celebrates Tucson’s 2015 Creative Cities-UNESCO “City of Gastronomy” designation with food tastings and discussions.
“The culinary walking tour really spotlights the heart of downtown, stopping at places like El Charro restaurant, which has been open for 80 years, as well as Batch Cafe and Bar, which is a doughnut shop and distillery that has been open for 14 months,” Hughes said. “So it allows participants to understand what Tucson has always been about and also where we’re going.”
Hughes said the city has also become a hot spot for its local breweries and distilleries, including Hamilton Distillers Whiskey Del Bac.
“So we’re actually distilling high-end spirits, brewing beer, cooking with locally grown food and making it all happen within a walkable sort of experience for either groups or individuals,” he said.
Another popular new development ideal for groups is City Park. The multiuse complex houses a food hall, two restaurants, an entertainment venue with a bowling alley and a pinball arcade, a bar, a private event space, connecting ground-floor patios and a 2,600-square-foot rooftop deck for events like concerts or conferences.
Staying in Touch With the Outdoor Aesthetic and Local Culture
Even with its burgeoning downtown core, Tucson has been thoughtful in its approach to urban planning, Hughes said, consistently maintaining open space throughout the community to preserve its natural areas that have made it a mecca for outdoor adventurers and those wishing to retreat to high-end desert resorts and spas, unique boutique properties and dude ranches.
“We’re a city that’s bordered on two sides by a national park—Saguaro National Park East and Saguaro National Park West," Hughes said. "No matter where you are in Tucson, you’re 20 minutes from a national park or a national forest trailhead.
"It’s a very unique [value proposition] because we don’t have asphalt parking lots separating our resorts," he added. "We have canyons, national parks and mountain ranges separating our beautiful world-class resorts.”
A prime example is JW Marriott Star Pass, the destination’s largest resort from a group perspective, with 575 rooms. The property is idyllically situated right in the middle of Tucson Mountain Park and is a prime stomping ground for forays into the desert wilderness.
Tucson’s other premier desert resorts include Hilton El Conquistador, Loews Ventana Canyon, Westin La Paloma, Wyndham Westward Look and Omni Tucson National, as well as two Native American casino resorts, Casino del Sol, which will add 150 more guest rooms to its inventory by 2020 and more meeting space, and Desert Diamond Casino, which features a conference center.
Also diversifying the mix for groups wishing to meet in a desert setting are Miraval and Canyon Ranch, both renowned wellness resorts; boutique properties such as Hacienda del Sol and The Lodge at Ventana Canyon; and working dude ranches such as Tanque Verde Guest Ranch and White Stallion Ranch.
The diversity of properties enables Tucson to create a signature Arizona experience for groups, according to Hughes.
“We’re really in a position to elevate events and make them indigenous so they fully embrace desert culture, desert food and the desert environment,” he said.
And with its vast inventory of existing properties and new developments, Tucson has something for everyone, but it’s not letting go of its free-spirited authenticity.
“We’re letting Tucson be Tucson in this age of branding destinations and manufacturing a hook,” Hughes said. “We’re building infrastructure, but at the same time what has existed here for centuries is still the primary reason why people need to experience it today.”
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