Few destinations have such skillfully blended natural and man-made attributes as has Arizona. There is the beauty of the desert, the relentlessness of the sunshine, the marvel of the Grand Canyon. But Arizona also has among the nation's most lavish and acclaimed resorts--properties renowned for their beauty and attention to service--and abundant creature comforts, notably manicured golf courses and fine dining and shopping. What the state lacks is the ability to support the type of large association conventions that frequent other cities, such as Orlando, New Orleans, and San Francisco. Arizona's largest city, Phoenix, has a recently renovated, modestly sized downtown convention center, the Phoenix Civic Plaza, but some planners believe that the downtown area can use more first-class hotels than the two currently serving the center.

"The shortcoming now is the hotel package downtown, but they're working on that," says Merle Hedland, principal with Bacon-Hedland Management Inc., the Burr Ridge, IL conference management firm that brought the American Organization of Nurse Executives' annual meeting to the Phoenix Civic Plaza last February. The organization's 2,200 attendees and exhibitors filled the Hyatt Regency Phoenix and Crowne Plaza Phoenix, which have 1,240 guest rooms between them, and stayed at outlying hotels as well.

Downtown, however, will soon get more hotel space: A Renaissance property with 640 guest rooms is scheduled to be built at Arizona Center, a shopping center one block from the Civic Plaza. That is one of three significant hotel projects in the offing locally; the others are a large Westin resort near the Scottsdale border and a 1,000-room Peabody hotel, which would be the state's largest property, in Tempe.

Hedland says, "With the hotel planned to come online and, of course, the baseball team, downtown will be a lot more vigorous."

The Major League Baseball team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, begins play next April in the Bank One Ballpark, a retractable-roof stadium being built two blocks from the convention center. Another major development, Scottsdale Waterfront, a retail and entertainment center located along the banks of the Arizona canal, is slated for completion in 1998.

Meanwhile, in Tucson, a smaller city more evocative of the Old West than Phoenix, the meeting and tourism industry got a boost early this year when Old Tucson Studios, a premier attraction and special-event venue, reopened after a devastating 1995 fire. Tucson's resorts and downtown convention center are on a more intimate scale than in sprawling Phoenix-Scottsdale area, making the city ideal for small and midsize meetings.

As always, the desert's hotels and resorts offer the advantage of off-season and shoulder-season rates. Those willing to be in Phoenix, Scottsdale, or Tucson when the temperatures reach 100 degrees or more--from May through September--can reap sharp discounts. And regardless of the time of year, the opportunities for pre- and post-meeting tours are numerous. The Mexican border town of Nogales is an easy drive from Tucson, and the mountain town of Sedona, famed for its red-rock formations, is two hours north of Phoenix and Scottsdale. The Grand Canyon is farther afield, but close enough for attendees seeking to stretch the meeting into a family getaway.

Convention Center News Renovated in 1995 at a cost of $33 million, the downtown Phoenix Civic Plaza has five contiguous exhibit halls totaling 221,000 square feet, a 28,000-square-foot ballroom, 43 meeting rooms totaling more than 50,000 square feet, and the 2,600-seat Symphony Hall, a multipurpose theater.

The Tucson Convention Center has a 90,000-square-foot exhibition hall, a 22,500-square-foot ballroom, a 9,700-seat arena with a 33,750-square-foot floor that can be used for exhibits, and nine additional meeting rooms. A 2,277-seat music hall and a 2,500-seat theater also are part of the complex.

Hotel News Phoenix area *A 1,000-room Peabody with 125,000 square feet of meeting space has received the necessary approvals from the city of Tempe and is tentatively scheduled to break ground near Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in early 1998. Completion is forecast for December 1999.

*The Rouse Company, developer of Arizona Center, the 150,000-square-foot shopping and entertainment complex in downtown Phoenix, has signed a memorandum of understanding to build a 640-room hotel bearing the Renaissance brand at Arizona Center. The property will be a block from the Phoenix Civic Plaza and will have 40,000 square feet of meeting space. Pending resolution of financing, the Renaissance could break ground as soon as late 1997, with a spring 1999 opening.

*The Pointe Hilton Resort at Tapatio Cliffs has opened a three-acre swimming pool and waterfall complex patterned after Havasupai Falls in the Grand Canyon. The $7 million project encompasses two pools, a 138-foot water slide, a 40-foot waterfall, and 23 cabanas. In addition, the property is now being jointly marketed with the 564-suite Pointe Hilton Resort at Squaw Peak and the 640-suite Pointe Hilton at South Mountain, both also located in Phoenix.

*The Phoenician, in Scottsdale, opened its new Canyon Building last October. The addition, with 40 guest suites, 20 guest rooms, and three hospitality suites, brings the total number of guest units at the property to 640. In November, the resort added nine holes of golf for a total of 27 holes.

*Fresh from a property-wide $50 million renovation, the Arizona Biltmore completed a $2.5 million renovation and expansion of its spa this month. The hotel was renamed the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa on completion of the project.

*The Royal Palms, in Phoenix, reopened in April following a year-long, $12 million restoration. It has 116 rooms and suites and 10,000 square feet of meeting space.

Tucson *The Westin La Paloma, with 487 rooms and suites, has completed a $1.5 million renovation of its lobby, Desert Garden Bistro & Lounge, and retail corridor. Renovation of the 18,000-square-foot Arizona Ballroom was completed during the summer. The property has 42,000 square feet of meeting and function space.

*As part of a $2.8 million renovation, the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort has expanded its full-service spa by 7,000 square feet and redesigned its Flying V Bar & Grill. The resort, in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains, has 398 guest rooms and 37,000 square feet of meeting and function space.

*The Westward Look Resort last year opened its Wellness Center, which offers massages and a variety of other body treatments using desert plants and minerals. The resort, the oldest in Tucson, has 244 guest rooms and 8,000 square feet of meeting space.

*The Sheraton El Conquistador Resort and Country Club completed the third and final phase of its $5 million renovation last summer. The resort has 428 guest rooms and 30,000 square feet of meeting space.

*The Tucson National Golf & Conference Resort joined the Omni chain in 1996 and is now the Omni Tucson National Golf Resort & Spa. The property, home of the PGA Tour's Tucson Chrysler Classic, has 167 guest rooms, 15,000 square feet of meeting space, a European-style spa, and a 27-hole championship golf course.

Getting There All major U.S. airlines and two European carriers--British Airways and LTU International Airways--fly into Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Nonstop service is available to 79 U.S. and foreign cities. Phoenix is a hub for two low-fare carriers, America West and Southwest. Most Phoenix-Scottsdale hotels and resorts are within a 30-minute drive of the airport.

Major airlines serving Tucson International Airport are America West, American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, Southwest, and United. Nonstop service is available to 15 U.S. cities, including Chicago (American), Cincinnati (Delta), and Minneapolis-Saint Paul (Northwest).

How's the Weather? Temperatures in the desert range from the bracing--average highs in the 60s during the winter--to the stultifying, with 100-degree readings throughout the summer. February through April are ideal months to visit, with average highs in the 70s, average lows in the 50s, and very little rain. August, on the other hand, brings an average high and low of 106 and 83 to Phoenix/Scottsdale and 96 and 72 to Tucson, as well as the best chance for rain. Tucson has slightly cooler temperatures year-round than Phoenix/Scottsdale.

Evening temperatures in the desert dip into the 30s and 40s from December through February. Jackets and sweaters are a must.

Tax and Money Matters The tax on hotel rooms is 10.625 percent in Phoenix, 10.725 percent in Scottsdale, and, depending on location, either 7.5 percent, 8.5 percent, or 9.5 percent in the Tucson area.

For More Information Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau Bob Crouse, dir. of sales and mktg. * (800) 283-MESA Fax: (602) 827-0727 www.arizonaguide.com/mesa

Phoenix and Valley of the Sun Convention and Visitors Bureau Peggy Whitman, Leighann Parrish, managers, national convention sales * (800) 535-8898 Fax: (602) 253-4415 www.arizonaguide.com/phoenix

Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce Kathy McCarthy, convention sales manager * (800) 877-1177 Fax: (602) 947-4523 www.arizonaguide.com/scottsdale

Tempe Convention and Visitors Bureau Debra Woodrow, director of sales and marketing * (800) 283-6734 Fax: (602) 968-8004 www.arizonaguide.com/tempe

Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau Susan Skinner, director of sales * (800) 638-8350 Fax: (520) 884-7804 www.arizonaguide.com/visittucson