Ever since Spanish explorers went looking for the mythical Seven Cities of Cibola-fabled towns built of gold- back in the 15th century, visitors have been lured to the expansive Southwest vistas of the Grand Canyon State. Today, insurance conference and incentive groups have been beating a trail to such destinations as Phoenix and Tucson, where cosmopolitan urban atmospheres blend with a rich Native American culture and Old West landscapes and lore.

Insurance planners are finding that the Valley of the Sun, which comprises Phoenix and Scottsdale as well as such towns as Mesa, Tempe, and Litchfield Park, continues to refine its hospitality and meeting infrastructure. Phoenix Civic Plaza, the city's 300,000-square-foot convention center, completed a $31 million renovation late last year. Other recent additions to the downtown meeting scene include the historic Orpheum Theater, restored to its original Revival Spanish Baroque finery, which opened this spring and is now available to groups. Phoenix will soon add the Arizona Diamondbacks to its growing roster of sports franchises. The major league baseball team will begin league play in the 1998 season in Bank One Ballpark, a 45,000-seat stadium being built downtown. All this, of course, is in addition to the Valley's 140 golf courses, dozens of world-class resorts, and many other attractions.

Sited in the high Sonoran Desert, ringed by five mountain ranges, Tucson also lures groups with its first-rate resorts, casual western charm, and lively cultural life. This is, after all, one of 14 cities in America that can claim its own symphony, ballet, opera, and theater companies. The city's architectural accents reflect its blend of Native American, Mexican, and European heritages.

Tucson's list of top-notch golf courses has recently been enhanced by three new layouts, including Torres Blancas by Tre-vino Designs, and the Robert Trent Jones, Jr.-designed Raven Golf Club at Sabino Springs; both are daily-fee courses open to visitors. Miraval, a new luxury spa, opened recently just outside of the city. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which is home to more than 300 kinds of animals and 1,300-plus plant species, has been ranked with the best zoos in the country and is available for group functions. The Mission San Xavier del Bac, the landmark 17th-century Spanish mission known as the "White Dove of the Desert," has recently completed a massive restoration of its famous murals and other artwork.

Hotel News Scottsdale * The Scottsdale Princess added 51 new guest rooms, bringing its total to 651. It also added a new 3,050-square-foot hospitality suite to accommodate 200.

* Marriott's Camelback Inn Resort, Golf Club and Spa is in the second phase of a five-year, $17 million refurbishment of guest rooms and spa.

* Marriott's Mountain Shadows has recently invested $1 million in refurbishments of pool facilities and the lobby.

* The Phoenician Resort has expanded with the acquisition of an additional 106 acres; 60 new rooms and suites were completed in October. Another nine holes of golf have been added as well, bringing the total number of holes to 27.

* The 210-room Sunburst Resort recently completed an $8 million renovation that included enhancements to guest rooms, a new restaurant, and 14,000 square feet of new meeting space.

* The Scottsdale Plaza Resort has completed a two-year, $3 million renovation, which included upgrades to guest rooms, public areas, and restaurants.

Tempe * The Buttes, the 350-room mountaintop resort overlooking Phoenix, offers 40,000 square feet of meeting space, including a 140-seat classroom amphitheater, a separate conference center with ballroom, boardrooms, and breakout rooms with private patios.

Tucson * The 255-room Tucson University Plaza Hotel opened recently with 11,500 square feet of meeting space.

* The 66-room Fairfield Inn by Marriott opened in January in southwest Tucson.

* The 154-room Courtyard by Marriott and the 141-room Tucson Airport La Quinta Inn are under construction.

* The Sheraton Tucson El Conquistador Golf and Tennis Resort has refurbished its meeting space, and last summer the property spent $5 million in a renovation of public space and guest rooms.

Terry Christensen, LUTCF, manager of travel and meeting services for The Principal Financial Group in Des Moines, IA, says he's never had a bad experience in Arizona, and that's saying a lot. The Principal has been averaging one or two incentive meetings in Arizona for nearly a decade and has held a half dozen business meetings there this year alone. "The hotels are very service-oriented, the golf is great, and the weather is consistently good," says Christensen, noting that the meeting experience in the three main desert resorts-Phoenix/Scottsdale, Tucson, and Palm Springs, CA-are very different from one another, so it's easy to keep coming back.

Rita Cichoski, agent benefits consultant for ITT Hartford Life and Annuity, based in Minneapolis, brought a group of 200 incentive sales winners and their guests to the Phoenician in Scottsdale last March. Says Cichoski, "You can't go wrong there. The hotel was just fabulous, and the weather was great." One of the highlights of the trip for the qualifiers was a country-and-western event at La Puesta del Sol, where participants "could rope a fake cow, shoot guns, ride a bucking bronco-all those little competitive things that our agents love," says Cichoski.

The closing night banquet-a secret from all, except Cichoski and her boss-took place "in the middle of the desert." Scottsdale-based DMC More Than Meetings set up a huge big-top tent made of see-through material and strung it with tiny, twinkling lights across the top to simulate stars. The incentive group arrived at dusk for a three-course banquet and dancing on a specially laid floor.

Venue Menu Tucson In April, one year after the devastating fire that destroyed approximately 40 percent of Old Tucson Studios, the legendary Old West movie set and theme park began rebuilding. When reconstruction is completed at the end of the year, the facility will have a slightly new look, with a number of new structures and attractions complementing the more venerable ones, such as the signature Old Mission. In the meantime, several meeting venues and a gift shop accommodate groups.

Biosphere 2, the environmental, climate-controlled experiement, can accommodate private visits and theme events for groups. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum can host groups of 50 to 400 persons for cocktails or dinner.

The historic Tanque Verde Guest Ranch can accommodate groups of up to 150 persons. Top Hand Trails and Vittles, meanwhile, can provide cookouts and hayrides for groups of almost any size.

A new company, called Rocky Mountain Cattle Moo-vers, Inc., specializes in putting on private cattle drives.

Valley of the Sun Rawhide, an 1880s western town, is Arizona's largest western-themed attraction. It features a Native American village, cowboy fights, a steakhouse, and desert cookouts, as well as meeting facilities.

The Heard Museum can accommodate groups of up to 200 persons banquet-style and up to 800 for a cocktail reception.

The Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch, in a canyon a few miles north of Scottsdale, can entertain dinner groups of up to 400.

Getting There Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport is served by 23 commercial airlines, including American, America West, Continental, TWA, and United. Taxi fare into downtown Phoenix runs about $10; into Scottsdale, $10 to $18. Tucson International Airport is served by 12 airlines, including American, America West, Continental, Delta, and Southwest. Taxi fare into town is about $12.

Phoenix & Valley of the Sun Convention & Visitors Bureau Ron Spellecy, vice president of marketing (602) 252-0040, ext. 773 Fax (602) 253-4415 http://www.arizonaguide.com

Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau Susan Skinner, director of sales (800) 638-8350, ext. 148 Fax (520) 884-7804 http://www.arizonaguide.com/visittucson