The combination of year-round warm and sunny weather, excellent golf options, and a plethora of top-notch, full-service resorts have made the desert meeting destinations of Arizona, California, and Nevada long-time favorite locales for insurance conference meetings. "For insurance groups, there is something very attractive in the great shoulder-season weather, luxury accommodations, and the good rates one can find in, say, Palm Springs in April," sums up Brian Petersen, director of marketing services for Beneficial Life, based in Salt Lake City.

And the story keeps getting better.

California's Palm Springs Desert Resorts area, encompassing Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Desert Hot Springs, Indian Wells, Indio, La Quinta, Palm Desert, and Rancho Mirage, now boast 90 golf courses with plans to break the 100 mark by the year 2000.

Like the other desert meeting destinations, the Palm Springs Desert Resorts area offers an excellent selection of meeting resorts and good value opportunities in the summer months.

In Arizona, Phoenix, and the surrounding Valley of the Sun area (which includes Scottsdale, Tempe, Mesa, and other communities) are home to more than 140 golf courses. Scottsdale, which has seen a 96 percent increase in population since 1980, is a mecca for insurance meetings, too, thanks to its more than 30 resorts and hotels and an ever-growing number of golf courses.

Two new public courses open this year at the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community, while last year the Phoenician Resort expanded its golf course into a 27-hole championship facility. These courses join others in the area designed by the likes of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Robert Trent Jones.

Phoenix, of course, offers more than golf and resorts. Thanks to recent redevelopment efforts, attendees will find a compact downtown area of cultural and entertainment attractions.

The redevelopment began in 1990 with the opening of the Arizona Center, an eight-block, mixed-use Rouse development with more than 60 restaurants, shops, and entertainment venues. One block from the center, the Phoenix Civic Plaza completed a $33 million renovation in 1995. One block east of the Civic Plaza, the Bank One Ballpark, a retractable-dome stadium, is scheduled to open in 1998, when it will be the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks major league baseball franchise.

And the latest news is that downtown may soon see one or two new hotels. At press time, the city council was studying proposals to build a Renaissance Hotel attached to the Arizona Center and/or a Westin property across the street from the Civic Plaza. The hotels would have 600 to 700 rooms each and, if approved, would be slotted for a 1999 opening.

In nearby Tempe, the city is set to begin construction of a $40 million recreation lake a half-mile from downtown. The two-mile-long lake will be the focal point of the Rio Salado development, which is to include a 1,000-room Peabody Hotel and, eventually, an entertainment district. Construction of the hotel, which is aimed at the high-end group market, is slotted to begin simultaneously with the lake, and both are expected to be operational by 1999.

High in Arizona's Sonoran Desert, Tucson is another big draw for insurance meetings, boasting an assortment of top-notch resorts, a convention center, and plenty of golf. More than 900 hotel rooms opened here last year, and a 154-room Marriott Courtyard is under construction in midtown. A new attraction just outside of Tucson is the Kartchner Caverns. Four new 18-hole golf courses opened last year in the area.

In a class by itself is Las Vegas, the country's fastest-growing metropolitan area. The phenomenal growth in the city's hotel and resort construction is set to continue through 1999. By the middle of this year, the city will boast more than 100,000 hotel rooms. Just last year saw the opening of the 3,000-room Monte Carlo Casino Hotel, the 1,500-room Stratosphere Hotel & Casino, and the 2,100-room New York New York Hotel & Casino. And more mega theme-resorts are on the way (see hotel news, below), although not all of them will contain significant meeting space.

Moreover, the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons hotel companies are getting into the Vegas act, too. The Ritz-Carlton Resort at Mountain Spa is scheduled to open in 1999, while a 400-room Four Seasons Hotel will be the first luxury, non-casino hotel on the Strip when it opens in 1998.

Hotel News Arizona Chandler * The Windmill Inn of Chandler opened in September. The resort's 126 suites are 500 square feet each, with 20 of the suites equipped for business travelers. There is a 16-person boardroom and a main conference room that seats up to 300 persons.

Phoenix * In January, the 584-suite Pointe Hilton Resort at Tapatio Cliffs opened a three-and-a-half-acre oasis of waterfalls, swimming pools, lawn and tiled terraces, and an open-air restaurant. Called The Falls, the cliffside site is highlighted by a 40-foot waterfall.

Scottsdale * The 404-room Scottsdale Plaza Resort has installed voice mail and data ports in guest rooms and added a business center.

Tucson * Canyon Ranch is offering groups of up to 30 persons four- to seven-night corporate meeting packages that include accommodations, meals, use of the spa and resort facilities, airport transfers, gratuities, meeting rooms, AV equipment, and beverage service during meeting breaks.

* Last June, the Westward Look Resort opened its Wellness Center, with six treatment rooms.

* The new 225-room Marriott University Park is near the main entrance to the University of Arizona. The full-service hotel has 9,000 square feet of meeting space.

* In March, golfers at the Westin La Paloma began benefiting from an alliance between Westin Hotels & Resorts and Troon Golf Management. The affiliation gives resort guests access to the Troon-managed, 18-hole course at The Golf Club at Vistoso. Troon will also manage La Paloma's existing 27 holes of golf.

* Doubletree Hotels now has two properties in Tucson with the recent reflagging of the Radisson Suites Hotel. The new 304-room Doubletree Guest Suites Tucson plans to add a business center and upgrade its conference suites and exercise room this year.

California Palm Springs * The 98-room Givenchy Hotel & Spa opened in early 1996 on the site of what was formerly the Autry Resort. The resort features French pampering at its best, with a variety of body and beauty treatments. There are also three small meeting rooms.

* The Hyatt Grand Champions Resort in Indian Wells has added an espresso bar and a gift shop, as well as a humidor to the Pianissimo Lounge. A $1.1 million pool renovation this year includes a water park.

* Marriott's Desert Springs Resort and Spa has completed a $9.1 million renovation project on its 884 guest rooms.

* Westin Mission Hills Resort in Rancho Mirage is replacing soft goods in 512 guest rooms and is installing a misting system by the pool. The $1.5 million project is scheduled for completion this fall.

Nevada Las Vegas * Circus Circus is building a 4,000-room mega-resort and casino on the Strip, tentatively called Project Paradise, with completion scheduled for fall of this year. The resort will surround a ten-acre tropical environment that will include a surfing beach.

* To be built adjacent to the Paradise Project, a 400-room Four Seasons Hotel will be the first luxury, non-casino hotel on the Strip when it opens in 1998. (Circus Circus retains the real estate, while Four Seasons will manage the property.)

* Ritz-Carlton has announced plans to build the Ritz-Carlton Resort at Mountain Spa, scheduled to open in 1999. The resort will encompass 640 acres and will include a 526-room hotel, a 40,000-square-foot casino, a 27,000-square-foot spa, and 36,100 square feet of meeting space.

* Construction is slotted to begin early this year on a 33-story gambling resort called Paris on the Strip, adjacent to Bally's Hotel/Casino. Paris will feature replicas of the Arc de Triomphe and other Parisian monuments, as well as a working French-style winery and gondola rides. It is slotted to open in 1998.

* The Sands Hotel & Casino has been demolished to make way for a new 6,000-room hotel and 200,000-square-foot casino. The property is to have a 400,000-square-foot meeting and exposition facility and is scheduled for completion in 1998.

* Construction has begun on Bellagio, a 3,000-room resort hotel and casino on 12 acres. The $1.25 billion project, designed as an Italian village, will open in 1998.

* Hyatt Hotels Corporation has entered into an agreement with Transcontinental Properties to construct a 500-room resort hotel at Lake Las Vegas Resort, a luxury planned community along 25 acres of the state's largest privately owned lake. Completion is scheduled for 1998.

* Construction is under way on the $830 million, 3,000-room Planet Hollywood hotel/casino on the Strip, with completion slotted for 1999. The resort will feature a 120,000-square-foot convention center and a 1,600-seat showroom.

* MGM Grand Hotel & Casino has begun a 30-month, $250 million renovation. A retail and nightclub complex, as well as a 300,000-square-foot convention center, are the highlights of the project.

* A $600 million renovation and expansion has been approved for the Aladdin Hotel, which will have 2,600 guest rooms and an additional 100,000 square feet of convention space following the addition of two new guest towers. The casino will be enlarged to 100,000 square feet.

* New York New York Hotel & Casino opened in January with 2,035 guest rooms and replicas of the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge at the entrance.

* Remodeling has been under way all year at Caesars Palace, owned by ITT Sheraton. Currently under construction is a 29-floor tower with 1,130 guest rooms including two floors of suites. Also in the tower: a health and fitness center, a grand ballroom, two junior ballrooms, and other meeting rooms, bringing Caesars total meeting space to 160,000 square feet. The tower should be completed by January 1998.

Getting There Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is served by 23 airlines. International services expanded last year with the introduction of nonstop service on British Airways between Phoenix and London, and nonstop service to Dusseldorf on LTU International Airways (Germany's second-largest airline). The airport is three miles from downtown Phoenix and 12 miles from Scottsdale.

Tucson International Airport is served by most major carriers, with nonstop flights to 18 destinations.

The Palm Springs Regional Airport, two miles from Palm Springs and ten miles from Palm Desert, is served by American, Delta, United, Alaska, America West, Northwest Airlink, SkyWest, United Express, and USAir Express.

Las Vegas's McCarran International Airport, served by 20 commercial carriers, is a five-minute ride from the convention center and The Strip. Construction is under way to open 16 new gates in 1998.

What led Century Surety Company to hold two meetings in desert destinations in the last three years? "To be honest, it's the golf," says Sue Duffy, communications coordinator for the Columbus, OH-based firm. "There are just so many outstanding golfing opportunities in these areas, and that sells really well with this particular group."

In December 1995, Century brought a small group of top-performing agents and key management personnel to Tucson, where they stayed at the Westin La Paloma. Duffy says the resort offered three restaurants, so the group of 12 people had several options for meals and did not have to leave the property.

Century then took the same group to the La Quinta Resort & Club, in the California Desert Resort area of La Quinta, in November 1996. "This was probably the best meeting of that type that we've had," recalls Duffy. "People really raved about the golf courses, and the staff at the resort itself was very friendly and a real pleasure to work with." Truly "sublime" November weather helped top off the experience for the group, she adds.

* The desert weather was also a big draw for a group from the Salt Lake City-based Beneficial Life, which held a meeting in Palm Springs, CA in February 1995 for 25 managers and their spouses. The group stayed at the Palm Springs Hilton. "It was great being so close to shopping and restaurants, right in the heart of Palm Springs," recalls Brian Petersen, director of marketing services for Beneficial. "Palm Springs seems like a very safe place, and everyone enjoyed being able to walk from the hotel at night to shops and restaurants."

The group flew into California's Ontario airport from several western states and then took a chartered motorcoach to Palm Springs, about an hour away. One of the highlights of the program was a jeep tour of the surrounding high desert area. "It was nice that we all didn't follow one another like a big caravan. We went to more or less the same places, but each driver took his own route," says Petersen. "Those guides are pretty interesting people. I don't think anybody had a boring time."