The Southwest continues to bloom with new developments aimed squarely at the meetings and conventions market. Leading the pack, not surprisingly, is Las Vegas. The city redefined itself as much more than a gaming destination with the opening last year of such one-of-a-kind properties as the Bellagio, Mandalay Bay, the Venetian, and Paris-Las Vegas. Few cities can absorb 15,000 new hotel rooms in one year and end up with higher occupancy levels than the year before, but such is the appeal of this desert city.

MGM Grand and Mirage Resorts announced in March a $4.4 billion merger that will reshape the gaming industry. After expected approval by Mirage shareholders, MGM will have a total of 14 casino gaming properties. In Las Vegas alone, the combined company will own the MGM Grand, New York-New York, Mirage, Bellagio, and 50 percent of the Monte Carlo. The merger is expected to close in the fourth quarter.

Courtesy Eaglephoto Las Vegas is also expanding its convention center by 1.3 million square feet, which will give it a total of 3 million square feet. And a new $200 million international terminal is being considered to accommodate the increase in international travelers at McCarran International Airport.

In Phoenix, a long-awaited downtown convention headquarters hotel is finally under way, with an opening scheduled for next year. Tucson, Ariz., is planning to open a 575-room Marriott hotel, and many area resorts are under expansion or renovation.

ARIZONA Metro Phoenix hotel news * The $167 million Marriott at Collier Place will open downtown in 2001 with 20,000 square feet of meeting space.

* Chaparral Suites Scottsdale has added the 23,000-square-foot Chaparral Conference Center, and later this year it will complete further renovations, including a new grand entry point into the property.

* The Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North opened in December 1999 with 210 casita-style rooms and 24,000 square feet of meeting space.

* The Scottsdale Conference Resort offers 325 rooms, casitas, and suites. The largest of its 50 meeting rooms holds 1,000 theater-style. On site are four tennis courts, two pools, and a health spa; two 18-hole championship golf courses are adjacent to the property.

* The Tempe Mission Palms in Tempe completed an $11 million renovation in 1999. It is the first full-service hotel and conference center in Arizona to be certified by the International Association of Conference Centers.

* The Wigwam Resort in Litchfield Park, on 463 acres 20 minutes west of downtown Phoenix, can accommodate groups of 10 to 300 in its expansive meeting space. The Wigwam Ballroom has built-in rear-screen projection, and groups can take advantage of the in-house AV department. The property has 331 adobe-style casitas, 70 luxury suites, and two presidential suites. On property are three 18-holes golf courses, two designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr.

important info Greater Phoenix CVB * (602) 254-6500, (800) 535-8898

* Fax: (602) 253-4415

* www.arizonaguide.com/phoenix

Phoenix Civic Plaza * (602)262-6225, (800) 282-4842

* This single-story downtown center with 221,000 square feet of exhibit space in five halls, 43 meeting rooms, and a 28,000-square-foot ballroom features a 2,577-seat symphony hall, and 73,000 square feet of outdoor event space.

Scottsdale CVB * 602) 945-8481, (800) 877-1117

* Fax: (602) 947-4523

* www.arizonaguide.com/scottsdale

Total Hotel Tax: 10.35% in Phoenix; 10.52% in Scottsdale

Tucson hotel news * A 575-room Marriott resort is being planned for a site at the Starr Pass resort complex, with a target opening date of 2002.

* The 440-room Sheraton El Conquistador Resort and Country Club has nearly doubled its function space by adding 25,000 square feet. The first phase of a $2.1 million golf course improvement project was completed in October at the resort with the opening of the Conquistador Course. Its sister golf course, Sunrise, will be refurbished this summer.

* Under new management, Tucson's historic Lazy K Bar Ranch, with 23 guest rooms, is nearly a year into a five-year renovation and expansion project. Already open is a new special events venue with 6,000 square feet of function space.

* The former Hotel Park Tucson, renamed the Sheraton Tucson Hotel and Suites, has completed a renovation of all 217 guest rooms and all meeting space.

* The 487-room Westin La Paloma has upgraded its Arizona Ballroom, country club, lobby, bistro, and lounge. The hotel has added a water slide and two pools.

important info Metropolitan Tucson CVB * (520) 624-1817, (800) 638-8350

* Fax: (520) 884-7804

* www.arizonaguide.com/visittucson

Tucson Convention Center * (520) 791-4101

The center has a total of 200,000 square feet, including a 90,000-square-foot hall, a 20,500-square-foot divisible grand ballroom, a 9,700-seat arena, a 2,277-seat music hall, a 518-seat theater, and 10 meeting rooms--the largest accommodating 250 people.

Total Hotel Tax: 9.5%, plus $1 per room night

NEVADA Las Vegas hotel news * The 2,600-room Aladdin Resort & Casino on the Strip is on schedule to open in late spring.The hotel will have a 100,000-square-foot convention center, a 15,000-square-foot spa, and a 500,000-square-foot marketplace.

* Mirage Resorts plans a new mega-resort at the site of the Boardwalk Hotel Casino on the Strip, which it owns. It is expected to be completed in 2003.

* The Mirage Hotel and Casino is undergoing a $100 million expansion. The hotel is expanding to 160,000 square feet of function space, including a 60,000-square-foot exhibit hall and a total of 17 meeting rooms. The meeting room complex will be finished in June, and the exhibit hall in spring 2001.

* The 424-room Four Seasons Las Vegas (a nongaming hotel) opened last year. It is located on floors 35 through 39 of the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino Tower.

* The $1.2 billion Venetian Casino opened last year. It claims to be the world's largest resort hotel and convention complex under one roof. Meeting facilities include the newly expanded Sands Expo Center, with 1.7 million square feet of function space.

* The 1,700-room Mandalay Bay hotel/ casino opened last spring. It has a 12,000-seat arena and 100,000 square feet of convention space.

* The Bellagio resort, featuring 3,000 rooms, an eight-acre lake, $300 million in fine art, and 125,000 square feet of meeting space on the Strip, is already expanding its popular art gallery, which will double in size to 2,600 square feet.

* The 33-story Paris-Las Vegas Casino Resort opened in fall 1999.

* Caesars World Inc.'s sale to Park Place Entertainment, a spin-off of Hilton Corp., has been approved by the Nevada Gaming Commission. The $3 billion transaction is the largest in Nevada history. Park Place now runs Caesars Palace, Bally's, Las Vegas Hilton, the Flamingo Hilton, and Paris-Las Vegas.

* The Conference Center at the MGM Grand has 380,000 square feet of versatile meeting space. The hotel's four 30-story towers offer 5,034 rooms and suites.

* The 496-room Hyatt Regency Lake Las Vegas Resort opened in December, the first of six hotels proposed for the Lake Las Vegas mega-resort community on the outskirts of Las Vegas in Henderson.

* The newly opened 253-room Regent Grand Palms and the 287-room Regent Grand Spa are the centerpieces of a luxurious golf and spa retreat called the Resort at Summerlin in the Las Vegas Valley.

important info Las Vegas Convention & Visitor Authority * (702) 892-0711

* Fax: (702) 892-2824

* www.lasvegas24hours.com

The Las Vegas Convention Center * (702) 892-0711

* The facility will expand its exhibition and meeting space by 1.3 million square feet with the enlargement of the South Hall, expected to be complete by 2001. The center will then have a total size of 3 million square feet.

Total Hotel Tax: 18% downtown; 15% on the Strip

Insurance Conference Planners Say Bonnie Sherer, manager, meetings and events, Royal Alliance Associates, New York City, says that desert meetings are very attractive for her groups. Last September her company held a manager's symposium at the Scottsdale Princess for about 300 participants. The weather was hot but not unbearable during the day, and the evenings were very pleasant, in the low 70s. She did two theme nights: an outdoor opening reception was themed around Native American dancing, music, food, and decor. The final night banquet featured tethered hot-air balloon rides on a grassy area adjacent to the hotel's pool. Around the pool, she had set up pool tables, casino games, golf putting games, and other diversions for the group.

Her company will return to a desert setting in June 2001, when a group of 1,200 will converge at the Marriott Desert Springs Resort, in Palm Desert, Calif., for a national sales conference. Sherer says it is sometimes hard to find a resort venue that can house the entire group, but there are a number of such properties in the Southwest.

Anita Roye, senior meeting and travel planner for New England Financial, Boston, planned a successful event in 1998 at the Westin La Paloma in Tucson. It was an incentive program for about 85 people. She has high praise for the Cocoraque Ranch, an off-site venue where the group held a City Slickers cattle drive.

"We have a youngish group, and this event was fun, safe, yet challenging for them," she says. Participants helped real cowhands herd the cattle in this very popular event. Another off-site venue she praised was Rancho de los Cerros in Tucson. The group took over the complex, which featured barns, cobblestone paths, various Western games, and a site where attendees could have their photos taken in Western garb. The hotel catered a wonderful meal in one of the rustic barns. "It was spectacular, offering everything we wanted," says Roye.

Venue Menu * Old Tucson Studios is an active film location and a Wild West theme park, complete with shoot-outs, song-and-dance shows, country-and-western bands, and western characters roaming the streets. Groups can arrange banquets, picnics, and special entertainment in indoor and outdoor sites. (520) 883-0100

* The Stardance is an outdoor venue for theme parties and teambuilding events for groups of up to 500 people. Located in the foothills of the Tucson Mountains, the venue is available for day or evening use. There is a ropes course and an 11,000-square-foot pavilion. (520) 744-4990

* Old Town Artisans in downtown Tucson is a restored adobe marketplace that can be used for group events of up to 175 people. The area features shops and galleries, and a southwestern restaurant, La Cocina. (520) 622-0351