The Southwest and Southern California region of the U.S. continues to experience phenomenal growth, fueled by business, entertainment, recreation, and convention investments. Topping the list, of course, is Las Vegas, which has successfully morphed into an entertainment destination with something for everyone--families, conventioneers, gaming fans, shoppers, gourmands, and even art enthusiasts. The just-opened Bellagio Resort, for instance, features nearly $300 million in fine art. The city will have an estimated 2.7 million square feet of shopping space by 2000, while the number of top-tier restaurants continues to grow, including Wolfgang Puck's Spago's, Emeril's, and Coyote Cafe.

There are 20,000 new hotel rooms under construction, adding to a base of 106,000 rooms. Instead of competing for just gaming travelers, the city is gunning for its share of the world leisure market. The 26 new gates at McCarran International Airport, plus new nonstop service to Tokyo, will help. As for conventions, the city is still ranked number one in terms of number of Tradeshow 200 events hosted, and that record should grow with the expansion last year of the city's convention center to 1.9 million square feet. And city officials are already discussing another expansion.

In Arizona, Phoenix has rebranded its CVB, which became the Greater Phoenix CVB, dropping the "Valley of the Sun" part of the name in hopes of boosting the region's name recognition. With its new science center, renovated convention center, and new Bank One Ballpark, downtown Phoenix is experiencing a rebirth. Financing, however, for a long-awaited third convention hotel downtown had fallen through at press time. A new developer is being sought for the 700-room Westin property.

On a smaller scale, New Mexico's Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Taos offer affordable, year-round meeting facilities in spectacular settings.

And in Southern California, the Palm Springs Desert Resorts (encompassing Cathedral City, Desert Hot Springs, Indian Wells, La Quinta, Palm Springs, Palm Desert, and Rancho Mirage) are a natural for meetings. There are more than 90 golf courses in the area.

ARIZONA Metro Phoenix hotel news * The 250-room Crowne Plaza North Phoenix @ Metrocenter opened last year across the street from the state's second-largest mall. It has 10,000 square feet of meeting space.

* The 210-room Sheraton Phoenix Airport Hotel in Tempe opened in January. The reflagged, renovated hotel features 10,000 square feet of meeting space.

* The 210-room Four Seasons Scottsdale opens in fall 1999 adjacent to championship golf courses.

* The Wigwam Resort in Litchfield Park has over 30,000 square feet of indoor meeting space. The 10,800-square-foot Wigwam Ballroom has built-in, rear-screen projection and is divisible by 7. There is also an abundance of outdoor function areas. The resort has 331 casita-style rooms, and features The Gold and Blue Course, designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr.; and the Red Course, designed by Robert "Red" Lawrence.

* The Tempe Mission Palms resort recently completed an $11 million renovation that included the hotel's 30,000 square feet of meeting space.

important info Greater Phoenix CVB * (602) 254-6500, (877) 633-8749 Fax: (602) 253-4415

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

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. The center also features a 2,577-seat Symphony Hall, and 73,000 square feet of terraces for outdoor events.

Scottsdale CVB * (602) 945-8481, (800) 877-1117 Fax: (602) 947-4523

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

Tucson hotel news * The 428-room Sheraton El Conquistador Resort and Country Club is adding 25,000 square feet of meeting and service space, including a 12,000-square-foot ballroom. The project is scheduled for completion in March 2000.

* 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.

* The 304-room Radisson Suites is now the Doubletree Guest Suites.

important info Metropolitan Tucson CVB * (520) 770-2143 (800) 638-8350 Fax: (520) 884-7804

Tucson Convention Center * (520) 791-4101. 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.

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

CALIFORNIA Palm Springs Area hotel news * The 550-room Marriott Rancho Las Palmas has received a $32 million face-lift, adding a 20,000-square-foot health spa, a new 10,000-square-foot ballroom, and a children's pool and slide.

* The 226-room Miramonte Resort opened in Indian Wells last year. A Preferred Resort property, the resort has a Mediterranean motif.

* The 287-room Doubletree Hotel & Golf Resort Palm Springs last year completed a $5 million renovation.

* The 640-room La Quinta Resort and Club last year opened a 20,000 square foot spa and a 2,000 square foot fitness club.

* The 338-suite Hyatt Grand Champions Resort has spent $1.4 million to renovate the pool area, and has redone a restaurant to an upscale lunch and dinner venue, operated by actor George Hamilton.

important info Palm Springs Desert Resorts CVB * (760) 770-9000; Fax: (760) 770-9001

Palm Springs Convention Center * (760)325-6611. With 66,000 square feet of exhibit space, and 12 meeting rooms

Total Hotel Tax 9.25% to 11%, depending on the resort area

NEVADA Las Vegas hotel news * The 500-suite Alexis Park, one of the better-known nongaming hotels, has won permission from the Planning Commission to add a small casino by converting the existing lobby, and also to convert a 208-room adjacent apartment complex into hotel rooms.

* The 253-room Regent Grand Palms and the 287-room Regent Grand Spa will be the centerpiece of a luxurious golf and spa retreat called the Resort at Summerlin, opening in the spring in the Las Vegas Valley.

* The 3,300-room Mandalay Bay hotel and casino opened on the Las Vegas Strip in March, with Luciano Pavarotti opening the resort's 12,000-seat arena in April. The property will have 100,000 square feet of convention space.

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

* The Bellagio resort opened on the Strip in October, featuring 3,000 rooms, an eight-acre lake, $300 million in fine art, and 125,000 square feet of meeting space.

* Built on the site of the original Sands Hotel on the Strip, the $1.2 billion Venetian Casino will be the world's largest resort hotel and convention complex under one roof. Phase One was completed this spring, including 3,036 luxury suites, a 116,000-square-foot gaming facility, and a 500,000-square-foot dining and entertainment complex. Another 3,000 suites are to be constructed in phase two. Meeting facilities include the newly expanded Sands Expo Center with 1.7 million square feet of function space.

* The 33-story casino resort Paris Las Vegas, featuring replicas of Parisian landmarks, 130,000 square feet of function space, and 2,900 guest rooms, opens this fall next to Bally's Las Vegas.

* The 1,863-room Riviera Hotel and Casino on the Strip is scheduled to complete its 85,000-square-foot convention and visitors center this spring. It will accommodate up to 5,700 people and have bleacher seating and sky boxes. The hotel already has 100,000 square feet of meeting space.

* A 380,000-square-foot conference center opened in March 1998 at the MGM Grand Hotel, with a 63,000-square-foot exhibit hall, meeting rooms, and a 50,000-square-foot ballroom. The MGM Grand intends to transform itself into the "City of Entertainment" with the addition of 1,500 rooms at a new Marriott Marquis at the MGM Grand by 2000, and another 500 at a new Ritz-Carlton at the Grand (no completion date set).

* The Aladdin Hotel closed on the Strip, making way for a new $1.2 billion gambling and hotel complex. Plans call for a 2,600-room Aladdin Hotel Casino and a Middle East-themed shopping center.

important info Las Vegas Conv. & Visitor Authority * (702) 892-0711 Fax: (702) 892-2824

The Las Vegas Convention Center * (702) 892-0711. An expansion of 279,000 square feet of exhibit space, 42,000 square feet of meeting space, and a visitor center was completed last fall. The center now has 1.9 million square feet of function space.

Total Hotel Tax 18% downtown and 15% on the Strip

NEW MEXICO Albuquerque hotel news * The 366-room Radisson Hotel and Conference Center last year completed a renovation of meeting and public space and added 4,000 square feet of meeting space for a total of 29,000 square feet.

* The 276-room Wyndham Albuquerque Hotel has added a 6,500-square-foot ballroom and prefunction area, for a total of 12,500 square feet.

important info Albuquerque CVB * (505) 842-9918, (800) 733-9918 Fax: (505) 247-9101

Albuquerque Convention Center * (505) 768-4575. A total of 167,562 square feet of exhibit space (with 106,200 column-free); plus 30 meeting rooms and a 2,500-seat auditorium.

Total Hotel Tax 10.81%

Santa Fe hotel news * The Inn on the Alameda, near the foot of Canyon Road and only a few minutes' walk from the Plaza, the heart of Old Santa Fe, offers 68 rooms and suites. The conference center can accommodate up to 50 people. The Inn's classic Southwestern design incorporates adobe, tile, and native woods.

* Las Posada Hotel is expanding to 159 rooms and adding a 5,000-square-foot spa. It will have 5,000 square feet of meeting space by June 1999.

* Bishop's Lodge will add 21 new guest rooms in the fall, for a total of 101. By 2000, the lodge will add a convention center, accommodating 300.

important info Santa Fe CVB * (505) 984-6760 (800) 984-9984 Fax: (505) 984-6679

Sweeney Convention Center (505) 984-6760. A total of 10,000 square feet of exhibit space on the main floor, plus five meeting rooms

Total Hotel Tax10.25%

Taos * The Fechin Inn, a luxury property that opened in 1996, offers 85 guest rooms in a Pueblo-style adobe structure. The second-floor conference room provides 1,140 square feet of flexible space. The Inn is within walking distance of the galleries and restaurants of Taos. It close by the Taos Country Club and a short drive to Taos Ski Valley.

important info Taos County C.C. * (505) 758-3873 (800) 732-8267 Fax: (505) 758-3872

Taos Civic Plaza & Conv. Center * (505) 758-5792, (800) 323-6338. With 13,588 square feet of exhibit space, and 11 meeting rooms, the largest accommodating 610

Total Hotel Tax 14.87%

Insurance Proving that Arizona is a natural for insurance conferences, Audrey Raclaw, director of professional liability programs for the Chicago-based BCS Insurance Company, says she keeps coming back to the state because of the outdoor recreational options, first-class hotels, and reliably good weather. She first brought a conference to the state in 1992, booking the Pointe Hilton at Tapatio Cliffs in Phoenix. The 100-person group had such a great time they came back five years later.

"One of the great things we did that first year at Tapatio was have a Chili Cook-off. We divided the group into regional teams, and each team was allowed to bring one secret ingredient. The chef of the property was the judge and--surprise, surprise--the Texas team won. It's something the group still talks about," Raclaw says.

She has also used the Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale. "What can I say--a divine, decadent property," she says with a laugh. She also held a private reception and "clue dinner" at the Wrigley Mansion in Phoenix, during which the group's top business competitor was "done in." Raclaw says the mansion is a superb venue, even if you just tour the museum.

Just back in February from a Las Vegas conference at Caesars' new Palace Tower, Robin Carew, assistant vice president, Conseco Travel Services, Chicago, gave the new wing of the hotel a thumbs-up. She set up a final night Roman Feast awards dinner at the hotel--with waiters in togas and guests in formal wear--that she said was one of the most elegant ever put on by a hotel she has worked with.

Carew, who plans many different types of events every year for the various companies associated with Conseco (a holding company), notes that Las Vegas is very "hot" right now, with new properties opening up. The great airlift into the city is another bonus, and there is no Saturday night stay-over requirement. She recommends the Danny Gans show, at the Rio Hotel for the next three years, as the best show in town. As for restaurants in Vegas, don't miss Drai's: "It's always a winner," she says.

VenueMenu Here are a few adventure options for groups meeting in the region. * One of the all time great Southwest adventures is to explore the Grand Canyon in Arizona, by foot, mule, or helicopter. For information on these and other options call Grand Canyon Chamber of Commerce at (520) 638-2901.

* For those looking for adventure with a different twist, groups cancan charter one or more vintage coaches of the Grand Canyon Railway, which makes a daily trip from the town of Williams to the South Rim of the Canyon, about two-and-a-half hours. For information, call Grand Canyon Railway Group Sales at (800) 843-8273.

* Put attendees in a NASCAR race car, at speeds of 140 miles per hour, at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The Richard Petty Driving Experience lets you do it. Call (800) BE PETTY for information.

* Jeep tours are available in many places throughout the Southwest. You'll find this option and much more at the Western theme town of Rawhide, just outside of Scottsdale, Ariz., offering theme shops and saloons, and outdoor adventure and activities for groups. Call (602) 502-1880.