THE PHOENIX CLIMATE IS ONE OF MANY PLUSES FOR MEETINGS Everything grows where the sun shines, and that includes Phoenix, now the nation's seventh largest city, a destination very much on the rise. With 300 days of sunshine per year, the Valley of the Sun attracts more than 12 million visitors annually.

Its 150-plus golf courses are playable year-round. They range from classic courses to innovative, recently constructed courses that pioneered the desert-target golf course.

A recent Zagat survey of frequent travelers to U.S. hotels, resorts, and spas placed Phoenix as the top hotel city in the country, an honor verified by the significant number of five-star and five-diamond properties in the Valley of the Sun.

It is the area's variety that appeals to Jim Lavold, associate director, meetings for Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., Milwaukee, WI. Lavold has brought a number of meetings to Phoenix, and is planning another for February that will attract 1,300 attendees. "This will be a regional meeting of sales ideas, motivation, and education for our agents. We chose a place that we thought our agents would be enticed to come to in late February, and the reaction we've had so far has been very positive," he says. A packed two-day program will depend on the staff of the hotel and Civic Plaza to keep things moving efficiently, he says.

Lavold emphasizes that the weather is the draw to Phoenix, as is the wide range in hotel prices.

This flexibility is particularly important to Lavold because it suits a variety of meetings, from high-end management conferences that require extensive recreation options, to regional meetings, such as the event planned for February. "Attendees pay all their own expenses--it's not an incentive meeting," he says. "If we had only the highest-end properties to choose from , we couldn't have a successful meeting."

Another reason that Lavold repeatedly chooses Phoenix for a variety of meetings is its accessibility. "It has a big airport, is easy to get in and out of, with good service from major hub cities," he says.

"Again I come back to choices," he says, "Phoenix has them all."

s the nation's seventh-largest city, Phoenix has grown with unprecedented speed over the past decade. One of the many effects of its spurt was an exodus of businesses and families to the suburbs and abandonment of a city center that no longer was a population hub or a focus of commerce and entertainment.

But then voters handed the tired city center a wake-up call with a billion-dollar bond issue that provided funding for renewal.

Margaret Mullen, executive director of Downtown Phoenix Partnership, the nonprofit corporation responsible for revitalization since 1990, says, "Downtown Phoenix is nationally recognized as an example of how to transform an urban core. In just five years we have changed the face of downtown Phoenix from an area of slum and blight to the arts and entertainment center of the Valley."

A stroll around the downtown area verifies Mullen's words. The debut of the Herberger Theater in 1986 marked the beginning of the transition, providing a $19 million performance showcase.

Across the street is the $515 million Arizona Center, consisting of eight blocks of restaurants, shops, and night clubs. Its boutiques and vendor carts, spaced among palm trees and fountains, draw visitors in search of take-home gifts and items distinctively Arizona. Restaurants are convenient gathering places before and after downtown sports and cultural events. A new 24-screen movie complex will open before the end of the year.

The center is designed so that its open garden areas, surrounded by more than 60 restaurants, can accommodate groups of as many as 5,000 guests for private functions.

Expansion and redevelopment have generated an efficient transportation system within the new downtown--DASH. For 30 cents a ride, the Downtown Area Shuttle Service hits its stops every six or 12 minutes, depending on time of day.

Mullen says that this is just the beginning. "Over the next three years you'll see three times the activity that we have generated in the last five years. By the time we open Bank One Ballpark April 1, 1998, we will have 10 million visitors a year coming to eight square blocks of downtown," she predicts.