It’s a good time to be in Tucson—and also good to be Tucson. If the second-largest city in Arizona was previously known as Scottsdale’s less sophisticated little sister, it’s turning that reputation on its head with trendy new hotels, a funky downtown and a closeness to nature.
“We are happy to be the underdog,” says Dan Gibson, director of communications at Visit Tucson. “If [people come here] and it feels like a discovery, that’s even better.”
If trends continue, it might not stay that way for long. Gibson reports 80 percent of meeting planners who’ve attended site visits to Tucson have booked business. Tucson is especially popular among the association market, particularly for the high value proposition the second-tier city offers—at times, half of Phoenix prices, says Gibson.
Unusual quirks like funeral homes-turned-bars (Tucson has two of them), strip mall Mexican joints with killer brisket (where else can you do a group taco crawl?) and retro-cool lodging (The Hotel Congress still uses brass keys) add to the charm.
One mainstay in the city’s event scene is the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, which has taken place there every February since 1954. Comprised of 45 different events this year and headquartered at Tucson Convention Center, the show has an annual economic impact of $12 million on the city. While Tucson (metro area population: 1 million) isn’t large enough to host citywides, Gem and Mineral Show attendees take up a large chunk of the city’s 12,900 rooms.
The addition of Sun Link, Tucson’s downtown streetcar, in 2014 served as a catalyst for much of the new development in that area. Running a 3.9-mile track from the west side down Congress Street and continuing on to the popular Fourth Avenue and The University of Arizona campus, the transportation mode has made a major impact on the neighborhoods it runs through. “It has created basically one space,” says Gibson. Locals are also moving and living downtown—not the case only five years ago, Gibson notes.
Among that development are new lodging options for groups. Tucson is set to gain two new hotels by next year. That’s pretty major for a destination that hasn’t seen a new hotel downtown in three decades. Marriott is placing its bets on Tucson to draw millennial business travelers, building a 136-room AC Hotel (planned to open this summer) and a 100-room Moxy (scheduled for completion in 2018).
Restaurant newcomers downtown offer a mix of Tex-Mex cuisine, fresh takes on Southwestern fare (ever had a Sonoran hot dog?) and craft cocktails, at a noncraft-cocktail price. Playground Bar & Lounge has an incredible urban patio for events and a great happy hour menu for post-event unwinding. Charro Steak, which opened last year and accommodates buyouts, is known for its mesquite-grilled, Arizona grass-fed steaks and stellar desserts. It makes sense that dine-arounds are popular among groups, as Family Travel Association did one night of its meeting in Tucson last year.
Connect Coworking, a shared office space downtown, is a convenient spot to work on the road. It also has several rooms that can be rented for private events, accommodating from four to 50 people.
One can’t-miss stop in the area is HUB Ice Cream Factory. The locally made concoctions in flavors like oatmeal cookie dough are a sure way to cool down on a hot Arizona day.