While attendee safety and event budget remain top priorities for meeting planners, the word “imagination” was hot in everyone’s mind at the most recent edition of IMEX America, the leading conference about the events business. As the sector remains under pressure to deliver measurable ROI for companies that sponsor meetings, a key consideration for organizers is making sure events are imaginative, interesting, and full of valuable takeaways.

That shift — from conference room to collaborative experience, from breakout session to hiking trail — means planners are looking for destinations that can deliver more than the typical “amenity package” of rooms, restaurants, and meeting space. “We are no longer talking about the attendee experience, but of participant experience,” said Gwénaël Mulin, Senior Director France, CWT Meetings & Events, in a recent report on the future of the meetings business.

A number of U.S. cities are poised to capitalize on this shift. One such city is Phoenix. It’s providing forward-looking meeting planners with countless ways to entice the attendee of the future, with new accommodations like the Cambria Hotel (November 2019) and AC Hotel by Marriott (coming to downtown Phoenix in 2021); interesting new restaurant concepts and nightlife options like The Churchill, Sazerac, and The Theodore; and a rapidly developing downtown core.

Beyond having the amenities you’d expect from a top-tier destination and the kinds of unique experiences that are making meetings imaginative and meaningful, Phoenix is also leading the way in empowering women entrepreneurs.

To understand how women-led local businesses are continuing to reshape the city, SkiftX interviewed four entrepreneurs who, driven by their passion for Phoenix, are redefining experiences in the downtown core, across the metro area, and beyond.

A Dynamic City with Much to Offer

For Lori Hassler — chef and owner of family-run bistro and wine bar, The Farish House — Phoenix has always been home. After running Radda Caffe-Bar in Scottsdale in the mid-2000s, her new venture, she says, represents a return to hospitality: “We were lucky enough to get to lease this beautiful, historic home.” The building, which is one of only a few structures in the city that dates to before 1900, helped inspire many aspects of the business. “Its simple elegance really informed the menu, decor, and service style,” she said. The house really “told” us what to do.” Hassler went on to explain, “Having grown up here, I’d like a vestige of old Phoenix to be honored. The orange groves, the date palms, the movie star’s vacation escapes here, the old buildings,” she said. “I suppose that’s why we’re running The Farish House.”

Along the way, she’s also made connections with other entrepreneurs, including some who are also running businesses in downtown’s Roosevelt Row Arts District. “I’ve found other women in my trade to be so open and straightforward about their experience. They’ve been nothing but encouraging. That may also be giving others inspiration to do it for themselves,” Hassler said.

Another reassuring consideration for entrepreneurs in Phoenix is that, as of 2017, the Phoenix metro area has reclaimed its 2010 title of fifth-largest city in the U.S. Along with that growth has come rapid development, making the destination ideal for today’s meeting attendees. Known traditionally for resorts, access to nature, and its agreeable year-round climate, the city is now full of surprises, said Charleen Badman, James Beard Award-winning chef and co-owner of FnB Restaurant in Old Town Scottsdale.

“I live in Phoenix, very close to downtown, and I would definitely say there is a lot happening. It’s taken a lot of time to make that happen, but things have really started to stick,” Badman said. “Now, people are wanting to stay downtown, and there’s a lot to offer there,” including Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour and Phoenix Public Market Café and Open-Air Market. “Danielle Leoni has been there for 12 years,” Badman added, mentioning the chef and co-owner at The Breadfruit & Rum Bar, which is also downtown. “That makes her pretty much a pioneer to be down there. She’s doing Jamaican cooking, but also very much using what’s locally available.”

Leoni, who was chosen by the James Beard Foundation as a 2018 fellow for the group’s Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership program, put their faith in downtown over a decade before its transformation. “When we opened The Breadfruit & Rum Bar 12 years ago, our city looked nothing like it does today,” she said. “People who knew it a decade ago didn’t see downtown as a place to go and hang out. Incrementally, and now exponentially, vacant lots, boarded up buildings, and vacant real estate have become filled with restaurants, breweries, apartments, barber shops, an independent cinema, and Arizona State University. All of this brings more and more people, which in turn encourages a more bustling city,” Leoni added. “I’m thrilled to see that so many have finally come along to see Phoenix as a hotspot to open a small business.”

Megan Greenwood, who will open Greenwood Brewing in February of 2020, also saw the opportunities downtown Phoenix presented, and jumped at the opportunity. “I could have moved the brewery anywhere in the country, but I chose downtown Phoenix,” she said. “People in Phoenix care about their community and the people in it, and I wanted to be part of that.” Greenwood added that it was a visit to downtown Phoenix on a vibrant First Friday that moved her to rent out her Chandler, Arizona, house and make the move to downtown Phoenix. “The diversity of the city, the art and culture that downtown provides, the community, and the historic preservation of downtown is what makes it interesting and dynamic,” she said.

The result: more customized experiences packed into Phoenix’s walkable downtown core.

“There are just so many chefs and restaurants and tours and experiences that you can have here,” Badman said. “When people come from out of town to my restaurant, I always recommend three more places that they can go to showcase what we’re doing here in Arizona. Visitors are looking for a restaurant that’s going to tell them our story.”

Moving from Meetings to Memories

“Demand has grown significantly for events that are experiential in nature,” according to a report from CWT Meetings & Events. “Partly driven by the growing number of millennials in the workplace, and partly by the deep human craving we all have for more immersive experiences that touch our souls and minds, this is one trend that is not going anywhere.”

Connecting meeting attendees to the many experiences available both in (or near) meetings venues across Phoenix shouldn’t be too tricky. “What I love about Phoenix is that we have all facets of dining and entertainment,” Hassler said.

Leoni echoed Hassler’s sentiment, emphasizing some of the destination’s highlights. “Highbrow fine dining, great dive bars, mom-and-pop shops, local theater, posh spas, city hiking. If you seek it out, it’s there,” she said. “Over the past decade, we’ve seen more and more small businesses take root to meet the demand of a growing number of visitors to our community.” Meeting planners take note: “Phoenix has a long list of one-of-a-kind gems to satisfy your every need.”

“Visitors want to learn about what Phoenix and Arizona have to offer: her culture, her nature, her adventures, her people,” Greenwood said. “There’s something over here in the desert Southwest and people want to know what it’s all about.”

The stories of Phoenix, along with those of a new class of passionate entrepreneurs, are enticing locals and visitors alike to experience all that Phoenix has to offer — to themselves become a part of the city’s story.

Learn More About the Women Entrepreneurs Who Are Reshaping Phoenix and Some of the Causes They Are Passionate About

When James Beard Award-winning chef Charleen Badman is not spearheading new seasonal menus at FnB restaurant in Scottsdale, she can be found at the helm of Slow Food Phoenix’s Blue Watermelon Project. This grassroots group of chefs, restaurateurs, farmers, and community food advocates believes in good food, equal and fair access to it, and that a systemic food systems change starts from the ground up.

Danielle Leoni has earned Phoenix’s first Smart Catch Seal, awarded by the James Beard Foundation’s Smart Catch Program. The sustainable seafood program offers education and support, by chefs for chefs, to embrace sustainable, healthy food practices. Leoni strives to have a zero waste kitchen, with almost all waste going to recycling or compost instead of landfills.

Megan Greenwood’s goal with Greenwood Brewing is to create approachable craft beer and to make space for women to feel welcome in the craft brewing industry. Greenwood believes that beer isn’t just tasty, it’s also an avenue for powerful conversation and positive change — change that often begins over a cold one with a friend. Must try: Herstory Brew, Greenwood’s flagship pale ale.

This content was created in collaboration with Visit Phoenix and published by Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.

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