Utah Unplugged

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Utah Unplugged

Walking into Sundance Resort is one of those moments when you’re forced to stop and surrender for a moment, while your brain trips over itself trying to slow down, decompress and gauge your sense of harmony with planet earth.

That happens a lot in Utah.

“From the beginning, Mr. Redford wanted to create a place where artists could flourish and work in a supportive environment,” explains Lucy Ridolphi, marketing manager. “Sundance is special because it’s not overdeveloped. Everything feels natural and healthy, and groups love that.”

Bordering the little pond, the wooden Rehearsal Hall features 17-foot ceilings, a grand piano, large stone fireplace, and big glass barn doors opening onto a deck over the water. Capacity is 250, and they’re isn’t a planner in America who wouldn’t appreciate its Cezanne-worthy setting.

We pass by a couple ladies painting at their easels on our way to the “art shacks,” where visiting Mexican artisans are creating colorful menageries out of recycled glass and bright dyes. Planners can arrange group lessons here for pottery, jewelry making, printmaking, photography and painting, whether they’re booking the 90-unit property or visiting for the day from Park City or Salt Lake, each about 40 minutes away.

In winter, area dmc Rocky Mountain Outfitters offers snowmobile tours and sleigh rides. In summer, groups gravitate toward horseback rides along centuries-old trails, a fly fishing camp, and chuckwagon dinners with calf roping and bow and arrow lessons. Attendees also rent mountain bikes, hook them on the ski lift and ride around the high mountain passes, or hang with the locals during summer theater productions in the outdoor amphitheater.

MOUNTAINTOP MEETINGS

Around 1870, a small band of miners and their families settled the town of Park City, inside a protected valley rimmed with pine-swathed mountains. Today, a wealth of restored clapboard homes line the historic Main Street, housing eclectic upscale restaurants, galleries and boutiques. That established community feel with lots of artsy types and Birkenstock bankers is a strong selling point, as is the reclusive alpine setting just a half hour from Salt Lake.

First, whatever you do in these mountains, do this.

Around 4pm, bring the group to The Canyons Resort, a village complex of four properties headlined by the 4-diamond Grand Summit Hotel. Everyone climbs into the gondola to traverse a yawning valley before ascending to 9,000 feet to the rim of the Wasatch Mountains. From there, the group climbs into military grade convertible Hummers for the trek to the aptly named Lookout Cabin. The views are jawdroppers. Luckily we had Paul and Cierra on hand, two UT astronomy grad students who brought along a high-powered telescope.

We all shared bottles of young pinot noir and braised trout canapés, before sitting down for a 7-course repast cooked by hotel chefs in the demonstration kitchen. Five different wine pairings included an ’05 Latour Corton Charlemagne, well placed next to the sole veronique and peeled grapes. Afterwards, Paul and Cierra showed some of us Saturn, while others sipped aperitifs and cocoa by the fire.

LUXE LODGES

LUXE LODGES

High up in the mountains, Stein Eriksen Lodge is Utah’s only 5-star property, with a Sunday Brunch to match. Don’t even try to reserve a group for Sunday breakfast in winter unless you’re booking rooms. Even on this summer Sunday, the 4-star Glitretind Restaurant overlooking the undulating Empire Valley is full inside and out on the expansive wooden deck. Seating 175 for groups, the restaurant is lauded for its 10,000 bottle wine cellar and three staff sommeliers.

“But Park City is never pretentious,” says marketing manager Sarah Myers. “We have many things to do that are very affordable. We just had a group do a horseback ride with a picnic lunch and wine prepared by the hotel.”

The 180 rooms and suites are ski-in/ski-out, and the 4-star spa is expanding to 20,000 sf for season. Total group space is 7,000 sf, but in June, Stein took over management of The Chateaux at Silver Lake across the street. This provides a total of over 300 rooms and 17,000 sf of indoor meeting space available on one master account. The French Country-style Chateaux wraps around an outdoor plaza for 500-person banquets and events.

By the time you read this, Dakota Mountain Lodge & Golden Door Spa will have opened a couple miles north of town. From the moment you walk under the twin Baccarat crystal chandeliers towards the 300 year-old fireplace mantle from southern Italy, you’re aware this 175-room Waldorf Astoria member is a little more cosmopolitan than its neighbors. Black hardwoods, travertine tile and polished silver Restoration Hardware furnishings are complemented by full kitchens with Viking appliances.

“We’ve had people from New York walk through and say, ‘Oh, I would have this in my apartment,’ so we know we hit the mark,” says spokesperson Cindy Lawrence. The 16,000-sf spa is eco-chic with a 2-story wall of water, a 2-story living wall of plants, and various alderwood/limestone embellishments. For groups, two stately boardrooms and The Side Car exec lounge total 1,100 sf for small meets.

While the larger resorts here are mostly located near the three ski mountains, the 4-diamond Hotel Park City lies conveniently on the outskirts of town around a lush and heavily treed mountain golf course.

“You can be more spontaneous here and you’re not boxed in,” says Denise Perkins, director of sales/marketing. “And it’s relaxed. We’ve had some high net worth individuals hanging out in the lobby in their jeans and polo shirts. That’s important to a lot of people.” People like Bono, Paris Hilton and Pierce Brosnan, who usually book the Governor’s Suite.

Planners will love the Steinway and big fireplace in the comfy grand lobby with towering 2-story windows framing the mountain vista. I mention to Perkins how nice it is to wake up in the morning to that fresh mountain air.

“I know, right?” says Perkins. “I go out of my way to tell people they should sleep with their windows open and just breathe it all in. That’s why you come to Park City.”

The decor is a restrained Western-theme elegance with lots of natural stone and cathedral beam ceilings, and Perkins points out all 100 suites have balconies with excellent mountain views. Booking options include either the main lodge or newer cottage suites with hot tubs on the balcony lining the golf course, and all feature kitchens and fireplaces. The 10,000 sf of meeting space is complemented by the Ruths’ Chris private dining room seating 100, with wraparound floor-to-ceiling windows showing off the leafy landscape.

SALT LAKE CITY SCENE

This might be the most stress-free convention city in America. It takes only eight minutes to drive from the Hertz rental lot at Salt Lake International to the group hotels downtown. And the majority of planners attending MPI’s World Education Congress this summer could walk from their hotels to the ½ million-sf Salt Palace Convention Center.

Salt Lake City is like an Old West frontier town with a batch of modern skyscrapers, pushed up against the mountains with 6-lane streets almost devoid of traffic. So there’s this overwhelming sense of openness and easy livability. For 2012, a new rail line will connect the airport with the downtown convention district’s 7,000 hotel rooms.

“If anything, our infrastructure and capacity is overbuilt,” says Eric Thompson, managing director of marketing for the Salt Lake CVB. “Once the train from the airport opens, all a planner has to do is show up with their skateboard.”

Over at the Farmer’s Market, more than 100 vendors are proffering everything from homemade salsa to astonishing artisan jewelry by Elizabeth Plumb. Green Day wannabes with skateboards mingle with 40-something accountants and elderly ex-hippies in the park, and a first-time visitor is surprised to discover Salt Lake is all kinds of fun.

I tell this to Shawn Stinson, the CVB’s director of communications, over organic beers and free-range chicken quesadillas at the buzzing Squatter’s Pub. Definitely consider parties here for up to 170 in the funky brew pub. It’s green-conscious and it supports The Temporary Museum of Permanent Change. This is cool. The multi-media artist colony uses the city as their canvas to focus attention on commercial developments, which helps advertise small businesses affected by the development.

“We know there are misperceptions about Salt Lake,” says Stinson. “We want to get the word out that Salt Lake is a diverse city. You can have a beer in a place like this, you can walk from here up to hiking and biking trails in the mountains, and we have a really vibrant artist community.”

Not far from Squatter’s, two beautifully restored railroad terminals date back to the era when Salt Lake was a major stop between Denver and San Francisco. Planners can host lavish dinners for 450 under the towering, barrel-vaulted ceiling at The Union Pacific Depot, while the sister Rio Grand Depot is a progressive art and design gallery. During this trip, the exhibits showcased modern innovations in green home and product design in the US and developing countries. The half Beaux Arts/half Renaissance Revival structure is a stunner, exemplifying the city’s slew of pre-WWI American architecture. Be sure to grab the Historic Downtown Walking Tour map pointing out 58 important buildings like the magnificent 1911 ex-Hotel Utah in Temple Square—the nexus of Mormonism.

At the top of Hotel Utah, dinner at The Roof Restaurant is a local fine-dining tradition, and the Tabernacle Choir performs public rehearsals most Thursdays at 8pm.

Curious to see behind the scenes, I venture across town to Welfare Square. Groups up to 80 can take a tour of the Church’s humanitarian food processing operation, which has shipped over 10 million pounds of clothes and 600 tons of food to Africa since 2003. Church members have also gathered here for all-night packaging sessions of food and clothing during disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the Honduran mud slides. Enjoying some cheddar cheese and chocolate milk produced at the plant, pastor James Goodrich smiles and says, “Best food money can’t buy.”

Hotel Monaco Salt Lake City

Back downtown, Hotel Monaco Salt Lake City has become the post-conference meeting place of choice for many design-minded attendees at WEC. The Washington State crowd has taken over the private space in the Bambara restaurant’s historic club bar seating about 75, while we’re mingling in the French stagecoach-style Living Room Lobby.

The 225-room Kimpton property offers 3,100 sf of function space including the 2,000-sf Paris Ballroom, and like all Hotel Monacos, this one promotes its own special “story.” The thematic arc here is Guilty Pleasures—a “slightly daring hotel that’s a delicious surprise in a desert oasis.”

Utah has more than a few surprises. Sundance comes to mind, and waking up in a forest seeing deers. Coffee tastes better in that air. Everything tastes better. If you plan a meeting in Salt Lake, budget a night or more up in the mountains. Exhaling fully and breathing deeply—there’s your ROI.

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