Give Your Conference Attendees Something to Brag About

Phoenix-based Cloth & Flame is transforming events into experiences. Here’s how you can learn from their success.

As the scope and feel of association and corporate meetings continues to evolve, planners are recognizing that attendees no longer want to travel to a unique destination only to spend hours sitting in a dark, nondescript conference room listening to speakers read presentation slides. Increasingly, meeting organizers are looking for ways to market and build their conference into a true event—an opportunity to network and learn from others while having a unique, immersive experience.

This is hardly a new trend, but one we’ve identified as a rising priority for planners in 2020. We introduced eight ways to embrace this trend in the Associations Now print edition this past Winter, but found it critical to explore this trend further to better understand the implications for planners in the coming year.

There’s a real need for meeting and event planners to break the mold of the “same old, same old” and find new ways to connect with the meeting’s destination, says Lorne Edwards, senior vice president of sales and services for Visit Phoenix. In fact, according to CVENT, 80 percent of event planners reported that their jobs require more experience creation than just two to five years ago. From finding innovative meeting locations to tapping into local expertise, meeting planners are in search of memorable, one-of-a-kind experiences to entice attendees.

Attendees also want to have opportunities for connection with others while at conferences. According to The Experience Institute, creating and promoting on-site opportunities may impact their decision to attend a conference, with 76 percent saying it’s important that meetings give them opportunities to network and engage with others.

When people get out of the standard meetings format, they’re better able to connect with each other, says Matt Cooley, cofounder and CEO of Cloth & Flame, an Arizona-based outdoor dining and luxury retreat company that is helping meeting planners create unique experiences in Phoenix and beyond. The company partners with private landowners as well as national and state parks to offer exciting locales to provide turn-key dinners and event programming. Taking “the path less paved” has landed Cooley and his team at venues ranging from the secluded desert, forest wilderness and local lakes—all with picturesque mountain backdrops—to city rooftops, community gardens, and rare and unusual urban spaces, including private art galleries.

Cloth & Flame is best known for it’s picture-perfect community table culinary experiences, where everyone sits at beautifully set, custom-built tables to enjoy a spectacular five-course dinner that’s prepared by chefs on-site, even at the most remote locations. Other experiences include cooking classes and unique cocktail pairings—starring local ingredients—at distinctive outdoor venues with expansive views.

Getting outside, and face-to-face, allows attendees to unplug without Wi-Fi and share something completely new. These shared experiences can lead to deeper engagement and new ideas. “Everyone remembers the random strangers they went on a rafting trip [with] one time, but no one remembers the person at the business conference who handed [them] a business card,” Cooley explains.

Greater Phoenix offers some of the most unique meeting locations, including, but not limited to, the Sonoran Desert, with its iconic Saguaro cactus. “The desert is unlike any other environment,” Cooley says. “We tell people, ‘Come to Phoenix, you have to see this,’ and then we put them in a conference room.”

If you’re looking for an alternative to Cloth & Flame’s popular desert settings, the company has closed down Central Avenue in the city’s downtown core to host Savor on Central (pictured above). The collaborative dinner, a partnership with CityScape, featured a seven-course meal with five downtown restaurants just steps from the Phoenix Convention Center. “The lights, bustle, occasional train, massive illuminated cranes, and passing traffic will become the frame for us to foster connections and enjoy our neighbors in an unexpected way,” the Cloth & Flame website teases. “During these few hours, among the towering buildings and expansive city streets, the biggest thing visible in downtown Phoenix will be this community.”

And, regardless of the location or the special touches, meeting planners can count on Cloth & Flame to take care of every detail—from the unique location and the locally sourced ingredients to the tableware and logistics, including helping to arrange and manage transportation to the site.

While an activity, followed by a shared gourmet dinner in a unique location seems to be a winning combination, it’s important that the experience match the messaging and feel of the overall event, Cooley says. Consider what drives your attendees and then plan an event that capitalizes on their values and the goals of your meeting. Once you clearly define your meeting goals and stakeholders, the sky’s the limit.

For more information on how to plan your next meeting in Phoenix, contact Visit Phoenix at