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Wild West corralling corporate getaway action

Activities include cattle drives and tepee building

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Forget obstacle courses, rock climbing and other physically demanding corporate team-building exercises. Think horseback rides, chuckwagons and gunslingers.

The lure of the Wild West is the new rage in corporate America, and boot-clad executives from all over the country are coming to southern Arizona to get a taste of it.

Five years ago, Corporate Adventures, a local company that designs custom outings for companies, took corporate groups to Key West, Hawaii, Colorado, Mexico, Costa Rica, Belize and Guatemala — everywhere but Tucson. Last year, the company brought 1,250 Western wannabes this way.

Gammons Gulch, a fabricated Western town 60 miles east of Tucson, has grown from 247 visitors six years ago to 3,400 last year. Many of those were part of corporate getaway groups.

The range of Western-themed team-building activities is practically limitless, said Jackie Ludwig, owner of Convention and Group Services. Ludwig has spent much of her time of late putting together cattle drives, horseback scavenger hunts and tepee-building exercises.

And there's no end in sight, corporate planners say.

"The Old West is going to get more and more and more popular," said Roger Emery, founder of Corporate Adventures.

Tucson's cobalt skies and casual atmosphere attract out-of-town firms for meetings and team-building exercises, said Steve Musatto, president of the Arizona Hotel and Lodging Association.

Corporate groups even come in the summer, when Tucson is at its hottest and hotel occupancy at its lowest.

"It's a great piece of business," Musatto said. "Sometimes they find when they stick people into perhaps a high-rise commercial hotel in some big city they just don't get the same results."

What they get here is a new attitude spurred by the area's wide-open spaces and sense of freedom, Emery said.

Fifteen years ago, companies that wanted workers to break their work molds and forge personal ties often took groups into the wilderness and left them there. Although such programs still exist, many corporations are opting for less confrontational activities that, as Emery put it, "won't scare the hell out of them."

"Rather than being based on physical brawn, these are more mental, thought-provoking approaches to team-building," said Nancy Allison, spokeswoman for the Westin La Paloma resort.

Corporate visitors don't come to southern Arizona for bright lights and glitzy entertainment.

They come for places like Gammons Gulch, which has no hotels except the one Jay Gammons and his wife, Joanne, live in but don't open to the public. Groups stay in nearby Benson, where Kartchner Caverns' opening in 1999 spawned a number of hotels, motels and restaurants.

The seclusion is a big selling point, said Gammons, who constructed the town over the past 30 years and filled it with antiques.

"It's like Fantasy Island," he said. "It's a place to have fun and to build camaraderie."

The quest for fun and camaraderie is what compels Emery's clientele in Tucson and around the world to pay anywhere from $1,200 to $250,000 for a custom-scripted event.

One of the biggest groups he hosted here was the International Egg Commission, which is based in London and has members all over the world. Corporate Adventures threw a Western theme party for 250 people from 32 countries at Fable Arabian Ranch on Tucson's East Side.

His latest brainstorm was a movie produced with a Tombstone company called Rio Macho Productions and starring workers from Tucson-based Madden Publishing, which publishes Tucson Home, Tucson Official Visitors Guide and others.

The Madden cast recently filmed "Gunfight at Tombstone" at Gammons Gulch. It took two days of grueling work to produce a 20-minute movie, but the experience helped bring together Madden's Tucson and Scottsdale offices.

It also brought out the actor in Don Scheer, an art director at the company. Scheer's co-workers were startled to see him stumbling down the dusty street holding a bottle of liquor, hollering and shooting a gun in the air.

Quite a feat for someone who was wary of the concept.

"I think I surprised some people. I'm somewhat reserved usually. I don't know what came over me," Scheer said.

But what does shooting a movie have to do with team-building? Lots, says John Hudak, Madden's publisher and editor in chief.

"The best team-building things I've seen are people having fun," Hudak said. "Just sharing experiences that were out of the real world had real value."

Many companies began wiping out their midlevel managers around 10 years ago, leaving a gap between workers and top managers, said Emery, who used to run an executive search firm.

"The decisionmaking process really started going awry," he said. "It's pretty apparent. Here's the CEO. Here's young workers. Nobody in the middle. What we lost, or what I called it, is our institutional mentoring."

So Emery started a business putting together events that would help attendees become better decisionmakers.

Proposing a team-building exercise can set off grumbling among workers who might wonder why the company doesn't give them raises instead of spending money on such events.

Emery has an easy answer.

"If all your workers want out of you is money, you know you've lost," he said. "Now that you know you've lost, you'd better find your way back."