The Experiential StateJanuary 1, 2018

California Boasts Widely Diverse Destinations With Singular Experiences By
January 1, 2018

The Experiential State

California Boasts Widely Diverse Destinations With Singular Experiences

The sprawling Grand Plaza at the Anaheim Convention Center accommodates outdoor events for even the largest association groups.

California, like Florida, is a state that offers a long list of individual meeting destinations. But unlike the Sunshine State, which essentially offers sun-and-fun options that are largely similar, the Golden State offers a roster of unique local destinations, from the urban sprawl of San Diego and the famous sophistication and charm of San Francisco, to the less well-known but singular experiences of second-tier options such as Newport Beach and Palm Springs.

“California is one of the ‘hot’ association meeting destinations in the Americas because of its reputation and the unique offerings it has, whether that’s Hollywood or Napa Valley or San Francisco,” says Phelps Hope, senior vice president, meeting and expositions, at Atlanta-based association management company Kellen, which hosted a dozen meetings throughout the Golden State last year. “The state has uniqueness, in terms of individual destinations, that you can’t find anywhere else in North America. And as a result of that, it’s always a first consideration for any meeting to be held on the West Coast.”

The local destinations Kellen used in 2017 included San Diego, Newport Beach, Santa Monica, Palm Springs, Long Beach, Santa Clara and Davis, for meetings ranging from 10 to 3,000 attendees.

“A big factor in California’s favor when it comes to association meetings is that it’s on the leading edge of major cultural and societal changes such as technology and nutrition,” Hope says. “And then there’s the fact that California is an ‘experience’ destination, meaning there are lots of kinds of interesting experiences that can be built into the meeting away from the hotel. That means that attendees can have truly unique experiences that drive attendance and also make the meeting memorable. For example, if you’re meeting in San Francisco, you can do something offsite in Napa Valley wine country, or if your association or attendees are interested in technology, you can do something in Silicon Valley. If you’re meeting in Los Angeles, you can do something in Hollywood. So California also offers a lot of unique options within or around each one of its major local destinations.”

The state also offers unique destinations that bring an outdoor element into the meeting in places such as Lake Tahoe or the redwood country north of San Francisco, he adds. “Throughout the state, you can create a good story about why any one of the many individual destinations within California is a good choice if you’re looking for a unique and interesting experience.”

Hitting the Trifecta

Colleen Flood, CMP, director of marketing, membership and meeting services at the Alexandria, Virginia-based Airport Consultants Council (ACC), agrees with that assessment. “We rotate our annual meeting, for about 200 attendees, between the East Coast in even-numbered years and the West Coast in odd-numbered years,” she says, “and as of 2019, when we go to Palm Springs, it will be the first time we will have used California for three consecutive West Coast meetings.” ACC held its 2017 meeting in San Diego.

In 2015, ACC used one of the state’s most unique and beloved destinations, Newport Beach.

“When I started my job here four years ago,” Flood says, “one of the first things I said was that we should take our conference to Newport Beach. I was already very familiar with the area. It’s just a gorgeous place. And our attendees just loved it.” The hotel she used was the Fashion Island Hotel located in the heart of the iconic open-air shopping, dining and entertainment district that is the cultural centerpiece of Newport Beach.

ACC’s 2019 meeting will be in another charming and iconic destination, Palm Springs. The hotel will be the Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa, an historic property that has defined the destination for decades.

Kellen’s Phelps Hope has high praise for Palm Springs. “It’s another destination that is very unique,” he says. “And the city has done a top-shelf job over the last few years in promoting the destination and helping planners bring meetings there. It does offer some challenges in terms of getting people there from the East Coast, but once you get them there, you can be sure they’re going to have a fantastic experience.”

Flood explains why, as of next year, California will have attracted three annual meetings in a row from ACC. “One of the reasons for that is that California performs well for us in terms of attendance,” she says. “And some of that has to do with air service into the state. A lot of it also comes down to the cost-effectiveness of California destinations and the level of response we get to our RFPs, and then the level of support we get from the local CVBs when we go on site visits.” As a result of such extraordinary support, Newport Beach and Palm Springs, both second-tier destinations, beat out Las Vegas and Phoenix for the 2015 and 2019 meetings.

Yet another important factor in California’s dominance as a destination is its commitment to the meetings market and its formidable infrastructure.

Says Hope, “California aggressively pursues meetings. California welcomes meetings. And because of that, the state is progressively developing and building new hotels and regularly renovating older ones, so the hotel product it offers is very good. The state just has a progressive mindset when it comes to meetings, and that is evident in the way the state maintains its meeting infrastructure.”

Long Beach

A local destination that Hope finds particularly compelling is Long Beach, which hosted Kellen’s largest meeting, for 3,000 attendees, last year.” Long Beach is a very interesting destination and it’s a good indication of what you see going on in California now,” he says. “It’s a very progressive destination within the greater Los Angeles area, but yet most planners are not very familiar with it. It’s close to L.A. and Los Angeles International Airport, but yet it’s off by itself and very unique. It also has a very good convention center and unique attractions like the historic (Queen Mary) ship, which is in Long Beach Harbor and a wonderful offsite venue. There are also very unique local events like the Long Beach Grand Prix that can be incorporated into a meeting as a unique kind of activity.” The Queen Mary attraction, permanently docked in Long Beach, offers hotel rooms, restaurants and 65,000 sf of meeting and event space.


When it comes to major association meetings, and especially citywide conventions, Anaheim is among the state’s most prominent local destinations.

Sue Sabatke, CMP, meetings director at the Madison, Wisconsin-based International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA), hosted her organization’s annual citywide conference there last year for 10,280 attendees.

“We like to be on the West Coast, and we had been to Anaheim before,” Sabatke says. “One reason we like Anaheim is the density of the hotels around the convention center. San Diego has a similar kind of density, but it does not have the amount of exhibit space in its convention center that we require. And in San Francisco, space is allocated in the Moscone Center based on your room block, which presents a challenge for us there, as well. So that makes Anaheim the best option for us.”

IDDBA used a total of 18 hotels at a range of price points. “And we like the fact that right there at the convention center, you have a Marriott and a Hilton,” Sabatke says. “We went as far away as the Hyatt Regency in Orange, which is just a couple of miles away from the convention center. The important thing to us is that for a meeting our size, in Anaheim you can build a very well-rounded room block that is very convenient in terms of the convention center.”

She and her attendees also liked the concentrated convention center district around the convention center, including its Grand Plaza. “It’s a fabulous area,” Sabatke says, “especially for doing outdoor events in the plaza.”

Another benefit Sabatke finds in Anaheim is the amount of broad-based talent available in Southern California, particularly in greater Los Angeles.

“I didn’t have to fly people in, and that was a huge plus for me,” she says. “For example, we booked the celebrity chef Giada de Laurentiis and Jim Belushi and the Board of Comedy. And we had Arnold Schwarzenegger and Magic Johnson of the L.A. Lakers as keynote speakers. And all of them live in the L.A. area. So that was a huge plus for us in terms of using Anaheim. The fact all of them were local saved us a lot of money and trouble from a logistics perspective.”

When it came to offering a unique inducement for attendees to visit the trade show floor on the meeting’s final day, Anaheim offered a unique option — free tickets to Disneyland.

The city meets IDDBA’s needs so well that it’s going back in 2023.

San Diego

Another of California’s major convention destinations is San Diego.

“San Diego brings a couple of unique things to the table,” Hope says. “For one thing, there is a lot of military history and infrastructure there, so if your association in any way has ties to or interest in the military, you have some very good options. It’s also close to the border, so if you want to offer pre- or post-meeting excursions, you have a very good option for doing that right across the Mexican border.”

The Airport Consultants Council held its annual meeting in San Diego last November. A key factor in the selection of the destination was its airlift. “Our members come from all over the country, as well as internationally,” Flood says, “so it’s very important for them to be able to get to the destination conveniently and cost-effectively.”

The hotel was the historic and quaint Rancho Bernardo Inn. “We look for a resort setting for our annual conference and it was just perfect,” Flood says. “They offered a great package that made it more affordable for our attendees than other properties that responded to our RFP. For example, we got a very good room rate and we also got a food and beverage discount. One very important factor was that they were very enthusiastic about having the program. As a result, we also got some very good concessions with things like upgrades for our board members.”

Flood gave high marks to the hotel’s room product, meeting space and F&B. “The rooms are beautiful,” she says. “It’s an older, historic property, so they are large. In fact, they’re the largest regular hotel rooms I’ve ever been in. They’re just awesome. The meeting space is absolutely perfect for a program of our size and configuration. We used the Aragon Ballroom for some events, and when you step out in the hallway from the ballroom, you get beautiful views of gardens and greenery. And finally, the food and beverage at Rancho Bernardo Inn was among the very best we’ve ever had. The hotel has a great culinary team. And what they present is not your typical hotel fare. It’s really special.”

San Francisco

Emily DeYoung, senior director of educational programs at the Washington, DC-based Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), hosted her organization’s 2017 annual leaders conference for about 500 attendees in San Francisco last July for the third time in recent years.

Why such loyalty to the world-famous City by the Bay?

“Everybody loves going to San Francisco,” DeYoung says. “It’s a highly desirable destination because there is a vibrant and rich culture there. It’s also a very beautiful city. And it’s a place where a lot of things are happening. It’s a cutting-edge place.”

The city also fits CASE’s unique culture. “About half of our attendees are involved in university fundraising,” DeYoung says. “So as part of the event, they meet with donors or prospective donors. And San Francisco is a great venue for doing that, because of its sophistication and its deep connections to the college and university community. We also like San Francisco because the talent pool there is so strong when it comes to getting speakers and thought leaders.”

The hotel DeYoung uses is the Hyatt Regency San Francisco. “There are only three or four other major conference hotels in San Francisco, and the others are huge,” she says. “The Hyatt Regency was just a perfect fit for us. It could accommodate our entire meeting within the hotel. And it’s also located in a very interesting and appealing area, the Embarcadero, in terms of things to do. And it’s very walkable.”

A highlight of last year’s meeting was a general session keynote address by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. “That is the kind of speaker we generally use, because thought leaders as attendees are a core of our conference,” DeYoung says. “So for example last year we had David Brooks of the New York Times.”

The Challenge and the Payoff

Because of its perennial popularity, California also presents a challenge for planners, Hope says. Planners sometimes have difficulty getting the room blocks they need at rates that their budgets can accommodate. “And it’s a seller’s market now, which makes that challenge even more of a factor in first-tier destinations,” he says. “But that just means second-­tier destinations become more of a factor, and California offers a long list of second-tier destinations that offer an excellent experience at a more affordable cost. And despite any challenges it might offer at some times of the year, California is just a great choice when it comes to meetings, because it offers so many unique options. The weather, year-round, is perfectly suited to meetings, especially if you want to do outdoor events. And depending on the time of year, and which local destination you select, you can get good value. Then there’s the fact that you’re going to generate good attendance. So when you add it all up, California is hard to beat.” AC&F

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