When it comes to meetings, few U.S. states can boast the diverse allure of California. The sun shines for most of the year, and weather extremes are rarely tested. Cities large and small beckon planners, while pre- and post-conference attractions are many and varied. And although East Coasters are rife with put-downs about the state’s “granola” culture, deep down, they all just wish they could be California girls, right?
About 55 percent of the meetings held in California in 2016 were events drawing from in-state. Out-of-state groups were led by those from Texas and followed closely by Massachusetts, Washington, Florida and New York (the data included training/seminar, client or customer meeting/service, business meeting, and convention/conference/trade-show events).
Typical of many events conducted in the state, the California Special Districts Association (CSDA) chooses to stick close to home in planning its Annual Conference & Exhibitor Showcase, and Monterey has proven to be a crowd-pleasing locale.
“We have a great history with our meetings in Monterey,” explains CSDA Professional Development Director Megan Hemming. “It tends to be one of our most popular conference locations. Since I started with CSDA, we have had our 2011, 2013 and 2015 annual conferences there, and we’re planning for September 2017. Monterey Regional Airport is easily accessible from Northern and Southern California, and our attendees love going there. It has a great walkable downtown, the wharf and Cannery Row, which gives our attendees some great options for any free time or open evenings for dinners.”
Located about two hours south of San Francisco by car, Monterey County is a jewel-studded trove of desirable small cities and towns, including Monterey, Carmel-by-the-Sea, Pebble Beach, Carmel Valley, Big Sur and Salinas. The area served as the glam backdrop for the recent HBO mini-series “Big Little Lies,” while a roster of investments is raising Monterey County’s profile for meetings. And it’s home to the Monterey Bay Aquarium at the ocean’s edge on historic Cannery Row.
The 40,000-sf Monterey Conference Center will put the finishing touches on a $60 million renovation this fall; the Portola Hotel & Spa next door recently completed a $10 million renovation of all 379 guest rooms and bathrooms; Sanctuary Beach Resort Monterey Bay is undergoing a $4 million renovation of its restaurant and meeting space; and Embassy Suites by Hilton Monterey Bay Seaside is finishing an $11 million renovation of its ballrooms and guest rooms.
“The investments that are happening here in Monterey County are not only investments into the individual properties, but also the community and destination,” says Tammy Blount, president and CEO of the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The renovations and upgrades will give visitors new experiences that will inspire them to share their life-enriching stories with others.”
The California Special Districts Association annual event draws 600 attendees, and Hemming says the ease of coordinating hotels and the conference center are a prime advantage to working with Monterey. “They just get it, and they want to make your life as easy as possible. They bring creative ideas and solutions to the table as well. They understand an association’s need for branding and, for our last event, connected us with a local sign company to create amazing window clings to direct our attendees between the conference center and hotel. We even added clings to the elevator doors — there was no doubt whose meeting you were attending.
“Lauren Siring with the Monterey County CVB just sets the tone off right for any event in Monterey,” Hemmings continues. “Take advantage of the CVB resources from site visits through the completion of your event. They can provide you with marketing tools like digital banners, postcards and microsites. They are coordinating our housing block for this year’s event, and it is saving me a ton of time. They also had someone who set up a table near our registration area to serve as a resource about Monterey — where to eat, etc. This saved our registration staff time and also gave our attendees a more informed answer to their questions.”
Hemming says that the base hotel for her group is the Monterey Marriott, but that due to the popularity of the program, overflow blocks at the Portola Hotel & Spa, Hotel Pacific and Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel and Spa on Del Monte Golf Course also will be used, which the CVB assisted in securing.
“Monterey offers a great service called the Monterey Conference Connection, which really helps meeting planners by coordinating all of the facilities, giving you one main contact so it doesn’t feel like you are planning three different meetings. They try to make it as seamless as possible. The conference center includes complimentary basic Wi-Fi, which our attendees and exhibitors love. You can also receive complimentary meeting space based on the amount of rooms you pick up.
“The space at the conference center is great and getting even better,” Hemming adds. “From the previews I have seen, the renovation will be stunning — so light and bright and much more user-friendly space, including upgraded technology and LEED certified. The Marriott and Portola have taken the conference center’s lead and done their own renovations as well. I’ve just toured these facilities, and they are looking great. New lobbies, restaurant upgrades, open concept — our attendees are really going to enjoy networking in these new spaces.” In all, the interconnected Monterey Conference Connection space — Marriott, Portola and conference center combined — encompasses 85,000 sf.
Hemming cites several members of the hospitality community as being helpful, in particular mentioning her Marriott senior account executive, Kristine Van Winkle. “She really knows my group, our demographic and what’s important to our attendees. Marriott really does want to make your event a success. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about what they have seen that has been successful for other groups.
“We have a lot of food and beverage events in our exhibit hall, and Michele Pearce, director of event planning at the Marriott, helped me create special packages for the exhibitors to be able to host appetizer or dessert trays in their exhibit space. It helped to drive traffic to the booth but also helped us offset some of our costs. Michele suggested incorporating local produce, like artichokes, that they could offer at a great price. We have even done root beer floats with them, which attendees loved. And in addition to tons of fresh produce and great craft beer, Monterey also has amazing local wines. We’ve incorporated tastings into some of our receptions, and it’s been a great way to keep attendees talking and networking. But the most popular by far was the ability to have their chef’s award-winning clam chowder as part of the lunch in our exhibit hall. It’s so delicious — we are working on ways to bring it back for our menu this year.
“Take advantage of the beautiful scenery and all that Monterey has to offer,” Hemming adds. “You should do at least one meeting — even if it’s just for a small group of VIPs — up in Ferrantes Bayview Ballroom at the Marriott. That view will make them feel really special.”
The idea of taking a potential meeting site out for a test drive is what brought the Pacific Oil Conference board of directors to San Diego for its annual nine-person “Winter Reconvene” meeting, based at the Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego. Christina Bauders, the organization’s event and communications director, used the gathering to scope out logistics while considering the city and hotel as a possible 2019 location for the annual 1,500-attendee conference.
“San Diego is a well-known vacation destination,” explains Bauders. “With near-perfect weather year-round, a variety of activities within a few miles of each other and fantastic hotel options, looking to San Diego as a potential option for our large annual conference in the future was a no-brainer. It is easy to access via airplane or car and with our members mainly coming from within the state, this was extremely appealing.”
The Manchester Grand Hyatt had the additional lure of being listed recently as the West Coast’s top meeting hotel, ranking No. 8 on Cvent’s 2017 list of the Top 100 Meeting Hotels in the U.S. Located a short walk from San Diego’s convention center, the hotel features more than 316,000 sf of indoor-outdoor meeting space and 1,628 guest rooms, and ranks as the tallest waterfront building on the West Coast.
“The board and I hosted our meeting at the facility to have a site tour for our annual conference,” says Bauders. “Our conference includes over 20 educational sessions, 186 booth spaces, four tanker trucks and a variety of networking events. It is important to find a space that has enough room within the hotel without having to use a convention center. The Manchester Grand Hyatt was one of several hotels we have been considering.
“I primarily worked with Bethney Gardner on the site tour, seeing if the facility would work for our large conference. She was incredibly helpful and patient. Any time you are trying to fit a conference into a new space, there are always challenges. She was able to work with me and come up with potential solutions and options. She listened to what was needed and wanted to be sure I was satisfied with the outcome.
“There are two hotel room towers,” Bauders notes. “When booking your meeting space, be sure to specify that you’d like your guest rooms to be in the tower closest to the space. If not, you could get lost finding your meeting space. The hotel is pretty big.”
The Manchester Grand Hyatt is also quite well located. In addition to being positioned close to the convention center and right on San Diego Bay, the hotel sits at the foot of the city’s historic Gaslamp Quarter, a turn-of-the-20th-century collection of restored buildings. Dozens of restaurants and bars, shopping and the city’s most vigorous nightlife are all within walking distance of the Manchester Grand Hyatt.
“We visited the Gaslamp District to tour the bowling alley and to have dinner, but I wish I had blocked off more time to tour what else was down there,” Bauders adds. “I also really like the Top of the Hyatt bar, located on the 40th floor. It has great atmosphere and beautiful views of the city and bay.”
Advice for other meeting planners headed to the Manchester Grand Hyatt? “If you can, lay out your program or schedule in advance so you can be strategic about the placement of your events and individual meetings. There are just so many options, you should make sure you are using the space optimally.”
Another repeat client for one California city is the Washington, DC-based American Pharmacists Association (APhA), which returned to San Francisco for its annual meeting in March (2017), an event that drew 6,100 attendees. Windy K. Christner, CMP, senior director of meetings and expositions for APhA, says past experience is a key reason they keep coming back.
“It’s our third time in 20 years that we have been to San Francisco,” Christner explains. “Although it’s a very expensive destination for an association, we have a proven record bringing in attendees here. The city of San Francisco itself is an easy marketing draw for people who love the destination, it’s relatively easy to get to, it’s unique in its architecture and beauty.”
APhA based its meeting at the Moscone Center, the city’s largest convention and exhibition complex. Comprised of three main halls, APhA occupied the North and South halls, located underneath Yerba Buena Gardens and just south of Union Square. Christner says the center’s location, close to hotels, was a major attribute.
“It’s got the appropriate meeting and exposition space that fits for our event. We have a history there, so we knew the facility and some of the people. And the food was fantastic, with excellent offerings — I would give it high marks.”
The primary challenges APhA dealt with centered on costs. “Rental is one of the higher that you pay in the country, though it was comparable to other big cities. Labor was expensive, trying to purchase the correct amount of bandwidth for internet was a problem, and we needed to hire separate security because of the prominent vagrant issue. We worked closely with hotels, the Moscone Center and the neighborhoods because of the homelessness. We wanted to make sure our guests’ walk from their hotels to Moscone was a safe and enjoyable one.”
There was another unique challenge that presented itself as the event date drew closer: A renovation and expansion of the Moscone Center. “It was not the best time in the world to be at any convention center — the renovation was not something we knew about when we signed on six years ago. But Moscone Center did an excellent job of keeping us abreast of the construction, with monthly calls to hear what the latest and greatest was. Still, there was a bit of noise issues we were told we wouldn’t have, and we overshot the amount of signage we needed, because we were concerned about getting our people from point A to point B.”
APhA swallowed rooms at 10 area hotels, with the Hilton San Francisco Union Square — the largest hotel on the West Coast — serving as headquarters. “The Hilton has a very, very good location at Union Square, so our attendees never got bored,” says Christner. “They’ve got a great front-of-house team that makes people feel very welcome. One of the things that helped us was Hilton having a sister property, Parc 55, where we were able to secure overflow rooms and offer a good experience for attendees.” The 1,919-room Hilton offers 134,000 sf of meeting space, while the 1,024-room Parc 55 two blocks away has an additional 30,000 sf.
“It was a little confusing getting around at the hotel, but they offered human directionals, which was really important. But Hilton worked with us to provide a very comprehensive and enticing package. Our salesperson was John Flannigan, and our convention services (person) was Bill Boring. These were really good partners, and they worked long hard, hard hours to support us.”
Christner says she benefited by working with people she had liaised with previously at the San Francisco Travel Association, but she felt services provided at the CVB for marketing and customer service “could use a bit of fine-tuning. It seems as though smaller destinations are more eager to provide service with marketing efforts, like area maps and walking directions customized to your event. But the bureau is staffed with seasoned professionals and people who know the city and your meeting.”
Tips for planners looking to San Francisco as a potential meeting destination? “Be very budget conscious — this is important. Talk to the convention center and your hotel about the types of charges you should anticipate. There are a lot of things you have to pay for, and you’ll pay a pretty hefty cost. But also take advantage of what the destination has to attract attendees — San Francisco has a lot to offer.”
In downtown San Jose, the SoFA (South of First Area) district is host to an eclectic strip of cultural museums, galleries, and nightlife venues. Attendees can enjoy live music, handcrafted cocktails, and some of San Jose’s best food. It is also home to the newly opened Uproar Brewing Company and Forager taproom — part of the burgeoning craft brew scene in San Jose. Both establishments offer unique venue spaces with their rustic, modernized warehouse settings that compliment additional event venues in the SoFA district.
San Jose’s City National Civic Courtyard and Montgomery Courtyard recently have been renovated. The picturesque location includes newly built custom benches, gas inline heaters, outdoor lighting and a fire pit. The entire courtyard has been wired with sound and can be split into two courtyards or used as one with movable rustic gates. In the future, the courtyard will feature a live video feed of the theater’s interiors. It has a total of 5,407 sf and can fit up to 1,081 people.
In the heart of Southern California, the Greater Ontario area is an affordable alternative to nearby Los Angeles, and within easy access to three international airports, Disneyland Resort, beaches, wineries and Ontario Mills, California’s largest value-retail shopping destination.
Three new hotels in Rancho Cucamonga, part of the Greater Ontario market, will add a combined 339 rooms to the area’s hotel room inventory when they open in 2018: Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott; Residence Inn by Marriott and Hampton Inn by Hilton.
More than half of Ontario’s 6,000 hotel rooms are within walking distance of the Ontario Convention Center and less than a mile from L.A./Ontario International Airport. The convention center, which offers 225,000 sf of meeting and convention space, recently added Café Connect, a new dining experience in the main lobby designed for convention attendees with a grab ’n’ go menu. The café features an outdoor patio with mountain views. AC&F