It’s been said that California is a state of mind. Which might be another way of saying, California isn’t really a state at all. It is, after all, the sixth largest economy in the world.
But, so dominant is California’s influence on American innovation and culture, so great is its agricultural bounty that feeds a nation, and so dynamic are its physical attributes — from the highest peaks in the Lower 48 to North America’s greatest deserts — that California’s collection of world-class destinations is positively catnip to meeting planners looking for a dose of fresh air on the meeting circuit.
“California really sets itself apart,” suggests Stephanie Rosenstone, executive assistant to the CEO of Paul Davis Restoration Inc. “When you get there, you feel like you’ve left the United States. It’s beautiful and picturesque, it’s sunny, but not humid. With each place you go, it’s like you’ve stepped into a different location. That’s what attracts me to cities like San Diego, which has a nautical, adventurous feeling. You visit Hollywood and you feel like you’re one of the elite. In Palm Springs, you go to downtown and it’s laidback, with a lovely shopping district.”
For its annual franchisee conference, Paul Davis chose La Quinta Resort & Club near Palm Springs, one of the desert community’s original Hollywood hideaways. In the 1930s and ‘40s, Greta Garbo luxuriated in the resort’s privacy, Clark Gable played by the many pools and director Frank Capra wrote Gable’s “It Happened One Night,” “Lost Horizon” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” while staying in one of the casitas. The 620-unit resort, now part of the Waldorf Astoria family, received a $22 million facelift to celebrate its 90th anniversary last year, and features 190,000 sf of indoor and outdoor event space, including three ballrooms.
“Our CEO fell in love with the La Quinta property years ago,” explains Rosenstone, who planned the May 2016 event. “It just so happened we were celebrating our 50th anniversary, and I felt this complete sense of connection. Our founder, Paul Davis — this would have been his era, when he was at his best. You stroll the property and you’re thrown back in time. I just felt like it was meant to be — these were his people, this was his time.
“One of things I noticed is the tenure of the people that worked there. A lot of times in the hotel business there’s a really big turnover. You’ll have an event at a property, and you go back and you don’t recognize anyone. But we met a lot of fathers and mothers at La Quinta that said, ‘I’ve been here 40 years.’ We talked about that a lot — finding out that the guy who took you on the golf cart is the grandfather of the guy who brought your luggage to you room the day before. The staff shines, they’re all so polite; we never had a moment when we felt like we were coming up against a wall. You feel like you’re there as a family because you brought your company there, and that’s a family, and then you come there and they’re a family, too.”
Another of the standout features of La Quinta for Rosenstone was the physical layout of the property, which encouraged networking and socializing. “The pools bring people together,” she adds. “You have these groups of casitas, and in the middle of each of them is a pool, over 40 pools on the property. You feel like you’re in your own little complex, all spread out on the property. We could hang out at the pool with the people in your area, almost like a family reunion. The property is spread out, but they make it convenient with golf carts for anyone who doesn’t like to walk a lot.
“The Top of the Plaza, right outside the Fiesta Ballroom, is a plaza on a hill with a water fountain and huge trees that you can tell have been there forever. Our franchisees are not there to work, they’re there to be celebrated, and our staff is there to serve. But after a long day the staff can sit up on this plaza, talk and relax with a drink under the sky.
“One thing I was amazed at is the talent in California,” she says. “We do this event every year, and we usually have to look for talent. But it was very easy to find talent in Palm Springs, which made it hard to choose what entertainment we were going to have. We hired a local marching band for our opening event, with a Supremes act for a closing ceremony that can’t be touched.”
Rosenstone lauded the resort’s many dining options and their varied price points, which meant the 800-attendee group did not need to leave the property for meals (“it’s California, so a lot of healthier choices”). On a day outside the resort, the group did quad (ATV) and jeep adventures in the Coachella Valley, but Rosenstone took a small team on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway for a special treat. All were stunned by the drastic change of temperature at the top, more than 8,000 feet above the city.
When asked if there was a caveat to her event, Rosenstone noted that airfares were a challenge. “But I will add that even though they were high, we’re going back to La Quinta next May, so that shows you how much we liked it,” she adds. “As the meeting planner, I found it to be a very easy property for our group.”
For Jim Young, CEO and cofounder of Realcomm, a conference covering enterprise solutions for commercial real estate, a location that allows attendees to experience the destination is key, but a setting close to “the tech center of the planet” was also important for his June 2017 event, which drew 1,600 attendees from as far away as South Africa and Singapore. The downtown waterfront ambience afforded by the Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina filled the bill. And it resulted in something unexpected.
“For first time in as long as I can remember, we had virtually no complaints,” Young says. “Usually 10 percent will find something to complain about. We kept scratching our heads, we didn’t think San Diego was going to be this good.”
The non-scientific conclusion his team came to: “Waking up with the sun shining, a door opening onto the balcony with a view of sailboats instead of scaffolding and parking lots and dirty rooftops. You come down into the hotel lobby, and wind was blowing through front doors into the lobby — natural, fresh air. Between sessions people went outdoors, they could throw on their running shoes and run along the harbor. For our 50 VIPs we did a harbor cruise on the Americas, a stunning, classic schooner.
“I am 99 percent convinced that this year, all of those conditions contributed to the temperament of the conference attendees,” adds Young. “Even though they’re working, the conditions contributed to the creativity, to their capacity to receive information. The energy levels were higher — they paid attention.”
Realcomm (and its co-located event, IBcon) was originally to be set up at the convention center, but Young says his team was tickled to be able to plug the entire event into one location on relatively short notice, using the Marriott Marquis and its conference facilities, which were expanded and upgraded in June 2016. Following a $107 million investment, the facility now features 280,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting space, including two 36,000-sf ballrooms, each the largest on the West Coast.
“I don’t usually give out compliments to hotel staff, but from Tim Cloonan, the convention services manager, all the way on down — they are just on-point. Tim was the (Energizer) bunny. He may be the top dog, but he was picking up napkins and wiping tables. In these days of no customer service, you’ve got to search hard to find real service. But Tim must have put that into the DNA of all his employees, because his team made us feel like they were enjoying themselves.”
Young called out Lynda Earnest, senior sales executive for the Marriott Marquis, for making the contract happen less than a year out. “The challenge was, when you’re in one of the nicest cities, everyone wants to be there. Marriott knows they’re in a high-demand area, so maybe they don’t negotiate as hard as others, but ultimately they came to the table.” And Young also had high praise for both Patrick Sullivan with PSAV and the hotel’s staff for pushing the envelope on AV.
“We decided to go above and beyond, to change from analog to digital and get rid of all signs and posters,” explains Young. “We pushed the hotel, and they appreciated it. For our general session, we went with a 46-foot-wide by 10-foot-high LED high-resolution wall — it changed the mood of the whole general session, a grand slam over the fence. They had never done it, and Marriott brought all their staff and team down to see it, but everything was done correctly.”
Among the other cities in California seeing meeting growth is Anaheim, where the Anaheim Convention Center is just completing its seventh expansion, adding 200,000 sf of flexible meeting space and cementing the facility as the largest convention center on the West Coast, with 1.8 million sf in total. The new building officially opens on September 26.
Last month, the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center celebrated the opening of its new event space, an indoor/outdoor mezzanine called The Cove. It’s part of $50 million in renovations and ongoing improvements designed to create more customizable event spaces for meeting planners.
In San Francisco, the Moscone Center is undergoing a major expansion and improvement project that broke ground in 2015. Budgeted at $500 million and expected to be completed in December 2018, portions of the complex will reopen this fall, in time to host big-draw Salesforce and Oracle conventions. Among the new elements, Moscone’s largest hall will increase its contiguous space from 260,000 sf currently to more than 509,000 sf, and a new 50,000-sf column-free ballroom will be added. Once completed, the facility’s meeting space will total 1.5 million sf.
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 complement 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.
And the Monterey Conference Center is currently putting the finishing touches on a $60-plus million renovation, scheduled to be completed this fall. Next door, the Portola Hotel & Spa recently completed a $10 million renovation of its 379 guest rooms and bathrooms. In all, the interconnected Monterey Conference Connection space — the Monterey Marriott, Portola and conference center combined — encompasses 85,000 sf.
For an offsite meeting in April, Cadence Design Systems gathered a 12-member team at Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa, a location convenient to the company’s San Jose offices, 90 minutes away. Cost and value were other factors in choosing the city as a meeting site, according to Grace Pineda, senior travel and events representative for the electronic design automation company.
“Monterey is far away without being too far away,” explains Pineda, adding that ocean views and plentiful activity and dining options were other draws for the Cadence team. “The city has a small-community feel. Everybody seems to care about the group having the best experience possible, and willingly recommend other businesses if it sounds more like what that group is looking for.”
Pineda suggests contacting the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau during the initial planning stage. “Sammy Ramos helped make the planning so easy and seamless — it was like a one-stop shop. It saved me a lot of time, and it gave me confidence that I was contacting the right vendors.
“The Monterey Plaza Hotel has a great location along the waterfront, easy access to restaurants and activities, and the meeting space was perfect for our group’s small size. They offered reasonably priced rates and concessions that were a great value, and they were able to accommodate all of our requests for food, Wi-Fi and room block. I really enjoyed working with Angela Vickers and Magdalena Parker on their sales and catering team. They provided a lot of suggestions to help us make this event successful.” Instead of using the hotel’s usual meeting room they used the Grand Bay Suite, which offered a more intimate atmosphere, ocean views and felt more comfortable.
Cadence did have one enjoyable offsite dinner at the Fish Hopper, within walking distance to the hotel. On another evening, the group wanted to do a bonfire on the beach, but found out Monterey County doesn’t allow them any longer. The hotel arranged for the group to use its fire pit and have the event there.
In contrast to the gentle hum of Monterey, the Los Angeles area has a reputation for traffic issues, which Flavio Martinez was careful to take into account for a recent meeting by a global leader in sports footwear, apparel and accessories. “For this client, we do quite a few meetings in California, but mostly concentrated in the L.A. area, where they have a regional office,” explains Martinez, associate regional vice president for meetings and event planner for HelmsBriscoe. The client’s programs involve meetings and presentations in its regional office. “Having a variety of hotel options that would fit the client’s quality and location requirements, in addition to ease of access and convenient airlift were also considerations.
“Given the travel distances in Los Angeles, and time required to navigate within the city, driving distance during morning and evening commute traffic to the regional office was also a key deciding factor. There were three final candidate properties for this program — one in West Hollywood, one in Santa Monica, and The Ritz-Carlton, Marina del Rey. We made several driving test runs between each hotel and the regional office and found Marina del Rey to consistently offer the shortest driving distance of all three.”
Another advantage: The Marina del Rey Convention & Visitors Bureau had a promotion for groups, in the way of a credit to the master account. “The client was unaware that, oftentimes, CVBs have booking incentives like this one, so this came as a welcome ‘bonus’ to the client’s budget,” Martinez says. “The Marina del Rey CVB promptly applied the credit to the client’s final bill seamlessly and expeditiously.”
Both HelmsBriscoe and the client had prior experience with The Ritz-Carlton, Marina del Rey. “This was the second year in a row that the client chose this property to host this event,” says Martinez. “They had several functions within the hotel’s function space for receptions, dinners, etc. The property is easy to navigate and offers a very good balance of function space to guest rooms. The quality of the food and service were outstanding and this was an important factor in choosing the property — the client required consistency in the high standards that were set by the previous year’s program.”
In addition to five-star accommodations and service, other requirements the group had were unique venues for private functions and flexibility in contracting terms (attrition, cutoff dates), which the property accommodated. “Natural daylight in the group’s meeting rooms is very important to this group,” adds Martinez. “And several of The Ritz-Carlton’s spaces, including its Marina Vista ballroom, have great natural daylight.”
Martinez notes that, although there are only a handful of hotels, Marina del Rey is often overlooked by meeting planners, despite its close proximity to LAX. “It isn’t until you move up the coast to Santa Monica that you find comparable options in the upper-upscale category. So, if you’re a planner and you’re looking for an upscale, top-tier property not far from LAX, The Ritz-Carlton, Marina del Rey may be one of your top choices. Its location right next to the marina provides for an awesome backdrop for any outdoor functions. “The account manager and DOSM were both very involved and very responsive from the initial RFP response all the way through the contract negotiations process. The staff checked on the group constantly while they were in-house. The CSM did an outstanding job handling multiple master accounts, managing rooming lists and reacting to last-minute changes in F&B functions.”
He adds, “Just make sure, if you have any offsite activities, that you take time to study best travel routes, the time of day transportation will occur, and allow plenty of extra time for contingencies.” C&IT