Southern California may combine a bit of a beachside vibe with the urban glitz of Hollywood and Beverly Hills. But it offers so much more than that. The stretch of the West Coast from Los Angeles down to San Diego is filled with world-famous theme parks and museums, great restaurants, iconic hotels, fantastic beaches, and world-class golf courses and resorts. And, of course, there’s the fabulous weather.
In fact, native Southern Californians and thousands of transplants say living in SoCal is pretty close to perfect.
All of which gets even the most jaded meeting attendee excited about a corporate meeting or an incentive program in Southern California.
As Roberta Rinker-Ludloff, senior vice president, sales and client services, of the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board puts it, “every city has great hotels and great restaurants, but from the perspective of an incentive program, no city gives you the buzz that you get in L.A.”
From the great movie studios such as Universal and Paramount to glamor spots like Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, the city is filled with locations that resonate with anyone who goes to the movies, watches television, listens to music or is keyed into popular culture.
The numbers speak for themselves. The city welcomed a record 41.4 million visitors in 2012, up 2.5 percent from 2011. And the city hosted 24 citywide conventions last year, the most held in the city since 2011. People want to go to L.A.
But, Los Angeles is more than good weather, Hollywood and celebrity watching. According to Rinker-Ludloff, it’s also a city of different regions that offer varying experiences to meeting planners and their groups.
For example, L.A.’s coastal communities, from Malibu down to San Pedro offer miles of beaches, hotels, shopping and much more. Santa Monica has been named one of the top-10 beach cities by National Geographic and is home to the Santa Monica Pier and Third Street Promenade with its shopping, restaurants and cultural attractions.
Head for Pasadena and “you’ll get a sense of what old Los Angeles used to be like,” says Rinker-Ludloff, “It’s such a unique and historic area.” It’s also home to the world-famous Rose Bowl, as well as great hotels, restaurants, museums and gardens.
And despite the size of greater Los Angeles, it’s fairly easy to move groups from place to place. The city is used to holding large events ranging from awards ceremonies like the Oscars to the New Year’s Day Rose Bowl Parade. “So we’re pretty used to moving people around,” Rinker-Ludloff says. “We pretty much have it down.”
LeAnne Giambrone, senior event manager for ACN Inc., a direct seller of telecommunications and home services headquartered in Concord, NC, is a planner who brings one of those large events to Los Angeles. She plans four three-day training and recognition events a year, each of which draws close to 20,000 attendees. One of the events is usually held in Southern California.
A large number of ACN’s affiliated independent business owners come from the West Coast, so Los Angeles, with it’s history of handling large groups, is an obvious choice for one of the four events, Giambrone says, particularly since it has a convention center and the hotel room inventory to handle large events like hers. She’s brought the event to L.A. a half-dozen times over the years and has another event planned there this June.
Los Angeles also appeals to her, Giambrone says, “Because it’s affordable for our attendees. Our attendees pay their own way, and they can fly into LAX, which is affordable from anywhere in the country.” And with such a large variety of hotel product, her attendees have a choice ranging from upscale properties to budget hotels, depending on what they want and can afford.
“And the convention center is wonderful,” she adds. “It’s beautiful, and it’s easy to get to.”
As far as new hotel projects go, the biggest news involves the new Wilshire Grand Hotel. The new hotel is part of a $1 billion project and will be located on the footprint of the old Wilshire Grand, which closed its doors in 2011 after 60 years in business.
In the place of the old Wilshire Grand will stand the 1,100-foot Wilshire Grand Tower, which, when completed, will be the tallest building west of the Mississippi River. The tower will contain a new 900-room Wilshire Grand, as well as retail and office space and will be completed by 2017.
One of the largest hotels in Los Angeles — and one of the most convenient for travelers — is the Los Angeles Marriott Airport Hotel. With more than a thousand rooms, four restaurants and 55,000 sf of meeting space, there’s a lot about the LAX Marriott to like including the fact that planners say the hotel is not at all like a typical airport hotel. The hotel also has 6,000 sf of outdoor space, as well as a swimming pool that’s three times bigger than an Olympic-size pool and has an adjoining 5,000-sf deck.
The LAX Marriott’s “sweet spot” for group meetings is about 250 rooms, with a two- to three-night duration. The hotel is also a hot spot for day meetings. “We probably have more interviews in our building than any other place in the world,” says a spokesperson. ‘I’ll meet you in the lobby of the Marriott LAX’ is almost a tagline. There are probably six to eight meetings going on in our lobby or one of our restaurants at any one time.”
The travel and tourism market is typically divided into three segments—business travel, leisure travel and meeting and conventions. But, according to Margie Sitton, senior vice president of sales and services of the San Diego Tourism Authority, that pattern doesn’t necessarily hold in San Diego.
San Diego, unlike cities like Los Angeles, isn’t home to many major corporate headquarters. Consequently, says Sitton, there isn’t much business travel demand in San Diego. “Since that segment doesn’t count for very much, we have to make up for it somewhere,” she says. “And that void has to be filled in by group business. Everyone here understands that group business is the driver for San Diego.”
Ask most meeting attendees what appeals to them about San Diego, and the first thing they’ll probably mention is the area’s fantastic weather. But, beyond the weather, research tells the city’s tourism officials that San Diego is simply a “must-see” destination for meeting attendees, no matter whether they’re first-time visitors, or they’ve been to the city before and want to return.
“So when a meeting is announced it really gets people excited,” Sitton says. “They develop this mindset that gets them excited to get to San Diego, and whether they’re here for an incentive program, or to learn about their company’s latest sales program, their psyches are in the right place when they arrive.”
Part of the reason that happens, she points out, is the fact that the airport is so conveniently located that when travelers walk out of the airport they’re already in the destination. San Diego International Airport — also known as Lindbergh Field — is located just three miles northwest of the city’s central business district, with immediate access to the San Diego Freeway.
“One of the most beautiful things about San Diego is everything is so close,” says Stacy Weber, CMP, meeting and procurement manager for Moss Adams LLP, in Seattle, who plans meetings in multiple locations in Southern California and elsewhere on the West Coast. “You’re about five minutes from the Gaslamp Quarter (in downtown San Diego) and about 15 minutes from La Jolla. That’s really hard to find anywhere.”
“The minute (meeting attendees) get off the plane, they see the palm trees and smell the fresh sea breeze,” Sitton says. “They’re already enjoying the atmosphere of the destination. And even if they have to drive all of 40 minutes to North County, they’re getting a look at the ocean on one side, and sprawling hills on the other, so it’s a destination where you kind of go, ‘Wow!’ ”
Another thing that makes San Diego appealing to groups is the variety of experiences groups can get there, says Sitton “I tell planners that there are several distinct regions in San Diego — all with the same backdrop of great weather — so that you can come to San Diego seven times and have seven completely different San Diego experiences.” Those experiences range from heading north where you’ll find golf resorts, wineries and the beach vibe of Encinitas and Carlsbad, to taking the bridge across the bay to Coronado, home of the iconic red turrets of the Hotel Del Coronado.
Not only is the airport conveniently located, it’s about to complete a $1 billion upgrade. Terminal 2, which handles most of the airport’s international and cross-country flights, is adding new gates, an expanded security checkpoint, a new ticket lobby and a new dual-level roadway to accommodate departing and arriving passengers.
In addition, the airport is building a new dining and retail area called Sunset Cove, which will be the central meeting area in Terminal 2. According to Sitton, some of the restaurants going into Sunset Cove are so high end that there have been suggestions that the airport could become a dining destination.
Elsewhere in San Diego, the Embarcadero, which sits along San Diego harbor on the east side of the bay, is undergoing a massive facelift. “We’ve always referred to the Embarcadero as kind of San Diego’s front porch — but it hasn’t been pretty,” says Sitton. The North Embarcadero Visionary Plan calls for the addition of about 12 acres of park and open space, seven acres of gardens, and more than 1,700 trees, and should make the area attractive and appealing, she says.
The old San Diego police headquarters building, located adjacent to Seaport Village, was built in 1939, but has been empty since 1987 and is finally being developed. The project calls for the conversion of three existing buildings into a collection of 30 shops and restaurants called the Headquarters, and will include a plaza, walkways and entertainment space. Construction is expected to be completed in October 2013 and the Headquarters is expected to serve as a new venue for meetings, Sitton says.
In the downtown, a multimillion-dollar expansion of Horton Plaza Park has begun, which will add 1.3 acres, as well as an outdoor amphitheater and three pavilions, making it a venue for offsite meeting events. That project should be completed by next year.
In La Jolla, The Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa has become part of the recently launched Meritage Collection, which includes three other four diamond resorts, Balboa Bay Resort in Newport Beach, Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa and the Bacara Resort & Spa in Santa Barbara.
The 210-room Estancia La Jolla just completed a $4.8 million renovation, which includes guest room upgrades complete with new carpets, drapes, linens, pillows, robes, custom headboards, custom lounge chairs and artwork. The 8,000-sf spa has been renovated as well. The hotel has 26,000 sf of meeting space, as well as gardens, courtyards and outdoor space spread out across the 10-acre property.
The Estancia, like the other hotels in the Meritage Collection, is specifically geared towards groups, says Dave Gerdes, vice president of sales and marketing of the Pacific Hospitality Group, which manages the collection. “It’s our main emphasis.”
The idea behind the collection is that the four properties are destinations that “emphasize a combination of lifestyle and experience,” Gerdes says. “And they’re not downtown locations — they’re considered to be desirable resort locations, and they’re not huge properties. So the meeting planner and the group is never going to have that little-fish-in-a-big-pond feeling.”
Lying between Los Angeles to the north, and San Diego to the South, Orange County is also a prime corporate meeting and incentive destination
In Anaheim, the Honda Center, home of the National Hockey League’s Mighty Ducks, continues to add improvements to the facility. The Grand Terrace project, which includes 15,000 sf of indoor-outdoor entertainment space and a new public restaurant, opens this year. The center also recently added free public Wi-Fi.
Elsewhere in Anaheim, the Anaheim Convention Center just opened the Grand Plaza, a Southern California outdoor environment suitable for a wide variety of outdoor events, such as al fresco dining, concerts, receptions and exhibitions. And just two miles from the Anaheim Convention Center and the Disneyland Resort, a renovated 1919 citrus packing house is scheduled to open this summer. The Anaheim Packing House will be a 40,000-sf artisan food hall that will feature boutique food and beverage shops, live music and communal seating.
Groups heading for destinations such as Irvine and Newport Beach can fly into a newly improved John Wayne Airport. The recently completed $543 million improvement plan included the addition of a third terminal, additional parking, free wireless Internet, and enhanced concession and retail offerings.
Weber has a particular affinity for Newport Beach. It’s close to the John Wayne Airport (about a 10-minute drive) and it has some great meeting hotels, she says, adding that it has plenty of shopping, dining and sightseeing, and is close enough to the rest of Orange County to take groups out on day trips.
“I love Newport Beach, and we do a lot of events there,” she says. “And one of the things I find interesting about Newport Beach is that it has ‘beach’ in its name, and it’s referred to as somewhat of a surf town, yet none of the major hotels are near the beach, except the Balboa Bay Club. The hotel is right there on the boardwalk, and when you’re there you really feel like you are in Southern California and all that that means, but in a amazingly luxurious setting.”
The Balboa Bay Club was recently added to the Meritage Collection and changed its name to the Balboa Bay Resort. The 160-room hotel has more than 17,000 sf of indoor event space, including the 7,000-sf Grand Ballroom, a private bayside lawn, outdoor terrace, and many well-appointed meeting rooms. “The hotel feels to me like a really rich person’s comfortable home,” says Weber. “That may sound weird, but you walk in and feel a little in awe about how beautiful it is, and you expect it to be a little snooty, but it isn’t. It’s just comfortable, welcoming and inviting.”
A little farther south, between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach, the resort at Pelican Hill offers groups 204 bungalow guest rooms and 128 villas, along with a 22-room, 23,000-sf spa, two Tom Fazio-designed championship golf courses, and five restaurants with ocean and golf course views.
The resort has about 20,000 sf of indoor and outdoor space, much of which comes with panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean, and has been consistently ranked by Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards as one of the top 100 hotels and resorts in the world.
The best reasons to meet in SoCal? The weather always tops the list as bright blue skies and sunny days (with little rain) are the norm in this part of the world. Beautiful coastlines, amazing mountains and parks, abundant outdoor activities and historic places to explore all make the list. When planners want to build attendance and make attendees and incentive winners happy, they think Southern California. C&IT