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. After all, the state recently surpassed Britain to become the world’s fifth-largest economy, with the largest tech and entertainment sectors in the world.
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, that the state’s collection of world-class destinations is positively catnip to meeting planners looking for a dose of fresh air on the meetings circuit.
While California maintained some of the nation’s strictest COVID-19 protocols, the state’s stay-at-home order ended in June. Although “mega-events” — drawing indoor attendees greater than 1,000 — still require vaccine verification and/or negative testing, capacity and distancing limitations have been lifted. “California is open for business,” says Caroline Beteta, Visit California president & CEO, in announcing the debut of “Meet What’s Possible,” a new meetings and events platform unveiled in November. “With our state’s abundance of natural beauty, reliable sunshine and outstanding convention amenities, the possibilities are endless when it comes to planning a safe, productive and memorable gathering here. No matter the size or type of your next gathering, we invite the world to convene in California and be a part of our state’s next great chapter.”
Renowned for its sunshine, California’s rays were on the agenda — indoors and out — for the 2022 Intersolar North America and Energy Storage North America conference held in Long Beach in January. Drawing 4,500 attendees to the Long Beach Convention Center (LBCC), the conference — now in its third year — has always taken place in the state, says Brian Cuthbert, group vice president for event producer Diversified Communications, who adds, “California is the largest solar market in the United States, so it’s been a logical fit. It’s also an event that runs between mid-January and mid-February every year, so no one complains about California’s 70-degree, sunny weather.”
Room blocks were available for attendees at various hotels, several of which — such as the 531-room Hyatt Regency Long Beach and 469-room The Westin Long Beach — are within easy walking distance of the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center, which offers more than 400,000 sf of meetings and events space and includes the LBCC, Long Beach Arena and the Long Beach Performing Arts Center.
“The LBCC is a good size for this event,” Cuthbert says. “As the only event there, we really owned the space. We had no issues or complaints, the staff was supportive and responsive, the venue was in good shape, and everything went well. In addition to nearby attendees who drove, some flew in from California and may have leveraged Long Beach or John Wayne airports. For everyone else, flying into LAX provided plenty of options. The area around the convention center has improved dramatically over recent years, and offered us many hotels and restaurants to choose from.”
Cuthbert adds, “The Visitors Bureau and the LBCC did a really nice job working together while providing us options for things we could do, the types of experiences we could host, etc. I think, like any event, the challenge right now is COVID. There were many ideas that in other years may have come to fruition, but this year, our focus was on running the event safely while ensuring we delivered value for our attendees and exhibitors.”
He advises, “If you’re running an event at the convention center, I encourage you to think about leveraging the space — especially the outdoor area — and working with the incredible team. I don’t know that you’ll find a better option in the area; it checked all the boxes for us. From the layout and look and feel, to the food and drink options, the staff at the LBCC and the Visitors Bureau took the event seriously, treated us like a partner and put a lot of work into the experience — it made all the difference.”
Cuthbert adds that the biggest challenge for Long Beach is more one of perception versus reality: “I don’t think people realize the amount of quality restaurants and hotels in the vicinity. It’s convenient, and you have three airports in a 30-mile radius — two of which are small, and then LAX. I also think some people get concerned about the drive from LAX. What should be a 30-minute drive can sometimes take an hour, but we had no issues.” The seal of approval: Intersolar’s North America and Energy Storage conference will return to Long Beach next year.
In nearby Anaheim, the development of land surrounding the Disneyland Resort continues, and the 618-room The Westin Anaheim Resort opened in June, across the street from the Disney parks. With design hinting at Anaheim’s citrus history, the hotel is equipped with 47,542 sf of indoor/outdoor meetings and events space. The 23 event rooms and 18 breakout rooms are named after original Anaheim orange brand labels, such as the 16,120-sf Anabella Ballroom, and all offering state-of-the-art technology, including color-changing LED ceiling coves, remote-control lighting and sound panels, large TVs in breakout rooms with video conferencing capabilities, and on-site Encore Global audio visual services.
Kevin M Kelly, CMP, DES, CASE, director of meetings and special events for ASTM International – formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials – says he chose California when he was looking at West Coast options for the International Conference on Additive Manufacturing (ICAM), held last fall. “We had potential attendees coming in from the Pacific Rim and Asian countries,” Kelly says. “Singapore is focused on additive manufacturing, and we wanted to have a location to attract those attendees. Also, California was following the science on COVID and Marriott has excellent protocols in place.” He continues: “Anaheim worked for us, mainly because we needed a specific date and pattern and the JW Marriott, Anaheim Resort was open, and gave us all their space. It’s fairly new, and the JW brand is known for relaxed luxury, outstanding service and impeccable quality in furnishing, amenities, and food and beverage. We felt the venue would attract in-person attendance while COVID-19 was still an ongoing concern, and they were willing to work with our contractual needs, in case we had to go virtual based on the COVID situation in both Anaheim and California.” In the end, the conference drew 300 in-person attendees along with virtual participants.
Located at the Anaheim GardenWalk, a short stroll from both the Anaheim Convention Center (ACC) and Disneyland Resort, the 446-room JW Marriott, Anaheim opened in August 2020. The hotel is infused with modern art and augmented reality technology, with subtle design touches inspired by Orange County’s agricultural history, such as the steel art installation — a harvester planting a seed — that greets arriving guests. The striking, modern décor features marble flooring, a glass-blown chandelier and nature-inspired honeycomb concepts throughout, highlighting natural materials, rustic tones and a warm color palette. The hotel features 43,000 sf of indoor and outdoor function space, along with pre-function areas offering floor-to-ceiling windows. The Arbor Ballroom measures at 13,440 sf, suitable for up to 1,400 guests, as well as 15 meeting rooms and breakout spaces.
“The JW Anaheim has excellent outdoor space for events, their ballroom space is very flexible, and all the meeting space is on one level,” Kelly says. “Encore provided excellent audiovisual support on-site for the 600 virtual attendees from around the world. All of the staff were wonderful but the general manager … was particularly hands-on the entire time. Typically, I’d see [the GM] many times during the day, assisting staff, speaking with guests and checking on our events.”
Amanda Stimart, meetings manager with AMPED Association Management, says Palm Springs is a favorite destination for her client, NIBA, The Belting Association. For its annual convention last year, NIBA chose the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa. “NIBA’s annual convention is for members only and focuses on programming conducive to networking,” Stimart says. “What better place to network than in beautiful Palm Springs, California?”
NIBA, which promotes the business interests of distributors and manufacturers of conveyor and flat power transmission belting, got lucky with the venue. For its event early last fall, NIBA contracted with a Palm Springs property that was scheduled to go through a full renovation before NIBA’s convention. Just a few months ahead of the event, NIBA learned pandemic supply chain issues and permitting delays meant the hotel would not be ready. “Ten weeks out from our convention, we needed to find a new venue,” Stimart says. “The JW Marriott Desert Springs was our top choice. Their leadership and sales team took our unique program and space needs into account and helped us pivot quickly. I cannot say enough good things about their expert events team. We connected on weekly calls, and they helped us replan the entire convention in a very short period — they were able to bring our convention to life.”
Located 12 miles from the Palm Springs International Airport in Palm Desert, the 884-room JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa features 234,000 sf of indoor and outdoor events venues, and includes the 24,816-sf Sinatra Ballroom. “We received rave reviews from our members about the venue as a whole — even the food,” Stimart says. “We rarely receive collectively positive compliments about our convention food due to the variety and preferences of our members. However, they knocked it out of the park.” Pre-pandemic, the NIBA annual convention would normally include off-site activities and tour options, but Stimart notes the association preferred to limit its financial exposure by avoiding any additional contracts. “The JW Marriott has so many amenities on-site that they we were able to organize activities such as a pickleball tournament, a chef barbecue demo, a bourbon tasting, and of course, our annual Golf Outing. Their top-notch golf course was certainly an attendee experience highlight.”
Eventis Destination Services assisted with décor and entertainment and stuck to NIBA’s budget, as well as connecting Stimart with a Frank Sinatra impersonator for the opening night dinner. “One of the reasons we really loved the JW Marriott Desert Springs was that there was so much to do on-property,” Stimart says. “In a normal year, we would take activities off-site, but this venue allowed us to keep everything on-site and create a ‘NIBA bubble.’”
Marcel Rodarte, executive director, CSEP for California Contract Cities Association, says nearby Indian Wells continues to be the ideal landing for the group’s annual Municipal Seminar. “It’s been the home for our annual conference for more than 20 consecutive years,” Rodarte says. “The location is easily reachable, and the weather is perfect.”
Indian Wells is one of nine adjoining cities that makes up Visit Greater Palm Springs, the official DMO for the Coachella Valley. In addition to Palm Springs and Indian Wells, the destination includes Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, La Quinta, Indio and Coachella.
California Contract Cities Association draws about 500 attendees for its annual conference in May, using the Renaissance Esmeralda Resort & Spa, Indian Wells each year. The location, like all of the Coachella Valley, is within a 2.5-hour drive from all of Southern California’s major cities, Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego. The resort features more than 100,000 sf of indoor and outdoor function space, including the 16,500-sf Esmeralda Ballroom.
“We have a long-standing relationship with the property, so any challenges related to planning or execution have been long worked out,” Rodarte says. “It has excellent meeting space and the A/V support on-site is excellent.”
Another in-state group, the California School Boards Association (CSBA), rotates between San Diego, San Francisco, Anaheim and Sacramento for its Annual Education Conference and Trade Show in December. After the 2020 event was canceled due to COVID, last year the association convened in San Diego with just under 3,000 members in person, along with 300 vendors, presenters and General Session talent. “California School Boards Association has been using San Diego as one of our event locations for years,” says Naomi Eason, Ed.D., assistant executive director, member services for CSBA. “Members especially love the great weather San Diego has to offer in early December, the proximity to award-winning restaurants, and the opportunity to enjoy the breathtaking marina views. An added bonus to visiting San Diego in December is the chance to host events on the convention center terrace, overlooking the Marina. This always provides a breathtaking experience for attendees, especially around sunset.”
CSBA’s 2021 gathering was held at the San Diego Convention Center (SDCC), with the adjacent Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina serving as the host hotel, and attendees were advised that they would need to adhere to the state’s mega-event protocols. “Since our members oversee K-12 public school education across the state, they are familiar with all COVID-related protocols on school sites,” Eason says. “Registrants were processed by vax checkers outside the convention center doors, and once cleared, they proceeded inside to the registration counter where they received their conference badge, which served as their clearance to be on-site for the entirety of the event. Vaccinated guests were encouraged to wear masks, and unvaccinated guests were required to wear masks.”
Eason says the convention center’s positives included its ample space, the layout for general sessions, and the ability to host a nurse station in the main entry area where members who needed to could get COVID tests. But she notes that, outside of catering, the only food available in the convention center is a Starbucks outlet. While it’s a short walk to the Marriott Marquis next door where food options are available, Eason notes the hotel staff does not “make deliveries” to the convention center and vice versa. “I was not prepared for the challenges of moving materials, such as boxes of books, between the host hotel and the convention center,” Eason says. “So, you need to be sure about where materials should be shipped, depending on where your event is scheduled.” She also suggests that, if considering the Marriott Marquis for an event, a site visit is worthwhile. “Go visit the property and ask for a food tasting so you can get to know the hotel a bit and taste some dishes you might serve. Figure out how to host an event poolside — the scenery is so worth it.”
Located just across from San Diego’s famous Gaslamp District, the 1,360-room Marriott Marquis features more than 270,000 sf of events space, including four ballrooms ranging up to 35,631 sf. All guest rooms feature spectacular views of either San Diego Bay, Coronado Island or the downtown skyline.
After two years without in-person gatherings, Stuart Ruff-Lyon, CMP, DES, vice president, events and exhibitions at the Risk Management Society (RIMS), is resuming its annual conference, now named RISKWORLD, in San Francisco’s George R. Moscone Convention Center. Representing more than 3,500 industrial, service, nonprofit, charitable and governmental entities, RIMS serves more than 10,000 risk management professionals around the world. Ruff-Lyon says, pre-COVID, the event would draw about 11,000 attendees. “We booked this destination seven years ago,” Ruff-Lyon says. “The world was different; events were different. COVID presents new challenges in planning as we navigate city and state health regulations.”
Ruff-Lyon says California’s sheer size makes for a great opportunity to recruit new attendees and exhibitors. “It also provides us with a way of engaging with a large percentage of our members who are based in California. And, as we look to grow our business in the Asia-Pacific region, San Francisco stood out as a gateway to Asia with incredible airlift. The city offers a rich culture and exciting evening opportunities for our guests.”
In 2019, the convention center completed a four-year, $551 million expansion project, which added 157,000 sf to the three buildings, bumping up the total usable space to 1.4 million sf. “The center itself is beautiful and modern, and has a lot of flexible meeting space that is important to our convention,” Ruff-Lyon says. “The signage in the building is fantastic, which might help some shows reduce signage costs and be more sustainable.” He notes that costs remain a top concern for association meeting planners working in San Francisco. “Many corporate events are not as concerned with rentals and labor fees as a nonprofit association is. Negotiating is tough, but usually fair. Additionally, we have found the staff at Moscone Center are world class and helpful at offering solutions to reduce event costs.”
RIMS is using 26 hotels to house attendees, with the 1,500-room San Francisco Marriott Marquis and the 1,921-room Hilton San Francisco Union Square serving as headquarters. Ruff-Lyon lauds San Francisco’s hotel product as “first-rate” and says that it includes many newly renovated hotels, but adds that RIMS plans to take attendees out of the center to offer them a bit of local culture. “The RISKWORLD opening party will be at the Exploratorium, offering guests the ability to experience a different part of the city. We are working with Ethos, a local DMC, and they have been great in providing us with cost-effective menus that meet our budget.”
Ruff-Lyon’s tip for meetings planners considering a Bay Area event? “Build a solid relationship with the city’s CVB, the San Francisco Travel Association. They have been an enormous resource to me and to RIMS as we plan a citywide convention during a pandemic.”
Los Angeles, a dynamic, ever-evolving destination, officially brought back meetings and events last fall, welcoming more than 2,800 attendees for the American Academy of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery Foundation (AAO-HNSF) at its Annual Meeting and OTO Expo, according to a news release.
The event was the first city-wide convention since the start of the pandemic. It was held at the Los Angeles Convention Center (LACC), and AAO-HNSF contracted with 14 hotels in Downtown Los Angeles.
The LACC offers more than 720,000 sf of exhibit hall space, and 147,000 sf of meetings space, allowing it to host events ranging from conventions, trade shows, exhibitions and meetings of all sizes. The Los Angeles Planning Commission recently approved a $1 billon plan to expand and upgrade the convention center and the adjacent JW Marriott Los Angeles L.A. LIVE. The $500 million convention center upgrade would add 700,000 sf and a new span connecting the South and West Halls. The $500 million J.W. Marriott upgrade would add a 37-story tower with 861 rooms, adding to the 1,000 rooms at the Marriott and The Ritz Carlton, Los Angeles. Plans also include a 228,000-sf conference center. The JW Marriott Los Angeles L.A. LIVE now offers 134,143 sf of meetings space, while The Ritz-Carlton, Los Angeles now offers more than 100,000 sf of modern events space.
Looking for an amazing destination located along the Los Angeles coastline and just 4 miles north of Los Angeles International Airport? Marina del Rey offers more than 1,000 guest rooms among local hotels and resorts. Together, the hotels and resorts offer 102,200 sf of meetings and events space. They include the Marina del Rey Marriott; the Ritz-Carlton, Marina del Rey; the Marina del Rey Hotel; the Hilton Garden Inn and the Jamaica Bay Inn, among others.
At the end of the day, meeting attendees can unwind by participating in a variety of group leisure activities, such as stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, sailing, parasailing over Venice Beach and Santa Monica, relaxing beachside bike rides on a coastal path, a sunset cocktail cruise in the harbor, and whale-watching or deep-sea fishing trips.
Sacramento offers a new, high-tech convention center, diverse hotel options, great weather, and a plethora of award-winning food and wine. Plus, its affordability is unmatched compared to its neighbors to the north or south.
Sacramento’s downtown SAFE Credit Union Convention Center reopened in spring 2021 after a renovation and expansion. The center now offers 240,000 sf of meetings and events space, along with a new outdoor activities plaza. There are also more than 2,000 hotel rooms within walking distance of the Convention Center, and 2,000 more within just 3 miles. They include the 172-room Hyatt Centric Downtown Sacramento; the 250-room Kimpton Sawyer Hotel; the 503-room Sheraton Grand Sacramento and the 505-room Hyatt Regency Sacramento.
San Jose is the heart of Silicon Valley and the gateway to the greater Bay Area. Located an hour in between San Francisco and Monterey, there is an immersion of diverse experiences amidst technological innovation and creativity. When meeting in San Jose, planners will enjoy a fully customizable approach, all under one roof. Choose from a combined 550,000 sf of meetings space within a two-block radius. Accommodation options are abundant, convenient and accessible. Downtown is just 10 minutes from San Jose Mineta International Airport and steps away from convenient public transportation, ride shares and scooters.
New convention properties include The 805-room Signia by Hilton San Jose, Silicon Valley’s largest hotel, Signia by Hilton’s first California hotel and second in the brand portfolio. The reimagined upscale hotel opens following an extensive renovation, including a makeover of the lobby and bar, including upgrades to the main entrance foyer and the guest registration areas. It’s food and beverage offerings have also been revamped. Its central location in the middle of Downtown and steps away from museums, the San Jose McEnery Convention Center and four performing arts venues in the San Jose Theaters collection makes this iconic gathering place ideal for locals and visitors alike.
The Plex is a new, state-of-the-art modern recreational space with capacity up to 2,700. It features an open and flexible floor plan, soaring ceilings, natural light and vibrant décor creating the ideal palette for your special event.
The newly opened Topgolf San Jose is the premier entertainment destination in Silicon Valley. Enjoy climate-controlled hitting bays for year-round comfort with HDTVs in every bay and throughout the sports bar and restaurant.
Also new to Downtown is San Pedro Social, an entertainment center with food, drinks, bowling, arcade games, pool tables and more.
“As the primary driver in generating economic impact to San Jose’s local economy through leisure and business travel, having our largest hotel, Signia by Hilton San Jose, opening is a step in the right direction for convention business,” says Matthew Martinucci, VP of sales and destination services for Visit San Jose and Team San Jose. “We’re blessed to be in the middle of Silicon Valley and be able to call recognizable tech giants our partners and clients. But there is a long way to go before we can bounce back to pre-pandemic times.”
Martinucci adds that San Jose is looking forward to convention and events soon returning to pre-pandemic levels. “We are seeing increased demand in all market segments, with great interest beginning in the fall of 2022. The return to the office, albeit mostly on a permanent hybrid schedule, is fueling an enthusiasm to meet face-to-face. Local businesses are responding to this renewed enthusiasm with refreshed menus, new locations and expanded outdoor spaces like al fresco dining that has become permanent. We are experiencing this pent-up demand and are eager to see our hotels, restaurants, local businesses and our San Jose McEnery Convention Center get back to being busy, exciting places.” | AC&F |