California has no lack of excellent cities, towns and hotels for meetings of every type and size. From a small group of 14 to a large gathering of thousands, planners have found much to recommend in the “Golden State.”
The Bay Area’s most-populous city, San Jose, is a popular site for the many tech companies in the region as well as every other type of corporate group. Kelley Schmidt, director of event management for FNTECH, a full-service event planning company with more than a decade in the area, has worked with many groups over the years. She says proximity to three major airports, a lively downtown and excellent convention center are among San Jose’s assets.
Late last fall, she worked on a group’s annual summit with several thousand attendees, some in-person and others virtual. The meeting was set primarily at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center (SJMCC) with the San Jose Marriott as the base hotel. “The flexibility of the space [at the SJMCC] and extraordinary service keep us and our clients coming back again and again. Until the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2019, FNTECH averaged several large conferences at the SJMCC each year.
Perhaps the center’s greatest asset, however, she says, is its flexibility. “This applies to the space itself, but also to the people who make it run. Everyone is accommodating. When we want to try something new for a client — something that hasn’t been done before — we are consistently met with a ‘How-can-we-make-it-happen?’ attitude. Team San Jose is willing to go the extra mile to help make our events successful. There is always room to brainstorm, debate ideas and negotiate services. On a strictly production front, the new Exhibit Hall ceiling and sound upgrade was very much appreciated.”
San Jose has a full range of hotels, many of them downtown, and Schmidt has worked with most of them. “From an event-space perspective, the hotels we use most are the San Jose Marriott and the Hilton San Jose, which are attached to the convention center. This allows for a smooth install/dismantle process, because we can easily move equipment between spaces. We’re also able to connect the Wi-Fi in all three spaces, so it’s a seamless transition for attendees, staff and crew in terms of networking.”
Historically, Schmidt notes, “San Jose hotels have been solid partners on our large events, but perhaps a hidden gem, from a planner’s perspective, are the post-event audits. This helps us capture attendee reservations that may have been made outside the sleeping-room block, which often alleviates attrition. Since the pandemic, we have been even more strategic with cancellation clauses. I would advise planners to lean-in and ask Team San Jose for insight and support in this area.”
Schmidt has high praise for Team San Jose, the city’s DMO. “Over the years, we’ve formed an amazing working relationship with them. Together we’ve accomplished some very unique and specific catering requests, complicated room turns, tremendous internet requirements, massive security measures, extremely tight installations and strikes, just to name a few collaborations,” she says. “When our first in-person event post COVID-lockdown was planned for the San Jose McEnery Convention Center, we were confident that our collective team would be able to navigate the constantly changing environment. It wasn’t easy, and there were some unavoidable hiccups, but this team leaned heavily on our ability to band together, make needed adjustments and keep moving forward. From all accounts, it was a smashing success. Attendees left healthy, educated and motivated. Our planning team left re-energized, proud of a job well done and looking toward the future. Truly, we can’t imagine a better partnership.”
In terms of how COVID challenges were handled, Schmidt says Team San Jose has stayed in constant communication with city officials on all pandemic updates. “When the city of San Jose mandated proof of vaccine and masks indoors, we immediately met via video conference to discuss logistics. This helped us properly plan our compliance and keep our clients in the loop so their comms were accurate and up-to-date. We did have concerns with staffing, but the open communication with [Team San Jose] helped us pivot [a few times] to ensure all areas were covered. We know they are always in the trenches with us.”
As any planner knows, even with the best partners and planning, there are likely to be a few challenges in the course of planning a meeting. It’s how you handle them that makes the difference. “I can remember a few speed bumps along the way relating to catering, graphics and staffing shortages,” Schmidt says. “However, all these challenges were met quickly, and solutions were cohesively implemented. We’ve found it’s not the problems themselves that crush you, it’s how we as one team respond to in those situations — no pointing fingers, just helping hands. Many years ago, we implemented a full-transparency rule when things go wrong. We immediately notify all parties involved and, when possible, get everyone together in the space and work together to course correct. This allows clients to rest easy knowing we have their backs and we’re all pushing toward the same goals.”
Looking ahead, Schmidt is optimistic. “We’re optimistic about future in-person meetings [through] 2022. While many of our spring events have changed to completely virtual … we feel the direction the pandemic is taking will allow us to produce more in-person events … this year. We also feel the safety measures we’ve put in place with Team San Jose allow each person — attendee, speaker, sponsor, staff and crew member — to experience the event in the way they’re most comfortable with, be that social distancing, wearing masks, etc.”
To planners, Schmidt’s primary advice is to partner with Team San Jose. “Stay in close contact with Team San Jose on the current pandemic situation. They have the latest information from the city and state, but also can provide new ideas and share best practices, so you can have a safe and successful show whatever the current landscape.”
To the south, along California’s oft-photographed coast, is San Luis Obispo, aka SLO. The town sits in the middle of the spectacular Central Coast region, which spans from Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz. SLO offers planners small-town charm, all the expansive and dramatic scenery along the coast, and plenty of activities and options for meetings. Marci Miller, MBA, chief administrative officer, Radiology Associates, worked on the group’s monthly board of directors’ meetings as well as the annual retreat. Meetings were held at Hotel Cerro in San Luis Obispo in the spring and late fall of last year.
As COVID continues to impact in-person meetings, Miller says Hotel Cerro is a good choice. “During the past year, we’ve used Hotel Cerro for many different in-person events. The venue is perfect for a private event and the staff adhered to safety protocols by wearing masks at all times when serving food and beverage. The hotel, which is very clean, provided the appreciated sanitization for all people attending the meeting.”
Miller says Hotel Cerro’s meeting space is ideal for multiple reasons, including the fact that there’s built-in A/V equipment, which makes presentations and teleconferences easy. And the hotel can provide a range of room setups that work for various groups. Catering is also convenient, thanks to the hotel’s on-site restaurant, Brasserie SLO. The group especially likes that the large glass windows separating the indoor space and outdoor patio can be opened and pushed all the way out to create an expansive indoor/outdoor space with excellent airflow. In addition to the regular catering the hotel provides, if a group is looking for a special wine or food to be served, hotel staff will source it for them.
In spite of 2021’s challenges, Miller is looking forward in the rest of 2022 and through 2023. “We’re optimistic about having in-person meetings again in the future,” she says. “There is no replacement for in-person meetings … we remain optimistic and are ready to gather in person and plan for our companies’ futures.”
As for tips on planning while COVID continues, she advises planners to “Try to pick locations that have either an outdoor setting or split rooms to maximize the airflow at the event. It’s important to have multiple serving stations to allow for less gathering while still interacting with fellow attendees, and it’s also nice to have a separate location for attendee arrivals and a private restroom to limit the number of contacts. Lastly, make sure the facility is following the current protocols for safety by wearing the appreciated masks and available hand sanitizer.”
Visitors here — about 100 miles south of San Francisco and about 50 miles from San Jose — will discover iconic landmarks, a storied history, sustainable and diverse culinary offerings, top-notch vineyards and wineries, varied landscapes such as scenic coastal views and rugged terrain, world-class art and more. Looking for prime Pacific coastline? There are 99 miles of it here, along with the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, 45,000 acres of premium vineyards, 65 tasting rooms, 82 wineries and more than 20 golf courses, including the famed Pebble Beach Golf Links. Major attractions include the 17-Mile Drive scenic coastal driving tour of Pebble Beach with lookouts and famous golf courses; Big Sur, the iconic area encompassing a 70-mile stretch of breathtaking, dramatic Pacific coastline with inns, restaurants, camping spots, beaches and hiking trails along Highway 1; and Cannery Row, one of the most popular destinations in the Central Coast and named for John Steinbeck’s novel. Cannery Row offers waterfront luxury hotels, boutiques, restaurants and the aforementioned Monterey Bay Aquarium.
The Monterey Conference Center, which encompasses the adjoining Monterey Marriott and the Portola Hotel & Spa, has recently undergone a $60 million renovation. Together, these waterfront properties offer more than 80,000 sf of flexible meeting space, 19,000 sf of exhibition space and 700 hotel rooms. The center can accommodate meetings of various sizes up to 1,700 attendees.
The Los Angeles Convention Center (LACC) offers more than 720,000 sf of exhibit hall space, and 147,000 sf of meeting 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 JW 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.
Orange County (OC) offers an eclectic group of towns and cities, from the gorgeous beaches and luxury properties of Laguna Beach, to surfing paradise Huntington Beach and Anaheim, with the largest convention center on the West Coast and one of the world’s most famous theme parks, Disneyland Resort.
Patty Kindness is a regional director with PRA, a global business-event-management firm. About the county, she says, “Orange County has so much to offer groups — great weather in a beautiful coastal destination with so many options for entertaining. Whether it’s getting out into the Pacific for a sailing regatta or a whale-watching experience, or taking in the beautiful “plein air” art of Laguna Beach or an electric bike ride through the local neighborhoods of Corona del Mar, there is truly something for everyone.”
Orange County has options for those coveted “wow” opening and closing receptions, but one stands out for Kindness: “Our hands-down favorite venue in OC is Mission San Juan Capistrano. It’s where tourism was born in Southern California. It tells the unique story of California history and it’s just beautiful. You can enjoy several different experiences at the Mission, from a beautiful closing-night gala event under the stars in the historic central courtyard, to a private tour of the Mission’s art collection or a horticultural tour in the gardens. There are just so many ways to experience OC’s history and culture.”
While Mission San Juan Capistrano is as old as the United States itself, founded just four months after the founding of the country, Orange County embraces what’s new, too. “We’re thrilled,” Kindness says, “to have two new properties in Anaheim, the JW Marriott, Anaheim Resort and The Westin Anaheim Resort. Both are incredible additions to the very busy and growing market in Anaheim and the Anaheim Convention Center.”
In this age of COVID, Southern California is a great choice for in-person groups that prefer to meet primarily outdoors. “Orange County offers great weather year-round and plenty of beautiful outdoor spaces for entertaining — many with an ocean view.” Kindness says. “Additionally, Coastal OC is home to several of the most luxurious and exceptional resort properties in the world. The lawns and views at these properties are truly one of a kind.”
She also says the county is well prepared for keeping groups healthy and safe. “We’re ready for you. We’ve invested so much into making sure our programs are adhering to not just local health and safety protocols, but also our own corporate protocols with the guest experience in mind.” Kindness adds that planners should have conversations with their attendees and with local DMCs they work with in order to ensure the best experience. “Having good conversations in advance with your partners to discuss what your corporate expectations are and how your guests will feel about traveling to Orange County is paramount for us to custom curate an experience that will make everyone feel safe, welcome and cared for.”
Orange County is a coveted meeting destination, and that means planning in advance is paramount for the best outcome. “Please start the conversation as early as possible,” Kindness advises planners considering Orange County. “This is a popular destination and available dates go fast. We’re currently seeing really short-term bookings, and that affects availability of resources, such as activities, tours, transportation equipment, staff, etc. We want to provide you with the best possible options, but by 30 days out, the options can be limited.”
Like other industry experts, Kindness sees much to be positive about. “We’re feeling optimistic about the next 10 to 12 months and about groups returning to travel and programs all over Southern California. I think we’ll always be considering some amount of risk in bringing people together for a corporate program, so this will be our ‘new normal.’ But it’s also an opportunity to continue the conversation about how important face-to-face meetings are and how we can continue to make them safe for everyone.”
One of Orange County’s premier meeting cities is Anaheim, which is where Informa Markets Engineering West (IME West) held its annual trade event late last summer for advanced manufacturing professionals, with virtual attendees in multiple additional sites. All in-person events took place at the Anaheim Convention Center (ACC). “Many of our attendees are California-based, so meeting at the Anaheim Convention Center is convenient for our community,” says Pamela Skaggs, director of operations with Informa Markets. “John Wayne Airport in Orange County is only minutes from the ACC for those who fly in. Anaheim is also a destination city. From wonderful restaurants, top-notch hotels and sporting events, to world-renowned amusement parks, [such as Disneyland], Anaheim has so much to offer to attendees when they’re off the show floor.”
Skaggs says Informa Markets and IME West have a long-standing commitment to sustainability and keeping clients safe and healthy, and Anaheim’s convention center supports those efforts. “The ACC prioritizes its green efforts by creating a ‘green roof,’ utilizing solar power and making sustainable choices when it comes to purchasing. It’s also LEED-certified. In addition to that, the ACC has received the Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC) Star Accreditation. Accreditation is awarded to facilities that follow a high standard of cleaning, disinfection and disease prevention, and follow proper cleaning and disinfecting protocols, and workplace practices.”
It’s also stunning. “Immediately upon arrival, you’re greeted by beautifully illuminated palm trees and a water feature, warm air and sunshine,” Skaggs says. “At our 2021 event, we hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony on the Grand Plaza of the ACC. Visit Anaheim helped us coordinate a memorable event featuring an enthusiastic presentation by the mayor, a local marching band, chalk art and a unique offering of food and beverage provided by Aramark. There are many great restaurants and activities in the nearby GardenWalk, and our team enjoyed an ax-throwing experience.”
The group met in Anaheim again in mid-spring of this year. “We [looked] forward to hosting a ‘Beer Garden’ on the second-level outdoor California Terrace, as well as a festive welcome reception on the Grand Plaza,” Skaggs says. “This year, [we produced] keynotes in the ballroom and five co-located expos over 670,000 sf of contiguous exhibit space in halls A-D. With well-thought-out meeting space and amenities, the ACC is a great place to do business. Many service providers are available on-site, dedicated to making events successful, and complimentary Wi-Fi throughout the lobbies and meeting space keep attendees connected while they’re out of the office at the show.”
Skaggs says Visit Anaheim has been “very thoughtful” in incorporating health and safety initiatives during the planning process, and helped the group find new dates when postponement became necessary. “Prior to our site visit, they sent out a form to attendees to better understand their comfort level around ride-shares, dining in restaurants, etc. They also regularly updated event stakeholders with current COVID-19 state, local and facility guidelines. And on arriving at the site visit, we were offered an amenity that included first-aid items, hand sanitizers and reusable masks. The ACC also required a review of our health and safety plans prior to the event. Visit Anaheim and the ACC partnered with us in developing and executing those plans to ensure the safety of everyone on-site for the event.”
One challenge, Skaggs notes, has been navigating the planning of large-scale, indoor events during a pandemic. But, she had help. “Visit Anaheim and the Anaheim Convention Center have truly been partners to Informa Markets and the IME West team throughout this process. These partnerships offered significant support as we produced the first large-scale trade event in California last August since the pandemic began in 2020. We’re very thankful to the incredible staff of these organizations.”
Skaggs encourages planners to reach out to Visit Anaheim. “They have so many wonderful tools and ideas to help planners. The earlier or more frequently you can engage with them, the greater your event success is likely to be. I would also encourage you to tour the Anaheim Convention Center. It’s a well-laid-out, beautiful and sustainability-focused venue, ready to host a myriad of events.” C&IT