As competition among destinations intensifies as the meeting industry continues to regain its health and vitality, California ranks high on the wish lists of many planners because of its broad appeal to attendees and Mediterranean-type climate — sunny days with little rain year-round. California offers an unusually long list of options from San Francisco, San Jose or the wine country of Napa and Sonoma counties or the central coast of Monterey County to Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Diego to the south.
“We always get good feedback when we hold a meeting in California,” says Carol Waring, marketing communications manager at Tustin, California-based global medical device company MicroVention, which holds about 10 meetings a year in the Golden State. “And a lot of that has to do with the weather and timing. A lot of the times we bring people to California, people from the East Coast or other parts of the country who are coming in from rain or snow. And they just enjoy coming to sunny Southern California. Simple as that.”
Waring, in concert with her meeting planning staff and Cathy Demyanovich, MicroVention’s senior director of corporate communications, work together as a team to make their vision come alive for their sales meetings, many of which have been held at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, a 396-room beach resort located south of Los Angeles in Dana Point.
Her last meeting there was a week-long sales meeting last May for more than 100 attendees.
Why do her team and her attendees like The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel so much that they keep going back?
“Besides the beautiful location and the coastal views, the No. 1 reason would just be the quality of their service,” Waring says. “The hotel has a quality staff, a phenomenal group of people that always deliver quality service. They understand our high expectations and give us tremendous support. They fulfill every request we make, and they are consistent. It just comes down to the fact that they understand our needs.”
One of those needs — just the right amount and configuration of meeting space — is perfectly met by The Ritz-Carlton, Waring notes. The hotel has more than 26,000 sf of indoor conference and banquet space.
“Because of the type and amount of meeting space the hotel has, we can have our general sessions in a space that is appropriate, even if there are multiple meetings going on at the same time,” she says. “So depending on what kind of meeting we’re having, we can get the space we need to do the kinds of sessions that we do. For example, for some meetings, we might have rotating training sessions that require a particular configuration of space. And we can always find that at The Ritz-Carlton, no matter what else is going on in the hotel.”
MicroVention also does what it calls meet-and-greet networking sessions, themed dinner and recognition events as part of its major meetings. “We always have a number of things going on during our meetings,” Waring says. “It’s not just a matter of meeting sessions or training sessions. There’s also socializing and entertainment. And we always find what we need at The Ritz-Carlton.”
Of particular importance for a number of her meetings are recognition dinners that pay tribute to salespeople and support staff. “We do a nice formal dinner,” Waring says. “And at The Ritz-Carlton, we do those dinners in one of the ballrooms or the Pacific Promenade. And depending on the weather, we do some our meet-and-greet events outdoors. And all of those are just great venues for the events.”
Although the amenities and level of service she gets at The Ritz-Carlton often help create highlights of individual meetings, “the real highlight of our meetings there is just that it’s such a beautiful location,” Waring says. “It’s also a great escape for our attendees, because the property is a little bit secluded. It’s just a nice place to be.”
For her higher end meetings, such as sales meetings, MicroVention offers activities such as golf, which is played at the nearby Monarch Beach Golf Links, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and located on the same dramatic bluffs over the Pacific Ocean that give The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel its spectacular perch.
The Ritz-Carlton spa also is popular with MicroVention’s attendees. “It’s a really nice spa, and they offer some great treatments,” Waring says, who also praised the fitness center. “It’s nice,” she says, “to be looking out over the ocean while you’re on a treadmill or one of the other cardio machines.”
Despite the hotel’s luxury amenities, it is the service that keeps MicroVention coming back.
“The thing that is really special about The Ritz-Carlton is that they make you feel special, no matter who you are,” Waring says. “For example, when you walk into the lobby, they know your name, and they really make sure that you feel welcome and that you understand that you’re important to them. They make you feel like they know you and consider you important.”
Additionally, she says, the hotel is well-maintained and consistently kept up to date. And, as a planner, she feels she has a trusted venue that always contributes to the success of her meetings. “The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel is just a class act,” Waring says.
Although not as well-known a meeting destination as San Francisco, San Jose — the de facto capital of Silicon Valley — has emerged over the last few years as a go-to option, especially, not surprisingly, for technology companies.
BlogHer, whose customers are women in social media and especially female bloggers, chose San Jose for its three-day 10th anniversary meeting earlier this year for more than 3,000 attendees.
The company, now located in Belmont, California, and which has been acquired by SheKnows Media, wanted to return to its Silicon Valley roots for the important event, explains Lori Luna, vice president of events operations.
“There were several important reasons that San Jose was right for this event,” Luna says. “One important one was that their convention center was newly renovated. And it was almost as if it was perfectly designed for our conference. It just ideally met our needs for general session space and breakouts and our expo, which had more than 100 exhibitors and used about 35,000 sf of space.”
Another factor was the convenience of having three airports that attendees could fly into — San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco. “That meant that people had multiple options, depending on where they were coming from,” Luna says.
Especially important was the fact that San Jose offered a hub of four major flag hotels that were perfectly situated around the convention center. The headquarters hotel, The Fairmont San Jose, and the Hyatt Place San Jose/Downtown are just a block away, while the San Jose Marriott and Hilton San Jose are connected to the convention facility.
“That kind of infrastructure and convenience is pretty rare,” Luna says. “And for us, for a very important event, it was just perfect.”
Because the meeting celebrated BlogHer’s 10th anniversary, the company went all out to make it special.
Iconic female blogger Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of The Huffington Post, was brought in to headline a general session. “We don’t do traditional keynote speeches,” Luna says. “We have interviewers who turn it into a dialogue.” For Huffington, the interviewer was superstar social media guru and former chief evangelist of Apple, Guy Kawasaki.
Actress and activist Kerry Washington, who appeared at another general session and was interviewed by a popular female blogger, was another highlight of the meeting.
And at another general session, popular female comedian Tig Notaro, another star of social media, interviewed one of the founders of BlogHer.
Another major highlight of the meeting was a closing night outdoor dinner and dance party staged in a parking lot and sponsored by McDonald’s.
“Our closing night event was spectacular,” Luna says. “McDonald’s, which brought in a semi truck full of stuff, decked out a local parking lot to the point where you would never have known it was a parking lot if you had seen it. It was just amazing. McDonald’s also secured Rev Run from the legendary rap group Run DMC, and he was spinning records for about an hour or so for a four-hour dance party, which was just fantastic. People had a great time.”
Unlike many companies that have continued to reduce their meeting budgets since the recession, BlogHer management believes in making the investment to create memorable meetings that motivate their people to optimal job performances. And the San Jose celebration exemplified that.
“We like to say that we go all out for this meeting, as well as for our smaller ones,” Luna says. “And it has everything to do with our sponsors — like McDonald’s for the San Jose event — who partner with us to do our meetings. They are a huge element of our conferences and events. And we are very transparent about the fact that they subsidize the price of our registrations so that people can afford to attend. If we did not have such amazing relationships with our sponsors, I don’t think you’d see this ongoing investment that we make.”
In addition, Luna says, her history and relationship with San Jose also contributed to the success of her 10th anniversary meeting.
“I am very fortunate to have a very strong relationship with the San Jose convention center,” Luna says. “I am on their customer advisory board.”
Luna also worked closely with Team San Jose, the innovative entity that combines the resources and services of a CVB, convention center, hotel partners, and dining and entertainment providers under one roof.
“They have a different approach from most CVBs,” Luna says. “Their model of having everything coordinated by a single entity means that you get a higher level of service, because you’re not going to the CVB for one thing and the convention center for another thing and the hotel for a third thing. And that makes things so much easier for me as a planner.”
Monica Wihongi, chief communications officer at Close to My Heart, a scrapbooking and paper sculpting company in Pleasant Grove, Utah, had never experienced a Disney meeting until she hosted a 2011 event at Disneyland Hotel at Disneyland Resort in Anaheim. The 973-room property has 136,000 sf of meeting space, including exhibit space.
After selecting Anaheim as the destination for the 2011 meeting, Wihongi selected Disneyland Hotel after it submitted a successful bid as part of the RFP process.
“But when we went back this year, it was specifically because of the Disneyland Hotel,” she says. “One of the main issues for us was the logistics of how well the space Disneyland Hotel has worked out for our event. For example, having everything close together with a big box convention facility was a huge plus for us.”
Another important factor was that Disney’s space is carpeted. “That is very unusual, and carpeting is usually a huge expense,” Wihongi says. “But with Disney, the carpeting is included with the space.”
Yet another key was the impact Disney’s renowned production and staging capabilities could have on the company’s general session. “Our general session is a huge factor at the meeting,” Wihongi says. “It’s where we unveil our next year’s product line, and we want to create excitement. And what I loved about Disney is that the stage is built in. All of the sound equipment and lighting and rigging are part of the ballroom space, so you don’t have to build all that from scratch. And again, that kind of permanent setup is extremely unusual.”
Disney’s extraordinary capabilities enhanced three major highlights of her meeting this year, Wihongi says. “The first was our general session. This was the first time we really made it into a production. We had Disney actors mixed in with corporate officers and managers, including our CEO. And to be able to bring that kind of talent together to unveil our new products was extremely entertaining and fun, and very memorable for our attendees. It brought the Disney magic, but it wasn’t what I would call “Disneyfied.” It was very much about Close to My Heart. It just had the production caliber of Disney.”
A second major highlight was a visit by 100 company representatives to World of Color, a water and light show at Disney California Adventure Park. “We did an exclusive private VIP viewing just for our top leaders,” Wihongi says. “We had Disney escorts and our own private section for viewing. And dessert. And it was a very special experience.”
The third major highlight was the company’s awards gala in Disneyland Hotel’s main ballroom.
“Our awards gala is very important, because that’s where we recognize our top salespeople, top recruiters, top teams,” Wihongi says. “At Disney, we had a dinner and then entertainment throughout the evening. The staging and lighting were just beautiful. It was an event that made everyone feel special, especially those getting recognition. They were made to feel like movie stars.”
In addition to the hotel itself, Wihongi has high praise for the production arm of Disney.
“That’s another one of the main reasons we continue to go back, because Disney represents an all-in-one package,” she says. “You don’t have to go through so many vendors. You have one contact person who deals with everything, from F&B to AV and sound. It’s a great collaboration, and you don’t have to deal with all the various elements of the meeting as separate things. And based on my experiences, I feel like the Disney people are extensions of my team.”
Another reason Wihongi says she and her team like Disneyland Resort so much is “the Disney philosophy of how they treat their employees and the whole culture of the company. It’s very close to the culture of Close to My Heart. I’ve been with the company for 22 years and a lot of our staff also have amazing longevity. And I found the same kind of longevity and experience at Disney. People go there, and they stay. And you get a family feel. So the synergy between our staff and the Disney staff was also very important to us. And now we’ve continued to work with the same people through multiple meetings, so we have really gotten to know them very well — and they us. So you really do feel like you have a team. They get us.”
And based on her two experiences so far, the level of service at Disney is second to none — including the catering staff. “They have been phenomenal,” Wihongi says. “They are very caring and it isn’t just about serving people food. We had a number of special requests, such as from people who are diabetics or who have celiac disease. And they were very thoughtful in dealing with all of those special requests.”
The end result of her successes, Wihongi says, is that Close to My Heart just signed a new three-year deal that will take the company back to Disney in Anaheim and also to Orlando — after they return again next year to Disneyland Resort for an already previously scheduled meeting.
“Disney is just a perfect fit for us,” Wihongi says. “And you really do feel the Disney magic.” C&IT