Northern California is not a single place. It is a collection of places, each of which is world famous for its unique appeal.
From the urban enclaves of San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose, to the renowned wine regions of Napa Valley and Sonoma County, to the more rural eastern region known as Tri-Valley, and the iconic coastline through Monterey County along U.S. Highway 1, Northern California offers planners a diverse list of spectacular options.
It is often said by travel writers that there are only two truly unique cities in America: New Orleans and San Francisco. And both are beloved by meeting planners.
“I’m biased, because San Francisco is one of my favorite places on the planet,” says Gayle Patterson Withers, CMP, coordinator of forums and meetings at the Newtown, PA-based Law School Admission Council, whose business is facilitating the law school admission process for students and administering the LSAT exam. Withers has used San Francisco eight times for her most important annual meeting, which draws about 600 attendees.
“I just love the energy of San Francisco and the experience of being there,” Withers says. “When you get off the plane and leave the airport and you see those iconic views of the skyline on your way into the city, you just feel like you’ve arrived in some place that is very special. And I also love the culture of the city. It’s such a special, interesting place that any attendee can find something fun to do there. You just feel happy being in San Francisco.”
Kathryn Horton, vice president, convention services and events at the San Francisco Travel Association, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, elaborates on why the destination is perennially popular with meeting planners. “The appeal of San Francisco for meetings is based primarily on our cultural diversity and the amount of venues we have to offer,” she says. “And our airlift is excellent, from all over the world. We’re also a very green city that is very walkable. And that means that a lot of groups don’t need to worry about transportation. They can walk everywhere they need to go.”
The most obvious factors in the choice of San Francisco are its beauty and eclectic charm, Horton says. “Everyone in the world wants to come to San Francisco,” she says. “It’s a fantasy for most people, because we often get voted the No. 1 destination in the world or in the country for tourism. We also offer such a variety of hotels, restaurants, offsite venues and activities, that once a meeting planner decides to bring a group here, there is an almost endless list of options to build a program around.”
Withers cites the unique hotels in San Francisco as one of its major appeals. In recent years, she has used the 532-room Hotel Nikko, located just steps from famous Union Square. “It’s just an amazing hotel,” says Withers, who also likes the AAA Four Diamond Hilton San Francisco Union Square.
Horton notes that San Francisco offers a long list of unique, iconic hotels, including landmark Nob Hill properties such as The Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Westin St. Francis and The Fairmont. The last new hotel built in the city was the InterContinental San Francisco, which opened five years ago. Several major properties, including the Grand Hyatt San Francisco and Mandarin Oriental, have completed major renovations.
San Francisco also features a range of spectacular offsite venues. For large groups, up to 4,000 attendees, Horton recommends the new Exploratorium science museum, which opened at its new location at Pier 15 on the Embarcadero in April. It is available for buyouts, and also offers individual spaces for events and receptions.
For medium-sized groups, Horton likes City View at Metreon. “It’s a very nice facility that is like a blank canvas a planner can paint on,” she says. “It can be adapted to any kind of meeting for groups of 300 to 1,000.”
The bayfront Fort Mason Center, administered by the U.S. National Park Service, offers a total of 28 venues accommodating from five to 20,000 people. For small groups of 30 to 250, Horton suggests The General’s Residence, a historic landmark. “It offers magnificent views of San Francisco Bay,” Horton says. The view also includes Aquatic Park and Alcatraz.
Located just across San Francisco Bay from San Francisco is Oakland. Although not as well known as its world-famous neighbor as a meeting destination, Oakland offers a more laidback, less expensive alternative that still features easy access to all the Bay Area has to offer.
For the last four years, including her event this June, Withers has hosted her annual meeting in Oakland. The key reason, she says, is its affordability, adding that she estimates that holding the meeting in Oakland is 30–40 percent less expensive than San Francisco. That is important because prospective student attendees do not pay to attend the meeting, which is funded by law school exhibitors and sponsors.
But, Withers says, Oakland also delivers other benefits.
“One of the things we like is that it’s easy to get to for attendees from all over the Bay Area,” she says. “That’s important because although our 130 law school exhibitors are from all over the country, our attendees are local. So we also try to pick a location that people can get to easily. And Oakland is very easy because of the BART trains, and it’s also easy to drive there and find parking.”
Withers’ hotel of choice last year and this year was the Oakland Marriott City Center, located near Jack London Square. “The hotel has a very small convention center, which is perfect for our meeting,” she says. “But what I really like is the load-in. It’s at street level, so we don’t have to deal with freight elevators. The hotel is also very easy for attendees to get into and out of. So it is just convenient for everybody. It’s just a very nice property that works very well for our particular meeting.” The Oakland Marriott completed a major renovation two years ago.
Withers also likes the fact that the hotel is surrounded by lots of good dining options. “We always make sure that our hotel has plenty of good local restaurants nearby, because that’s important to our exhibitors, who tend to be foodies who do a lot of networking and entertaining during the meeting, and Oakland has an excellent local dining scene, especially in areas like Jack London Square,” she says. “And there are a lot of small local restaurants that are excellent.”
Located about an hour by car from downtown San Francisco are the world-famous vineyards of Napa Valley and Sonoma County. Although best known for their production of some of the world’s finest wines, Napa and Sonoma are also acclaimed for their fine dining and arts scenes.
Napa Valley, featuring a Mediterranean climate and spectacular scenic beauty, is defined by the Mayacamas mountain range to its western and northern sides, and the Vaca Mountains on its eastern side.
Robin Wasserman, administrative assistant at San Francisco-based national law firm Gordon & Rees, has planned an annual partner retreat for about 175 attendees for the past three years. The firm has been taking the partners to Napa Valley every year over the last decade for the much-anticipated event. “Napa Valley is an exquisitely beautiful place,” says Wasserman, who uses the Villagio Inn & Spa and Vintage Inn, its sister property next door, for her event. “They are the perfect match for our group,” she says. “They have great meeting rooms. And their staff is extremely attentive to all of our needs. If we say ‘Jump,’ they say ‘How high?’ And we also get great rates that include a full breakfast buffet, and high tea and snacks in the afternoons. So we get very good value.” Villagio Inn & Spa also features a fine wine shop, where Wasserman stages an afternoon wine-tasting with gourmet snacks.
“The hotels are also centrally located in Yountville,” she says. “There’s a nice little shopping plaza right next door. And across the street, there are several five-star restaurants. So our attendees can easily walk everywhere.”
There are also hiking and biking trails. “We have a lot of outdoorsy partners who like to take advantage of those things,” Wasserman says.
But of particular appeal to her well-heeled attendees are the critically celebrated local restaurants in downtown Yountville. Among their favorites are Redd, a five-star American bistro; Bistro Jeanty, which serves light French-California fare, and Bottega, located between the two hotels and serving fine Italian cuisine. “And there are a lot more superb restaurants within easy walking distance of the hotels,” Wasserman says.
Among popular activities are tours of some of Napa’s more noted local wineries and hot-air ballooning excursions.
Although not as well known as Napa Valley, Sonoma County is also popular because of its wineries and spectacular restaurants. Sue Klick, CMP, senior convention specialist at industry-leading medical device manufacturer Medtronic, which is headquartered in Sonoma County’s Santa Rosa, has regularly used her home turf for important physician immersion meetings for 15 years.
“Sonoma County is just a spectacular place visually,” she says. “The terrain is beautiful. The countryside is beautiful. The local people are very friendly and welcoming. And we also have fabulous weather. It’s just a great location for a meeting.”
As a local, Klick notes that Sonoma is not as developed or as crowded as its more famous neighbor. “That means it’s also fairly easy to get around. Napa Valley gets all of the press,” she says. “But we are Napa’s pretty sister.” Although, like Napa, Sonoma is best-known for its winemaking, it too boasts a robust arts community and upscale fine-dining scene.
Although there are major-flag hotels from Hilton and Hyatt in Santa Rosa, Sonoma’s hotels tend to be smaller boutique-style properties, Klick says. Among the hotels she particularly likes is Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel & Spa in Santa Rosa. “It’s a great location, because it’s right at the heart of downtown,” she says. “If attendees want to go for a stroll, there are restaurants and shopping right out your front door.”
She also favors the intimate conference center at Vineyards Inn, a boutique property slightly north of Santa Rosa in Kenwood. “It’s a small hotel, with under 50 rooms, but they have very nice conference facilities for small groups,” she says.
One of Sonoma’s most popular small hotels is the exclusive and intimate 29-room Kenwood Inn & Spa, which features one of the country’s most celebrated spas and is adjacent to Sonoma Golf Club and Kunde Family Estate winery, making it a convenient choice for small groups that want a lot of meeting infrastructure in a small footprint.
As a longtime user of Sonoma, Klick also has high praise for its restaurants. Two she particularly likes — both operated by the local Stark Reality Restaurants — are Stark’s Steakhouse, featuring certified Angus steaks and sustainable seafood, and Willi’s Wine Bar, both in downtown Santa Rosa.
Located in the heart of Silicon Valley and hailed worldwide as a hub for entrepreneurship and technological innovation, San Jose — now ranked as the 10th largest city in the U.S. — is a rising star as a meeting destination. Newly modernized San Jose International Airport is just four miles from downtown hotels.
The city’s modern, state-of-the-art meeting infrastructure includes the San Jose Convention Center with 425,000 sf of convention space, which features 165,000 sf of contiguous exhibit space, a 22,000-sf Executive Ballroom and 30 breakout rooms. The facility is now in the final stages of a renovation and expansion that, when completed this fall, will add 125,000 sf of new space, which includes 38,706 sf of new meeting space and a new 35,110-sf Grand Ballroom. Following the renovation, the San Jose Convention Center will feature a total of 550,000 sf of convention space and 305,000 sf of exhibition space.
San Jose also features a hotel inventory of 2,000 committable rooms on peak downtown and 4,000 on peak citywide, with a broad assortment of major flag hotels within easy walking distance of the convention center.
There’s a wide array of unique offsite venues in San Jose that take advantage of the city’s 300 days of sunshine a year. For example, the San Jose Museum of Art can host an indoor-outdoor event for up to 3,000; and the San Pedro Square Market, half a mile from the convention center, offers indoor-outdoor space for receptions with up to 1,850 attendees. The Tech Museum offers a rooftop terrace for 150 and 132,000 sf of gallery and meeting space for up to 2,500. The upscale Silicon Valley Capitol Club offers indoor-outdoor space for 300 and 360-degree views of downtown. Planners looking for a mid-sized theater will be delighted with the historic 3,326-seat San Jose Civic, a 1936 city landmark that reopened last year after a four-year renovation.
But perhaps its most important attributes in today’s meeting market are that it has been voted one of America’s greenest cities by Green Tech Media, and features a walkable downtown with a campus feel. It is also among the country’s safest cities.
And among the city’s most important meeting industry innovations is its unique Team San Jose, a partnership of its convention center, convention and visitors bureau, and cultural attractions. Team San Jose delivers one-stop shopping for convention venue management services, food-and-beverage services, hotels, labor, offsite venues, arts organizations and local businesses.
Monterey County is located about two hours south of San Francisco on the Pacific coast, along U.S. Highway 1, one of the most scenic drives in the world. The picture-postcard-perfect coastline features a trio of spectacular individual destinations: Big Sur, Monterey and Carmel.
Despite its sprawling, sparsely populated geography and breathtaking natural beauty, Monterey County features substantial meetings infrastructure, which includes nearly 12,000 hotel rooms in 200 hotels and resorts. Meeting facilities across the county can handle groups of 10–30,000 people. The Monterey Conference Center accommodates up to 1,700 attendees in 41,000 sf of meeting and banquet space, which includes a 19,600-sf exhibition hall, grand ballroom and 500-seat theater.
Monterey features major flag hotels such as the Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel and Spa on Del Monte Golf Course, InterContinental The Clement Monterey, and Monterey Marriott, as well as smaller, more unique local hotels such as Portola Hotel & Spa and Casa Munras Hotel & Spa.
The area’s unique attractions include Cannery Row, immortalized in literature by John Steinbeck; Monterey Bay Aquarium, which offers multiple options for staging private events in the exhibit galleries for up to 2,500 attendees; and fabled Pebble Beach golf course. More adventurous groups can get an adrenaline rush at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and take part in the Skip Barber Driving School.
There are nearly limitless opportunities for outdoor adventures including hiking, biking, mountain climbing, boating, kayaking, hang-gliding, whale-watching and scuba diving. Among its most popular outdoor attractions is its Recreation Trail. Planners looking for some serenity can find it at the Monarch Grove Butterfly Sanctuary.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is home to Clint Eastwood and unique landmark hotels such as Highlands Inn and Carmel Mission Inn, as well as major flag properties such as Hyatt Carmel Highlands. Eastwood operates and personally oversees the upscale and intimate Mission Ranch Resort, where he might just show up to play piano for your group. The 77-room Quail Lodge & Golf Club in Carmel Valley southeast of Monterey offers a variety of intimate meeting and event spaces for 20–300 attendees, plus a Land Rover Experience Driving School.
Monterey County also offers some of the most dramatic restaurant views to be found anywhere in the world, such as Nepenthe, overlooking the Pacific from atop the bluffs of Big Sur. Just up the road is one of the world’s most spectacular seaside hotels, Ventana Inn & Spa.
The Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau offers a wide range of planner services including complimentary visitor services and registration staff, starting with four hours for groups with 100–299 peak rooms and eight hours for groups with 300+ peak rooms. Delegate housing services are also available for groups with 450+ peak rooms per night for two or more nights utilizing four or more hotel properties. The CVB also provides planners with a dedicated personal assistant who will consult on and oversee every practical detail of a meeting.
Located 33 miles east of San Francisco and stretching from Mount Diablo to Lake Del Valle and the hills of Livermore Valley wine country is California’s Tri-Valley, known as East Bay. Comprised of the town of Danville and the cities of Dublin, Livermore, Pleasanton and San Ramon, Tri-Valley is accessible through the San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose airports.
“Few places are as authentic, charming and unspoiled as Tri-Valley,” says Liz Sullivan, social media and public relations manager for Visit Tri-Valley California.
Tri-Valley is home to more than 300,000 sf of meeting space and more than 4,500 hotel rooms featuring major hotel brands such as DoubleTree, Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott and Sheraton. Its event facilities include Alameda County Fairgrounds, with 150,000 sf of space; Robert Livermore Center, 90,000 sf; San Ramon Conference Center, 55,000 sf; Hilton Pleasanton at the Club, 24,000 sf; San Ramon Marriott Conference Center, 19,000 sf; Palm Event Center, 8,000 sf; and Shannon Community Center in Dublin, 6,000 sf.
The area’s more than 300 restaurants feature diverse, authentic cuisines such as classic Californian, Italian, Mexican, Chinese and American mixed with ethnic influences such as Afghani, Sri Lankan, Korean and Thai. And Tri-Valley boasts 13 golf courses and 53 award-winning wineries — from boutique labels to historical wineries such as Concannon and Wente. C&IT