by Rachel Carter | October 01, 2016

When attendees imagine visiting California, they often picture two extremes: the surf culture of Southern California or the street style of San Francisco. But groups can meet in the middle in Central California, full of the quintessential Golden State features that make gatherings great.

Classic California event settings are found around every bend in this region. Rows of vineyards roll over the golden hills of Solvang, and herds of cattle graze on native grasses in San Simeon. The wild ocean and rocky natural outcroppings are the stars of the Big Sur coastline, while a wide sandy beach and a historic boardwalk in Santa Cruz draw crowds. And Central California, too, boasts the extreme: It is home to the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states as well as the lowest spot in North America, and one of its many forests still shelters the largest living tree in the world. With abundant meeting hotels and conference venues ready to serve associations year-round, attendees and planners will find much to marvel about.

Greater Santa Cruz: Recreation & Re-creation

Santa Cruz is just the place for groups intent on a recharge. Attendees can explore the northern sandy stretches of Monterey Bay or head inland to hike the redwood-filled hillsides. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has been attracting tourists for nearly 110 years, and the adjacent, landmark Cocoanut Grove is the largest oceanfront event space in Santa Cruz County, with 20,000 square feet of space for up to 1,000 people. Groups can also enjoy ocean views from the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, which offers event space for up to 335.

The University of California-Santa Cruz campus welcomes group events, as does the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, which can accommodate up to 2,000 people. In the hills overlooking the city and the bay, the Pasatiempo Golf Club can host up to 250. The Hotel Paradox, now a Marriott Autograph Collection property, offers meeting space for up to 400 and the Chaminade Resort & Spa features 156 newly renovated guest rooms and an IACC-approved conference center.

Farther down the coastline, visitors have a sweet spot for the rich orchard heritage of Watsonville. The famed apple cider and juice maker S. Martinelli & Company recently opened a new company store and tasting room in town. For business, groups will find more than 33,500 square feet of event space at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds.

Monterey County: Coastal Cool

If Santa Cruz is Monterey Bay's northern hub, the city of Monterey is the bay's southern bookend. Just blocks from Fisherman's Wharf is the Monterey Conference Center, undergoing a $60 million renovation and scheduled to celebrate its grand reopening next March with space for up to 3,200 attendees. Plans include upgraded technology, LEED- and ADA-compliant improvements and a more flexible and configurable redesign of its 41,000 square feet of function space. The center is supported by the adjacent Portola Hotel & Spa and the Monterey Marriott, which offer their own meeting space for up to 1,000 and 820, respectively. Also nearby is the Monterey Beach House, whose "Classic California Beach Parties" have made it a popular pick for groups up to 1,200.

A few miles east, the oceanfront Monterey Tides was recently renovated and is now a Joie de Vivre hotel. It offers event space for up to 450 attendees and beachfront team-building activities. And groups that like to golf might opt for the Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel & Spa, located on the Del Monte Golf Course.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has gallery space for functions of up to 300 people, or groups of 2,500 can buy out the entire aquarium. Down the street, A Taste of Monterey is a waterfront wine center with 4,000 square feet of event space. At historic Cannery Row, Wave Street Studios has meeting space for up to 150 people and the Wine Experience can accommodate groups of up to 65 and has team-building activities oenophiles will love. The Monterey Museum of Art at La Mirada has several private event spaces, including a patio that can host up to 150 people for seated dinners, and the Monterey County Fair & Event Center can accommodate up to 1,000 people.

Pacific Grove, just west of Monterey, is home to the historic, 107-acre Asilomar Conference Grounds. In addition to sandy beaches and dunes, the recently updated grounds boast more than 30 buildings with 312 guest rooms and 28 meeting spaces. Walking tours, bird watching, beach volleyball and surfing can all be enjoyed on-site.

Nearby Pebble Beach is renowned for golf courses overlooking the craggy coast, notably Pebble Beach Golf Links. The Lodge at Pebble Beach, the Inn at Spanish Bay and Casa Palmero sit on 5,300 acres and offer nearly 30,000 square feet of combined meeting space as well as a variety of golf course privileges. The resorts also coordinate group activities, such as sailing and race-car driving.

Just south, in Carmel-by-the-Sea, the Sunset Center is a performing arts facility with stunning Gothic architecture, four newly renovated meeting rooms and a 718-seat theater. Two blocks away, the event venue Seventh & Dolores can host groups of 194 people. Lodging choices include Hotel Carmel (formerly the Dolphin Hotel), which opened this spring after a $2.5 million renovation.

Carmel Valley is the land of oak-dotted ranches and hilly vineyards. Popular event sites include the Cima Collina Winery, the Folktale Winery, Holman Ranch, Gardener Ranch, Carmel Valley Ranch and the Mission Ranch Hotel & Restaurant. The Bernardus Lodge & Spa, which was renovated last year, debuted 14 new guest suites and villas in July and can accommodate events of up to 200.

San Luis Obispo: Simple Pleasures

San Luis Obispo, or SLO to those in the know, is home to California Polytechnic State University. Notable event venues include the Performing Arts Center, with 91,500 square feet of space. The San Luis Obispo County Veteran's Memorial Building can host groups of 500. And downtown, SLO Brew recently introduced The Brew, an improved pub with a restaurant and music space, and upstairs, five guest suites (two of which can sleep up to eight people). It also has a new branch near the airport called The Rock, which can host up to 600, and has a catering kitchen and outdoor fire pits.

Just steps from the famous Pismo Beach pier and boardwalk, the Inn at the Pier is being built and is scheduled to open in early 2017 with 104 guest rooms, 1,500 square feet of meeting space, a rooftop bar and a restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating. In the meantime, the Pismo Beach Veterans' Memorial Hall has meeting space for up to 600.

Northwest of San Luis Obispo, the town of Morro Bay is known for Morro Rock, a 580-foot-high volcanic plug that is a nesting site for peregrine falcons. For conferences, the Morro Bay Community Center has auditorium space for up to 537 people as well as several smaller event rooms, and the Inn at Morro Bay offers event space for up to 200 and is adjacent to an 18-hole golf course. In San Simeon, groups can tour Hearst Castle. The mansion and grounds welcome special events of up to 250, which must be booked at least four months in advance.

To the east, the Paso Robles area boasts more than 250 wineries. Many winery tasting rooms offer picnic areas, event spaces and special wine-themed activities, from winemaker dinners to team-building. New and improved hospitality properties include the 171-room Allegretto Vineyard Resort, which opened a year ago with a restaurant, a spa and indoor-outdoor event space for up to 350 people; the Holiday Inn Express & Suites, which completed a $2.6 million renovation in April and has introduced two small meeting rooms; and the Paso Robles Inn, which has a restored 1890s ballroom, smaller conference areas and a garden for up to 300. Another option is Parish Hall, located next to the 1797 mission in San Miguel; it can seat up to 250 in its banquet room.

Solvang & Santa Maria: Betting on Blue Skies

In Danish, Solvang means "sunny field," a name that fits this corner of Central California, which averages more than 280 days of sunshine a year. The Society of Air Force Nurses held a regional conference in town at the suggestion of a member, said Cathy Pluta, director of the society's Pacific region. The group's 30 attendees stayed downtown at the King Frederik Inn and held a poolside reception there one night, toured the missile site at Vandenberg Air Force Base, dined at the Greenhouse Café and attended a performance at the Pacific Conservatory Theatre in Santa Maria. Pluta appreciated the number of activities and restaurants in the area.

The Wildling Museum of Art & Nature offers three floors of spaces for events, including gallery space for receptions of up to 100. The Solvang Convention & Visitors Bureau can provide maps specially tailored to the interests of groups, which might include stops at the local Danish bakeries, chocolatiers, art galleries or statues of the Little Mermaid and Hans Christian Andersen. These can also be incorporated into a "skattejagt" (treasure hunt) for attendees. For a more personal encounter, native Dane Dean Klitgaard, who manages the Solvang Visitor Center, leads customized walking tours. And a popular interactive group activity is "Sweet on Solvang," in which a fourth-generation Danish baker teaches up to 20 participants how to make treats.

The year-old Landsby (formerly the Petersen Village Inn) welcomes groups with 2,400 square feet of meeting space and the Mad & Vin restaurant. A few miles south of downtown, the 10,000-acre Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort offers 10 event spaces, a spa, two golf courses, horseback riding, fishing, boating and water activities on its private lake.

Thirty miles farther north, Santa Maria is famous for barbecue, enjoyed at various local restaurants. Gatherings can also be organized at the Santa Maria Fairpark, which is home to the county fair. Its largest building is a convention center, which can host up to 2,000.

Santa Barbara, Ventura & Oxnard: Anticipated Retreats

With oceanfront resorts, fine dining and refined event venues, Santa Barbara continues to live up to its moniker as the American Riviera. "Santa Barbara is an absolutely stunning city," said Dawn Aronson, a global account executive with ConferenceDirect, which helped plan the Child Welfare Association Spring 2014 Study Section Conference in town with 120 attendees. Holding the event in Santa Barbara boosted attendance, she said.

The Spanish-style Hyatt Centric/Santa Barbara served as the group's headquarters hotel, and an opening-night reception was held on the beach across the street, which was "awesome," Aronson said. "People especially loved walking the beach early morning before their meeting." Continuing education meetings were conducted at the hotel, which has 10,000 square feet of flexible function space, and many attendees rode the trolley from the hotel to State Street for dining and shopping.

The 34-acre Earl Warren Showgrounds can easily handle large conventions and trade shows with its 22,000-square-foot Exhibit Building and the 13,000-square-foot Warren Hall. The 1929 Spanish Colonial Revival-style Santa Barbara County Courthouse is a favorite-and as such requires advanced booking (nine months for functions with 1,000 guests or more). It can host up to 3,000 people. Other top spots include the Santa Barbara Zoo and the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, each with space for 500 people; and the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, which turned 90 this year and specializes in events of up to 80 (although larger functions can be accommodated); and the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum at Santa Barbara Harbor, which has space for up to 400. Attendees might enjoy sunset cruises aboard the 41-passenger Double Dolphin catamaran or a sail on the 149-passenger Channel Cat. The Santa Barbara Sailing Center can arrange regattas as team-building experiences, and the nearby Sea Center welcomes groups of 150 for events.

MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, is a children's museum scheduled to open downtown by early 2017 with 17,000 square feet of interactive exhibits in eight themed areas as well as a rooftop Sky Garden. Downtown's Funk Zone district is home to the Narrative Loft, an event space for groups of 200, or up to 85 people can meet at Salt, an underground Himalayan salt cave. The renovated Lobero Theatre can seat up to 604 people and has a courtyard for receptions of up to 240, and the New Vic Theatre can seat up to 294.

The Santa Barbara Inn reopened in August after being closed for renovations for nearly three years. The property now features 70 renovated rooms and suites, event space for up to 80 people and a new restaurant.

In nearby Goleta, the beachfront Bacara Resort & Spa has benefited from $20 million in investments over the past three years; new features include a wine tasting room, a new coffee bar, a refreshed seaside restaurant, an upgraded poolside bar and renovated guest rooms and suites. Also in town is the Kimpton Goodland, which can host events of up to 300 in its ballroom.

Ventura, located about 70 miles northwest of Los Angeles, is a popular beachside destination for groups. The Ventura County Fairgrounds can accommodate up to 3,000 people. The Crowne Plaza/Ventura Beach is the city's only beachfront hotel and provides more than 19,000 square feet of dedicated event space. Local theaters that welcome association functions include the 1,200-seat, Majestic Ventura Theater, the 200-seat Rubicon Theatre and the Museum of Ventura County, which has a pavilion that can seat up to 200 for a meal as well as an adjacent plaza for up to 140. Both the Four Brix Winery and Plan B Wine Cellars offer space for events.

For an extra-special outing, planners can take attendees via ferry to Channel Islands National Park where they can hike and kayak. Or stick closer to shore in Ventura Harbor, which offers active options such as paddleboarding, electric boats or a chartered cruise through Ventura Boat Rentals.

In coastal Oxnard, just 10 miles south of Ventura, the Embassy Suites by Hilton Mandalay Beach Resort recently wrapped up a renovation of its 250 guest suites, public areas and outdoors. The Courtyard/Oxnard-Ventura and the Residence Inn/Oxnard-River Ridge are both still fresh from recent improvement projects, and the Hampton Inn/Channel Islands Harbor will start a renovation of its guest rooms this fall, a project that is expected to be complete this spring.

Sizable off-site venues include Oxnard College's Performing Arts Building, with a 397-seat auditorium, and the Oxnard Performing Arts & Convention Center, which can host events of up to 4,000 people. In Channel Islands Harbor, the Channel Islands Boating Center has two classrooms and two conference rooms, or the Scarlett Belle paddle wheeler can be employed for functions of up to 150 people.

San Joaquin Valley: Growing With Groups

Fresno, California's fifth-largest city, sits midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles and is the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. The Fresno Convention & Entertainment Center is the city's largest event complex with four venues: the 9,200-seat Selland Arena, the 2,351-seat Saroyan Theatre, the 32,000-square-foot Valdez Hall and the Fresno Convention Center, with three exhibition halls that can be combined into one 66,000-square-foot space. Across the street, the DoubleTree by Hilton offers another 18 spaces for functions of up to 1,400 people.

The Big Fresno Fairgrounds offers eight buildings and three outdoor areas, while the Chukchansi Park baseball stadium can seat 12,500 and Memorial Auditorium has a 500-seat theater. California State University-Fresno provides venues that include the 15,000-seat Save Mart Center arena and the 10,000-square-foot Smittcamp Alumni House.

Bakersfield is one of Southern California's fastest-growing cities. The largest meeting facility is the downtown, 70,000-square-foot Rabobank Arena, Theater & Convention Center, which has a 3,000-seat theater, a 29,500-square-foot exhibit hall and 13 breakout rooms. It is connected to the Bakersfield Marriott.

As the seat of Kern County, Bakersfield is also home to the 168-acre Kern County Fairgrounds complex, or groups can take their event to the Park at River Walk, which features the 4,000-seat Bright House Networks Amphitheatre. The Bakersfield Museum of Art has indoor banquet space for up to 175 and can host as many as 300 people in its garden. Slightly larger is Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, a country-themed live-music venue, museum and restaurant that can accommodate up to 500.

Stockton, about an hour's drive south of Sacramento, is another bustling city. Near McLeod Lake, several event venues are within walking distance of each other: the 4,200-seat Banner Island Ballpark, the 12,000-seat Stockton Arena, the Weber Point Event Center, which is regularly used for festivals and functions of up to 3,000, and the Stockton Memorial Civic Center, with 18,000 square feet of space. Also popular with planners are the 2,042-seat Bob Hope Theatre, San Joaquin Delta College's 1,428-seat Atherton Auditorium and 393-seat Tillie Lewis Theatre and the University of the Pacific's 6,150-seat Alex G. Spanos Center.

Yosemite & Sequoia: Lasting Impressions

Visitors flock to Yosemite National Park every year to take in its vast beauty, and now the area offers a new option for meetings. Earlier this summer, the 143-room Rush Creek Lodge opened a mile from the park's west entrance on Highway 120 with meeting space for up to 250 people, on-site catering and outdoor recreation options such as guided hiking-and-yoga excursions, white-water rafting and horseback riding. Rush Creek's sister property, the historic Evergreen Lodge, is just seven miles to the north and has event space for about 300.

All of the well-known lodging properties within Yosemite have new names as a result of a change in concessionaires. The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly the Ahwahnee) has 17,572 square feet of space, the more camp-like Half Dome Village (formerly Curry Village) has 14,208 square feet of space, Yosemite Valley Lodge (formerly Yosemite Lodge at the Falls) has 2,800 square feet of event space, and the Victorian-era Big Trees Lodge (formerly the Wawona Hotel) has 2,150 square feet of meeting space.

Near the park's southern entrance in Fish Camp, the Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite wrapped up a $5 million remodel of the main lodge's 240 guest rooms and suites this spring. An earlier phase renovated the entire west wing. Tenaya offers 15,000 square feet of indoor meeting space, a 3,000-square-foot outdoor pavilion and a 3,000-square-foot terrace as well as five restaurants and recreation activities that include hiking and biking the Sierra National Forest trail system.

South of Fresno, Visalia serves as a gateway to Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, the home of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states (best viewed from Highway 395 just south of Lone Pine) as well as General Sherman, a giant sequoia that is the largest living tree in the world. Wuksachi Lodge in Sequoia National Park doesn't have much meeting space-only 1,320 square feet total-but small groups can use its 90-seat restaurant for events and take advantage of its location to explore the park.

In town, the Visalia Convention Center can accommodate up to 4,000 people, the 1,888-seat Rawhide Park welcomes groups with space in its stadium or Hall of Fame Club, and the Visalia Fox Theatre can seat up to 1,275.

Mammoth Lakes: Four-season Splendor

People are drawn to the natural grandeur of Mammoth Lakes, where each season delivers its own "wow factor." The mid-state location also makes it accessible for associations with attendees from California and Nevada. Organizations that have recently met in the area include the California Travel Association, the California Agricultural Commissioners & Sealers Association, the Gold Wing Road Riders Association and the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association.

At Mammoth Mountain, the slopeside Mammoth Mountain Inn has two boardrooms and is within walking distance of a 6,600-square-foot conference center. In the winter, groups of up to 90 can ride gondolas, snowmobiles or snowcats to the mid-mountain Parallax restaurant for dinner. McCoy Station, also mid-mountain, welcomes 300-person events with its 15,000 square feet of indoor space and another 2,094 square feet of deck space. Canyon Lodge has 11,779 square feet of flexible space.

Off mountain, the Westin Monache Resort has 1,525 square feet of indoor function space or can host up to 200 for outdoor poolside parties. Less than a mile away, the Village Lodge offers 3,700 square feet of conference space as well as a large plaza for outdoor events.

Death Valley: Star-studded Skies

Despite its foreboding name, Death Valley National Park's stark landscapes and star-studded skies lured more than 1 million visitors last year. In the park, the Furnace Creek Resort features two hotels: the 224-room, Wild West-themed Ranch at Furnace Creek and the 66-room, Spanish-style Inn at Furnace Creek.

The historic inn features 3,000 square feet of meeting space and groups can also gather at the resort's four restaurants, saloon and cocktail lounge. And there are plenty of ways to enjoy the outdoors: spring-fed swimming pools, tennis courts, horseback rides and the world's lowest-elevation 18-hole golf course.

Shining Events in the Golden State

Association planners have their pick of perfect venues in Central California, whose wide range of settings are arguably more diverse than any other state in the nation. Groups can meet near boardwalks overlooking sunny, sandy beaches or in rustic lodges surrounded by forests. In this region, attendees won't need much convincing to sign up.