by Rachel Carter | October 01, 2015

California evokes many images, often of palm trees, Pacific beaches, Hollywood or Disneyland. But the state's incredible geography offers a range of landscapes, from Death Valley-the lowest place in the nation-to Mount Whitney-the highest peak in the lower 48 states.

For association planners, this amounts to an equally vast array of options for events, from desert oases to forest retreats and from the shores of crystal-clear alpine lakes to the snowy slopes of ski resorts.

Lake Tahoe: Active Alpine Appeal

Lake Tahoe hardly needs an introduction. The largest alpine lake in North America also boasts the largest concentration of ski resorts on the continent-more than 20-and is ringed by a 165-mile trail used by hikers and bikers, making it a popular year-round destination for groups that want to incorporate activity into their agenda.

A variety of meeting venues dot the forested shoreline on the California side (the California-Nevada border divides the lake). At the North Tahoe Event Center at Kings Beach, groups will find 8,000 square feet of indoor space and another 8,000 square feet outdoors, including a beachfront deck.

Away from the water's edge and nestled in the woods near Tahoe City, the 74-acre Granlibakken Conference Center & Lodge can accommodate groups of up to 400. Its 14,000-square-foot Main Conference Center features several meeting rooms, including a 5,400-square-foot ballroom, while the separate Executive Lodge has four conference rooms. For team building, groups can take advantage of zip lines and an aerial adventure course, or attendees can enjoy the pool, a day spa and mountain-bike rentals.

Near Truckee, the Ritz-Carlton/Lake Tahoe sits mid-mountain at the Northstar California ski resort and welcomes groups with 30,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor event space, including a 6,600-square-foot ballroom with valley views. In addition to offering a seasonal buyout program, the Ritz-Carlton has added a variety of group and team-building options, which include evening astronomy tours and group art projects.

Ten miles south of Truckee is the 6,000-acre Squaw Valley-Alpine Meadows ski resort, which has announced plans for a gondola connecting the two properties (currently the resorts are connected by a shuttle). On the Squaw side, planners can work with 40,000 square feet of meeting space, including the 6,050-square-foot Squaw Valley Conference Center at the base of the mountain and High Camp at the top; there, 2,000 feet above the base village, groups will find expansive spaces and walls of windows overlooking the slopes below as well as a bar and restaurant, a swimming pool, tennis courts and a disc-golf course.

The Resort at Squaw Creek, just a 10-minute drive from Squaw Valley or a 10-minute drive to the shores of Lake Tahoe, is undergoing a $7 million refresh and redesign of its 405 guest rooms. The first phase of the project was completed in July, and the second phase is slated to wrap up in November. The property, a Destination Hotel, has nearly 48,000 square feet of IACC-approved conference space as well as several restaurants, a spa, ice rink and Nordic center.

Clio, a 45-mile drive northwest of Truckee, is home to the area's first new hotel in more than a decade: the 42-room Lodge at Nakoma. The property opened in August adjacent to the Nakoma Golf Resort & Spa, which features its own 12 guest villas and is known for its Dragon Golf Course. The 27,000-square-foot, Frank Lloyd Wright-designed clubhouse features a restaurant, a bar, a lounge and an outdoor terrace.

On the South Shore, several meeting resorts in South Lake Tahoe are investing in renovations. Although many properties fall on the Nevada side of the state line, a popular option in California is the full-service, all-suite Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel, which has invested $8 million to upgrade its 400 guest suites, lobby, banquet rooms and pool area. The hotel, located at the base of Heavenly Mountain Resort, offers 10,000 square feet of function space. And work is continuing on Heavenly Mountain's Epic Discovery, a project to enhance active year-round offerings; new ropes courses, zip lines and a climbing wall opened this summer, and a mountain coaster is expected to open later this year.

Just blocks from Heavenly Mountain, the Landing Resort & Spa features a 1,225-square-foot ballroom, a 3,600-square-foot Grand Rooftop Terrace, a boardroom and a heated event tent. The Aston Lakeland Village Beach & Mountain Resort has event space for up to 150 people, and the 1924 Valhalla Grand Hall can host events of up to 120 people. About 10 miles south of town, on the shores of Fallen Leaf Lake, the Stanford Sierra Conference Center has five meeting rooms, the largest of which is 2,000 square feet. The center recently hosted an event of the Independent Energy Producers Association and is scheduled to welcome the Electrostatic Discharge Association this month.

Yosemite & Sequoia: National Park Pride

Millions of people visit Yosemite National Park every year to experience its dramatic cliffs and canyons, mountains and valleys. The park also inspires as a group event setting, home to four properties with space for meetings. The historic Ahwahnee Hotel features 17,572 square feet of event space, while Curry Village and its 14,208 square feet of function space is more camp-like. Yosemite Lodge at the Falls sits at the base of Yosemite Falls and offers 2,800 square feet of event space, and the Victorian-style Wawona Hotel offers 2,150 square feet of meeting space.

In spring 2016, the Yosemite area will welcome its first new lodge in more than 25 years. Rush Creek Lodge, located less than a mile from the park's western entrance on Highway 120, is expected to feature 143 guest rooms, suites and hillside villas; a restaurant and tavern; and flexible event space, both indoors and out, for groups of up to 250. The historic Evergreen Lodge, its sister property, is located a mile from Yosemite's western Hetch Hetchy entrance near Groveland and has event space for about 300 people.

In Fish Camp, near the park's south entrance, the Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite is about halfway through a $5 million remodel of the main lodge's 240 guest rooms and suites. The first phase, which wrapped up this spring, redid the entire west wing and included an update of bathrooms in 119 guest rooms. The entire project is expected to be complete in spring 2016. The lodge offers flexible, LEED-certified indoor conference space as well as outdoor function space that includes a 3,000-square-foot pavilion and a 3,000-square-foot terrace. The lodge also offers five seasonal restaurants, a fitness center and a range of recreation activities.

About 300 people attended the 30th annual California Trails & Greenways Conference at Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite in April. The conference, which rotates every year between Northern and Southern California, had previously been held at Tenaya in 2009, said Emily Williams, conference co-chair and executive director for the California Trails Conference Foundation. The group didn't think it could return because of space limitations, but Tenaya remodeled and expanded its conference facilities. "We were thrilled to return in 2015," Williams said.

The conference used most of the hotel rooms and much of the conference facility, including 14 indoor meeting rooms and the 10,000-square-foot ballroom, while the connected Sierra National Forest trail system was perfect for workshops, morning hikes and bike rides, she said. Full-day workshops included tours of Yosemite Valley and of recent trail work in Mariposa Grove, home to some of the area's famous giant sequoias. The grove is undergoing a restoration project and is expected to reopen in 2017.

Groups bent on seeing those giant trees can also head south to Sequoia National Park, wherein lies the impressive Mount Whitney. Smaller groups can gather at Wuksachi Lodge. It doesn't have extensive meeting space-just 1,320 square feet total-but there's also a 90-seat restaurant that can be used for events, and planners can incorporate activities such as hiking, sightseeing and ranger engagements.

Mammoth Lakes: Mountain Magic

The natural beauty and abundant recreation in and around the town of Mammoth Lakes draw people in droves. Its mid-state location also makes it a popular year-round gathering spot for associations whose attendees hail from California and Nevada, and the addition of regular service on United Airlines from Denver to Mammoth-Yosemite Airport has made it even more accessible.

Sandra DiDomizio, owner of Green Fox Events & Guest Services, has been planning meetings and conferences in Mammoth Lakes since founding the business in 2008. "Each season offers its own wow factor," she said. In the winter, groups flock to the area to take advantage of an entire menu of winter sports, and the rest of the year, there's hiking, mountain biking, access to backcountry trails and some of the best trout fishing in the world. "When groups choose Mammoth Lakes for their events, it's usually because they want to tie in recreation," DiDomizio said. "The groups that come here work hard and play hard."

Mammoth Mountain Ski Area has several event venues, including the town's largest meeting hotel: the 216-room Mammoth Mountain Inn, which offers two boardrooms and a 6,600-square-foot conference center within walking distance. In addition to this facility, DiDomizio suggested several options for small to mid-sized groups (usually topping out with 300 people): During the winter months, attendees can ski during the day, then take the gondola-or snowmobiles or a snowcat-to the mid-mountain Parallax restaurant for dinner. It can be used for gatherings of up to 90 people. Also located mid-mountain is McCoy Station, offering 15,000 square feet of indoor space and another 2,094 square feet of deck space for groups of 300 people. Canyon Lodge features 10,270 square feet of flexible space and outdoor decks.

Off the mountain, the Westin Monache Resort has 2,050 square feet of function space for up to 150 people, and the Village Lodge offers a 3,700-square-foot conference center along with a large plaza that can host several hundred people for outdoor events. The Sierra Nevada Resort & Spa recently underwent a renovation that remodeled 149 guest rooms and suites and added a 2,500-square-foot day spa. The resort also has 900 square feet of dedicated conference space.

Several new and convivial spaces are available for off-site functions. Black Doubt Brewing is expected to open this fall near the Snowcreek Golf Course, and the Mammoth Brewing Company has expanded its new tasting room with an upstairs seating area that can be used for private events. Bleu Handcrafted Foods has a market and a tasting bar that serves wine and beer, and Mammoth Rock 'n' Bowl, which opened last year, is another popular group spot, DiDomizio said. With 12 bowling lanes, three golf simulators and a variety of games, groups of up to 100 can rent out the entire facility or dine at its on-site restaurant.

About 40 miles southeast of Mammoth, the town of Bishop feels a lot like a modern-day ranching outpost. Every Memorial Day weekend, the Mule Days Celebration draws about 30,000 visitors to the Tri-County Fairgrounds, which has several spaces available for special-event use, including a 6,000-square-foot hall, a 14,000-square-foot auditorium, a 1,369-seat arena and patio space that can accommodate up to 130 people.

Death Valley & the Mojave: Wilder Sides of the West

Death Valley National Park is known for being the hottest, driest and lowest area in the nation (the lowest point is 282 feet below sea level) but the wild beauty found within its stark landscapes is an attraction to many. Death Valley is also a designated International Dark Sky Park, where stargazers can see the Milky Way with their naked eye.

Within the park, the Furnace Creek Resort is a lush oasis that features the world's lowest 18-hole golf course (214 feet below sea level), four restaurants, a saloon, cocktail lounge, shops, spring-fed swimming pools, tennis courts, horseback rides and more. The resort's two hotels include the 224-room, Wild West-themed Ranch at Furnace Creek and the historic, Spanish-style, 66-room Inn at Furnace Creek, with indoor meeting space including a 1,400-square-foot room overlooking a natural pool.

Southwest of Death Valley, the Upper Mojave Desert city of Ridgecrest is repositioning itself as the place to see well-preserved Native American petroglyphs-thousands line nearby canyon walls and a new annual Petroglyph Festival in mid-November is again expected to draw the masses.

For meetings, the SpringHill Suites by Marriott has nearly 4,000 square feet of event space, while the Kerr McGee Community Center can host events for up to 500 people. The Desert Empire Fairgrounds has several venues ranging from a 40-person boardroom to a flexible exhibit hall for up to 2,285 people.

San Bernardino's Peaks: Big-city Escape

Although it can be difficult to imagine while sitting on downtown Los Angeles' freeways, surrounded by skyscrapers, Southern California's San Bernardino Mountains are less than a two-hour drive due east. City dwellers and association meeting planners alike flock to the mountains to enjoy the forests, lakes and plethora of outdoor recreation, from skiing at Bear Mountain in the winter to mountain biking along the Skyline Trail in the summer.

The scenic mountain town of Lake Arrowhead, about 80 miles east of Los Angeles, surrounds the cool, deep waters of its namesake reservoir. On its southern shores, the Lake Arrowhead Resort & Spa provides 23,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor event space, including a ballroom for up to 450 people. The property is now part of the Marriott Autograph Collection following a $5.5 million renovation, and amenities that may be of interest to attendees include a pool, private beach, marina, yoga classes and chair massages, mixology classes and Nordic ski lessons.

Down the road, the 12-acre Arrowhead Ranch can host camp-like gatherings for groups of 300 people, while three miles to the west, the Alpine Camp & Conference Center is another casual option for events and can accommodate up to 285. On the north side of the lake, the IACC-certified UCLA Lake Arrowhead Conference Center sits on 42 wooded acres, has 10,000 square feet of function space in 14 meeting rooms and can host events of up to 200 people.

When groups gather in the town of Big Bear Lake, many opt to hold their events at the Convention Center at Big Bear Lake, which features 11,000 square feet of meeting space. The center was originally built to house the city's Oktoberfest but often hosts meetings and events for up to 1,400 people indoors and as many as 2,500 when its outdoor patio, reception area and garden are incorporated. Northwoods Resort, the city's largest meetings hotel, welcomes groups of 400 attendees with its 9,000 square feet of flexible function space. Wolf Creek Resort is another popular property that offers event facilities for up to 200 people as well as an on-site wine tasting room.

Greater Palm Springs: Desert Destinations

Palm Springs got its reputation as a desert getaway when Hollywood's elite, who were contractually obligated by the studios to stay within 100 miles of the city for any last-minute shoots, made it their playground. That glittering history adds to the allure of the city's desert vistas and cocktail-hour vibe.

The 261,000-square-foot Palm Springs Convention Center is the city's largest event facility (and better serves groups with a recently upgraded wireless network system), and the adjacent Renaissance Hotel has another 26,000 square feet of dedicated meeting space as well as 40,000 square feet of outdoor event space. Another nearby option is the Hilton/Palm Springs, with 18,000 square feet of convention space, and two miles north, the Riviera Palm Springs Resort & Spa features nearly 50,000 square feet of conference space.

In May, the American Pain Society held its annual meeting at the convention center and Renaissance with about 1,200 attendees and 300 exhibitors, said Stephanie Dylkiewicz, senior meetings manager for the Association Management Center, which represents the group. The society "had never really done a resort-type setting, so it wanted to do something different," she said. Attendees took advantage of the location to explore downtown, enjoyed a pre-conference golf outing and rode the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to the 8,516-foot summit. Although flight costs were a bit high for some delegates, everyone enjoyed the destination overall, Dylkiewicz said.

Several new hotels are slated to open later this year and in 2016, many of which will offer meeting and event space. Planned properties include Arrive, a Kimpton Hotel, the Infusion Beach & Hotel and the Andaz/Palm Springs. The 56-room Triada Palm Springs (formerly the Spanish Inn) opened last November as a Marriott Autograph Collection hotel after an $8 million renovation. It can be bought out for special events or staff will transform suites into boardrooms.

But Palm Springs doesn't stand alone in the Coachella Valley. Several surrounding cities offer equally exciting desert-resort experiences, hip hotels, hot springs, museums, golf courses, tennis facilities, stylish shopping and trendy restaurants.

In Rancho Mirage, the Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort & Spa features 65,000 square feet of indoor meeting space and another 26,000 outdoors, and the Ritz-Carlton/Rancho Mirage has 15,000 square feet of indoor meeting space and 16,000 square feet of outdoor function space. In Desert Hot Springs, the Two Bunch Palms Resort & Spa is celebrating its 75th anniversary with the completion of a multimillion-dollar renovation, which included its 70 guest rooms, restaurant, yoga dome and the Viewpoint Center meeting facility for up to 60 people.

The JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa in Palm Desert has 210,000 square feet of event space, two golf courses, tennis facilities and a 30,000-square-foot spa. The Professional Convention Management Association held its 2015 Education Foundation Partnership Summit at the resort in May with 250 attendees. The group wanted an upscale property along with golf options and other tours and activities, said Jody Egel, PCMA's director of events. When attendees weren't participating in sessions, receptions and dinners at the JW Marriott, they enjoyed tram tours, celebrity tours and Jeep tours. They also spent hours in the spa and, because of the warm weather, "were poolside and mostly in the pool," Egel said. "Our participants raved about both the destination and the facilities. The destination is one that people have heard of and are interested to visit, but most have not had an opportunity to do so. This was a great opportunity for them."

In neighboring Indian Wells, the Miramonte Resort & Spa is refreshing its 215 guest rooms, updating its lobby and lounge and adding fire pits and bocce ball courts. Miramonte also has more than 18,000 square feet of meeting space for groups of up to 500. This summer, the Renaissance Indian Wells Resort & Spa completed an extensive renovation of its 100,000-plus square feet of flexible event space, which includes three ballrooms, 22 breakout rooms and more than 53,000 square feet of outdoor function space. The project also included a revamp of the swimming pool area with new cabanas and the property's new on-site restaurant.

The famed La Quinta Resort & Club at PGA West in La Quinta recently wrapped up a multimillion-dollar, resort-wide renovation that upgraded its 620 guest casitas and suites and 98 villas as well as "re-imagined" its pool experience (it has 41 swimming pools and 53 hot spas). The resort also features more than 190,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor event space and five golf courses, but planners should check the resort's website in advance for temporary course closures due to maintenance. Also in La Quinta, the SilverRock Resort plans to build a 140-room hotel and spa and another 200-room hotel (the first property is expected to open in spring 2018) that will share a 71,000-square-foot conference center.

In nearby Cathedral City, the Desert Princess Golf Resort is undergoing renovations and the DoubleTree by Hilton Golf Resort Palm Springs is scheduled to open in January with 289 guest rooms, meeting space for up to 1,200 people, a pool and a 27-hole championship golf course.

The Greater Palm Springs area also offers a variety of tours and attractions to keep attendees entertained. The Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture Design Center, Edwards Harris Pavilion, opened last fall in a former downtown bank with exhibits that explore the architecture and design of the region. The Palm Springs Windmill Tour takes groups onto a working wind farm to learn about wind energy, and just outside of La Quinta, on the grounds of the Thermal Club, BMW recently opened a training facility that offers performance driving courses. The city of Palm Springs has a new, free trolley service that runs Thursdays through Sundays with 30 stops along the looped route, which hits both downtown and uptown. And in January, JetBlue will begin nonstop service five days a week between New York's John F. Kennedy and Palm Springs international airports.

Setting the Scene

California's natural diversity offers a variety of landscapes beyond the Left Coast, and planners have no shortage of resorts, retreats and recreation to tempt their attendees. Whether fishing, swimming or boating in the waters of Lake Tahoe or Lake Arrowhead, skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling in the picturesque San Bernardino and Sierra Nevada mountains, stargazing or simply lounging poolside in a desert playground, the hardest part for planners will be choosing the perfect setting for their gathering.