by Linda Hayes | May 01, 2016

Few places in the world can meet the expectations of meeting planners like Northern California. The region balances the modern with the traditional, champions innovation as well as sustainability, and offers geographical variety from cosmopolitan cities and suburbs to idyllic farmlands and a forested coastline.

Highly flexible venues welcome events with equally capable staffs. When it comes to high standards in the hospitality industry, destinations in Northern California don’t just set the bar—they raise it—to the benefit of the associations that meet here each year.

San Francisco: Mega Hub for meetings

Like expert planners, some major cities make the most of their space, and San Francisco is a prime example. Within its 47 square miles, the legendary “City by the Bay” is home to a mélange of diverse cultures, iconic landmarks that celebrate sports, culture and history, and an increasing number of venues created with meetings in mind.

For many associations, both national and international, San Francisco is the preferred hub for hosting new and established events. Last year, the United Fresh Produce Association chose San Francisco as the place to debut BrandStorm, an event designed to bring produce marketers together to collaborate and learn from each other, said Amanda Griffin, the group’s senior director of meetings and member programs. “The location had a great impact on the event’s success,” said Griffin, noting that 50 percent of its U.S. members hail from the West Coast. “San Francisco is an easy location that offers convenience, but it also has an atmosphere that fosters innovation and creativity. We were able to tap into local talent to ensure we’re developing top-notch education and a highly valuable experience for our members.”

One of the city’s busiest venues is the 1.2 million-square-foot, gold LEED–certified Moscone Center, which is undergoing a $500 million expansion project, expected to finish in 2018. Upon completion, it will feature more than 500,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit and meetings space including expanded lobbies in the North and South buildings with floor-to-ceiling windows. Currently one of the venue’s biggest assets is its $4.5 million wireless system, which can provide high-speed service to as many as 60,000 electronic devices at once.

Many of the city’s attractions can also serve as event hosts. Among them is the newly expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, scheduled to open May 14 with double the exhibition space, terraces and 15,000 square feet of new, free public galleries. The Asian Art Museum also recently announced an expansion. Other sites popular for special occasions include the LEED-certified de Young Museum at Golden Gate Park, Major League Baseball’s AT&T Park, the SFJAZZ Center and the San Francisco War Memorial & Performing Arts Center, whose meeting rooms benefited from a renovation that finished last year; and the adjacent Wilsey Center for Opera, which opened earlier this year. The ever-popular Fisherman’s Wharf is also a hit with groups, and area restaurants regularly host special functions.

Two blocks from Union Square, the Viceroy Hotel Group’s Hotel Zeppelin San Francisco (formerly the Prescott Hotel) opened in March with 196 guest rooms and meeting space for up to 100.Also new is the 152-room Axiom Hotel (formerly the Powell) with 1,000 square feet of space. Up on Nob Hill, five hotels (the InterContinental Mark Hopkins, Fairmont, Ritz-Carlton, Stanford Court and Scarlet Huntington) and the Masonic Center have partnered to create the Nob Hill Connection with a combined 170,000 square feet of function space.

Last year, the Hilton/San Francisco–Union Square completed a $25 million renovation that included the lobby, guest rooms and food-and-beverage outlets. And at the historic Westin St. Francis, an extensive renovation of 50,000 square feet of meeting space was completed in January. Elsewhere in the city, a $10 million renovation of the Hyatt/Fisherman’s Wharf has enhanced the property with redesigned guest rooms, public spaces and two dining outlets. A block from Moscone Center South, the W/San Francisco has a new social terrace that can host receptions of up to 300.

The East Bay: New Horizons

With professional sports teams, flourishing arts and burgeoning foodie scenes, and a migration of many new businesses setting up in town, Oakland has come into its own as a destination in recent years. Preferred meeting venues include the LEED-certified Oakland Convention Center, with 64,000 square feet of space; the adjacent Oakland Marriott City Center, with its own special-event space; and Impact Hub Oakland, with more than a half-dozen cooperative working spaces, the largest able to accommodate up to 299. The Chabot Space & Science Center has gathering space for up to 500 and the recently transformed Oakland Museum of California offers indoor-outdoor event space for up to 2,000 people. Unique options to round out an agenda include the Oakland Urban Wine Trail, bowling at Plank and paddle boarding the Oakland Estuary or San Francisco Bay with California Canoe & Kayak.

North of Oakland, Berkeley might not be a typical convention center destination, but it more than makes up for it with a range of interesting and picturesque event spaces. On the University of California/Berkeley campus, the Moorish-style International House offers event space for up to 400 and catering services, while Julia Morgan Hall at the UC Botanical Garden can host up to 80 people. Downtown, the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive opened earlier this year and offers two theaters available for rent.

In their free time, attendees might be interested in boating, bird-watching, hiking or Frisbee golf, or planners can schedule a meal at one of the notable eateries, including Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse and a new French brasserie at the Claremont Hotel, now a Fairmont and in the final stages of a renovation.

East of Oakland, the Walnut Creek Marriott has renovated its California and Contra Costa ballrooms and two ancillary meeting rooms. An enhancement of guest rooms is underway.

San Mateo County: Welcoming the World

At San Francisco International Airport, a highly anticipated Grand Hyatt is expected to open in mid-2019 near the international terminal. Plans include 350 guest rooms and 17,500 square feet of meeting space. Near the airport, in Millbrae, the Westin/San Francisco Airport completed a $10 million renovation last fall and shares amenities and services with the adjacent Aloft Hotel.

In Burlingame, the Hyatt Regency/San Francisco Airport is undergoing a top-to-bottom transformation, expected to wrap up early this summer. The local Red Roof Plus and the DoubleTree by Hilton/SFO are also benefiting from updates to their guest rooms.

In neighboring San Mateo, the 48-acre San Mateo County Event Center welcomes groups with 195,000 square feet of space. Events that have been held here recently include the International Gem & Jewelry Show and the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show.

Julie Epplett, global account manager for ConferenceDirect, recalled how one area hotel, the Sofitel/San Francisco in Redwood City, went the extra mile to ensure that there would be no problems with an event she was planning. “Swingtacular: The Galactic Open” features dance workshops, competitions, performances and late-night dancing—the latter of which she wanted understood by the hotel. “By ‘late-night dancing,’ I meant ‘all-night dancing,” Epplett said. So the hotel offered a grab-and-go menu of sandwiches and desserts at midnight on Friday, and on Saturday, food trucks pulled up and parked outside the ballroom for a couple of hours, she said.

The Cow Palace in Daly City offers several sizable spaces including an arena that can be configured to seat up to 16,500 and two 48,000-square-foot exhibition halls. And in nearby South San Francisco, the award-winning and green South San Francisco Conference Center has 20,500 square feet of meeting space.

Down the coast, in Half Moon Bay, the Ritz-Carlton/Half Moon Bay is under new ownership and completed a renovation of its guest rooms last year. One of the property’s newest event spaces is the Mar Vista Lawn, which features 7,500 square feet of space. The resort is scheduled to host the spring conference of the National Alliance of Life Companies and the 2017 Women’s Private Equity Summit.

The Silicon Valley: Smart Moves

A hub of the Silicon Valley, and both an eco-conscious and tech-savvy destination, it’s no wonder San Jose is on the radar of so many planners. In March, the San Jose McEnery Convention Center hosted the Silicon Valley Comic Con, a three-day event that drew thousands. The venue features 425,000 square feet of space. Adjacent to the convention center is South Hall, with 80,000 square feet of column-free space. Other strong options nearby include the City National Civic, the Center for the Performing Arts, Parkside Hall and the Tech Museum of Innovation. The year-old, 18,000-seat Avaya Stadium, home to the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer, can also host special events. The San Jose Marriott, connected to the convention center, completed a $10 million renovation in December. Another popular choice is Hotel Valencia Santana Row, which has renovated its guest rooms.

Santa Clara was put in the spotlight in February when it hosted Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium. Associations can also organize events at the venue, which boasts more than 400,000 square feet of space, can accommodate up to 10,000 attendees and create unique, customized experiences. Also in town is the dedicated Santa Clara Convention Center, which features 302,000 square feet of space and is connected to a Hyatt Regency. Nearby, California’s Great America theme park has an amphitheater that can host upwards of 10,000.

Napa & Sonoma Counties: Uniquely Satisfying

Just an hour from the San Francisco Bay Area, Napa Valley consists of a collection of distinctive towns—Napa, Yountville, Rutherford, Oakville, St. Helena and Calistoga—that boast more Michelin stars per capita than any other great wine region in the world. Needless to say, this is an area that oenophiles and foodies will find extremely satisfying.

In Napa, a new venue called the Blue Note Club Napa Valley is scheduled to open this summer on the ground floor of the Napa Valley Opera House. Downstairs, the 150-seat club will host live music seven days a week and offer a farm-to-table menu, while an upstairs space will be able to accommodate receptions of up to 800. Projects in the works include the Culinary Institute of America at Copia, expected to open downtown later this year. And a $100 million, mixed-use development called First Street Napa is taking shape, with some of the more than 40 shops and restaurants slated to open beginning this fall and the 183-room Archer Hotel to follow in spring 2017.

In other hotel news, the Carneros Inn recently completed enhancements to its family pool, Apple Orchard event site, guest entrance and 40 cottages. (The remaining cottages will be updated by early next year.) A multimillion-dollar renovation at the Napa Valley Marriott Hotel & Spa has updated guest rooms and suites, the pool and the recreation area has introduced a new outdoor event space. And the Hampton Inn & Suites recently opened with 115 guest rooms and 3,000 square feet of meeting space for up to 200 people.

Four miles north of downtown, the Silverado Resort & Spa has gathering space for up to 320. After searching for an appropriate location for a new high-end conference, Jennifer Flohr of the California Hotel & Lodging Association picked the resort because its history, charm and service appealed to her group, which has now met there two years in a row. Flohr said that planning events outdoors has been especially rewarding. “The first year, our opening reception (was held) in the middle of the golf course under big stunning trees, and the following year, outside on a beautiful brick patio with local wineries pouring,” she said. “Our attendees loved (having) their meals and breaks outside on a covered patio right off of a ballroom. It was refreshing to have an event with so much outside meeting space.”

In St. Helena, retired NBA star-turned-vintner Yao Ming opened the Yao Family Wines Tasting Room & Hospitality Center. In addition, a 68-room luxury hotel called Las Alcobas is scheduled to open November 1. Plans include some 4,500 square feet of meeting space, an outdoor pool and a restaurant.

At the northern end of the valley is Calistoga, where the Calistoga Spa Hot Springs completed an extensive renovation last May. Less than three miles away, the Fairwinds Estate Winery welcomes groups with a new tasting room and wine caves that can be used for special events of up to 100. And the Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts plans to open a luxury resort in town in early 2018.

In the town of Sonoma, central Sonoma Plaza is a good reference point for groups and home to more than 25 tasting rooms, more than 30 eateries and three hotels. In addition to wine touring and tasting, groups will find many opportunities for team building, including kayaking from the Russian River to the Pacific Ocean or taking a spin around the Sonoma Raceway in a race car.

About 14 miles west, in Petaluma, the Sheraton/Sonoma County-Petaluma has wrapped up a $3 million, three-year remodel. Farther north, in Rohnert Park, the Graton Resort & Casino is undergoing a $175 million expansion that will add a 200-room hotel with 20,000 square feet of convention space. It is expected to open this fall.

In Santa Rosa, the hillside Mark West Lodge Event Center & Restaurant has reopened with indoor space for up to 175 and outdoor space for up to 200. The site includes some of the oldest grapevines in California. A few miles west, just off Highway 101, the Vintners Inn has benefited from a $1 million renovation.

Sacramento: All the Essentials

California’s state capital, Sacramento, is also one of its most historic cities. Groups can combine business with excursions to Old Sacramento, river cruises, carriage rides and any of the more than two dozen museums.

Just 15 minutes from the airport, and adjacent to the capitol, is the Sacramento Convention Center, which provides 134,000 square feet of exhibit space, a 24,000-square-foot ballroom and 31 meeting rooms. In October, Rally 2015: the National Land Conservation Conference was held at the center with 1,800 delegates. Other groups that have recently gathered here include the Society for Range Management and the American Society of Animal Science. Also part of the convention center complex is the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium, which is listed on the National Historic Register.

The 17,317-seat Sleep Train Arena is used for major concerts, trade shows and events, but its main tenants, the NBA’s Kings, will move to the Golden 1 Center when it opens downtown in October. The new, LEED-certified arena will feature 17,500 seats and 34 suites.

In early 2017, Kimpton Hotels plans to open a 250-room property adjacent to the Golden 1 Center. In other hotel news, the Hilton/Sacramento-Arden West has renovated its lobby and is scheduled to finish guest-room improvements in May. And the Citizen Hotel is now part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection. Newly available meeting venues in the area include the historic Julia Morgan House, with indoor space for up to 40 and garden space for up to 250, and the Mission-style Sutter Club, with nine event spaces, the largest of which can accommodate up to 250 people.

Lake Tahoe: Positive Pursuits

For groups looking for an activity-filled agenda, Lake Tahoe is tough to beat. Depending on the season, the largest alpine lake in North America is known for boating; hiking and biking on a 165-mile trail that rings its edge; and skiing at more than 20 surrounding ski resorts. A myriad of restaurants, resorts and venues around the lake—on both the California and Nevada sides—welcome group events.

At the North Tahoe Event Center at Kings Beach, 16,000 square feet of space is split between the outdoors and indoors, or larger groups can head the 10 miles southwest to Tahoe City and the 74-acre Granlibakken Tahoe. Its 14,000-square-foot Main Conference Center has several meeting rooms, including a 5,400-square-foot ballroom.

Near Truckee, the Ritz-Carlton/Lake Tahoe welcomed the American Society of Retina Specialists earlier this year and is scheduled to host an event of the Society of Petroleum Evaluation Engineers this summer. At Squaw Valley USA, the Resort at Squaw Creek recently completed a $7 million guest room renovation. On the California-Nevada border, the iconic Cal Neva resort is being revamped and is set to open later this year with 191 guest rooms, the signature Circle Bar, three restaurants and the Showroom, a restored theater originally imagined and built by Frank Sinatra.

From Redding to Eureka: Nature Awaits

About 200 miles north of San Francisco in the Shasta Cascade region, Redding is picturesquely positioned along the Sacramento River and not far from the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. When they’re not fishing or kayaking, attendees can meet up at the Redding Civic Auditorium, which can accommodate upwards of 2,000 people, or the 300-acre Turtle Bay Exploration Park, with event sites that can host special events of up to 1,000.

The region’s coastal redwoods draw droves of tourists each year, and the base for many is Eureka, located 45 miles south of the famed, 31-mile Avenue of the Giants. For business matters, Eureka’s main venues include the Eureka Municipal Auditorium, with space for up to 2,300 people; the waterfront Humboldt Bay Aquatic Center; and the adjacent Adorni Center, with a gym that can accommodate up to 630.

Ideal Grounds for Ideas

Northern California has long been known for inspiring great thinking, everything from architecture and enology to conservation and culture. Associations that meet there are no exception. And thanks to exceptional properties experienced in facilitating events, groups can make the most of their meetings.