by Barbara Beckley | December 01, 2015

In Southern California, you can meet in a destination that is just miles from both the ocean and the mountains. There really is something to interest every attendee, whether it’s wineries, world-class amusement parks, wide swaths of beaches or historic attractions.

Even better, it’s often served up with abundant sunshine. With so much available, destinations in Orange and San Diego counties are an association meeting planner’s dream.

Greater Anaheim & Buena Park: Fun & Fantastic Options

Central to everything in Orange County is Anaheim, home to the region’s largest gathering spot: the Anaheim Convention Campus, which is part of the Anaheim Resort District and includes the 1.6 million-square-foot Anaheim Convention Center, the 100,000-square-foot Grand Plaza and 4,000 hotel rooms, all within walking distance of each other. An additional 200,000 square feet of event space is under construction, with a portion of the new building expected to be functional by next spring. The project is scheduled to be fully complete by summer 2017.

“We’ve held our annual meetings in Anaheim for years, and the events are always very successful,” said Maureen Goodson, executive director of the National Postal Forum. “Anaheim’s combination of wonderful hotels, a convention center that provides the space needed and the Grand Plaza create the perfect environment for our meeting.”

Disneyland, Disney California Adventure, Downtown Disney and the Anaheim GardenWalk are also part of the 1,100-acre Anaheim Resort District. All feature popular event venues for groups (Goodson said that partner events at Downtown Disney were “very well received” by her members). In honor of Disney’s 60th anniversary Diamond Celebration (which is scheduled to continue until September 5, 2016), three nighttime shows offer added entertainment: the Paint the Night Parade, Disneyland Forever fireworks and World of Color water spectacular. In the coming years, a new Star Wars–themed land will offer even more excitement.

The House of Blues is moving from Downtown Disney to larger digs in the Anaheim GardenWalk. It’s set to open by summer 2016 in a 40,000-square-foot space with a larger concert hall, a new VIP room and an open-air patio and bar ideal for events.

With several new hotels in the Anaheim Resort District, the area can better accommodate large groups or concurrent events. The Hyatt Place/Anaheim Resort–Convention Center and two SpringHill Suites by Marriott, all with small meeting space, opened last year. This year, two other hotels made their debut: the Courtyard/Anaheim Theme Park Entrance (featuring a water park) and the Homewood Suites by Hilton/Anaheim Resort–Convention Center. In addition, the Holiday Inn Express & Suites/Anaheim Resort Area and the Hyatt House at Anaheim Resort–Convention Center are both expected to open early next year. A new Residence Inn is under construction on the former site of the Jolly Roger Hotel, and plans have been submitted to build a JW Marriott adjacent to the Anaheim GardenWalk. In other hotel news, the Anaheim Marriott completed a $15 million renovation earlier this year, which updated guest rooms, the lobby and corridors and introduced a new bar and restaurant for social gatherings, and at the Hilton/Anaheim, newly enhanced spaces include a 12-seat Chef’s Table designed by HGTV’s John Gidding. Both properties are adjacent to the convention center.

Sports fans will find plenty to enjoy—and planners will benefit from great group space—at the 44,050-seat Angel Stadium of Anaheim, home to the local Major League Baseball team, or at the 19,200-seat Honda Center, home to the NHL’s Ducks. For amazing views that take in both as well as the Anaheim skyline, groups can head up to the sixth floor of the Extron Building, where an event center called The Ranch has four spaces, the largest of which can accommodate up to 264 people. On the building’s ground floor, The Ranch restaurant is adjacent to a saloon that features country music and line dancing. Two miles away, the City National Grove of Anaheim can be used for gatherings of up to 4,000.

A short drive south of the Anaheim Convention Center, the 600-room Great Wolf Lodge/Southern California is set to open February 29 in Garden Grove. Plans include more than 21,000 square feet of meeting space and an indoor water park. The Hyatt Regency/Orange County, also in Garden Grove, is popular with visiting groups.

In Orange, the DoubleTree by Hilton is another local option—it’s just a mile from Angel Stadium. Or groups that prefer an outdoorsy ambiance can look to the 210-acre Irvine Ranch Outdoor Education Center.

Entertainment opportunities are equally appealing in neighboring Buena Park, anchored by Knott’s Berry Farm, Southern California’s first theme park. For meeting planners, both the Charles Schulz Theatre and famous chicken-dinner restaurant are available for events of up to 2,000 people. For larger functions, the park’s Picnic Center can accommodate up to 10,000 people. Across the street, the Knott’s Berry Farm Hotel and the renovated Holiday Inn Hotel & Conference Center also welcome groups.

A new show—the Teatro Martini Dinner Cabaret—has been added to Buena Park’s entertainment lineup. The live performance features edgy, interactive antics with acrobatics, magic, singing, dancing and dinner for up to 200. For larger groups, the 1,100-seat Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament is always a crowd-pleaser.

For more serious sessions, planners can add a presidential spin with an authentic recreation of a White House state dinner at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in Yorba Linda. Other worthy considerations include the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts in Cerritos and the Fullerton Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Fullerton.

Irvine & Santa Ana: Polished & Professional

The Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators has held its annual conference in Irvine five times in the past nine years. According to Susan Gay, its conference director, the destination is popular in large part because of the climate. “Our conference is in January, and delegates come from all over the country. The warm, sunny weather is a major factor in why we choose to meet in Southern California,” she said.

Hotel Irvine, just a five-minute drive from John Wayne Airport, has been the choice of the association for several years. “Hotel Irvine is a very professional partner, from the general manager to the servers. It provides a high-quality product in a professional and attractive garden setting,” Gay said. With 600 attendees, the group typically utilizes all of the property’s meeting space, including its auditorium-style theater, a new 6,000-square-foot, climate-controlled tented space and a new event lawn.

Off-property meeting options include the Orange County Great Park with spacious event lawns and a 6,400-square-foot World War II hangar. The Beckman Center, near the University of California/Irvine, has meeting facilities for up to 340 and an in-house culinary team.

Cultural devotees will enjoy a visit or event at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, which features half a dozen event venues, the largest of which can accommodate up to 900. All events include entrance to its rotating art exhibitions from around the world and its permanent collection. The science-focused Discovery Cube Orange County is another attraction that doubles as an event site with space for up to 2,000. And for car fanatics, the Marconi Automotive Museum in Tustin has 15,000 square feet of event space and an impressive collection of historic, classic and exotic cars.

From Huntington Beach to San juan capistrano: Legendary Seaside Cities

Southern California’s beaches cater to surfers, sun worshipers, yacht enthusiasts and anyone who enjoys watching the sun set into the ocean.

In Huntington Beach, the new Paséa Hotel & Spa is scheduled to open in June just steps from the Huntington Pier. The property is expected to offer 250 guest rooms, a rooftop deck and bar and 34,000 square feet of function space, including a 14,600-square-foot event lawn. In the meantime, two other luxe properties fit the bill for group events: the oceanfront Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa and the neighboring Hilton Waterfront Beach Resort. A group event, or at least sunset cocktails, are a must at Duke’s Restaurant, which offers two private rooms that can accommodate up to 28 and 80 people, respectively.

Large event space is available to the south in Costa Mesa at the 100,000-square-foot Orange County Fair & Event Center. Except for July and August when the Orange County Fair is underway, groups can book all or part of the facilities, which include a 31,000-square-foot exhibit hall, the 1,500-seat Grandstand Arena, the 8,200-seat Pacific Amphitheatre and the 70,000-square-foot Main Mall.

The Segerstrom Center for the Arts is another option, with four theaters and several outdoor terraces. It’s just down the street from the luxury boutiques and popular restaurants of South Coast Plaza, Southern California’s largest shopping mall, and is convenient to two of Costa Mesa’s major meeting hotels: the newly re-opened and redesigned Westin/South Coast Plaza and the Crowne Plaza/Costa Mesa-Orange County. Significant changes to the Westin include updated meeting space, notably the redesigned Waterfall Terrace, which can be used for receptions of up to 175 or dinners of up to 120.

A vibrant yachting scene greets visitors to Newport Beach. Attendees can charter actor John Wayne’s former yacht, the Wild Goose, which is available through Hornblower Cruises & Events and can accommodate up to 127 people. The city’s only waterfront hotel is the Balboa Bay Resort, which earlier this year hosted the National Investment Banking Association, and in February, it plans to welcome the California Trucking Association.

Other notable choices include the Resort at Pelican Hill, whose meeting spaces overlook the city and ocean. The resort can help organize special themed events, set up golf rounds or tournaments for as many as 144 players, or facilitate the use of a show kitchen for up to 180. The Island Hotel Newport Beach recently completed an 18-month transformation and features Newport’s largest ballroom—at 8,710 square feet, it can seat up to 600 people.

Laguna Beach, farther down the coast, is often likened to a European resort town, with streets lined with quaint buildings, art galleries and sidewalk cafes. Several family-friendly beaches round out the scene. Taking advantage of the expansive ocean views is the cliff-top Montage/Laguna Beach. Down on the beach, the Surf & Sand Resort features convention space and Laguna’s only shorefront restaurant. Closer to the main intersection of town and the Laguna Art Museum (which offers event space for up to 250) is the remodeled Laguna Beach House, with clean lines, a surf theme and new meeting space for up to 15 people. For more of a woodsy setting, the Ranch at Laguna Beach (formerly the Aliso Creek Inn & Golf Course) is set to open early next year in a canyon within sight of the ocean. Picturesque indoor meeting and outdoor event venues can accommodate groups of up to 650.

In between the Sawdust Art Festival and Art-A-Fair, seasonal sites that display and sell art and crafts, are two event venues: the 25,000-square-foot Seven-Degrees and Tivoli Too!, with space for up to 500. On the grounds of the Festival of the Arts, Tivoli Terrace can host events of up to 300. Planners might consider incorporating one of the weekly Sawdust Studio art classes into their agenda.

Conferences that require larger spaces can head eight miles south to Dana Point. Meeting hotels include the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort, the Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa and the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, whose oceanfront guest room patios now have fireplaces. The DoubleTree Suites by Hilton/Doheny Beach just completed a $14 million redo and boasts a new rooftop lounge and meeting rooms with ocean views. For entertainment, planners can book a charter excursion with Captain Dave’s Whale Watching & Dolphin Safari.

In San Juan Capistrano, events can be held in the gardens of one of California’s oldest structures—the Mission San Juan Capistrano. The 18th-century venue can accommodate up to 1,000 people.

Greater San Diego: Picture Perfect

With harbor views and a skyline reflected in gleaming waters, San Diego is a perfect spot for both business and relaxation. Frequent flights and the closeness of the airport to downtown are important to Stacy Weber, a meeting and procurement manager at the public accounting firm Moss Adams LLP. “Within 10 minutes you’re in downtown, 15 minutes puts you on the beach in Mission Bay, and 30 minutes puts you in North San Diego with fantastic resorts and beaches,” she said. “San Diego offers it all: urban nightlife and dining, beachfront relaxation, water sports, arts and culture, shopping, even wine tasting and nature.

Its beauty is one of the main reasons the California Cogeneration Council has met in the area several times, according to Beth Vaughan, its executive director. And as it so happens, some of the best views can be had from the 2.6 million-square-foot San Diego Convention Center, located downtown on the waterfront. The center is within walking distance of some 8,000 guest rooms, the Gaslamp Quarter entertainment district, and the shops and restaurants at Seaport Village. Also nearby is Petco Park, home to the Padres of Major League Baseball and ready to host groups with recently renovated event spaces. The USS Midway Museum aircraft carrier can also host events for groups of up to 3,000.

The variety of downtown meeting hotels offers a good mix for differing needs, tastes and budgets. The San Diego Marriott Marquis & Marina, adjacent to the convention center, has begun an expansion of its meeting space—it plans to offer 240,000 square feet by this summer. In the towering Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego, the Top of the Hyatt restaurant and lounge recently reopened, wowing guests with panoramic bay views and Mescal mai tais. Among its group offerings are backstage tours of the world-famous San Diego Zoo. Other popular choices include the Hilton/San Diego Bayfront and the newly revamped Embassy Suites/San Diego Bay-Downtown.

New and future options in the Gaslamp Quarter include the Courtyard/San Diego Gaslamp–Convention Center, where a 2,500-square-foot rooftop bar opened in October; the new, 22,000-square-foot Omnia Nightclub, with customizable indoor and outdoor spaces; and the 317-room Pendry Hotel, scheduled to open as early as next summer, also with 22,000 square feet of event space as well as a rooftop pool, an underground nightclub and a beer hall. A few blocks north, in the Little Italy neighborhood, a dual-branded Hilton Garden Inn and Homewood Suites are expected to open their doors early next year. Plans include a total of 364 guest rooms and 3,800 square feet of meeting space.

A popular attraction is Balboa Park, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2015. Its campus is home to the San Diego Zoo, with seven special event spaces; the 2,500-seat Spreckels Organ Pavilion; and a number of museums with event space.

Islands are another unique aspect of the city. Delegates can enjoy a stay at the historic Hotel del Coronado on Coronado Island or the tiki-chic Humphreys Half Moon Inn & Suites and Bali Hai restaurant on Shelter Island. On Harbor Island, the Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina welcomes groups, and the new Coasterra waterfront restaurant can accommodate events of up to 1,400.

The island vibe continues in Mission Bay at the Paradise Point Resort & Spa, surrounded by water and designed with tropical gardens. Its new, 15,000-square-foot, glass-walled Sunset Pavilion has increased the property’s total meeting space to 80,000 square feet. SeaWorld is five minutes away, with a variety of event venues for upwards of 3,000 attendees, and for active team-building, the Mission Bay Aquatic Center offers group kayak, sailing, rowing or surfing lessons and has event space for up to 250.

San Diego’s second-largest convention facility is the Town & Country Resort & Convention Center in Mission Valley. In February it’s scheduled to begin an $80 million reinvention that will touch every part of the sprawling complex and include the addition of new celebrity-chef restaurants, the remodel of all guest accommodations and a refresh of its 27-hole golf course and event space. Completion is expected in 2018, and it remains open for group business.

Coastal sophistication holds sway in La Jolla, 13 miles north of downtown San Diego. The renovated La Valencia Hotel is a lovely historic choice, set in the heart of the village within walking distance of shops, restaurants and the beach. Groups with golfers may prefer the Lodge at Torrey Pines, where meeting space overlooks the ocean and the famed municipal golf course. Contemporary convention choices include the Hilton/La Jolla–Torrey Pines, with newly updated meeting space; the San Diego Marriott La Jolla; the Scripps Research Institute; and the nearby Birch Aquarium at Scripps. Six miles east, in Miramar, planners often arrange private events in the aircraft hangars and the Officers’ Club at the Marine Corps Air Station.

Del Mar, Carlsbad & Oceanside: Highly Regarded

North of La Jolla, Del Mar is a cozy coastal community with big attractions. The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club hosts the nation’s second most-popular horse racing with two seasons: mid-July through early September and late October through late November. The rest of the year, the pink-colored buildings make a great backdrop for private events of up to 2,000. The adjacent Del Mar Fairgrounds are also available for trade shows and special events, with 180,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space and the Del Mar Arena, which can be configured to seat up to 8,543 people.

The California Cogeneration Council has met at L’Auberge Del Mar for the past two years. “It’s the first time we’ve ever met twice in the same place,” said Vaughan. With 120 guest rooms, the hotel easily accommodated the more than 30 attendees and provided a pleasing intimacy, top-notch service and beautiful views, she said. “Dinner on the terrace, watching the sun set into the ocean, was wonderful.” Larger meetings of up to 600 can be hosted at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar (formerly the Grand Del Mar).

In Rancho Santa Fe, the Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa was recently named the top hotel in California by U.S. News & World Report, one of many awards it has garnered over the past few years. It welcomes guests with luxurious casitas, Spanish Mediterranean–style meeting and patio venues and gourmet farm-to-table restaurants.

Farther north, Carlsbad is pushing the hot button with the new Cape Rey Carlsbad, A Hilton Resort (formerly the Hilton/Oceanfront Carlsbad), which offers pool cabanas and luxury guest suites. A larger choice for meetings is the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa, which has eight pools, a wellness spa, championship golf and a dedicated tennis program. Both properties are within five miles of Legoland/California, a fun day out for delegates’ families.

Neighboring Oceanside is riding the crest of the microbrewery trend. Beer aficionados will find dozens of microbreweries, gastropubs and tasting rooms along the “Hops Highway,” many with event space. For business, the QLN Conference Center offers 42,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space, while the year-old, LEED-certified SpringHill Suites/San Diego–Oceanside Downtown welcomes groups with a rooftop pool.

And it’s tough to beat Oceanside for unique activities. “Hero for the Day,” a Navy Seal–type boot camp, horse riding and golf are among the many options available inside the civilian-friendly Camp Pendleton Marine Base.

Temecula to Escondido: Luscious Landscapes

It’s a short journey from beer country to wine country—the latter found in and around Temecula. Groups interested in visiting some of the 50 area wineries can catch a ride on the horse-drawn trolley (for up to 16) or limo carriage (for up to six) using the Temecula Carriage Co.

Nestled among the vines, the South Coast Winery Resort & Spa is a good choice for meetings, with a variety of hotel suites and cottages, a 7,200-square-foot conference center, an amphitheater for up to 1,500, a 6,000-square-foot courtyard and a spa. Other options in the area include the Temecula Creek Inn; the Pala Casino Spa Resort in Pala, which has a new underground wine cave available for events; and the expanded Harrah’s Resort/Southern California in Valley Center, which completed a multimillion-dollar renovation last year.

Just south, in Escondido, is the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and the California Center for the Arts. In San Marcos, the Lakehouse Hotel & Resort recently completed sweeping renovations that earned it a four-star rating. The property, located on the shores of Lake San Marcos, welcomes groups with championship golf, a waterfront restaurant and meeting space that includes the brand-new Camp at Lakehouse, accessible only by boat and designed with elevated safari tents and a central loggia with dining tables.

Endless Love

When planning an association event, organizers agree that the possibilities are endless in Orange County and the greater San Diego area. And with weather that is pleasant most of the year and countless destinations in which to enjoy the sunny skies, attendees will love the chance to attend an association meeting in this region of Southern California.