by Barbara Beckley | December 01, 2016

“Celebrate good times—come on!” The lyrics from that 1980s hit song could easily describe meetings in Southern California. Year-round warm weather, world-class theme parks, gorgeous beaches and an outdoor lifestyle all combine to give association events a festive feel.

Planners might also consider incorporating one of many popular festivals into their programming. From art shows in Laguna Beach to Oktoberfest in Anaheim and Tiki Oasis in San Diego, there are local annual celebrations for every interest. This option, along with the region’s score of top meeting facilities, makes it easy to see why destinations in Orange and San Diego counties are continually favorites for group gatherings.

Greater Anaheim & Buena Park: Let the Fun Begin

Oktoberfest at the Phoenix Club is a great way to experience the heritage of Anaheim, founded in 1857 by 50 German families. When it is not hosting weekend events from mid-September through October, the Phoenix Club is available for events of up to 1,000.

Every day is a celebration at Disneyland, Disney California Adventure and Downtown Disney, all of which can accommodate groups into the thousands. The trio is part of the Anaheim Resort District, which also includes the Anaheim Convention Campus, consisting of 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. The convention center is adding 200,000 square feet of meeting space; completion is projected for summer 2017. 

With the increase in convention space, several new meeting hotels have recently opened. This year has seen the debut of the Holiday Inn Express & Suites/Anaheim Resort Area, the Residence Inn at Anaheim Resort/Convention Center, the Hyatt House at Anaheim Resort–Convention Center, the Staybridge Suites/Anaheim-Resort Area and the Country Inn & Suites by Carlson/Anaheim.

Additionally, four new hotels are on the horizon. Construction on the JW Marriott/Anaheim, a 12-story hotel at the GardenWalk, is expected to begin in 2017; a AAA four-diamond hotel is set to replace the Anabella Hotel, located adjacent to the Anaheim Convention Center; an equally luxe hotel with 50,000 square feet of meeting space is scheduled to open in 2018 on the site of the Anaheim Plaza Hotel & Suites; and 2021 is the projected opening date of the 700-room Disneyland Resort in Downtown Disney.

“There is a serious need for the right mix of higher-end hotels,” said Cindy Sample, trade show operations director for the National Association of Music Merchants, whose annual event has been held in town for years. “As we grow along with the expansion, our members and attendees will need more accommodation options.”

Other groups that have recently convened in Anaheim include the California Podiatric Medical Association, the National Association of College & University Food Services and the Association of periOperative Registered Nurses.

Anaheim also welcomes group events at its large sports venues such as Angel Stadium of Anaheim and Honda Center.

The House of Blues is scheduled to reopen in March at its new location at the Anaheim GardenWalk. Plans include event space for up to 3,000, including a 2,200-seat main music hall and indoor-outdoor dining. Other attractions that can serve as gathering sites include the Muzeo Museum & Cultural Center, with more than 14,000 square feet of indoor-outdoor space, and the Ranch Restaurant & Saloon, a 53,000-square-foot, farm-to-table dining-and-events center with a 40-foot concert stage.

In addition to Oktoberfest, Anaheim is experiencing a brewery surge. A dozen are now open and many, like the Unsung Brewery in the renovated Make Building, offer group tastings.

Environmental fans are applauding the new Anaheim Resort Transportation (ART)—electric, zero-emission passenger buses. ART offers 21 routes connecting riders to the area’s entertainment, dining and shopping areas and 72 Orange County hotels.

Just two miles south of the Anaheim Convention Center, the new Great Wolf Lodge/Southern California in Garden Grove features meeting space and an indoor water park. Also in Garden Grove is the Hyatt Regency/Orange County, which offers meeting space for up to 1,900 people. In Orange, the DoubleTree by Hilton offers event space for up to 1,000.

In nearby Buena Park, Knott’s Berry Farm welcomes attendees with roller coasters, a chicken-dinner restaurant and the 1,973-seat Charles Schulz Theatre. Groups in town in October might visit the Silverado Days festival at the 16-acre Peak Park. A mile away is the 1,100-seat Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament.

Irvine & Santa Ana: Celebrating Diversity

Gatherings in Irvine might include an outing to the Irvine Global Village Festival or the recently renovated Hotel Irvine’s “Movie Nights in the Backyard.” Amenities at Hotel Irvine also include a “Reach Me” text concierge, a grab-and-go style market featuring local vendors and a 12th-floor work-equipped lounge.

Irvine hotel choices also include the Irvine Marriott, which recently completed a renovation of its guest rooms. The DoubleTree by Hilton/Irvine Spectrum, Hilton/Irvine and Embassy Suites/Irvine are also newly renovated, and a 161-room Homewood Suites is scheduled to open this month with meeting space for groups of up to 100 people.

Roads for exploration could include the ChocXO Bean to Bar Chocolatier, which offers event space; full buyouts of the 400-seat Improv Comedy Club; or a day at Strawberry Farms Golf Course, whose Big Red Barn can host more than 250 people. The Beckman Center also has space for up to 250, and the Irvine Barclay Theatre can host events of up to 750 people.

The Marconi Automotive Museum in Tustin has more than 15,000 square feet of event space. And in Santa Ana, the Bowers Museum can host up to 900 people indoors.

From Huntington Beach to San Clemente: Set on the Seaside

The U.S. Open of Surfing and the biggest Independence Day parade west of the Mississippi make July a top month to meet in Huntington Beach. However, most will agree that the seven-mile shoreline makes anytime a good time to be in Surf City USA.

“The beach is our first preference for meeting locations,” said Mary Mycka, executive director of the Stadium Managers Association. “We look for the right combination of relaxing getaway, easy access and professional meeting facilities, and Huntington Beach has the perfect mix, with several airline choices and flexible meeting space. The city is always clean, never too crowded or commercial, and there are so many different activity options and beach styles in the area—although our favorite activity may just be bonfires on the beach.”

Mycka has used the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa for several programs. “Its meeting space works just as well for my group of 125 as it does for a group of 300, and the social space is inviting to attendees and families. Our attendees love the view of the beach and the accessibility of the bike paths.”

She said she still remembers the first time she visited the property. “I stepped out on the deck of my room at dusk to see the twinkling lights of many bonfires being lit on the beach. The smell of the bonfires and the sound of the surf was pretty amazing,” Mycka recalled.

The Hyatt Regency was also the property of choice for the California Ambulatory Surgery Association’s annual conference in 2015. “The size of the meeting facilities was our first criteria,” said Beth LaBouyer, its executive director. “Of course, when you throw in a beautiful location such as Huntington Beach, it makes that decision much easier. Huntington Beach makes it conducive to not only conduct business but creates an overall feeling of relaxation and escape.”

Others that have recently met in town include the California Association of Health Plans, the California Bankers Association and the American Architectural Manufacturers Association.

New and expanding resorts are adding to the city’s meetings magnetism. The Paséa Hotel & Spa opened in June overlooking the beach, with tech-savvy amenities and event space including a 14,600-square-foot lawn with fire pits. Next door is Pacific City, a mall with a growing number of shopping and dining attractions including the Old Crow Smokehouse and the Ways & Means Oyster House.

The Waterfront Beach Resort, a Hilton Hotel, is adding a nine-story, all-suite tower and 20,000 square feet of new indoor-outdoor meeting space, expected to open in spring 2017. A 40-foot-wide rock climbing wall is the centerpiece of the new fitness center at the Kimpton Shorebreak Hotel, located a block from the Huntington Beach Pier.

Farther south, Costa Mesa is home to the Orange County Fair & Event Center, which entertains fair-goers in July and August. The rest of the year, the facilities are ideal for hosting larger events.

The Segerstrom Center for the Arts is another meeting option. It’s just down the street from South Coast Plaza, Southern California’s largest shopping mall, and convenient to two of Costa Mesa’s major meeting hotels: the Westin/South Coast Plaza and the Crowne Plaza/Costa Mesa–Orange County.

If your group likes boat parades, put Newport Beach on the agenda. The Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade & Ring of Lights has been dazzling visitors for 107 years. Or, in September, foodies might be interested in the Newport Beach Wine & Food Festival.

This summer, Newport Beach will welcome its first new hotel in decades—the Lido House, a four-story, 130-room property located at the entrance to Lido Isle and the Balboa Peninsula. Plans include suites, five three-story cottages and 4,000 square feet of function space.

For larger soirees, the Island Hotel Newport Beach has function space for up to 1,200 people. Other notable choices include the Balboa Bay Resort and the Resort at Pelican Hill.

Art is a major attraction in Laguna Beach, home to hundreds of galleries, the Pageant of the Masters, Festival of the Arts and the Sawdust Art Festival. Groups can take advantage of artistic team-building opportunities at La Vida Laguna, such as beachfront drum circles and sand-sculpture competitions.

Two event spaces in town include the 25,000-square-foot Seven-Degrees and Tivoli Terrace, for up to 300. The new, 97-room Ranch at Laguna Beach (formerly the Aliso Creek Inn & Golf Course) offers indoor space for up to 350, patio space for up to 650 and a new indoor-outdoor spa. The East Whittier City School District recently met at the newly renovated Inn at Laguna Beach, which offers seaview meeting space for up to 75. Other popular choices include the Montage/Laguna Beach and the Surf & Sand Resort.

Planners that require larger spaces can head eight miles south to Dana Point and check in with Sean Keliiholokai, executive director of the newly launched Visit Dana Point. He’s happy to assist in finding the perfect fit among the city’s resorts and event venues. The Monarch Beach Resort completed a $40 million update early this summer and now features a Miraval Life in Balance Spa and an expansive new pool area. Other popular picks for meetings are the DoubleTree Suites by Hilton/Doheny Beach–Dana Point, newly renovated and sporting an open-air rooftop lounge, the Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa and the Ritz-Carlton/Laguna Niguel.

Dana Point’s harbor and marina are home to shops, restaurants and the departure point for boating excursions or year-round whale-watching. Also in the harbor is the Ocean Institute, which can host marine-themed events of up to 260.

Greater San Diego: Entertaining Environments

Harbor views are the inspiration for meetings in numerous locations throughout San Diego, and perhaps nowhere are they as beautiful for large gatherings as the 2.6 million-square-foot, waterfront San Diego Convention Center in downtown. Adding to the appeal is the fact that the Gaslamp entertainment district, the shops of Seaport Village and 8,000 guest rooms are within walking distance.

The closest hotel to the convention center is the adjacent Marriott Marquis/San Diego Marina, also on the water. In June, it completed an expansion that has wowed those in the meetings community. The property now offers more than 280,000 square feet of event space; panoramic views of downtown; new stacked ballrooms that can host up to 3,700 and 3,400, respectively; a 26,450-square-foot outdoor terrace overlooking San Diego Bay; a 16-screen video wall system and other high-tech amenities.

The Family, Career & Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) and the Mechanical Contractors Association of America were among the first groups to use the new spaces. “From a planner’s point of view, it has a very easy layout and movement of attendees. We loved the places to network and recharge between sessions,” said Sandy Spavone, the FCCLA’s executive director, noting that its event experienced the best breakout-session attendance in years. “I believe the layout was key to this. The attendees’ movement from one room to the next was so easy, and we believe that helped keep them present and attending the workshops.” In addition, Spavone said that for its gala of 3,000-plus attendees, staff helped transform the exhibit hall to a gala space “in time to provide an amazing experience.”

Like most visitors to San Diego, Spavone said her delegates loved the water, the weather and the fun attractions. Popular choices include Petco Park, the USS Midway Museum aircraft carrier and the San Diego Zoo, all of which offer event space and group activities. Spavone also arranged a teen event at Qualcomm Stadium, home of the NFL’s Chargers, and a visit to SeaWorld.

The Mechanical Contractors Association of America bought out the Midway (which has after-hours space for up to 4,000) to ensure its attendees would have an unforgettable experience, according to Cynthia Buffington, the association’s senior executive director. And when the Salt Institute took its members to the San Diego Zoo, it opted to do so without guides. “The zoo is wonderful. We let it be a ‘do-your-own-thing’ event for a more relaxed afternoon,” said the institute’s Laura Elliott.  

In the Gaslamp Quarter, the Pendry San Diego is expected to open soon with 317 guest rooms, six restaurants and bars and 35,000 square feet of function space. The year-old Courtyard/San Diego–Gaslamp-Convention Center offers a rooftop bar that doubles as an event venue, and Omnia is a new, 22,000-square-foot nightclub with customizable space.

Closer to downtown, the expanded Horton Plaza Park features a new amphitheater that is available for private events and can accommodate nearly 2,000 people. The park is also the starting point for “FRED,” a new, free downtown shuttle service featuring five-passenger, electric, open-air vehicles.

To the west, by the waterfront, the dual-branded SpringHill Suites and Residence Inn by Marriott opened earlier this year with 400 guest rooms and 11,400 square feet of flexible event space. And a few blocks away, construction work has begun on the Carté Hotel & Suites, expected to open in 2018. Farther north, in Little Italy, the Hilton Garden Inn and Homewood Suites recently opened in a joint property with 365 total guest rooms, a restaurant, a rooftop pool and 3,800 square feet of meeting space.

At the newly renamed Arts District Liberty Station, located in historic buildings at the former Naval Training Center, look for the Barracks Hotel to open in late 2018. Also on-site is the LOT/Liberty Station, a historic building that has been transformed into a cinema with six theaters and a glass-enclosed cafe, bar and restaurant space. The Liberty Public Market is also a good bet; within its 1920s-era, warehouse-style building, vendors sell cheeses, butchered meats, baked goods and seasonal produce. Groups that want more insight might sign up for Bite San Diego’s Liberty Station foodie walking tour.

Whether you hop a water taxi from Seaport Village or drive across the bridge, Coronado Island is not to be missed. The historic Hotel Del Coronado has meeting space for up to nearly 1,300 people or two miles away is the waterfront Marriott Coronado Island Resort & Spa, which looks like new thanks to a massive renovation that included the redesign of 300 guest rooms and the addition of a spa and a 6,000-square-foot wellness center. A nice guest perk is the water-taxi service between the Marriott Coronado and the Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina adjacent to the convention center.

Other island options include the Kona Kai Resort & Spa on Shelter Island, which is transforming its pool area and adding a Tiki Bar; the Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina on Harbor Island, with 73 meeting spaces; or the Paradise Point Resort & Spa on an islet in Mission Bay, with event space for up to 1,450. San Diego’s second-largest meeting venue is just inland, in Mission Valley: the Town & Country Resort & Convention Center, which is undergoing a massive revamp set for completion in 2018.

The La Jolla Art & Wine Festival, the International Fashion Film Festival and the PGA Tour’s Farmers Insurance Open at the Torrey Pines Golf Course are a few favorite events that happen annually in the seaside village of La Jolla, 13 miles north of downtown San Diego. The Lodge at Torrey Pines offers meeting space that overlooks the famed municipal course. Spectacular ocean views can also be had from the new Hotel La Jolla, Curio Collection by Hilton (formerly the Kimpton/La Jolla).

George’s at the Cove restaurant has revamped its three-tiered venue into two tiers, creating Level2 and expanding its rooftop Ocean Terrace to better host private events. A few miles north, near the University of California/San Diego, the Scripps Research Institute and the Birch Aquarium at Scripps welcome functions.

Six miles east, in Miramar, a private reception on a flight deck and a private dinner at the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station were a hit with members of the Salt Institute group. Events are also frequently arranged at the station’s hangars and within the Officers’ Club.

Del Mar, Carlsbad & Oceanside: Action-oriented

Some of the nation’s most-popular horse racing happens at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club in Del Mar, north of La Jolla. The track itself is available for private events of up to 2,000.

The adjacent Del Mar Fairgrounds features 180,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space and includes the 8,543-seat Del Mar Arena. Those in town in June can take attendees to the San Diego County Fair.

Area resorts such as the Fairmont Grand Del Mar partner with the racetrack to provide groups with transportation between the track and other perks. Tanya Matthews, regional director of sales and marketing for Fairmont Hotel & Resorts, said that the Fairmont Grand Del Mar has been recognized within the Fairmont brand for its service.

The Salt Institute’s Elliott agreed. “The resort met every need, often before we even expressed it,” she said about a recent meeting at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar. “The attendees were also impressed by the incredible views and the beauty of the property itself.”

A smaller choice is L’Auberge Del Mar, with a handful of indoor meeting spaces, including a newly renovated boardroom. Following their board meeting, participants can literally take to the surf with complimentary body boards or participate in a group surf lesson.

In Rancho Santa Fe, the Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa has renovated its three-bedroom villas and added a new pool bar. Attendees interested in down-time relaxation can enjoy its enhanced wellness and spa program.

Farther north (but still only 35 miles from San Diego), Carlsbad offers 12 diverse hotels and a combined 303,000 square feet of meeting space. Attendees at the West Inn & Suites can pair their meetings with a customized tour of the area’s top craft breweries on the Hops Highway Retreat. Golf enthusiasts can swing into action at the Park Hyatt Aviara Resort, Golf Club & Spa. At the Hilton’s Cape Rey Resort, foodies take a tour of the local farmers’ market followed by a team cooking class. And those favoring a holistic retreat can indulge at the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa’s Chopra Center.

For delegates bringing their families, most of these resorts are within five miles of the Legoland California Resort, which is set to introduce the Lego Star Wars Miniland and new Ninjago-themed rooms at the Legoland Hotel in 2017.

Beach lovers can head to Oceanside, dubbed “San Diego’s North Shore.” Oceanside meeting facilities include the QLN Conference Center, with 42,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space, the SpringHill Suites/San Diego–Oceanside Downtown and the Holiday Inn/Oceanside–Camp Pendleton Area.

Temecula to Borrego Springs: Spirit of Discovery

It’s a scenic, 30-minute drive from the beach to the wine country of Temecula, home to more than 50 wineries, the Temecula Valley Balloon & Wine Festival and the Temecula Greek Festival. For meetings, the American Junior Golf Association and the Rough Riders Motorcycle Club each chose the Embassy Suites by Hilton/Temecula Valley Wine Country, with 3,200 square feet of function space. Other good picks for gatherings include the Avensole Winery, with space for up to 220; the Callaway Vineyard & Winery, with indoor space for up to 500 and outdoor space for up to 1,200; and the South Coast Winery Resort & Spa, which features a 7,200-square-foot conference center, a 1,500-seat amphitheater, a 6,000-square-foot courtyard and a wine cellar. Also in town is the Pechanga Resort & Casino, which is undergoing a $285 million expansion expected to finish in late 2017; plans include the addition of 586 new guest rooms, a two-story spa, two new restaurants and 70,000 square feet of function space.

South, in Escondido, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park has three event venues for up to several hundred people each. In nearby San Marcos, the Lakehouse Hotel & Resort on the shores of Lake San Marcos welcomes groups with golf and indoor-outdoor meeting space.

To the east is Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, with seven self-guided trails. In the town of Borrego Springs, the renovated La Casa Del Zorro Desert Resort & Spa makes a wonderful retreat, with poolside guest rooms, casitas, tennis courts, yoga and a conference center. The annual Borrego Days Desert Festival just celebrated its 51st anniversary in October with a parade, car show, an off-road show, art, a carnival and entertainment.

Having it All

Orange County and greater San Diego meeting venues have it all and want to share what they have with visiting groups. From favorite surf breaks to sailboats decorated in holiday lights and from cultural get-togethers to fun foodie functions, a number of special events occur in this region that offer a sense of place—and pride. Join the many groups that meet here, and like Sandy Spavone of the FCCLA, you’ll hear your attendees cheer: “We love Southern California!”