With rambling seaside settings, a rolling wine country and fertile farmlands, Central California is teeming with possibilities for association groups of all sizes. Add to that an abundance of world-class venues, accommodating hotels and restaurants that take good taste to the highest level, and the region can’t help but inspire memorable meetings.
The Sacramento Area: Going For Gold
Convening in the capital city of Sacramento is a golden opportunity for groups to push lobbying concerns and focus on core issues within their industry. For many, a visit begins at Sacramento International Airport, which features an $8 million art collection and plans to build a new public lounge to enhance the passenger experience.
Just 15 minutes from the airport, and adjacent to the Capitol, is the Sacramento Convention Center, which offers 134,000 square feet of exhibit space, a 24,000-square-foot ballroom and 31 meeting rooms. It hosts numerous association functions each year including, recently, the California Association of School Business Officials and the California Association of Port Authorities.
North of downtown is the 350-acre Cal Expo, which features 18 indoor and outdoor venues and can accommodate groups as large as 50,000. Also north of town is the 17,317-seat Sleep Train Arena (formerly Power Balance Pavilion), home to the NBA’s Kings and offering executive meeting space for up to 1,600. In West Sacramento, the 15,000-seat Raley Field is a minor league baseball stadium that offers several 50-person event suites.
Southeast of Sacramento, the town of Jackson has a rich gold-mining history. Groups basing themselves here might consider staying at the Jackson Rancheria Casino Resort, which offers 9,000 square feet of flexible meeting space for up to 500 attendees.
Northeast of Sacramento, in Roseville, larger meeting venues include the Maidu Community Center, located in Maidu Regional Park, with space for up to 400, and Eagles Hall, for groups of up to 300. In nearby Rocklin, the Rocklin Event Center has event space for up to 775, the historic Finnish Temperance Hall can host up to 309 and the Rocklin Community Center has space for up to 381 people. Ten miles north, in Lincoln, the Catta Verdera Country Club can host up to 220 in its Mission-style building.
Davis & Santa Cruz: Beauty & Brains
Fifteen miles west of Sacramento is Davis, home to the University of California/Davis. Popular campus venues include the platinum LEED–certified UC Davis Conference Center, which offers 5,400 square feet of meeting space, and the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, with an 1,800-seat hall and a 250-seat theater. Local venues include the Wildhorse Golf Club with clubhouse space for up to 150 people and City Hall, with theater seating for up to 103 people.
Santa Cruz, two hours south of Davis, draws flocks of crowds thanks to its scenic state beaches, a fun boardwalk and a laid-back atmosphere. In addition, its mild climate makes it attractive for year-round meetings. Groups that have gathered in the area of late include the Consortium for Ocean Leadership and the Economic Science Association.
The Santa Cruz County Conference & Visitors Council recently launched a number of initiatives, one of which is a map and group “style” quiz that helps planners narrow down venue choices and team-building activities.
Key event sites include the University of California/Santa Cruz campus and the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, located downtown, which can host groups of up to 2,000. Another popular choice is Cocoanut Grove, a historic landmark overlooking Monterey Bay that has 20,000 square feet of space for up to 1,000 attendees.
In nearby Aptos, the Seascape Beach Resort is renovating its 15-room conference center, a project that is expected to finish this month. And a few miles north of Santa Cruz, in Felton, groups can meet at Roaring Camp, a recreated 1880s logging town that has indoor space for up to 450 people and outdoor space for up to 2,500 people.
Down the coast, in Watsonville, the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds offers more than 33,500 square feet of function space. Farther inland is Gilroy, best known for the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival, which takes place each July and draws thousands of visitors to the 51-acre Christmas Hill Park.
The Monterey Peninsula: Classic California
Coastal Monterey County offers the iconic California experience: Big Sur is home to both rolling waves and redwoods, the county seat of Salinas offers a literary legacy and vast agricultural fields, and Carmel boasts an array of art galleries as well as meeting facilities with panoramic vistas.
Popular in Monterey is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which welcomes events of up to 2,500. According to Karl Baur, director of meetings and publications for the Osteopathic Physicians & Surgeons of California, the aquarium set up an online ticket window that made it easy for attendees to purchase tickets to last year’s fall conference. Down the street, on Cannery Row, A Taste of Monterey is a regional wine center on the waterfront with 4,000 square feet of event space.
The city’s major event venue is the Monterey Conference Center, which, in partnership with three adjacent hotels, provides 61,000 square feet of flexible meeting space for up to 1,700 people. Also nearby is the historic, 1,000-seat Golden State Theatre and the Monterey Institute of International Studies, which provides meeting space for up to 275. And associations can also hold events at the Naval Postgraduate School, which welcomes groups of up to 800 people.
The Produce Marketing Association has been holding its annual Foodservice Conference & Expo in Monterey for more than 20 years and recently has drawn as many as 1,700 people.
“Our attendees love the location because of the great venues for networking, such as the golf and 5K courses, as well as the proximity to their growing fields and facilities,” said Jamie Hillegas, the group’s director of trade shows. “And one of the things PMA loves about going to Monterey is that area venues have such a low staff-turnover rate that it truly makes us feel like partners as we are planning our event. When we walk into the hotels, we see so many familiar faces—it feels like home.”
In neighboring Pacific Grove, the 107-acre Asilomar Conference Grounds is a National Historic Landmark that was designed by famous architect Julia Morgan. The five-building facility offers 313 guest rooms and 30,000 square feet of meeting space, including two rooms renovated last year: the Hearst Social Hall and the Crocker Dining Hall.
Pebble Beach is the place for sophisticated fun. Set on 5,300 acres, the three Pebble Beach Resorts—the Lodge at Pebble Beach, the Inn at Spanish Bay and Casa Palmero—offer nearly 30,000 square feet of combined meeting space as well as a golf course that most attendees have probably heard about: Pebble Beach Golf Links. In addition, the resorts’ Team Challenge Program offers group activities such as regatta sailing, beach events and race car driving.
Inland, in Carmel Valley, the Bernardus Lodge has been acquired by Ensemble Hotel Partners and is scheduled to undergo a $4 million renovation aimed at refreshing the guest rooms and enhancing its restaurant, pool, spa and meeting spaces.
All kinds of enjoyable sites for outings are a short drive away. About 18 miles north, in Salinas, attendees can visit the National Steinbeck Center, which has meeting space for up to 600 people. Near Soledad, Paraiso Vineyards has an event facility for up to 190 people.
San Luis Obispo County: All in Good Taste
Just 190 miles from both San Francisco and Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo County is both accessible and exceptional. Its dozens of wineries, bakeries, breweries and excellent restaurants make it a nirvana for gourmands.
In the city of San Luis Obispo, California Polytechnic State University offers several meeting spaces. Among them is the Performing Arts Center, a four-story building with 91,500 square feet of meeting and banquet space, including two theaters. The San Luis Obispo County Veterans Memorial Building also has meeting and reception space for up to 500 people.
In Pismo Beach, which boasts 23 miles of sandy coastline, attendees can explore the coast via kayak, head out to the nearby dunes for an off-road adventure or sit back and take everything in with a glass of local wine. When business calls, the renovated Pismo Beach Veterans’ Memorial Hall has space for up to 600 guests.
Northwest of San Luis Obispo, the seaside village of Morro Bay is best known for Morro Rock, a 576-foot-high state historical monument that is used as a nesting area for peregrine falcons. For meetings, the Morro Bay Community Center has auditorium space for up to 537 people as well as smaller event rooms. And within Morro Bay State Park, the Inn at Morro Bay has renovated its 98 guest rooms and offers 10,185 square feet of event space.
From Morro Bay, it’s just 25 miles to San Simeon, site of the fantastical Hearst Castle commissioned by the late media tycoon William Randolph Hearst and also designed by Julia Morgan.
Groups that enjoy wine tasting will find an abundance of varietals in and around historic Paso Robles, which boasts more than 200 wineries. Downtown, the Paso Robles Inn is a unique destination with hot spring–therapy spa rooms, a restored 1890s ballroom, a new conference center that can accommodate up to 440 people indoors and garden space for up to 300. Just north of town, in San Miguel, planners can organize meetings for up to 250 people in Parish Hall, located adjacent to Mission San Miguel, which dates back to 1797.
Solvang & Santa Maria: Congenial Surroundings
In Solvang, visiting groups are warmly received at more than 30 lodging properties in and around the Santa Ynez Valley. Gatherings of up to 700 people can be held at the Solvang Festival Theater, and up to 500 people can meet at the historic Mission Santa Inés, built in 1804. The Elverhøj Museum of History & Art can be reserved for functions with up to 150 people, and the Solvang Veterans Memorial Hall can seat up to 200 people.
One of the area’s more historic properties is the 10,000-acre Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort. Last year, the property renovated and expanded its 12 pool suites and has since been updating 20 of the ranch’s original guest rooms, located adjacent to the Ranch Course. The project is expected to be completed this month. In all, the resort offers 73 guest rooms and more than 5,500 square feet of dedicated meeting space.
West of Solvang, the Firestone Walker Brewing Company in Buellton is open for tours, and its Taproom Restaurant welcomes special events of up to 70. For large events, the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott features 12,000 square feet of space for functions.
Santa Maria has evolved into a meetings destination where good food and drink are on the agenda. Venues include the Rancho Miranda Garden Event Center, with outdoor event space for up to 750, and the Santa Barbara County Fairgrounds & Convention Center, which can accommodate up to 1,400 people. Santa Maria has more than 1,800 guest rooms, including those at the recently renovated Radisson/Santa Maria.
Santa Barbara, Ventura & Oxnard: Captivating Coastal Cities
The American Riviera lives up to its name with 350 miles of coastline, golden hills and historic resorts. Santa Barbara is the proud star of the scene, with prime accommodations, activities and venues. For large conventions and trade shows, the Earl Warren Showgrounds has an outdoor arena with 600 stalls, a 22,000-square-foot Exhibit Building and a 13,000-square-foot Community Room. The Santa Barbara County Courthouse and its Sunken Garden can be used to host events of up to 3,000 guests.
The Santa Barbara Zoo offers special hilltop event space for up to 500 guests, and near Santa Barbara Harbor, the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum has space for up to 400. Channel Cat, an 85-foot sailing catamaran, is also docked in the harbor and may be chartered for up to 149 guests. The vessel offers 3,000 square feet of space, including a full bar, a library and a media room. A few blocks away, on Stearns Wharf, the Ty Warner Sea Center welcomes group functions of up to 150 people.
Other options include the newly renovated Lobero Theatre, with 604 seats and a courtyard that can accommodate up to 240; the New Vic, a 294-seat theater that also has an outdoor courtyard; and the Museum of Natural History’s Fleischmann Auditorium, which can accommodate up to 250 people.
Some 40,000 square feet of event space is available at the Mission-style Fess Parker, a DoubleTree by Hilton Resort that recently renovated its guest rooms. Executive groups might consider the Hotel Santa Barbara, which has refurbished all of its guest rooms and two meetings rooms, each of which can accommodate up to 32 attendees.
Ventura, located about 70 miles northwest of Los Angeles, is a revitalized beachfront city that’s growing increasingly upscale while remaining pleasingly laid-back. The Ventura County Fairgrounds can be used for events of up to 3,000. The site is conveniently located across the street from the Amtrak station and facilities include 135,000 square feet of indoor meeting space as well as acres of parkland.
At the Museum of Ventura County, the Martin V. & Martha K. Smith Event Pavilion can host up to 200 attendees for dinners, and an adjacent plaza can accommodate up to 140. Downtown, Working Artists Ventura (WAV) is a LEED-certified artist community that has a large plaza as well as a gallery and performance spaces free of charge to community and nonprofit groups. Additional venues include the 200-seat Rubicon Theatre and the Mission-style Majestic Ventura Theater, with event space for up to 1,200 people.
Adventurous attendees can take the ferry from Ventura to Channel Islands National Park, where hiking and kayaking make for a memorable excursion. Ten miles south, Oxnard offers more than 1,800 guest rooms and 150,000 square feet of meeting space. Options include the Performing Arts & Convention Center, with 65,834 square feet of space for up to 4,000 people; Heritage Square; and the Scarlett Belle, a riverboat that can accommodate up to 150 guests. And last year, the 1,650-square-foot California Welcome Center Oxford opened at the Collection at RiverPark, a shopping and entertainment area.
Many hotels in the area have recently undergone renovations, including the Embassy Suites Mandalay Beach, the Residence Inn/Oxnard-River Ridge and the Courtyard/Oxnard-Ventura. Groups that have recently held meetings in the area include the American Junior Golf Association and the Association of Chief Business Officials.
The San Joaquin Valley: Positively Productive
Bakersfield is known as the Southern Gateway to the agriculturally rich Central Valley. The city’s largest facility is the Rabobank Arena, Theater & Convention Center, which has 30,000 square feet of exhibit-hall space, 13 breakout rooms and a 3,000-seat theater. It’s connected to the Bakersfield Marriott.
Another major site is the 168-acre Kern County Fairgrounds, with a grandstand that can seat up to 3,700 people. The redeveloped, 1.5-mile Mill Creek Linear Park offers free Wi-Fi service. It’s also adjacent to the Bakersfield Museum of Art, which can host up to 300 people for events. A few miles west, groups of up to 500 can rent out musician Buck Owen’s Crystal Palace.
Visalia is favored for its proximity to Sequoia National Park and the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states, Mount Whitney. Association groups based in town will find 140,000 square feet of space, the bulk of which is centered at the Visalia Convention Center, which can accommodate up to 4,000 people.
Nearly 40 restaurants and 1,200 hotel guest rooms are within five minutes of the center, including the adjacent Visalia Marriott at the Convention Center. Other sources of entertainment and meeting space include Recreation Park, which can host upward of 2,400 people and offers event space within its Hall of Fame Club; the 1,275-seat Visalia Fox Theatre; and Adventure Park, which has bowling, miniature golf and batting cages. Just south of Visalia, groups can meet in Tulare at the 190-acre International Agri-Center, which offers space for up to 10,000 people.
In Fresno, the main meeting venue is the Fresno Convention & Entertainment Center, with 91,000 square feet of space. It’s home to the 9,000-seat Selland Arena, the 2,353-seat William Saroyan Theatre and the 32,000-square-foot Valdez Hall. Additionally, planners can organize events at the Big Fresno Fairgrounds; Chukchansi Park, a baseball stadium with 12,500 seats; and Memorial Auditorium, with a 500-seat theater.
On the California State University/Fresno campus, meeting spaces include the 15,000-seat Save Mart Center, which can be configured to seat up to 16,182; the 10,000-square-foot Smittcamp Alumni House; the 300-seat auditorium at the Leon & Pete Peters Educational Center; and the university’s business center, which has a 125-seat auditorium.
A few miles north of the Fresno Yosemite International Airport, in Clovis, the Veterans Memorial Building has 20,200 square feet of event space, including a 350-seat auditorium.
Ninety-five miles up Interstate 5, in Modesto, top venues include John Thurman Field, a minor-league ballpark that can seat up to 4,000; Modesto Centre Plaza, which can accommodate up to 2,500 people; Vintage Gardens, which can host up to 420 people; and the 1883 McHenry Museum, which has meeting space for up to 200 people.
The Stockton Deep Water Channel makes downtown Stockton a port city with several shorefront spaces including the 4,200-seat Banner Island Ballpark; the adjacent Stockton Arena, which can accommodate as many as 11,800 attendees; and the Weber Point Events Center, with space for up to 3,000. Nearby, the 2,042-seat Bob Hope Theatre is regularly used for private events, as is the Stockton Memorial Civic Auditorium, with more than 18,000 square feet of meeting space. Two educational institutions also offer space: San Joaquin Delta College and the University of the Pacific.
Ten miles north of Stockton, in Lodi, the Wine & Visitor Center features hundreds of wines from local vintners. Meeting venues in town include the Hutchins Street Square Community & Conference Center, with 10 event spaces, the largest of which can host up to 789 attendees. The 20-acre Lodi Grape Festival Fairgrounds has 75,000 square feet of indoor event space, including a pavilion for up to 3,400. And the LOEL Center & Gardens has space for up to 200 people.
As Good As It Gets
For decades, travelers have been eager to explore central California—the land of opportunity. Associations that meet in this region find that the diversions and destinations promote attendees’ potential and create gatherings that are as good as it gets.