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A Step Toward the Future

Tourism leaders across the golden state address industry changes.

By Shelley Levitt

California Meetings + Events turned to the leading players from a dozen convention and visitors bureaus across California to get a meaningful picture of how the industry is faring in the state. These CVB executives have a clear-eyed view of both the big picture—
like hotel occupancy—as well as what groups seek for their next event.

Sandy beaches along the Venture County Coast

Ventura County Coast

The big question being asked is: How has California group business rebounded since the start of the pandemic? The answer, it turns out, varies by region. “The economic recovery from COVID-19 has proven to be uneven,” says Laura Chmielewski, vice president for marketing and communications for Visit San Jose. “Our sector has accounted for more than half of all jobs lost in our region since the start of the pandemic and is still down 16,000 jobs.” 

The reasons differ, Chmielewski says. “With many still working from home, business travel’s slow return is affecting us.” Large corporate events, especially in tech, she adds, have not returned. However, this loss can be a gain for planners who have longed to hold an event in the heart of Silicon Valley but required more competitive pricing. “San Jose is diversifying its customer base, and this is creating opportunities for groups, meetings, and events that may have been priced out of our area in the past.” Chmielewski says. She adds that San Jose is applying hotel business improvement district funds to offset costs for clients, including offering free transportation, event promotion, marketing, and more. 

In other parts of California, the meetings sector is flourishing. Take the desert cities, a region that experienced a housing boom as people left densely populated cities seeking more outdoor space at the start of the pandemic. “It has been positive, but the demand has been crazy,” says Carolina Viazcan, vice president of sales and destination experiences for Visit Greater Palm Springs.

The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park amphitheater

Gary Payne

This booming rebound of meetings cuts across topography—from desert to coastal regions. “Despite the challenges caused by the pandemic, our destination continues to drive demand for group business,” says Brian Tucker, president and CEO of Ventura County Coast. “Our miles of pristine beaches, famous California coastal weather, affordable rates, and welcoming community have helped our group business thrive.” Travel, in general, is stronger in Ventura County than in the state as a whole. “Based on recent data from Dean Runyan Associates, our travel economy in Ventura County grew by 56% compared to California increasing as a whole by 46%,” Tucker says. 

Moving farther inland, the demand for meetings and events in Ontario is strong. “The biggest challenge we are facing right now is juggling a robust calendar for [specific] dates,” says Sue Oxarat, director of marketing and communications for Ontario Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The newest category we are focused on is sporting competitions—in fact, our Greater Ontario Sports & Entertainment Authority is ready to launch in a few months due to the demand.”

Smaller Meetings, Shorter Booking Windows  

While there’s still some hesitancy around planning conventions and large conferences, there’s a strong desire for small gatherings, says Linsey Gallagher, president and CEO of Visit Napa. “For the group of executives who hasn’t been out of Zoom purgatory in two years, Napa Valley has ideal outdoor spaces, best-in-class meeting facilities, and hands-on activities that make the destination ideal for collaboration and reconnecting.”

Groups are understandably skittish about making long-term commitments. Instead, booking just weeks ahead has become commonplace. “San Diego continues to see the extreme short-term nature of group business,” says Kavin Schieferdecker, chief sales officer at the San Diego Tourism Authority. In Greater Palm Springs, Viazcan says, “Many hotels have expressed that contracts are being signed very short-term, so short-term that convention sales teams are starting to detail the program before the contract is signed.”

In a similar vein, with attendees unwilling to commit to events far in advance, planners are conservative about committing to overnight accommodations. “Visit Sacramento sales staff is finding that clients are cautious about their room-block commitments, and [are] reserving fewer rooms than before,” says Narimel Tarver, director of sales for Visit Sacramento.

A few destinations are experiencing both an embrace of smaller meetings and a comfort with larger events. Scott Wilson, CEO of Visit Temecula Valley, says this is true for his region. “We’re seeing an increasing trend in our short-term rentals being used for corporate meetings and retreats, particularly in wine country,” he says. “Many small- to mid-size businesses want a unique team experience, particularly those with remote or hybrid workers who want to reconnect in a more informal setting.” However, he adds, “At our larger meeting destinations, which include Pechanga Resort & Spa and South Coast Winery Resort & Spa, bookings are close to pre-pandemic levels, and event sales are very strong, well into 2023.” 

Hot air balloon riding in Temecula

Visit Temecula Valley

The Pandemic Led to Lasting Trends

Some innovations and accommodations that began out of necessity are proving enduring. “One of the innovative industry trends Coronado is seeing is ‘touchless’ technology,” says Danielle Rossetto, destination sales director for Discover Coronado. “There are now touchless hotel key cards, menus, and payment. Hotels and restaurants are both adapting to this trend.” Visit Sacramento’s Tarver sees a similar trend. “Once the meeting is in-market, planners are more inclined to use apps and less interested in brochures—QR codes are everywhere,” she says.

In addition, meeting outdoors is now strongly preferred. “Event producers are looking for more flexible spaces, a result of the rise of outdoor activities from the pandemic that will likely stay,” says Naz Sabripour, executive director of the  Pasadena Convention Center.

Shaheen Roostai, executive director of Riverside Convention & Visitors Bureau and Riverside Sports Commission, agrees with this sentiment. “Social distancing and opportunity for open-air events remain top of mind for meeting planners,” she says. “Luckily, Riverside has many indoor-outdoor venues—the largest being the Riverside Convention Center. Its expansive outdoor private park-like setting allows groups to meet outdoors, walk around, and relax between meetings, or host events under the stars.”

The Riverside Convention Center

Riverside CVB

Coastal destinations are especially well positioned to meet this demand for outdoor gatherings. “Coronado is lucky to have near-perfect weather year-round, ideal conditions for meetings and meals overlooking the Pacific Ocean or San Diego Bay,” says Rossetto. Schieferdecker strikes a similar note. “We’re seeing an increase in requests for outdoor breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and receptions [in San Diego],” he says. “Venue options can include overlooking a golf course, Mission Bay, or the Pacific Ocean.”

Susan Valen, director of sales at Visit Huntington Beach, says that her destination, nicknamed Surf City, is an appealing option for large groups who may not be comfortable meeting in urban convention centers. “At the heart of Huntington Beach is the HB Collection, a set of four oceanfront resorts boasting a collective 1,400 guest rooms and 185,000 square feet of event space—offering a unique alternative to large, citywide events. … In Huntington Beach these are known as ‘beachwides,’” she says. “[The city’s] downtown footprint offers a contained 1-mile walkable [footpath] along the Pacific Coast Highway, with convenient access … to three entertainment districts and wide-open beaches.”

San Jose City Hall

Visit San Jose

Napa Valley Vineyard

Visit Napa Valley

Inclusion & Sustainability

Diversity, equity, and inclusion have recently become a priority for planners. “Over the last two years, the city of Huntington Beach has prioritized inclusion by installing permanent infrastructure for locals and visitors with disabilities including sidewalk and trail widening, an all-inclusive beach playground, and Mobi-Mats at the beach,” says Valen. “Located on both sides of the Huntington Beach Pier, Mobi-Mats serve as a stable walkway that helps improve accessibility for those with limited mobility. Additionally, guests can enjoy activities such as adaptive surfing lessons, accessible beach bonfires, and rent-free beach wheelchairs from concession stands along the bike path.”

Bay Terrace patio in Coronado

Discover Coronado Bay

Sustainability is also being redefined. “One of the biggest shifts over the years is moving away from focusing on recycling goods and sustainable products and [moving] toward waste diversion and reducing waste,” says Sabripour of the Pasadena Convention Center. “On the venue side, we regularly make improvements on energy efficiency by utilizing available new technologies such as motion-sensor lighting and faucets and switching over to LED technology. The chairs are made from recycled materials, like seat belts. Supporting the local community through food donations and volunteerism continues to be a focus point.”

SAFE Credit Union Convention Center Plaza in Sacramento

Visit Sacramento

The city of San Jose upholds its dedication to sustainability as a point of distinction to groups, noting that this past June the San Jose City Council revised the city’s sustainability action plan and introduced a new one: Pathway to Carbon Neutrality by 2030. 

“Team San Jose makes green meetings easy with comprehensive eco-friendly practices, products, and services,” Chmielewski says. To cite one example, the San Jose McEnery Convention Center Ballroom’s upgrade to an ETC Arc Lighting System provides the most innovative and eco-conscious setup for exhibit hall lighting in North America, exceeding current industry standards and consuming 80% less power than the previous system.