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California Beachside Cities Offer Different Ways to Arrive at Meetings Paradise

By By Janet Fullwood, Dani Heinemeyer & Shelley Levitt

Fresh sea air, salty breezes, the sound of breaking waves, a view of sailboats on the horizon, sand between your toes on morning beach walks. When it comes to restorative surroundings for meetings and retreats, it doesn’t get any better than California’s coastal havens. And with 3,427 miles of shoreline, the Golden State off ers havens galore. Here are some of our favorites. 

La Jolla

La Jolla, originating from the Spanish word “la joya,” or “the jewel,” truly lives up to its name. The San Diego seaside village features sparkling ocean views, tide pools brimming with crabs, mollusks, snails and sea urchins, and some of the top-rated beaches in the world. Located just up the shore from Black’s Beach—arguably the best surfing spot in Southern California—is the Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa. The hacienda-style hotel embodies coastal California charm with 10 acres of lush gardens, serene courtyards, adobe fireplaces and winding pathways that lead to the property’s three different sections: Learning, which features over 22,000 square feet of indoor meeting and event space, including a state-of-the-art Learning Theater that seats up to 125; Living, with 210 guest rooms, two fullservice restaurants, wine bar and coffee bar; and Leisure, where guests can enjoy a heated saltwater pool and internationally acclaimed spa and wellness center. “The property is purposely laid out in the three ‘L’s so that every guest feels comfortable for the purpose they’re there,” says Marketing Manager Dana Flower. “It allows groups to focus, maximizes retention, and minimizes distraction.” Groups can also take advantage of the hotel’s outdoor spaces like the Olive Lawn or Garden Courtyard, which accommodates up to 400 guests for a standing reception.

Estancia La Jolla’s staff can help plan a variety of team-building activities. True to the hotel’s rancho-inspiration, guests can participate in a salsa-making competition, blind wine tasting or barrel-aging seminars on tequila or whiskey. For those wishing to get off-site and explore the coastline, staff can coordinate hikes in the nearby Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, a 2,000-acre stretch of wild land with magnificent ocean views, or a guided beach hike to historic Torrey Pines Gliderport. The gliderport is home to a free flight school, café, and launching site for hang gliders and paragliders. “Kayaking in La Jolla Cove is also very popular for team-building,” adds Flower. The ecologically protected cove is bursting with colorful garibaldi, yellowtail, rays, and even leopard sharks. “There’s nothing more challenging than trying to paddle and get in sync with someone you work with on a daily basis!” If the tide is right, you may even get to paddle into one of La Jolla’s sea caves—and receive a friendly visit from a harbor seal or two.

Laguna Cliffs/Dana Point

Located midway between Los Angeles and San Diego, the seaside villages of Laguna Cliffs and Dana Point are convenient and stunning destinations for intimate to large meetings in Southern California. Miles of sand and surf, dramatic cliffs, art galleries and renowned festivals like the annual Pageant of the Masters, along with stellar restaurants and world-class resorts, all contribute to the area’s appeal.

You can get a bird’s eye view of the surroundings from Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa, which is perched on the cliffs above Dana Point Harbor. The vista from the 378-room AAA Four-Diamond coastal retreat, which has undergone a multimillion dollar renovation, includes 40 acres of lushly landscaped parklands as well as a 10-mile stretch of white stand beach.

Along with an appealing combination of sophistication and beach-house décor, the Laguna Cliffs offers 50,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor function space. At over 10,000 square feet, the Richard Henry Dana Ballroom is the largest indoor space, seating up to 960 guests. Outdoor venues range from the expansive 15,000-square-foot Vue Lawn, with a parade of yachts and sailboats as its backdrop, to the more intimate Laguna Terrace, which has a built-in bar and terrace seating. “All of our outside venues have ocean views,” says Stacey Zielenski, director of group sales. “That works really well for groups who want to get out of a traditional ballroom and still enjoy the full amenities of a catered event.” 

Off-property excursions abound—cruises on yachts or electric boats, fishing expeditions or dolphin and whale watching. There is opportunity for both soft adventure—surf or kayak lessons, beach walks through Crystal Cove or guided canyon hikes—and more adrenalized experiences, like Grand Prix Kart Racing or mountain biking. Then again, staying on property between meetings to enjoy the heated ocean-view pools or the 14,000-squarefoot Spa at Laguna Cliffs will be adventure enough for many attendees. 

Huntington Beach

Just 35 miles south of Los Angeles with nearperfect year-round weather, Huntington Beach offers something no other destination in California does: 10 miles of uninterrupted coastline. “There are no structures built along the coastline, not even a home,” says John Ehlenfeldt, executive vice president of group sales and administration for Visit Huntington Beach-Surf City USA. “That means you have a wide open stretch of beach along with a boardwalk you can walk, bicycle, roller blade or run along.”

“To complement this, from a meetings standpoint,” he continues, “all of your hotels are going to have beautiful ocean views. There’s nothing to obscure the vista. There’s ocean, sand and then the resort.” Four premier oceanfront resorts make up the HB Collection, together offering over 1,400 ocean-view guest rooms and 185,000 square feet of flexible meeting space. The quartet is located within a quarter mile of Surf City USA’s walkable downtown, the new artisanal shopping and dining marketplace at Pacific City and iconic Huntington Beach Pier.

The largest property is the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa with 517 guest rooms and suites, three ocean-view ballrooms, including the 20,000-square-foot Grand Ballroom, which can accommodate 2,200 guests. Next in size is the Waterfront Beach Resort, a Hilton Hotel, with 437 guest rooms and suites, the 8,424-square-foot Breakwater Ballroom, five restaurants and outlets, and a rooftop bar and lounge. Its expansion, which includes 156 two-room suites, rooftop bar, expanded meeting and event space and new destination spa, will open in June 2017. The Pasea Hotel & Spa, which opened in June 2016, is the newest property in the Collection (250 guest rooms, an 8,400-squarefoot ballroom and an 11,000-square-foot event lawn). The Kimpton Shorebreak Hotel offers a boutique vibe, with 158 guest rooms and suites, a 3,000-square-foot ballroom and eight meeting rooms that total 10,000 square feet of flexible meeting space. 

A recent innovation for meeting planners is a streamlined process for getting the necessary permits to hold events on the beach. “If a hotel is doing the catering they pull all the permits,” Enlenfeldt says, “and permission for receptions is easily granted. You can do the event directly on the sand or, to curb costs, in the beach parking lot.” A group, for example, might have a closing dinner at the Lighthouse Courtyard at the Hyatt Regency and then cross the pedestrian footbridge that deposits guests right on the side. There, butlers roast s’mores on the fire rings and offer after-dinner cordials while a guitar player strums. “Being able to have this experience right on the sand encapsulates why you’d choose Southern California for a meetings destination,” Enlenfeldt says.

Santa Cruz

Despite being the second smallest county in California, Santa Cruz packs in just about any experience a visitor could ask for: a seaside amusement park, beaches, redwoods, boutique wineries and a distillery, and activities that Visit Santa Cruz County Communications Director Christina Glynn calls “quintessential California,” like stand up paddle boarding, group surfing lessons, kayaking, zip lining in the redwood forest and whale watching. “If we were standing on the beach in front of the boardwalk, we could get in my car and be standing in the redwood forest in 10-15 minutes,” she says. “Just about the only thing we don’t have here is snow.” 

As a smaller destination, Santa Cruz’s meeting and event venues mirror the city in the size of groups it can facilitate. The Boardwalk’s Cocoanut Grove has 20,000 square feet of meeting space and can accommodate up to 900 guests. The ocean-view venue has a rich and colorful past, hosting celebrities such as Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Lawrence Welk, Nat “King” Cole, and Sonny and Cher over the course of its 110-year history. The award-winning Chaminade Resort & Spa, one of the larger hotels with meeting and event space, underwent an $8.9 million renovation in 2015. While the historic Mission-style resort is technically a mountaintop retreat, it offers sweeping views of the Monterey Bay along with hiking trails, tennis courts, spa, pool, and fitness center. Its 12 meeting rooms provide flexible space for groups of up to 250. The property makes meetings easy with its Benchmark Conference Plan, a unique and exclusive offering that emphasizes hospitality with personalized service, high-quality amenities and food and beverage options, luxurious accommodations, and innovative conference space with the latest in technology. 

Other hotel options include the 165-room Santa Cruz Dream Inn, Santa Cruz’s only full-service beachfront property, with meeting and event space for up to 200 people, and Hyatt Place, opening in spring 2017, which will feature a 1,500-square-foot meeting room and 1,000-square-foot outdoor meeting patio.

Monterey Peninsula

Many venues tempt planners on the scenic Monterey Peninsula, yet one of the most indemand is not a traditional hotel but a seaside complex of 47 buildings with 313 guest rooms and 40-plus meeting spaces sprawled over a 107-acre campus. 

Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove is a unique retreat built in 1913 as a YWCA summer camp, enlarged over the years, and operated since 1956 as part of the California State Parks System. The original structures were designed by Julia Morgan, California’s first licensed female architect and the visionary behind Hearst Castle and other landmark structures. Thirteen of her shingle-and-stone, Arts and Crafts-style buildings, intended to evoke harmony with nature, still stand, while more contemporary structures echo the theme. 

Tradition and tranquility factor large in Asilomar’s appeal, along with the center’s ability to simultaneously host events as diverse as rock music camps, tech seminars and gatherings of scientific associations, spiritual groups, academics and families. 

“Our business is about 75 percent meetings, 25 percent leisure,” says Tim McGill, Asilomar’s director of sales and marketing. “We really have two businesses in one.”

On the meetings side, Asilomar has undergone changes since Aramark, the facilities services provider that also operates concessions at Yosemite National Park, Hearst Castle and other marquis attractions, took over management in 2006. A new, all-inclusive pricing model for meeting groups was instituted. “We were determined to evaluate customer needs and build our model around them instead of nickel and diming everything separately,” says Mairead Hennessy, Northern California district manager for Aramark. Now, she adds, pricing is figured on a per-person basis tiered on single, double, triple or quad occupancy, with meals, taxes, service charges—“everything except A/V”—included in the bundled rate. 

Lodging at Asilomar is spread among three dozen buildings, some freestanding, some connected. Most complexes feature a common room with fireplace that can be reserved for meetings or utilized on a casual basis. The largest venue, Merrill Hall, can seat 650 theater-style, while a 100-foot-by- 100-foot tent is erected annually to serve as an exhibit space for the property’s largest recurring event, an ecological farming conference that draws 1,100 attendees. 

On the IT side, high-speed Wi-Fi is provided free in guest rooms, while 500 mpbs of broadband is available to meeting groups and can be funneled to specific venues.

But, it’s the low-tech side of Asilomar that most distinguishes it from other venues. By tradition and intent, there are no TVs or phones in the guest rooms. Conference attendees on breaks and in their off-hours get a big dose of fresh air, whether strolling to Asilomar State Beach along boardwalks traversing ecologically sensitive sand dunes, gathering around the roaring fireplace in the Social Hall or toasting s’mores at a fire pit.

“It’s a different experience, a campus feel, the opportunity to go low tech, to take breaks outdoors, to really interact with people,” says McGill. “The fact that we’re sitting here in the middle of nature makes people act and think differently.”