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Orange County is a Meeting Planner’s Oasis

By M+E Staff

The weather in Orange County is sublime, with an average year-round temperature of 70 degrees. The shopping is unsurpassed, with destinations that include Fashion Island in Newport Beach, Irvine Spectrum Center and South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa. The vibe is bohemian (Laguna Beach), Coastal Chic (Newport Beach and Dana Point), business casual (Orange, Irvine, Anaheim, and Garden Grove) and laid-back surfer (Huntington Beach). 

Home to the largest convention center on the West Coast, Orange County is also where you’ll find the happiest place on earth, and because there’s folly mixed in with the magic, it’s also the birthplace of “The Real Housewives.” And when you’re not bumping into Mickey Mouse at Disneyland, you might just spot a whale off the coast of Newport Beach or Dana Point. 

When it comes to venues, the range of options is vast, from theme parks (Great Wolf Lodge and Knott’s Berry Farm join Disney in offering fun for every age) to museums, from wineries and breweries to concert halls and stadiums. The diversity of accommodations is likewise vast—with options for every budget point—and the restaurant scene is on fire. 

Considering all this, it’s no surprise that when you ask Chip Stuckmeyer, senior vice president, global sales and marketing, for the Orange County Visitors Association, what makes the OC an attractive spot to hold a meeting he spends a full two minutes ticking off the top reasons.

“We’re the heart of Southern California,” he says. “We have 42 miles of coastline, some of the most beautiful beaches in California and the best climate in the world, bar none. Our location is unmatchable; we’re a one-hour drive south of Los Angeles and an hour north of San Diego. We’re also a one-hour flight from San Francisco and Las Vegas, with three airports in the area— John Wayne, LAX and Long Beach. We have 36 golf courses, from public courses to the world-renowned courses at Pelican Hill and Monarch Beach. For meeting planners, there are 500 hotels to choose among, which represents more than 55,000 guest rooms. From behind-the-scenes tours at Disneyland to boat experiences of every sort— harbor cruises, ultra-luxurious yachts or small Duffy boats—you can do it all here.”

Junior Tauvaa, senior vice president of sales and services for Visit Anaheim, agrees. He points out that while “the competition is pretty fierce,” Orange County offers advantages to meeting planners that set it apart from other Southern California destinations. “What separates us from Santa Barbara or San Diego is the level and diversity of our hotel products,” he says. “San Diego is a great destination, but we can often be more competitive with them on price point as well as on the variety of experiences we can create on our coastline. Plus, Anaheim’s convention center is significantly larger.”

Orange County has four AAA Five Diamond properties, all of which are coastal resorts: Montage Laguna Beach, Monarch Beach Resort in Dana Point, The Ritz Carlton, Laguna Niguel, and The Resort at Pelican Hill on the Newport Coast. “These can compete with any luxury resort in Santa Barbara or San Diego,” Tauvaa says.

In addition, Orange County is home to 10 AAA Four Diamond Resorts, including The Disneyland Hotel; Disney’s Grand California Hotel & Spa; Avenue of the Arts Costa Mesa; Blue Lantern Inn and Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa in Dana Point; Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa and The Waterfront Beach Resort, A Hilton Hotel, also in Huntington Beach; Laguna’s Surf & Sand Resort, and Newport Beach’s Island Hotel, and Balboa Bay Resort.

“Throughout Orange County, there’s tremendous flexibility in venues and properties, so meeting planners can create their own experiences that fit the needs of their groups perfectly,” Tauvaa says, 

Spotlight on Anaheim

In a feat of planning worthy of Disneyland imagineers, the city of Anaheim is changing in two very different ways that somehow are coming together to add new vibrancy to this city.

First, it’s going big: The $190 million expansion of the Anaheim Convention Center, which will be completed this fall, adds more than 200,000 square feet of meeting space, including 100,000 square feet of column-free space. That brings the total square footage to 1.8 million, including over one million square feet of exhibit space, a 7,500-seat arena, three ballrooms, 99 meeting rooms and 200,000 square feet of outdoor plazas. “The outdoor space, which is lined with palm trees, is unique for a convention center,” says Tauvaa. “I’ve seen groups use it for yoga and for food truck receptions.” 

Keeping true to California’s eco-mindset, the center is LEED-certified, with a LEED Gold rating for programs that include on-site “Green Zone” recycling, composting, energy and water conservation, solar panels and the use of green, sustainable products and materials

Despite its size, the ACC is easy to traverse. “It’s a very walkable campus,” says Julia O’Brien, sales director, Visit Anaheim. Three large, modern hotels are on the plazas; the Anaheim Marriott (1,030 guest rooms), Hilton Anaheim (1,030 rooms) and Sheraton Park Hotel at the Anaheim Resort (490 rooms), with a total of 275,000 square feet of newly renovated function space. “We’re one of the biggest hotels in Orange County,” says Alex Shotwell, director of sales and marketing for the Anaheim Marriott, “but we don’t overlook the small details. For example, nFuse Bar has a dedicated bar director and sommelier, Chris Yee, who makes his own bitters and infusions.”

When you add in properties like Great Wolf Lounge Southern California and Hyatt Regency Orange County, as well as the nearby Disney hotels, there’s a total of 8,600 commit – table rooms in large hotels within three miles of the convention center.

And more are on their way. Several new AAA Four Diamond properties are being built in the Convention Center/Disneyland area over the next few years, including a 700- room luxury hotel on the north end of the Downtown Disney parking lot, a 580-room property near Disney California Adventure, and a 600-room hotel with 41,000 square feet of meeting space on the site of what is now The Anabella Hotel. 

An eight-minute, half-mile walk from the convention center brings visitors to the newly opened House of Blues. There’s 40,000 square feet of space, four rooms and four stages, add – ing up to a total capacity of 3,300 guests. The décor combines industrial chic with artwork by local muralists and other artists, and pro – vides endless opportunities for brand activa – tion. “There’s nothing else like it,” says Katie Pederson, the venue’s special events director. “We’re already booking well into 2019.” Companies on the books include Google, Honda and Taco Bell. 

Along with all the large-scale growth, Anaheim is rediscovering its small-town roots. Downtown Anaheim is flourishing for locals and visitors alike with the Packing House, a former citrus-packing facility that is now a booming communal food hall with more than 20 artisanal eateries offering everything from tacos, pizza and burgers, to banh mi, hot pot and snow cones. The Packing District is also home to a thriving craft brewery scene, featuring Unsung Brewing and Anaheim Brewery alongside wine bars and craft cocktails. Muzeo Museum and Cultural Center is nearby, as is Center Street Promenade, with outdoor cafés, small eateries and boutique shops. For private events, the museum has a 5,000-square-foot main gallery with four overhead LCD projectors with drop-down screens and two outdoor spaces.

Spotlight on The Ranch at Laguna Beach

This easily accessible, rustic chic property in a coastal canyon in Laguna Beach offers luxurious seclusion without straying too far off the beaten path. The Ranch at Laguna Beach is just a pedestrian tunnel away from the beach and the oceanfront Montage Laguna Beach Resort (only 350 yards off the water and tucked into the canyon). The Ranch LB is a serene, hidden gem with 97 residential guest rooms and suites scattered across the park-like grounds, which abut the beloved Ben Brown’s public golf course. It’s the perfect setting for a corporate retreat. 

The property dates back to 1871 when George and Sarah Thurston claimed a 152- acre homestead with a one-room wooden shack. The property has gone through several ownerships and iterations since the nine-hole golf course was built in the 1940s. It has been known as Ben Brown’s Motel & Golf Course and as Aliso Creek Inn & Golf Course, and even served as a camping and activity site for the Girl Scouts and the YMCA (now known as Scout Camp). After being gutted down to its studs in 2014, the property reopened in December 2016 with the Harvest restaurant, which features stunning canyon views and elevated California comfort cuisine. 

The Ranch LB is available for buyout, but Tolbert points out that even with occupancy of just 40 or 50 rooms, yours will likely be the only group on property. Team-building activities include the Scout Camp Ranch Challenge, where teams compete to collect “spirit coins” in activities like Ranch Pong, Rubber Chicken Slingshot, bocce ball, camp relays and Giant Scrabble: Camp Edition. Recreational activities such as disc golf, a lowropes course, drum circles, teepee painting and storytelling provide countless options for visiting groups. 

Spotlight on Newport Beach

This sophisticated coastal town isn’t always at the top of a meeting planner’s destination list, but it’s a more-than-worthy competitor nonetheless, says Michelle Donahue, senior vice president of sales for Visit Newport Beach. Donahue often receives RFPs from planners who have “been to San Diego, they’ve done Las Vegas, Los Angeles, even Palm Springs,” she says. “They’ve tried many of the larger SoCal destinations and now they’re ready for a boutique destination.” 

At 50 square miles, half of which is water, and without a convention center, Newport  Beach “is a place you can wrap your arms around, a place where intimately regional experiences and services are tailored to planners’ programs, as opposed to preconceived attractions sold on size and grandeur,” says Donahue. “In Newport Beach, guests become part of our community, taking part in a lifestyle that celebrates the best of what our seaside oasis has to offer.” And after visiting Newport Beach for the first time, planners typically return, Donahue says, “not just with their groups, but with family or friends for leisure trips.”

“The city has a duality that’s incredibly appealing,” she continues. “We offer super high-end, refined experiences, but also casual California. The harbor is our crown jewel and you can cruise it, looking at multimilliondollar celebrity homes in a luxury yacht or in a Duffy boat.” (As Donahue points out, the Duffy Boat Scavenger Hunt won Best Team-Building Activity in the 2016 Best of California Meetings + Events.) 

Other popular group experiences include hiking Crystal Cove State Park, with its 3.2 miles of beach; touring the city on Pedego electric bikes, with stops for a date shake; visiting lovely Balboa Island; kayaking or paddleboarding and then enjoying a toesin-the-sand barbecue; golfing; a make-yourown-succulent-garden experience at Roger’s Gardens; and a roll-your-own sushi option at Roy’s, the Hawaiian-fusion restraint at Fashion Island. 

Visit Newport Beach has a sales staff of nine that services seven hotels (including The Duke Hotel Newport Beach; Radisson Hotel Newport Beach; Hyatt Regency Newport Beach; Newport Beach Marriott Hotel & Spa; Newport Beach Marriott Bayview; Island Hotel, and Balboa Bay Resort). That means that “no meeting is too small” for the destination marketing organization, says Donahue. “It’s a competitive advantage that we have,” she continues. “Other CVBs may have only one or two people, but we can really dig into each RFP, even taking planners on a helicopter tour to get the full scope of what Newport Beach offers.”