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The Charms of Catalina Island

By Barbara Beckley

So close and yet so far! This is the magic of Santa Catalina Island—or Catalina, as it’s widely known—that attracts groups from Google to Otis Elevators and Honda to the Milken Institute to its quaint little towns, sunny beaches and green, mountainous interior.

“Catalina is part of Greater LA, but you feel like you’re a thousand miles away,” says Rudy Alvarez, Catalina Island Company’s director of sales. “Catalina is unique and different from anything else in Southern California.”

Floating 22 miles off Greater Los Angeles’ coast, the 76-square-mile island is packed with delegate-pleasing meeting facilities, hotels and group adventures. Two tiny towns—bustling 2.7-square-mile Avalon on the east end and laid-back Two Harbors, population approximately 150, on the west end—provide “city” pleasures. The rest of the island is protected and undeveloped.

It’s also a meeting planner’s best-kept secret. “I didn’t know this existed!” is the most frequent comment from first-time attendees, according to Alvarez. But once groups discover Catalina, they tend to return.


“This is one of the best meeting we’ve ever been to,” declared Meeting Professionals International Southern California Chapter delegates following their March 2018 Catalina gathering, as Alvarez recalls. “Catalina is fresh and new,” the MPI organizers noted. Liz Schleder, marketing associate and event coordinator for Huntington Beach-based Bartco Lighting, has brought groups to Catalina twice a year for the past five years. “My attendees tell me they love the charm of the community and that they can walk everywhere in Avalon,” she says.

With some 800 guest rooms, Catalina can compete with the capacity of a mega hotel, with key distinctions, Alvarez says. “We’re not a building. We’re an island. Groups regularly use four to seven hotels. Everyone has a bit of a different hotel experience, but then they go outside and share the exact same experiences.”

Only a few hotels have meeting space—a benefit that actually adds to the island’s allure, notes Alvarez. “Think of Front Street as the hotel lobby, and the waterfront as the corridor to all your meeting space. We always have transportation on hand, but attendees hardly use it. They prefer to walk along the beachfront to their meeting destination.”

The size of groups gathering in Catalina varies, says Lisa Lavelle, operations manager for Catalina Tours, an island-based destination management company. She’s coordinated meetings from eight to 140 attendees. Alvarez has done programs for up to 400 guests, and events up for as many as 1,000, with attendees staying from a half-day lunch to two or three days.

No matter the gathering’s length or agenda, be it a retreat, team-building or sales meetings, the time is generally divided between meetings and play, Lavelle says.

“Catalina is like a staycation on a California island,” enthuses Schleder. She uses Catalina as a wow-factor day trip during four-day business meetings in Huntington Beach. She begins the program with the Avalon Tasting & Walking Tour, the Jeep Eco Tour or the Discover the Casino Tour. “In three hours, attendees can see so much, they know where they want to go during free time.” The day trip ends with dinner in groups of about 10 delegates each at Avalon restaurants like the Lobster Trap and Coyote Joe’s before departing for the mainland.

So, what do the Catalina pros want firsttime planners to know?

“Catalina is easy to package,” says Schleder. “It’s easy to reserve ferry tickets and upgrade attendees to the Catalina Express Commodore Lounge; easy to arrange tours and easy to set up meals at the restaurants.” Lavelle adds a tip: Book six to 12 months out.


Hotel revamps, new attractions, new meeting space, and new shops and restaurants are transforming Catalina into a “worldclass experience,” says Alvarez.

The historic 94-room Hotel Atwater in Avalon is set to re-open in mid-2019 as a bright and sophisticated property following a major revamp. Look for a new airy lobby for cocktails, an elevator, a new restaurant, 740 square feet of new function space and retooled rooms and suites with custom furnishings and expanded bathrooms.

The brand-new Trailhead Visitor Center by Catalina Island Conservancy is expected to open late in 2018 in downtown Avalon. The contemporary-style, multilevel structure will be Catalina’s first LEED-certified building. The Center will house exhibits and educational spaces showcasing the story of Catalina’s natural history, wilderness and beauty, as well as a small café, and will provide information on island hiking, biking and camping.

New in 2015, Catherine’s Terrace at Descanso Beach brought meetings to the beach, with a bright and breezy great room featuring a fireplace and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the ocean, and an oceanview canopied balcony, for groups of 20-200 participants. And in Two Harbors, the Harbor Sands at Two Harbor upped the group experience with new stylishly rustic furnished palapas for up to eight people, beachfront lounge chairs, and an enhanced group picnic area that can accommodate hundreds.

Also new in 2017, the Catalina Aerial Adventure and Descanso Drop Tower in Descanso Canyon, added to the outdoor thrills. Wilbur used the aerial adventure for a sky-high team-building session when she brought a group from the Milken Institute to Catalina.


Unique and beautiful venues for up to 1,400 people are located throughout Catalina. In Avalon, the landmark Catalina Casino Ballroom is the largest contiguous historic ballroom in the country, with 29,000 square feet of pillarless space for up to 1,400 attendees, and on-site catering.

The Descanso Beach Club features an event lawn, with a stage overlooking the ocean; a private beachside setting with two fire pits; luxury cabanas; and facilities for cocktails, music and dining on the sand for groups of up to 1,200.

For smaller gatherings, Overlook Hall, built in 1929 as a small church, and repurposed and renovated in 2010 as an event space, accommodates up to 125 attendees. Its upstairs Sanctuary has 1,200 square feet of open space with beamed ceilings, a raised stage, and an outdoor deck facing the ocean. The Catalina Country Club, a Spanish Mediterranean-style building adjacent to the golf course, welcomes events of up to 120. The M Event Venue by Zest Catering & Events, Inc., next to the Hotel Metropole, accommodates several dozen guests.

For outdoorsy soirees, the Catalina Island Conservancy offers several spectacular event locations from the Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden, to dramatic seafront clifftops and secluded oceanfront coves.

Many of Avalon’s restaurants welcome groups, including El Galleon Steakhouse, Mi Casita Mexican Restaurant, Antonio’s Pizzeria & Cabaret and Steven’s Steakhouse.

In Two Harbors, the Harbor Reef Restaurant is ideal for groups of up to 100, and the scenic outdoor spaces at Harbor Sands welcome larger events.


From scenic drives to hiking excursions, sailing adventures to foodie tours, rental golf carts and electric bikes to spa sessions, Catalina has something for every group’s interests.

Favorite tours for meeting groups, according to Lavelle, include the Avalon Scenic Tour, the Jeep Eco-Tour, Avalon Tasting & Walking Tour and the Catalina Happy Hour Tour. As a DMC, Lavelle’s company can arrange custom packages and group team activities on land and sea.

It wouldn’t be Catalina without water sports. Groups can enjoy tours to Frog Rock, kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals, sightseeing on a glassbottom boat, semi-sub excursions, parasail rides and Jet Ski rentals. For group sails, Afishinados Charters has its Catallac power catamaran for up to 49 people, with a sound system, a beer and wine bar, a food-service area for catering and a large screen TV suitable for slide shows.

Island Spa Catalina welcomes groups to enjoy its 15,000 square feet of pampering including nine treatment rooms and suites, a café and second-floor relaxation deck with ocean views.

High adventure group favorites include the Zip Line Eco Tour, and Catalina Aerial Adventure.


When hotel meeting space is important, several hotels offer excellent facilities. The 75-room Holiday Inn Resort Catalina Island is the island’s only full-service property and offers one of the largest meeting spaces at more than 5,000 square feet of naturally-lit inside and outside function space in four event venues. It also features the Seaport Bistro at Holiday Inn Resort, an outdoor pool and a European-style day spa.

The Hotel Metropole overlooks the beach and features 52 guest rooms and several event venues for up to 150 attendees: the newly renovated Beach House Suite for small gatherings; the Conference Room; the M Event Venue by Zest Catering & Events, Inc.; and the outdoor Metropole Marketplace.

Events with panoramic city and harbor views for up to 40 people are available on the Hotel St. Lauren’s rooftop sundeck, along with two function rooms for up to 25 people each. The Hotel Catalina & Courtyard Garden Suites offers the Owner’s Penthouse, a luxurious 1,800-square-foot Euro-style space, featuring terraces with sweeping views, a private elevator, a living room with beamed ceilings and a fireplace, to accommodate up to 50 for cocktails and 16 for meetings.

The Avalon Hotel features a rooftop deck for small sessions, and the elegant six-room Mt. Ada inn is available for buyouts.

In Two Harbors, the historic 12-room Banning House Lodge is ideal for retreats and think tanks.


Catalina Express offers up to 30 daily departures from San Pedro, Long Beach and Dana Point. Group discounts are available for 20 or more adults traveling round-trip together. Planners frequently upgrade groups to the Commodore Lounge for an additional $15 per person one way, which includes preboarding, a beverage and snack, cabin attendance, reclining leather seats and large viewing windows. Catalina also is accessible by helicopter, private plane and private yacht charters.