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“The region’s natural beauty, combined with phenomenal meeting services, puts this area on the cutting edge of the industry,” says Anne Auburn, national account director for the Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau and an executive board member of the Central Coast Tourism Council. “With Silicon Valley in our backyard and the Pacific Ocean in our front yard, it’s a place where innovation and adventure intersect.”

VENTURA

Ventura’s setting along the southern tip of the Central Coast—one hour northwest of Los Angeles—offers great inspiration for meeting planners, says Jim Luttjohann, executive director of the Ventura Visitors & Convention Bureau.

Certain to meet any group’s leisure needs, he says, are a one-hour boat trip to the Channel Islands National Park (14 miles off the coast) for whale watching and scuba diving; walks along the beach or through the bucolic countryside; and miles of bike trails.

Visitors also can enjoy year-round surfing, fishing, shopping, dining, wine-tasting, live music and more in historic downtown Ventura, along with tours of the area’s growing wine trail. The popular Ventura Harbor is home to the Channel Islands National Park Visitors Center, as well as a fresh seafood market.

Ventura’s prime locale lends itself to a range of meeting spaces, including waterfront sites, historic settings, award-winning golf courses and sailing vessels. “We are one of the few places that offers meeting space in a beachfront, mountain and island setting,” Luttjohann says. “We have a national park in [front of us] and mountains behind us.”

One of the area’s largest meeting venues is the Ventura County Fairgrounds, with 135,000 sq. ft. of indoor exhibit space in a variety of facilities and 150,000 sq. ft. of oceanside parkland.

The city’s hotels are ideal for theater-style gatherings of up to 800 and range from The Pierpont Inn & Spa, a historic 77-room property built in 1910 with 10,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, to the 258-room Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach, next to the historic Ventura Pier, with more than 19,000 sq. ft. of space.

Those looking for more eclectic settings for their meetings can check out Working Artists Ventura, a LEED-certified live-work space for artists downtown with a small indoor space and outdoor event courtyard, and the recently renovated Museum of Ventura County, with a new 3,500-square-foot event pavilion that can seat 200 for dinner and 140 more guests on the front plaza. Luttjohann says planners also request meeting options such as farm dinners, where chefs prepare a meal using local produce served at a table set up amid the crops.

   Pismo Beach Pier at sunset, image courtesy of Pismo Beach CVB

SANTA BARBARA

This area has earned the moniker “American Riviera” due to the iconic whitewashed buildings with red-tiled roofs complementing the mountains and sea. Once visitors arrive in Santa Barbara—90 miles north of L.A.—they will find a walkable city that was recently honored by the North Carolina-based Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center Association as one of 11 “Walk Friendly Communities” in the U.S. The city also was named one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “Dozen Distinctive Destinations” in 2009 for its cultural and recreational experiences.

“Santa Barbara offers the best of California’s lifestyle in a beautiful small-town setting with big-city amenities,” says Catherine Puccino, director of sales for the Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau and Film Commission. Visitors to downtown’s historic arts district and waterfront area can enjoy annual festivals such as Epicure.sb, showcasing 100-plus food-related events from winemaker dinners to epicurean-inspired art exhibits throughout October, as well as outdoor concerts starring popular performers from Steely Dan to Janet Jackson through November at the 4,562-seat Santa Barbara Bowl. Tours are another popular pastime, Puccino says, including waterfall hikes, gourmet dining on the beach and the Santa Barbara Downtown Urban Wine Trail.

Meeting planners appreciate the city’s manageable size, diverse venues and leisure activities that can be worked into their programs, Puccino says. The area’s major venues include the Santa Barbara County Courthouse downtown, with the 6,700-square-foot Mural Room, featuring scenes from California’s history painted in 1929 by American artist Daniel Sayre Groesbeck; the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, founded in 1916, with multiple indoor and outdoor special function spaces; and Ty Warner Sea Center, on Stearns Wharf, with a two-story reception hall sporting life-size models of California gray whales. The Granada, a historic 1924 theater downtown, recently reopened following a $60 million restoration and can accommodate large or small presentations, conferences and other special events. Other larger meeting spots include the Santa Barbara Zoo and Santa Barbara Maritime Museum.

Planners looking to hold meetings at one of the area’s hotels or resorts can choose from 168 properties, ranging from 35 beachfront spots to guest ranches. Included are the Bacara Resort & Spa on 78 sprawling beachfront acres along the Gaviota coast; the historic coastal Hyatt Santa Barbara (formerly Hotel Mar Monte); the Canary Hotel, a boutique property downtown; Fess Parker’s DoubleTree by Hilton Resort Santa Barbara, a Four-Diamond property including the 20,000-square-foot Plaza Del Sol overlooking the ocean; and the Five-Diamond Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara on Montecito’s Butterfly Beach.

“The Four Seasons Biltmore stood out as having the best service we have ever experienced,” says Jennifer Prusa, president of the Kansas City-based meeting and marketing company Chameleon Resources Inc. Prusa helped choose Santa Barbara as the site of an annual meeting for her client, Bakery Equipment Manufacturers and Allieds, an international association of bakery and food equipment manufacturers and suppliers.

 “We had visited Santa Barbara before, about 10 years ago, and our 2011 chairman remembered it as one of his favorite destinations,” she says. “There are so many things to do in this area; it appeals to foodies, families, wine enthusiasts, surfers, sailors, hikers—everyone.”

The meeting attracted 250 attendees for what was one of the industry’s biggest networking events ever, complete with a team-building softball game for board members at nearby Dwight Murphy Field and dine-around nights at restaurants such as Olio e Limone Ristorante and Bouchon Santa Barbara.

Those interested in local offerings that blend with the area’s lifestyle can head to El Capitan Canyon, a resort offering 320 acres of nature with lodging in 108 cedar cabins and 26 deluxe safari tents, along with 5,700 sq. ft. of covered meeting space. In Santa Barbara wine country, properties include The Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort in Santa Ynez Valley with 73 rooms, the luxurious 122-room Hotel Corque in Solvang and 149-room Marriott Santa Ynez Valley.

Creative experiences can be customized to each group’s objectives at several off-site venues, including golf cart polo at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club; a ranch-style supper at Flag Is Up Farms, home of The Man Who Listens to Horses author Monty Roberts; and wine-making at Carr Vineyards and Winery.

   Carmel Valley Ranch

SAN LUIS OBISPO

San Luis Obispo (SLO to locals)—along the famous Highway 1, about 200 miles north of L.A.—offers meeting planners a first-class experience at an affordable price, says Molly Cano, director of sales and marketing for the San Luis Obispo County Visitors & Conference Bureau, which covers the entire county from Pismo Beach to San Simeon.

“I think that the opportunity we provide is the full experience we have to offer,” Cano says. “Whether it’s a beach experience or the city center or wine country, we can offer a lot of what you would find in other destinations in California, but at that affordable price tag.”

Not only is there so much to see and do—from 300 wineries to Main Street’s popular Thursday Night Farmers Market—the town of 45,000 also has been tagged “Happy Town, USA” following a mention as the “Happiest Town in America” (based on quality of life and personal well-being) in Thrive by National Geographic author Dan Buettner.

Contributing to the town’s happiness factor are its charming shops, restaurants and galleries in turn-of-the-century mercantile buildings in a walkable downtown. The Thursday Night Farmers Market, held weekly on downtown’s Higuera Street, offers fresh-picked fruit and vegetables, flowers, tri-tip ribs and live entertainment, while the Art After Dark gallery walk on the first Friday of each month invites guests to view exhibits in more than 20 local galleries and nontraditional art venues.

Numerous special events take place annually, from the SLO International Film Festival in the spring to Sunset magazine’s Savor the Central Coast food and wine event in the fall. Other oft-visited attractions include the 1772 Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (California’s fifth mission and one of 21 historic buildings on SLO’s “path of history” tour), as well as more than 3,000 acres of vineyards and 300 wineries in Paso Robles and the Edna and Arroyo Grande valleys. The Santa Lucia mountain range, coastline and steep volcanic peaks, along with near-perfect weather year-round, also make SLO a great place for hiking, biking, running, golfing, kayaking, surfing and rock climbing.

“With all of these great ways to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life, SLO is the perfect spot to enjoy a corporate retreat and to connect and regroup in a place away from technology and business,” says Lindsey Miller, director of marketing for the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce.

The city and its surroundings typically host groups of 50–200, with hotels best equipped for breakout sessions, including the 195-room Embassy Suites San Luis Obispo, with 12,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, and the 132-room Courtyard San Luis Obispo, offering 5,000 sq. ft. of space. The Madonna Inn, a landmark resort on the coast, is a sought-after meeting spot with more than 20,000 sq. ft. of space for groups of up to 2,600 in its Alex Madonna Expo Center, while the secluded setting of the Cambria Pines Lodge, in the San Simeon area, also is popular among groups of 40–400.

Those who want to incorporate activities into their meetings can head to SLO’s beaches, one of its 300 wineries or a local farm or ranch. “You’re able to get outdoors and do different types of team-building experiences instead of meeting in a traditional location,” the CVB’s Cano says. “You can meet at wineries or take your group to milk goats and learn how to work together and problem-solve in a destination you’d never be able to experience in L.A.”

Within SLO County, planners should check out nearby Pismo Beach for its beauty, weather and price, says Suzen Brasile, executive director of the Pismo Beach Conference & Visitors Bureau. “This is the classic California place to meet, with gorgeous ocean views from conference and meeting rooms,” she says.

Main facilities include the recently remodeled Cliffs Resort and Four-Star Dolphin Bay Resort & Spa, each offering 3,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor meeting space. Other selections, which can hold 46–180 guests, include the Edgewater Inn, Hilton Garden Inn San Luis Obispo–Pismo Beach, Sea Venture and Pismo Lighthouse Suites.

Off-site meeting options range from La Perla del Mar, a converted church with 1,800 sq. ft. for groups of up to 150, to F. McLintock’s Saloon & Dining House with its world-famous pours and room for up to 150. The beach also is a great spot to barbecue and interact under tiki torches.

When downtime presents itself, meeting-goers can tour the rooms and grounds of the 115-room Hearst Castle (a national historic landmark designed by architect Julia Morgan); view the state’s largest count of Monarchs at the Monarch Butterfly Grove from November to March; take a Humvee tour or rent an ATV at the towering sand dunes (where movies such as The Ten Commandments and Pirates of the Caribbean were filmed); or head to Pismo Beach Premium Outlets for some serious retail therapy.

The nearby town of Paso Robles, in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains, along Highway 101, also is popular with planners for its beautiful vineyard-covered hills, oak groves, scenic coastal mountain views and charming historic venues.

“Paso Robles is the place where groups can loosen up their ties, breathe a little deeper and experience a new meeting adventure,” says Maryann Stansfield, marketing manager for the Travel Paso Robles Alliance. “Visitors can slow down, relax and remember the way things used to be while they stroll the thriving historic downtown square; shop at artisan boutiques; go wine, olive oil, cheese or nut tasting; golf; take a hot-air balloon ride; or skydive.”

Small to midsized groups will find a pleasing array of serene yet sophisticated meeting options, from intimate locales amid vineyards to historic grand hotel ballrooms. The largest gathering site is the Paso Robles Event Center, which can accommodate up to 1,100 indoors for seated receptions, dinners or meetings in the 11,993-square-foot San Luis Obispo Pavilion and 18,624-square-foot Commercial Building Two. Outdoor facilities include the Equestrian Center, with seating for up to 14,500; Frontier Town, holding 360; and the new Mission Square for 60 guests.

The city’s hotels can fit groups of up to 300, including Hotel Cheval; La Bellasera Hotel & Suites; Hampton Inn & Suites; Courtyard by Marriott; Paso Robles Inn; Holiday Inn Express & Suites; and La Quinta Inn & Suites.

More than 200 wineries also offer meeting and event space, while corporate team-building activities include Harris Stage Lines’ ranch games, stagecoach driving lessons, old-fashioned barbecues and the First Crush Harvest Wine Grape Escapes for a hands-on look at wine-making and blending. Meeting attendees also can attend a cooking or art class, make their own goat cheese, pick their own berries or attend a group golf lesson.

   Four Seasons The Biltmore Santa Barbara

MONTEREY

With 99 miles of breathtaking Pacific coastline, Monterey has become known worldwide for its natural beauty. As John Ehlenfeldt, regional director of sales for the Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau, says, “Why not choose a destination that will increase attendance, inspire your participants and make your work easier?”

Some of the area’s many attractions and activities include the Monterey Bay Aquarium (with more than 35,000 creatures representing 550-plus species of sea life) and Cannery Row (a street of shops, galleries and restaurants renamed in 1958 in honor of the John Steinbeck book of the same name), along with numerous tours; hiking and biking; historic buildings; and a thriving art scene. Monterey County also is one of the state’s largest grape-growing regions, harvesting more than 45,000 acres.

The variety of the area’s natural resources is matched only by its hotel and resort options, with more than 250 properties countywide and 400,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. One of the major venues is the downtown Monterey Conference Center, with 2,000 group hotel rooms within a three-mile radius. The center can accommodate groups of up to 1,700 participants in 41,000 sq. ft. of space.

Top hotels in the area include the Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel & Spa; Hilton Garden Inn Monterey; Monterey Marriott; Embassy Suites Monterey Bay-Seaside; Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa; and Portola Hotel & Spa.

One of the most interesting off-site meeting spots is the aquarium, where groups of 30–3,000 can hold seated dinners or informal strolling buffets among the attraction’s 200 galleries and exhibits. Other spots for team-building activities include the Del Monte Beach House, Chateau Julien Wine Estate, Vision Quest Ranch, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and Clint Eastwood’s Mission Ranch (with dinner, and possibly, a guest piano appearance by the actor and former Carmel mayor).

Just down the Monterey Peninsula, in Pacific Grove, the 312-room Asilomar Conference Grounds can accommodate groups of 10–1,000 in 30,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Merrill Hall, the largest meeting room, can hold 500.

Carmel Valley Ranch, on almost 500 acres in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains, recently renovated all 139 rooms, added a full-service spa and two resort pools, and beautified the 18-hole Pete Dye-designed golf course. 

  Kelp Forest at Monterey Bay Aquarium

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