San Francisco combines beauty with business
More than 21,000 Condé Nast Traveler readers voted in the magazine’s most recent Readers Choice awards contest, and once again, San Francisco ranked No. 1—for the 18th time.
There’s something about the city—whether it’s the location, bordered by San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, the rich cultural scene or its vibrant neighborhoods—that captures people’s affection. And that’s not even to mention the passion for good food and fine wine so prevalent here.
But San Francisco, and its corresponding Bay Area, is also a top vote-getter with planners as a good place to do business, a fact no different in the current meetings climate than any other. Plus, planners and meeting-goers know they can have a great experience in San Francisco, says Leonard Hoops, executive vice president and chief customer officer for the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Attendance increases when you hold a meeting here.”
With that fact in mind, the following is an overview of San Francisco and the greater Bay Area, including special offers for meeting groups in 2009 and 2010.
San Francisco is a city of icons, both natural and manmade, from San Francisco Bay and the city’s seven rollercoaster hills to the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and Coit Tower. They provide the backdrop and a sense of place for groups who can soak up neighborhood flavor in and around Moscone Center and still get a taste of the city.
Best known to meeting-goers is the cultural hub that surrounds Moscone, which has blossomed in the past few years with the openings of new museums, like the Museum of the African Diaspora and the brand-new Contemporary Jewish Museum, which join the renowned San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Only blocks away, across Market Street (downtown’s main artery), is Union Square, a bastion of trendy stores and boutiques, restaurants and a fabled cable car line that climbs up to the top of Nob Hill. Meetings hotels, like the InterContinental, the San Francisco Marriott, Parc 55 Hotel and The Westin St. Francis, are centered around Moscone and the Union Square area, making venues and thousands of guest rooms within reasonable walking distance of one another.
Moscone is also part of SoMa, or South of Market—the hip and happening nexis of the former dot-com era that has nonetheless reinvented itself as still hip and happening. Two other famous neighborhoods are nearby and walkable in good, sturdy shoes. North Beach, the hub for all things Italian, thrums with outdoor cafes, restaurants and bars, punctuated with the delicious aroma of roasting coffee beans. It’s lively during the day—and equally, if not more so, at night. Then there’s Chinatown (the oldest and largest in the U.S.), an intriguing jumble of streets, alleys, apothecary shops, markets, noodle houses and restaurants.
Another icon, the San Francisco Ferry Building, anchors the foot of Market Street, lapped by the bay. Along with its function as an embarkation point for ferries to the East Bay and Marin County, the restored landmark houses an array of stalls featuring scrumptious local, artisan food products (you can also arrange events here). Its Embarcadero neighborhood has grown as a popular destination for dining and nightlife. Boutique hotels, like the Vitale and Griffon, are part of the vibe.
Major Meeting Venues
Last December, the city of San Francisco created a Tourism Improvement District for two downtown “zones,” giving the CVB a solid position to sell and to service meetings going forward—an act that couldn’t be more timely. The TID assessment also provides the funds to conduct studies into the improvement and expansion of Moscone Center, which currently has 800,000 sq. ft. of space in the three halls (North, South and newer West) combined. Moving right ahead, the bureau expects to have year-one of a five-year plan outlined and ready this month.
Until recently, the city was on track for 2009 to become its best year ever, based on the amount of contracted room nights. Instead, 2009 will probably wind up as an average year, Hoops says.
But the economy has an upside for the city, as well. “If a group is hotel price-sensitive, it’s been a challenge for several years to match them up with a property,” he says. “It’s giving us an opportunity to work with a much broader group of customers [like SMERF, government, state associations].”
And there’s also a new upside for planners: a 35 percent discount off Moscone rates through 2010, according to Hoops. “I like to make a car analogy,” he says. “We have a premium product—like BMW, Mercedes, Lexus. Now we have a premium product priced as a mid-sized sedan.”
A new meetings option, in one of San Francisco’s new neighborhoods (near the AT&T ballpark), is the Mission Bay Conference Center at UCSF. This facility, on the university’s teaching and research campus, features 12,500 sq. ft. of space and 10 dedicated conference rooms, an auditorium and banquet room. Day meeting packages are available.
Heading north over the Golden Gate Bridge takes you to Marin County, a world apart from San Francisco’s urban core. Its towns are laid-back and casual, with an underlying elegance, and its open spaces are exactly that—state parks, preserved hills and meadows, and protected agricultural land. Its landmark Mount Tamalpais rises 2,571 feet, and both bay and ocean provide boundaries as well as recreational opportunities.
Meeting venues, many of which are eco-friendly, are spread throughout the county. At the base of the bridge in Sausalito, at Fort Baker, you’ll find the newest meetings option: Cavallo Point–The Lodge at the Golden Gate. (It’s also the site this month of The Smart Meeting, our magazine’s planner/supplier event.) Beautifully restored, it features 68 historic guest rooms, 74 contemporary accommodations, a restaurant, a spa and 14,000 sq. ft. of indoor event space (15,000 sq. ft. outdoors), plus spectacular views of the bridge.
In coastal West Marin, Marconi Conference Center is a full-service meeting and retreat facility on Tomales Bay, a kayaker favorite. It has several restored historic buildings available to groups from 45–106 attendees; 37 guest rooms are located in four lodges.
Farther north from the bridge in Novato, on Highway 101, the thread that connects the county to San Francisco, is Inn Marin, a charming former roadhouse and inn that features 68 guest rooms and function space for up to 400. Its location, at the confluence of Highways 101 and 37, is convenient for explorations to the Sonoma and Napa wine countries and team-building at Infineon Raceway.
One of San Francisco’s recognizable “spokes” from its hub is the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, linking the palm-fringed Embarcadero to the city of Oakland. (Both are linked by BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit lines.) This is a city with a major international port, an imposing skyline, its own clutch of vibrant neighborhoods, world-class performing arts groups and a rich cultural mix—more than 100 languages are spoken here. Its downtown is jam-packed with high rises, restaurants and nightclubs, while several restored vintage theaters are available for events. Jack London Square, a revitalized waterfront village of shops, restaurants and hotels, flanks a marina of pleasure craft on the Oakland estuary.
In “meeting planner language,” Oakland’s convention center is only 10 minutes from the Oakland Airport (a Southwest Airlines hub) and features 64,000 sq. ft. of exhibition and meeting space. It’s adjacent to the Oakland Marriott City Center, which offers an additional 25,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and 483 guest rooms. There are also a number of hotels in close proximity, to handle any overflow, such as the Courtyard by Marriott and the recently renovated Waterfront Hotel, now under the Joie de Vivre umbrella.
Adjacent to Oakland is the city of Berkeley, known for its university, its anti-establishment vibe (yes, liberalism still resonates here), its pedestrian friendly downtown and plethora of eateries, including, of course, Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ gastronomic shrine. Perhaps lesser known than its campus is its marina, where the Doubletree Hotel and Executive Meeting Center, with 378 guest rooms and 38,000 sq. ft. of meeting space holds court.
In the hills above Berkeley is where you’ll find The Claremont Resort & Spa, one of the East Bay’s most recognizable properties. It encompasses an up-to-date hotel with 279 guest rooms, 30,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and a spa with 32 treatment rooms; on its beautifully landscaped grounds are also a tennis club, pools and fitness center. With a target date of June this year, the hotel will have completed $13 million in refurbishments to guest rooms, public spaces, meeting areas and more. The venue attracts mid-size meeting groups, and “No matter the level of event the planner has, we have the expertise and resources to pull it off,” says Susan Hollers, marketing director.
Part of the amorphous “East Bay,” the Tri-Valley region lately has come into its own as a Bay Area destination. Its identity has been solidified with the addition of Danville to its collection of picturesque cities, joining Dublin, Pleasanton, Livermore and the town of San Ramon. A relatively undiscovered wine country, it’s easily accessible from San Francisco whether by car or by taking BART.
“Tri-Valley is a fresh, affordable alternative,” says Amy Blaschka, president and CEO of the Tri-Valley CVB. “These are two things that are very much in demand these days.”
As a wine country, it hosts 45 boutique wineries, with several meetings properties among its lodging options, plus dining and off-site attractions to add to the experience.
Wente Vineyards, the largest of the wineries, can accommodate 150 indoors and up to 1,000 outdoors on the Terrace Lawn. Casa Real at Ruby Hill Winery seats up to 550 guests in their large, 9,000-square-foot event room (there’s also a more intimate room for smaller groups). And the Palm Event Center in the Vineyard, set on 120 acres, features several versatile spaces including a barrel room and tiered patio.
Tri-Valley offers a variety of hotel properties and price points for groups. The Hilton Pleasanton at The Club, with complimentary access to Club Sport, has 292 rooms and 14,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Hyatt Place in Dublin, formerly Amerisuites, recently underwent a renovation, and the Doubletree full-service property in Livermore is finalizing renovations. A reflagging of the Holiday Inn Express in Dublin to La Quinta is in the works.
Other meeting venues include the Shannon Community Center in Dublin, which reopened after a total re-do and offers space for up to 400 theater-style and 300 classroom-style. According to Blaschka, there’s still talk of a new luxury hotel in downtown Livermore, with a five-star restaurant, meeting space and a day spa. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” she says.
SOUTH BAY/ SAN MATEO COUNTY
San Francisco’s South Bay is closely aligned with the concept and geography of Silicon Valley, as well as the Pacific Coast.
Directly south of the city is San Mateo County, which segues seamlessly via streamlined highways. The county is big, sprawling and takes in 741 square miles that border both the Bay and the Pacific Ocean, east to west, giving it two coasts. The San Mateo CVB has grown along with the area, now representing the city of Palo Alto (with Stanford University), critical components of Silicon Valley, according to Anne LeClair, CAE, CDME, president and CEO of the newly renamed San Mateo County/Silicon Valley CVB.
Its inland cities feature numerous properties of interest to meeting professionals. In South San Francisco, there’s the dedicated South San Francisco Convention Center, with 20,600 sq. ft. of meeting space and the new 4,000-square-foot Oyster Point Room, while the San Mateo County Event Center has more than 200,000 sq. ft. of indoor space, plus a new 6,500-square-foot meeting pavilion for up to 400 seated guests.
Major hotel properties include Redwood City’s Sofitel San Francisco Bay, which offers 421 guest rooms, 17,000 sq. ft. of meeting space (an upgrade is slated for completion this year) and a lobby bar and pool area that resonate with style. Another high-end option is the Four Seasons Hotel Silicon Valley at East Palo Alto, which showcases 200 rooms and 7,050 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Numerous hotels near San Francisco International Airport have recently completed or begun updates. Among them are the Hyatt Regency San Francisco Airport-Burlingame with $21-million spent on guest rooms and $6 million in meeting room/public area renovations. The Holiday Inn San Francisco Airport North-South San Francisco plans to complete guest-room renovations this year.
Coastside, there are more options than ever. Half Moon Bay Lodge & Conference Center on Princeton Harbor, overlooks Half Moon Bay Golf Links and can accommodate up to 60 in its six meeting rooms, or 100 on the pool patio. It has 80 guest rooms and works closely with the golf course for events.
One of the most eco-friendly properties in the region is the brand-new Oceano Hotel & Spa on Half Moon Bay Harbor. This 95-room hotel has picturesque views, five versatile banquet rooms and more than 8,000 sq. ft. of meeting and event space. The hotel can host anywhere from 10 to 350 people, plus there’s also a special outdoor function area and a tented event site.
The Beach House, perched on a bluff overlooking the bay, has 54 loft-like suites and 1,800 sq. ft. of indoor meeting space. Groups can enjoy a patio breakout and catch
Coastal San Mateo County provides an agricultural bounty that supplies the area with fresh-caught fish, agricultural products and artisanal foods that have sparked a culinary tourism surge, LeClair says. Rounding out the destination is its other bounty: an array of recreational opportunities from whale watching and biking to kayaking, surfing and deep-sea fishing (yes, there are restaurants that will cook your catch).
California’s third-largest city, and Santa Clara County seat, San Jose is also a viable meetings-friendly destination, says Dan Fenton, president and CEO of the San Jose Convention & Visitors Bureau. The economy notwithstanding, the city retains its Silicon Valley buzz, which is readily apparent by the energy you’ll find downtown at its restaurants, cafes, galleries and entertainment venues. It also ranks high with planners: 97 percent of surveyed meeting planners in fiscal year 0708 said they’d return to San Jose for their event.
And speaking of success stories, the San Jose City Council recently approved a contract extension for Team San Jose, a community-driven partnership (including the CVB) that manages and operates the San Jose McEnery Convention Center and cultural facilities in downtown. The five-year vote of confidence also included two three-year additional renewal options, possibly continuing the management of the convention and cultural facilities for the next 11 years. This business model is the only one of its kind, becoming a one-stop shop for planners, with one staff person seeing an event through from start to finish, Fenton says.
San Jose also has some other pluses for planners, such as Mineta San Jose International Airport, only 5 minutes from downtown, and 5,000 rooms within walking distance or a short light-rail ride to the convention center—no car or shuttle transportation needed. Perhaps less well known, Fenton says, is the city’s comprehensive green meeting services and product, with the convention center’s ranking as one of the only centers on the West Coast to offer composting. It’s also on its way to being certified as a green business, with numerous recycling and energy conservation programs in place.
The San Jose Convention Center & Cultural Facilities offers more than 430,000 sq. ft. of function space, including 143,000 sq. ft. of column-free exhibit space, plus an additional 31 meeting rooms, in the center itself. The adjacent South Hall (80,000 sq. ft.) encompasses the Center for the Performing Arts, California and Montgomery theaters, Parkside Hall, Civic Auditorium and the Tech Museum of Innovation.
Among San Jose’s major meetings hotels are the Hilton San Jose & Towers, which is connected to the convention center, with 354 guest rooms and 60,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; and the Fairmont San Jose, with 805 guest rooms and 65,000 sq. ft. of meeting and function space.
Why should planners book a San Jose meeting now? To celebrate its 25th anniversary, the CVB has created a short-term booking promotion for its convention and cultural facilities and hotels for 2009. The offer includes facility discounts for meetings that are booked and take place in 2009; the discounts range anywhere from 15 to 50 percent, depending on number of peak-night rooms and date—with an additional discount for events booked and consumed by June 30, 2009 (see sanjose.org for more details).
The city of Santa Clara, just north of San Jose, is centrally located in Silicon Valley and home to such readily identifiable high-tech firms as Intel, Applied Materials and Sun Microsystems, among others. It attracts groups with its own convention center, which encompasses 302,000 sq. ft. and a brand-new 22,400-square-foot ballroom. Major meetings hotels include both the Santa Clara Marriott, offering 759 guest rooms and 24,000 sq. ft. of meeting and event space, and the Hyatt Regency Santa Clara, with 501 guest rooms and 60,000 sq. ft.
If you’re looking for off-site venues, there’s California’s Great America, a theme park for fun events, and the Intel Museum, a fascinating, free glimpse into the history of Silicon Valley. Aptly named Strike Cupertino, in nearby Cupertino, is a unique bowling/entertainment venue, with 32 glow-in-the-dark lanes, 12-foot screens at the end of every lane to showcase your company or new product, and custom-designed catering menus.