Photoworthy places to host meetings in the Golden State

From the woodsy charm of the Humboldt Redwoods and the culinary excellence of the San Francisco Bay Area to the laid-back vibe on the Central Coast and the cultural sparkle of Los Angeles, the 100 million acres that make up the state of California are as diverse as they are Instagrammable.

Picture your group in the dramatic scenery of the state’s renowned wine countries, the beauty of a desert oasis or the power of the state capital. If you can dream it, the Golden State has a background to make your vision a reality.

We asked tourism leaders up and down the state to share their favorite spots for meetings, local experiences and snapping pictures. Their responses were as varied as the landscape. Because California is a place attendees return to over and over, we are also highlighting the hot new spaces where you can share the joy of discovery that opens minds and brings smiles.

San Diego County

Why Add to the Short List

Known as America’s Finest City, California’s southernmost county boasts the outdoor grandeur of Balboa Park, SeaWorld and the USS Midway Museum. A new $3 billion expansion at San Diego International Airport (SAN) and Amtrak’s convenient Pacific Surfliner train make getting to town easier than ever.

New to the Scene

hotel facade
Hotel Del Coronado, San Diego

An ongoing $400 million renovation at historic Hotel del Coronado on the beach just hit a major milestone with the opening of Southpointe Event Center’s 15,130-square-foot ballroom and 14,040-square-foot Southpointe Lawn. All renovations are scheduled for completion in 2025.

60-year-young Rancho Bernardo Inn reestablished itself as the destination for sophisticated rustic elegance with a renovation of its 286 guest rooms and 25,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. The Spanish Revival resort sits on 265 acres of gardens, fountains and golf course views.

Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina recently completed an $85 million transformation that included a property-wide groundbreaking air filtration system, 1,065 tech-enabled guest rooms, 130,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor meeting space and new restaurant concepts. The newly expanded lobby offers places to co-work and studio spaces for small group gatherings.

Pendry San Diego in the Gaslamp Quarter opened in 2017 with 25,000 sq. ft. of distinctive meeting space, 317 well-appointed guest rooms and an art-inspired lobby.

Snap Worthy

The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, home to San Diego Symphony productions and the grassy expanse can stage all types of events and photo ops. The open-air, acoustic venue features views of San Diego Man and the Marina District like no other.

Los Angeles County

Why Add to the Short List

L.A.’s iconic landscape is a familiar backdrop in movies and television. A glimpse of the palm tree-studded skyline, The Hollywood sign and Griffith Observatory dome can put attendees in a Southern California state of mind. Now that a 700,000-square-foot expansion and modernization of Los Angeles Convention Center and J.W. Marriott at L.A. Live is back on track, by the time the Olympic Games return in 2028, attendees may be greeted by 2.2 million sq. ft. of exhibition and meeting space along with the second-largest hotel in the state of California.

New to the Scene

meeting room, brown chairs and white tables
Hotel Dena, Pasadena

Moxy Downtown Los Angeles is a modern glass and tech and attitude-enhanced space across the street from LA Convention Center and Arena. The 380-room hotel features 12 dining options, including a 34th-floor rooftop bar (because of course) that is ideal for taking selfies with the Hollywood Hills. It is co-located with AC Hotel Downtown Los Angeles for a total of 727 guest rooms and 13,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and opened in April.

Conrad Los Angeles is the fresh face downtown across from Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. A 10th-floor outdoor terrace offers sweeping city views and cozy craft cocktails. The 305 modern guest rooms serve 13,000 sq. ft. of light-filled meeting space.

Another hot downtown Los Angeles open-air lounge, Bar Clara, opened in 2022 on the roof of Hotel Per La, an Autograph Collection property in the former Bank of Italy’s majestic 1920s headquarters building with 241 guest rooms and 10,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. The opulent dining room of Ristorante Per L’Ora’s columned, marbled and jewel-toned walls is worth a reel all by itself.

Hotel Dena is a new ode to Hollywood in The Crown City of Pasadena. The Tribute Hotel’s 311 guest rooms and 29,000 sq. ft. of meeting space celebrate the performing arts in the destination where Michael Jackson reportedly first performed his moonwalk and America’s Got Talent still features rising stars.

Snap Worthy

Los Angeles County Museum of Art is beautiful inside and out, but the Urban Light installation in the parking lot has become a popular stop for tourists and influencers proving they were there. Check out the “LACMA x Snapchat: Monumental Perspectives” activation that layers augmented reality from diverse artists to enhance popular spots around the county, including Lincoln Park and Santa Monica.

Orange County

large lawn
Pendry Newport Beach

Why Add to the Short List

In Anaheim, Disneyland Resort is always creating new theme park magic and the city is growing with luxury, adult-friendly properties and dining options. Anaheim Convention Center has become a regular on the West Coast prime convention map as it has expanded to more than 1 million sq. ft. and offers sunny, indoor-outdoor options. The county seat of Santa Ana is upping its hospitality game and provides a window to the artistic soul of the area. Irvine, home of Edwards Life Sciences and Allergan is consistently rated as one of the happiest places in the country. Dana Point, Newport Beach and Huntington Beach (Surf City USA) have long been playgrounds to the rich and famous, but guests feel A-list, too at a host of new properties there.

Read MoreOrange County: Art, Culture and Fruit

New to the Scene

The first full Pixar-themed hotel in the United States will come to life on Jan. 30 at Disneyland Resort. Pixar Place Hotel will evoke the inspiration and humor that goes into every Pixar film, while also celebrating the artistic processOne of my favorite features is the photo-worthy firepits near the pool which are inspired by hotheaded characters from Pixar’s “Inside Out and “The Incredibles.”

Last year, Pendry Newport Beach reimagined what was Fashion Island Hotel with 58,000 sq. ft. of grand meeting spaces, 295 guest rooms and a world-class Spa Pendry. Curated art elements highlight local visionaries.

Snap Worthy

Capturing a group photo in front of one of Santa Ana’s 200 murals is a must when visiting the city, according to Wendy Haase, CEO of Visit Santa Ana. “You don’t have to look too hard. Public art is everywhere; in alleys, on the sides of buildings, doorways, and electrical utility boxes with many depicting the city’s colorful, multicultural heritage,” she says.

The former Monarch Beach Resort is now Waldorf Astoria Monarch Beach Resort & Club, a five-diamond retreat set on 175 acres on a bluff overlooking the ocean. This is luxury inside and out as Private Beach Club access brings the best of the destination to guests as they soak in the views. With 400 guest rooms and 30,000 sq. ft. of distinctive meeting space inside, the elegant ballroom is a favorite for awards galas and retreats.

Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa at Disneyland Resort has been providing photo-worthy backdrops for decades. The destination’s Craftsman-style elegance and Disney’s renowned attention to detail come together to provide an unparalleled setting. The dedicated Conference Center features the elegant Sequoia Ballroom with adjacent breakout rooms and ample foyer space to accommodate dynamic meetings and events. And, of course, Robert Donahue, director of sales and services at Disneyland Resort, Disney Meetings & Events, reminds planners that no trip to Disney is complete without a picture with Mickey.

The Giant Wheel at Spectrum Center in Irvine lights up any Instagram page with 52,000 LED lights and a colorful carousel.

Dana Point’s San Clemente Pier is picture-perfect from above and below. The overlook at this prime surf spot captures the palm tree and seagull vibe with underneath the pier, snaps at dusk’s Golden Hour with the shadows thrown over the sand frame the city’s unique vibe.

Ventura County

chairs surrounding fireplace
Zachari Dunes on Mandalay Beach, Oxnard

Why Add to the Short List

This laid-back destination on the Southern California Coast offers beachy charm and under-the-radar finds for distinctive event spaces.

New to the Scene

Oceanfront Zachari Dunes on Mandalay Beach is a completely transformed Curio Collection by Hilton property in Oxnard that offers Southern California casual with refined dining and polished meeting options in 24,500 sq. ft. of space with 250 guest rooms.

Snap Worthy

Brian Tucker, president and CEO of Ventura County Coast, suggests Channel Islands National Park. With its vast coastline of uncrowded beaches, awe-inspiring sunsets, a national park and exclusive locations accessible only by sea kayak, a group on a sea cave kayak adventure immerses guests in nature, from the flourishing wildlife ecosystem to towering sea cliffs and iconic landmarks like the forty-foot-high Arch Rock and the Anacapa Island Lighthouse. “With our abundance of all-natural, year-round photo-worthy locations and activities, no image filter is needed in Ventura County Coast,” Tucker boasts.

Greater Palm Springs

Why Add to the Short List

The nine Southern California cities making up the Coachella Valley hospitality infrastructure are constantly reinventing themselves. As the new home of the NHL Coachella Valley Firebirds at 11,000-capacity Acrisure Arena, the possibilities are endless.

New to the Scene

spa room with four white lounge chairs
The Spa at Séc-he at the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza, Palm Springs

Last April April, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians opened The Spa at Séc-he at the Aqua Caliente Cultural Plaza, consisting of 22 private mineral baths, 15 treatment rooms, a cryotherapy chamber, two float pod suites, a boutique fitness area, a grounding room, an acoustic wellness lounge, tranquility garden and two halotherapy salt caves. In November, they followed with Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, an educational experience that enriches any visit to the area.

Read More: Palm Springs: The Land of Endless Summer

In November, the first Tommy Bahama Resort opened at the former Miramonte Resort. The completely renovated Tommy Bahama Miramonte Resort & Spa now boasts a 22,300-square-foot olive grove patio dotted with twinkling lights and fire pits and an overall more open, Mediterranean feel in the 35,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and 215 guest rooms.

Snap Worthy

Colleen Pace, chief sales and marketing officer with Greater Palm Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau, suggests taking a walk. “An easy 2-mile hike through Tahquitz Canyon leads to my favorite Instagram spot in Greater Palm Springs: a remarkable 60-foot waterfall nestled right in the heart of the desert! This hidden gem perfectly captures the allure and beauty of the desert landscape, revealing an oasis of tranquility with its cool, crystal-clear mountain water awaiting like a reward for all who journey to it.”

San Luis Obispo County

Why add to the Short List

Just North of Santa Barbara, coastal San Luis Obispo (affectionately known as SLOCal) and the inland wine country of Paso Robles offer a relaxed approach to meeting. As the regenerative wine scene at Tablas Creek Vineyard, Robert Hall and Justin Winery has started drawing tourists in even greater numbers, the foodie scene has exploded. The area now boasts 300 wineries and five Michelin-recommended restaurants. We recommend the trifecta in the cute town square: drinks at Cane Tiki Room, dinner at Fish Gaucho with time to try tastings of the extensive tequila offerings and ending the evening at Eleven Twenty Two, a speakeasy-style cozy cocktail bar with mixology masters. Warning: you will have to put away your phone as no pics are allowed in the wood-paneled 1920s-inspired space.

New to the Scene

Hotel San Luis Obispo opened in 2019 with 78 guest rooms and a mission to promote wellness in a comfortable, location-inspired setting. Sol Spa offers an indoor-outdoor relaxation lounge, salt sauna, pool and meditation room. Nearly 10,000 sq. ft. of naturally lit event space invites the coastal climate into the meeting.

Allegretto Vineyard Resort Paso Robles by Ayres was built in 2015 as a Tuscan-inspired retreat with 171 guest rooms around a central courtyard in the middle of an estate vineyard but the property is constantly reinventing itself with new artwork introduced from across the globe, a sound labyrinth, chapel and outdoor meeting options to augment the 35,000 sq. ft. of distinctive meeting space indoors.

Cass Winery is the home of Geneseo Inn + Guesthouse, nine music-themed modern bed and breakfast rooms nestled into metal containers with views of the rolling vineyards and oak trees. Camp Cass is a team-building program accessible through sidecar motorcycle tours that offers archery and ax-throwing paired wine blending experiences in view of the new 200-person barrel-room event space.

Snap Worthy

led lights on ground at night
Sensorio Field of Light, San Luis Obispo

Sensorio Field of Light, a rolling landscape of nightly programmed art shows, has become an Instagram sensation. From The Terrace Club, groups can listen to bands from the new stage, enjoy catered food and beverages and take pictures of the expanding exhibits on the former turkey farm, including Dimensions by HYBYCOZO, an immersive, oversized geometric light experience.

Monterey County

Why Add to the Short List

Spanning along the Northern California coast, Monterey County is home to countless picturesque destinations, maritime group activities and amazing seafood. Visit Old Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey for a lively shopping center, the freshest seafood and aquatic adventures such as glass bottom boat tours or a chartered sailboat. Looking to stay dry? Catch incredible views of the coast on Pebble Beach’s 17-Mile Drive or head up Big Sur Highway 1. Winding through cliffs and forests while hugging the coast, Monterey County visitors can pull over almost anywhere to snap a photo that is sure to make social media followers envious. But as groups pull over to take their group photos with incredible backdrops, they must remember to grab some local seafood.

“Monterey County has a diverse and burgeoning culinary scene that combines fresh seafood and produce within the county with the local heritage and cultures,” says Teresa Savage, vice president of business development for See Monterey. “Monterey Bay is renowned for its fresh seafood with locally caught halibut, cod, abalone and squid.” Pair your seafood with award-winning wines for a full Northern California experience. “Monterey County’s wine industry is award-winning,” says Savage. “The county is the leading producer of Chardonnay in the states.”

New to the Scene

aerial view of conference center
Monterey Conference Center, Portola Hotel & Spa at Monterey Bay

Monterey Conference Center, Portola Hotel & Spa at Monterey Bay and Monterey Marriott sit within one block of each other. The renovated Portola Hotel & Spa is connected to the LEED Platinum-certified conference center and many of the 379 guest rooms afford views of Old Fisherman’s Wharf. The olive tree-dotted lobby and refreshed Jacks at Portola Hotel restaurant blur the line between inside and out.

Snap Worthy

Monterey Bay Aquarium is more than just a great place for a selfie amongst the marine animals or outside on the iconic rugged cliffs the facility is perched on overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The aquarium has programs dedicated to the conservation and preservation of California’s ocean and its aquatic life. As guests of an evening dinner in the aquarium enjoy their famous seafood by the light of the shark tank as attendees of Smart Meetings Extraordinary Northern California Experience did in November, they can eat in peace knowing they are consuming responsibly farmed ingredients due to the combined efforts of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and local restaurant owners.

Greater San Francisco Bay Area

Why Add to the Short List

lobby with greenery
1 Hotel San Francisco

As a city known for its spectacular backdrops for group photos and young, innovative business culture, it is probably not a coincidence that Instagram’s parent company, Meta, is based on Silicon Valley’s Menlo Park. Whether you are at the waterline hanging out at Fisherman’s Wharf watching the seals soak up the sun, looking out over the Pacific Ocean from the bluffs above Santa Cruz or taking a selfie in front of the Keith Haring “Three Dancing Figures” sculpture at Moscone Center, the Bay Area is always in portrait mode.

New to the Scene

The historic Sir Francis Drake Hotel on the trolley line is now Beacon Grand, a Union Square Hotel. This independent property with 418 guest rooms, 17,000 sq. ft. of dramatic meeting space with gold leaf and soaring arched ceilings maintained the architectural touches, but added bright signature dining, including a hidden library bar in The Post Room. In February, the former Harry Denton’s Starlite Room on the 21st floor is scheduled to open as Starlight, a jeweled window on the sweeping city skyline.

Read More: Authors Rave About San Francisco

Hyatt Regency San Francisco on the Embarcadero affords stunning views of the Bay Bridge with easy access to Oracle Park where the Orange-clad MLB San Francisco Giants play. A massive renovation of the 821 guest rooms and 72,000 sq. ft. of meeting space uncovered a dramatic lobby with eye-catching art attendees will flock to when finished in the first-floor ballroom space conveniently located at street level.

Another completely reinvented property with breathtaking water views is 1 Hotel San Francisco, which opened in 2022 with 200 nature-inspired guest rooms in the former Hotel Vitale space across from the Ferry Building. This luxury property offers access to a healing Bamford wellness spa on-property.

San Jose McEnery Convention Center anchors Silicon Valley’s downtown with 372,754 sq. ft. of meeting space connected to Hilton San Jose and San Jose Marriott. The innovative space is LEED Silver-certified and a new Pathway to Carbon Neutrality plan by 2030 will help environmentally conscious planners meet their goals. Selfies by the light of the ETC Lighting consume 80% less power and make you look good.

Snap Worthy

Not only is the Golden Gate Bridge one of the most recognizable American landmarks, it is as much of a feat of engineering as it is a beautiful feature of the city. Finished in 1937 and stretching 1.7 miles between San Francisco and the Marin peninsula to the North, tourists from around the world flock to vantage points to capture the best photos of the vibrant bridge. Baker Beach is one of the best locations to witness the Golden Gate Bridge in all its glory, stretching for a mile along the rugged cliffs at the base of the bridge. With an unobstructed view of the historic landmark, photographs taken and the memories behind them will be treasured.

Napa-Sonoma Wine Country

Why Add to the Short List

The focus on enjoying only the best in all things aesthetic was born in these rich agricultural valleys an hour north of San Francisco so bringing a meeting to the source of vine life is an easy way to put everyone in a cultured frame of mind.

New to the Scene

The Meritage Resort and Spa and Grand Resort at The Meritage recently upgraded the property’s 15,929-square-foot ballroom and outdoor meeting space and will soon be redesigning its 322 guest rooms across the two properties as part of a $25 million investment.

Silverado Resort was one of the original Napa estates and after fires tore through the valley five years ago, took the time to expand and modernize the 70,000 sq. ft. of stately meeting space and 449 generous guest rooms.

In Sonoma’s growing northern wine region, 130-room Montage Healdsburg and soon, a 108-room luxury Appellation Healdsburg, are raising the luxury profile of the area. Bungalow-style guestrooms echo the lines of the vines, blending with the landscape and offering beautiful vantage points for contemplation and getting the right angle with an iPhone.

Sacramento County

Why Add to the Short List

The State Capital is an epicenter for association business and an acclaimed farm-to-fork culinary scene. The city has invested in renewed meeting spaces, often at a discount to Bay Area neighbors and is a central stop in the state.

New to the Scene

SAFE Credit Union Convention Center added 40,000 sq. ft. in 2022 and updated the entire block for a total of 240,000 sq. ft. inside and a new 15,000 sq. ft. outdoor plaza that connects downtown and the Capitol building across the street.

The Citizen Hotel, an Autograph Collection conveniently located between J and K streets was renovated in 2022 to whimsically honor the political history of the area while updating modern conveniences in the historic building and putting The Grange restaurant front-and-center.

Snap Worthy

The gilded bridge connecting Sacramento to its western namesake across the mighty Sacramento River is always a good idea, but once a year, it shuts down for a Tower Bridge Dinner that lines the iconic connector with long tables and brings in top chefs for a celebration of the area’s bounty.

Lake Tahoe

Why Add to the Short List

South Lake Tahoe has been a constant for California tourism with its beautiful lake and majestic forested landscape that have inspired shutterbugs to snap photos of the hotspot for decades. It is now undergoing a half-billion dollars in upgrades. Carol Chaplin, president and CEO of Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority, explains: “The possibilities are limitless for groups with proximity of accommodations to outdoor recreation, meeting space, dining and entertainment to meet a variety of budgets and group sizes,” says Chaplin.

New to the Scene

outdoor space
The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe

Everline Resort & Spa (formerly Resort at Squaw Creek) in Olympic Valley offers 33,000 sq. ft. of refreshed meeting space and 405 guest rooms in a tower looking out over Palisades Tahoe. The waterfall running down the side of the building and the golf course at the foot of the majestic mountains are like magnets for attendees.0

Read More: North Lake Tahoe: Alpine Upgrade

At The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe on the slopes of Northstar California Resort, luxury lodge-style accommodations will soon be brightened. The 850,000 sq. ft. of mountain view-enabled event space will retain its beamed charm even after an upcoming soft-good refresh. The circular family room central lobby space surrounding the massive stone fireplace is a meeting and selfie hot spot.

In December, Margaritaville Resort Lake Tahoe opened in the former Lake Tahoe site with 399 all-suite guest rooms, 9,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and the chill vibe of the global lifestyle brand translated into a high-end mountain hospitality environment.

Snap Worthy

Emerald Bay is the ultimate sparkling Instagram destination. Chaplin recommends trying to plan your photo shoot for mid-week or during the off-season. For a lively social media video, visit Lakeview Commons to view an amazing sunset, grill on the free BBQ pits and catch live music every Thursday in the summer seasons.

Go Native

table full of foodLooking to incorporate the historic significance of where you are meeting in your event? Visit Native California, an online hub launched last year to showcase the state’s diverse Native communities and cultural tourism experiences can help you stage authentic events that align with company values and are sensitive to the history and reality of the place.

Home to over 100 federally recognized tribes, California’s rich heritage may be found at every turn. Suggestions for incorporating local culture into memorable agendas include:

  • Walk and learn through one of the trails and hikes that highlight the native land visitors now venture across. In Greater Palm Springs, the Indian Canyons is a beautiful nature reserve. Owned and operated by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians as reservation land. The park spans over 31,500 acres and is home to breathtaking canyons, unique rock formations, and lush vegetation.
  • In the San Francisco Bay Area, Berkley’s Mak-‘amham/Cafe Ohlone offers small group lunches at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.
  • Come together in a special way by being a spectator at a traditional Pow wow, a Native American tradition that brings together many different tribes and communities to celebrate culture through dancing, singing, socializing, crafts, arts and food. On March 17, San Rafael is the site of the 2nd Annual Marin Pow Wow if you are considering Northern California.
  • Immerse and learn about the native land in an impactful way by partnering with Oceanside’s first people, the Luiseño, to honor the unique ceremonial customs and activities.
  • Native American music, culinary and artistic traditions can also be experienced through educational and interactive activities such as basket weaving, storytelling, and gourd painting.

Sustainable Seafood in Northern California

seafood on grey background

Living on the coast of the Pacific Ocean gives local restaurants and consumers access to the freshest seafood. While seafood is widely popular in many different cuisines found in California, the sustainability of eating from the ocean has become a concern.

California aquariums have launched programs such as Aquarium of the Bay’s Seafood Alliance in San Francisco and Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch have paired with local restaurants to ensure the products purchased and served are farmed responsibly and safely. Enjoy California’s gems from the ocean without guilt as you contribute to programs dedicated to the conservation of the Pacific Ocean’s ecosystem by dining and/or shopping at establishments approved by these programs.

This article appears in the January 2024 issue. You can subscribe to the magazine here.