Orange County’s Secret Ingredient

Hotels & Destinations

Orange County is sometimes overshadowed by its neighbors, sprawling Los Angeles and splashy San Diego, but the 34 cities here are every bit as stimulating and sophisticated. The destination occupies nearly 800 square miles of prime real estate that includes views of the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ana Mountains. Plentiful sunshine and a mild Mediterranean climate—temperatures average around 70 degrees year-round—mean outdoor adventure and alfresco events are standard. And, with the John Wayne Airport in the center of it all, plus the Long Beach and Los Angeles International Airports close by, Orange County boasts all the ingredients necessary for an ideal conference.

Frances Laven has planned the Council of Academic Programs in Communication Sciences and Disorders’ annual meeting for nearly 20 years. The group typically takes its events to venues in the southwestern United States; last April, attendees met at the Newport Beach Marriott (

Because delegates arrived from throughout the United States, Canada and New Zealand, airport-hotel proximity was a priority. Attendees came from educational institutions, so keeping costs down was also essential.

The Newport Beach Marriott provided a budget-friendly venue without that low-budget feeling, Laven explains. “It was one of our best venues ever,” she says. “Their service was beyond belief. The menu options, the way the food was displayed and the refreshments were all top notch. We could not have asked for more.”

She calls the hotel’s public spaces “very conducive to sitting and having a drink and talking with colleagues during off times,” and praises the variety of restaurants within walking distance. Although her conference schedule included no major off-site functions, many attendees explored the neighborhood around the hotel or went shopping at nearby Fashion Island. The property is well situated for delegates interested in extending their journey, as well. “It’s a great place if you can stay longer, because you’re so close to the water and you’re so close to Highway 1,” Laven says.

And the feedback from attendees?

“They loved it,” Laven says. “We booked a multi-year contract, and we’ll be going back in 2012 and 2015. That’s how much we liked it.”

Seeing Stars: Newport Beach and Laguna Beach

Newport Beach’s place in pop culture was sealed when TV shows such as The O.C. and The Real Housewives of Orange County started spotlighting the community’s personalities, posh homes and picture-perfect scenery. But in “reality,” the destination’s celebrity appeal traces back to a 13-year-old Shirley Temple winning the first Miss Newport pageant and Humphrey Bogart giving a Newport Beach house to his young bride, Lauren Bacall.

Of course, the coastal Orange County city also makes headlines for its bustling small-craft harbor, nine miles of stunningly beautiful beaches and districts like charming Balboa Island and salty Mariner’s Mile. Visiting conference groups find golf courses, spa resorts and shopping aplenty—the venerable Fashion Island is working on exterior upgrades slated for 2011 completion—plus, more than 300 restaurants that make dine-arounds and group dinners a snap.  

Montage Laguna Beach.
Montage Laguna Beach.

The average meeting size here is about 200, says Kim Severini, marketing vice president for Newport Beach Conference and Visitors Bureau. “We don’t have a convention center, so we’re not after the really huge conferences,” she says. “We’re after someone who wants that more intimate setting and that more unique fit.”

Newport’s out-of-the-ordinary meeting venues include the Marconi Museum, an automotive showplace with a 15,000-square-foot main hall and two smaller spaces packed with classic cars and memorabilia. For a less revved-up affair, the facilities at Sherman Library & Gardens are lovely and well landscaped.

Nine resort properties and a scattering of smaller inns also provide function space, and many are recently renovated. Hyatt Regency Newport Beach completed a $23-million refurbishment of its 26,000 sq. ft. of meeting space in 2009. The Island Hotel Newport Beach refreshed its 6,000-square-foot ballroom and 10 other meetings venues, as well. The Newport Beach Marriott Bayview recently spent $8 million on its guest rooms, and the luxurious Resort at Pelican Hill began welcoming guests in 2008. For a lively reception option, the resort sets up an Italian street festival scene and welcomes attendees to their own private block party.

The only waterfront resort in Newport Beach, The Balboa Bay Club & Resort offers 23,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor space, including a 7,000-square-foot Grand Ballroom.

For intriguing off-site alternatives, Newport At Your Feet leads art walks, history treks, eco-excursions and other customized tours for groups.

Still seduced by Newport’s Hollywood glamour? Hornblower Cruises & Events hosts outings on the Wild Goose, a retired U.S. Navy minesweeper that actor John Wayne renovated and sailed for years.

Ten miles down the coast, Laguna Beach claims star power of its own—from the eponymous MTV reality show to celebrity sightings at the 250-room Montage Laguna Beach. Bette Davis, Judy Garland and Charlie Chaplain once maintained homes here, and artists have influenced the town’s ambience since the late 1800s.

Just steps from the sand, Surf & Sand Resort features a conference center that provides 10,000 sq. ft. of meeting and banquet space for 10–400 attendees.

The Laguna Art Museum has more than 3,500 permanent pieces in its collection and focuses on California art. The museum’s California Gallery, with bamboo floors, high ceilings and an adjacent kitchen, accommodates 120 for strolling receptions and 80 for seated dinners. Team building at Laguna Culinary Arts attracts corporate groups looking for a taste of something new, while Laguna Canyon Winery opens its cellar and introduces its winemaker for private events.

Groups looking for fresh air head to Heisler Park for coastal cliffs, walking trails, picnic areas and public art. The European-inspired Tivoli Terrace, Tivoli Too and The Hacienda provide prime banquet venues. The Pacific Marine Mammal Center, a nonprofit that rescues and rehabilitates stranded marine mammals, offers tours and programming. A short drive south in Dana Point, Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching charters whale-watching, fishing and sunset cruises.

Marriott’s Four-Diamond Laguna Cliffs Resort & Spa, also in Dana Point, is nearing completion on a multimillion-dollar renovation. The project includes updates to all 377 guest rooms and 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting and banquet space. In Laguna Beach, the Pacific Edge Hotel recently refinished its 130 rooms in vintage beach style. The property welcomes small meetings and retreats on-site and in its 4,000-square-foot beachfront Pacific Edge Villa; in addition, its partnership with the Ocean Institute provides off-site space for up to 240 guests. The 65-room Hotel Laguna accommodates up to 200 in an outdoor rose garden, and seats 10 in an intimate wine cellar.

Planners can explore other accommodations and activities, and view a virtual visitors guide, on the Laguna Beach Visitors & Conference Bureau’s website.  

 guest room at The Resort at Pelican Hill.
Guest room at The Resort at Pelican Hill.

Surf’s Up: Huntington Beach

It’s no secret that the sea shapes Huntington Beach. After all, it trademarked the title “Surf City USA.” Dean Torrence of Jan and Dean, the musical duo that took “Surf City” to number one in 1963, is a local resident and former Huntington Beach Marketing and Visitors Bureau board member. The community hosts some 30 surfing competitions annually, and it’s home to the International Surfing Museum, Surfers’ Hall of Fame and Surfing Walk of Fame.     

Groups gathering in Huntington Beach enjoy more than just winning waves, however. Located 35 miles south of Los Angeles and 95 north of San Diego, this coastal community offers an array of outdoor activities well suited to team building and networking events. OEX Sunset Beach rents stand-up paddle equipment and kayaks on Huntington Harbor; Duffy Electric Boat Co. rents 18-foot electric boats for cruising. An outdoor amphitheater and picnic shelters are available in Huntington Central Park. The iconic Huntington Beach Pier is worth a stroll, as is the farmer’s market held there each Friday afternoon.

Several Huntington Beach properties capitalize on the community’s golden sunshine and celebrated sands. The newest is Joie de Vivre’s Shorebreak Hotel, a hip, 157-room inn that’s part of a mixed-use downtown development dubbed The Strand. A 3,000-square-foot ballroom and the Mediterranean-inspired Zimzala restaurant are part of the property’s 8,000 sq. ft. of event space.

Bicycle rides, surf lessons and beach bonfires are the norm at Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort and Spa. Unique function space here includes three ocean-view ballrooms, classic boardrooms and chic fountain courtyards. The hideaway also has a 20,000-square-foot spa with three grottos and 517 rooms decorated in Andalusian style. Over at the Hilton Waterfront Beach Resort, the ocean-view Cielo Mare Ballroom accommodates 220 for banquets. Smaller meetings might choose the 224-room Hotel Huntington Beach.  

Attendees looking to work between events will find a handy list of the city’s Wi-Fi locations on the Huntington Beach bureau’s website, which also outlines single- and multiday itineraries. In addition, the bureau has teamed with those from Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, Dana Point and Anaheim/Orange County to form The OCeanfront, an alliance that provides information on 42 miles of O.C. coastline and the communities located there.

Central and Convenient: Costa Mesa and Irvine

Set 7 miles inland from Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa boasts some 101,000 sq. ft. of event space and more than 2,225 guest rooms concentrated in 10 convention hotels. Shaun Robinson, president of the Costa Mesa Conference and Visitor Bureau and Hilton Orange County/Costa Mesa general manager, says the short distance between those hotels and John Wayne Airport makes meeting more affordable. Costa Mesa’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean also helps.

 “We’re not right on the beach, so we can provide a great package for meeting planners who can’t pay those beach prices,” he says, adding that bigger deals are dished up during the slower summer months. “The quieter times for meetings here are definitely in the summer, but we feel we’ve got a great price point throughout the year. It’s a buyer’s market.”

Event set-up at Marconi Museum.
Event set-up at Marconi Museum.

With 50,000 sq. ft. for meetings, including the 12,160-square-foot Pacific Ballroom and the 240-seat, floor-to-ceiling, windowed Fountain Terrace room, the Hilton holds the largest groups in Costa Mesa. Next in line is The Westin South Coast Plaza, a 393-room property that recently finished a $20-million renovation, followed by Marriott, Best Western and other big-brand properties.

Shopping is central to the Costa Mesa experience. South Coast Plaza’s 280 retailers and 30 restaurants often grab the spotlight, but Robinson lists the “earthy, organic, urban and hip” LAB and CAMP centers among the city’s must-see destinations. (Think lots of artsy goods, outdoor gear, indie clothing and organic fare.)

Costa Mesa’s theater and arts district is another major draw, with the South Coast Repertory and Orange County Performing Arts Center campus clustered off Bristol Avenue. Groups can hold private events in the center’s lobby and terrace spaces, plazas and concert halls. Several restaurants surround the arts center, shopping venues and hotel districts, making the community a pedestrian-friendly option for groups.

Three miles away, the OC Fair & Event Center offers expansive exhibition halls, an amphitheater and grandstand, lawn space, an on-site campground and catering services.

Just east of the John Wayne Airport, the city of Irvine sits along Interstates 405 and 5. Linksys, Toshiba and Mazda are among corporations maintaining offices here, in a city that’s big on business and convenient for conventions. “We are very budget friendly on the weekends. That definitely sets us apart from the surrounding cities,” says Jennifer McLaughlin, director of tourism for the Irvine Chamber Visitors Bureau. She cites weekend rates under $100 per night as a draw for attendees who bring their families along to visit Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm and local beaches.

These days, Irvine is abuzz about the 1,300-acre Orange County Great Park, a $65.5-million project opening in stages throughout 2011. Carved out of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, the park eventually will include recreation trails, sports fields, an organic orchard, exhibition space and a military museum. Open now is the 27-acre Preview Park: It includes the Great Park Balloon, which carries visitors 500 feet up above the park for free, and a 175,000-square-foot picnic lawn available for events.

An eight-story I-MAX theater, antique carousel and 108-foot Ferris wheel entertain visitors at the Irvine Spectrum Center, a vast shopping and dining complex near the I-405/I-5 junction. Dave & Busters provides a playful venue for off-site functions. And, in nearby Tustin, another entertainment possibility is Strike bowling lanes, offering team-building opportunities and meeting space as well as glow-in-the-dark lanes.

In December 2009, Marriott opened a 132-suite SpringHill Suites in Irvine, close to the airport and the Irvine Business Complex. Amenities include an indoor pool, Zen garden, putting green and outdoor patio with a fire pit. The Atrium Hotel accommodates 850 for receptions in its Garden Ballroom, while the Embassy Suites Irvine serves smaller groups with four boardrooms that seat 10 to 70 people.

Serious Fun: Anaheim and Santa Ana 

Anaheim packs a lot of action into 50 square miles, starting with the Anaheim Convention Center. The West Coast’s largest, it tops 813,000 sq. ft. with a 15,000-capacity theater, 28,000-square-foot arena, naturally-lit lobby and a 190-foot spire, making it the go-to venue for conferences, trade shows and events of all sizes. The center sits adjacent to Disneyland, Disney’s California Adventure and the Downtown Disney shopping, dining and entertainment district, providing seemingly limitless options for off-site functions, including ESPN Zone, a mega-sports bar and restaurant with fun opportunities for groups. Also nearby is Anaheim GardenWalk, a palm tree-lined promenade with boutiques, bowling, dining, nightclubs and an I-MAX theater. 

Garden Walk, Anaheim.
Garden Walk, Anaheim.

Elaine Cali, vice president of communications for the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau recommends the region’s lesser-known gems, as well. The Grove of Anaheim theater accommodates 50–4,000 attendees. Nearby Angel Stadium of Anaheim will host Major League Baseball’s 2010 All-Star Game in July, and it welcomes private parties on nongame days.

Downtown Anaheim’s Muzeo celebrates local culture and the area’s natural heritage. Six miles south in Santa Ana, the Bowers Museum charms guests with art exhibits and 15,000 sq. ft. of indoor facilities and outdoor courtyards. Also in Santa Ana is the Discovery Science Center where hands-on exhibits and live demonstrations create exciting team-building and after-hours alternatives.

Cali touts the walkability of Anaheim’s 20,000 hotel rooms, including the 1,572-room Hilton Anaheim ( and 1,030-room Anaheim Marriott, which are just a “stone’s throw from the convention center.”

Plus, she says, “There are a variety of other hotels and different price points, so we meet the needs of many different groups.”

The Disneyland Hotel features 52 meeting rooms. Its guest rooms and exterior are undergoing a facelift with phased completion dates scheduled between this June and 2012. A 203-room and 50-villa addition recently wrapped up at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa, as well. At the Hyatt Regency Orange County, a $25-million renovation is slated for completion this spring. The project includes updates to the property’s 65,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, along with improvements to the guest rooms, restaurant and lounge areas, fitness facilities and lobby.  

Renee Brincks is a freelance journalist who covers travel, culinary and lifestyle topics.
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