“I don’t want to throw you a curveball,” Sitton jokes, “but I have to say all of the above. You can visit San Diego many times and always get a unique experience. This is a place people want to come to.”

National Geographic Channel reiterated this point in April when it featured San Diego in its “World Smart Cities” series. The only U.S. destination among the cities highlighted by National Geographic, San Diego was lauded for the technology, talent and innovation that contribute to its stature as a 21st-century leader.

“San Diego really has grown up,” Sitton says. “That’s what’s so special about San Diego. There’s always something new and fun and different to do.”

The eighth-largest U.S. city is a day-tripper’s dream, so much so that picking one activity may be tough. Just ask Sitton.

Animal Kingdom

San Diego Zoo
San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo is a must-see for international tourists. With seven different spaces for group events, it’s also very popular during conventions as an offsite venue. The zoo has room for up to 6,000 and includes such event spaces as Zoofari Party Area, a large outdoor space accented by vibrant decorations for sit-down dinners or receptions with food stations.

Get up close and personal with elephants on the terrace of Sabertooth Grill. Attendees will want to snap a photo of koalas during events staged at Sydney’s.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park, a 1,800-acre conservation center, has an event capacity of 4,000. Home to many endangered species, the park features zebras, gorillas, rhinos and giraffes, which provide an idyllic backdrop for receptions.

SeaWorld San Diego
SeaWorld San Diego

SeaWorld San Diego has space for up to 3,500. There’s room for 200 to dine with Shamu, the killer whale, or 80 for a banquet at the park’s Penguin Encounter. Nautilus Pavilion, adjacent to Mission Bay, can host 1,200 for receptions. The park’s Mission Bay Theater seats 700.
Yappy Hour
Yappy Hour, Hotel del Coronado

Many San Diego hotels also exude animal magnetism, featuring pet-friendly policies. Leading the way is Hotel del Coronado, which offers Yappy Hour on Sundays.

“We know that many people consider their pets a member of the family and wouldn’t consider traveling without them,” says Andre Zotoff, vice president and general manager of Hotel del Coronado. “We welcome people with pets in our Del Dogs program, where furry guests are welcomed with special amenities, including a dog bed and treat. We also offer a gourmet Del Dogs room service menu and Yappy Hour on our sun deck.”

Complimentary organic dog treats are made with chicken, oatmeal, dates and peanut butter. Water bowls are filled with Evian.

Human treats include Greyhounds (vodka and freshly squeezed grapefruit juice) and Salty Dogs (vodka and freshly squeezed grapefruit juice with a salted rim). Hair of the Dog features Coronado Brewing’s Golden Pilsner with fresh lime, chelada mix and a salted rim.

The Sporting Life

Petco Park
Petco Park

Play ball. Petco Park, home of the Major League Baseball San Diego Padres, is smack-dab downtown, walking distance from San Diego Convention Center. When the home team isn’t in town, the ballpark is available for buyouts, and when the Padres are home, there are ample spaces for private events while catching a game.

For the ultimate experience, rent out the park so hundreds of attendees can party where the players play, take batting practice and hang out in the dugout. Home Plate Plaza can accommodate 850. Park at the Park is just beyond the outfield and features a junior-sized field, playground and picnic area for up to 3,000. Batter’s Eye Pavilion is behind center field, offering up-close views of the field for groups of 50.

Del Mar Race Track hosts thoroughbred horse racing July through September and has a monthlong fall season October through November. This is a favorite group activity thanks to trackside dining, a private party area, suites and skyrooms. Seaside Tropical Cabana is located trackside and can accommodate more than 500. When the track opened in 1937, Bing Crosby was on hand to greet racing enthusiasts; Crosby was a partner of the project, along with Gary Cooper and Oliver Hardy, among other actors.

Professional golfers have been competing in San Diego since 1952 and now make their annual stop in late January at Torrey Pines Golf Course in nearby La Jolla. The Farmers Insurance Open is a favorite among players and fans. There are six spaces for private events that can hold from 20 to 150 people. According to Jonathan Berlin, manager of partnerships and business affairs for the tournament, there’s lots of flexibility to meet the needs and sizes of groups, so it’s possible to accommodate more than 150. Torrey Pines is a public course featuring 36 holes and Pacific Ocean views. It provides an excellent day-trip for golfing when the tournament isn’t dominating the scenic landscape.

Water World

Shelter Island fishing
Shelter Island fishing

Earlier this year, San Diego Tourism Authority dedicated an entire press release to fishing. Home to the world’s largest sportfishing fleet, San Diego offers saltwater fishing year-round thanks to its location on the Pacific Ocean. Depending on the season, anglers can expect to hook yellowfin, bluefin, yellowtail, albacore, mahi mahi (dorado), marlin and mako offshore, while an inshore catch might include calico bass, halibut, rockfish, sheephead, croaker, corbina or white sea bass.

Shelter Island, located in San Diego’s Point Loma neighborhood, is home to a vibrant fishing community, with a marina where sportfishing trips depart and a pier that anglers love.

Another popular pastime, especially for group outings, is cruising on boats. Flagship Cruises & Events, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, offers professionally narrated tours year-round. Snacks, beer, wine and sodas are available.

Their two-hour cruises give attendees a comprehensive San Diego experience, passing such landmarks as Harbor and Shelter islands, Point Loma, Cabrillo National Monument, North Island Naval Air Station, the submarine base, as well as Coronado Bridge,

“The bay breezes and the downtown skyline view are just two of many reasons why a cruise around San Diego is the perfect way to explore ‘America’s Finest City,’” says Tim Rongley, director of marketing for Flagship Cruises. “Harbor tours offer a unique way to enjoy the best of San Diego, while checking some items off your must-see list.”

Bahia Resort Hotel riverboat
Bahia Resort Hotel riverboat

The 313-room Bahia Resort Hotel is home to two recreated 19th-century Mississippi riverboats. Sixty-foot Bahia Belle can hold up to 150 guests and 100-foot William D. Evans has room for up to 450. William D. Evans, launched in 1987, features Asian ironwood parquet floors and a stained-glass vaulted skylight on the upper-deck. With state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment and a full galley, she’s a perfect choice for business and corporate events. The riverboats ferry guests between the Bahai and its sister property, the Catamaran Resort Hotel and Spa, which has 311 guest rooms and 20,000 sq. ft. of event space. The Catamaran spa is beachfront.

Wellness & Relaxation

Omni La Costa Resort & Spa
Omni La Costa Resort & Spa

There’s so much to do in San Diego that it may be hard for attendees to just chill and relax, but it’s certainly worth keeping that option open considering the region’s renowned wellness centers and spas.

Omni La Costa Resort & Spa, originally created as a playground with every amenity imaginable for celebrities and athletes, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The 43,000-square-foot Spa at Omni La Costa, rated the No. 1 wellness spa in the United States by Spa Magazine, features a private pool and waterfall showers.

The Omni resort is also home to The Chopra Center, a campus founded by wellness guru Dr. Deepak Chopra that serves as a nurturing place where guests heal their physical pain, find emotional freedom, empower themselves and connect to their inner spiritual lives. Health and wellness are core values for Omni, according to Anne Brownlee, vice president of corporate communications.

“Omni La Costa Resort & Spa unveiled a workplace wellness series at The Chopra Center for business travelers to learn how to be healthier both at work and in their personal lives,” Brownlee says. “The program includes meditation, yoga and Ayurveda, the 5,000-year-old healing philosophy from India that provides preventative lifestyle tools to navigate modern living in a balanced way.”

Omni yoga
Yoga at Omni La Costa Resort & Spa

Omni La Costa provides yoga mats for guests to use during in-room exercises guided on the resort’s LiveWell TV programing. Other healthy amenities include an 8,825-square-foot athletic club, fitness and weight-loss boot camps, two 18-hole golf courses and 17 tennis courts.

The Westin San Diego Gaslamp Quarter, a AAA Four Diamond property, features a state-of-the-art fitness studio that is open 24/7. Thanks to a unique partnership with New Balance, hotel guests can have a mesh bag stocked with clean running shoes, socks and athletic apparel delivered to their rooms for a minimal fee. The brand has launched a series of Wellness Escapes, led by noted experts, at Westins across North America. The inaugural kickoff, featuring exercise guru Holly Perkins, occurred at the Gaslamp Quarter property in mid-April.

AAA Four Diamond Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa makes for a great day-trip, with a full range of offerings including organic facials and Vichy shower treatments performed under a rain bar to exfoliate and hydrate skin while showerheads simultaneously massage the body. And in case you actually need to hold a meeting, there’s a 22,190-square-foot conference facility.

Destination of Choices

It’s no wonder groups return to San Diego year after year for their annual conventions. One visit just isn’t enough with all the options the region has to offer. Take it from Sitton, who is downright giddy about all the things San Diego Tourism Authority gets to promote.

“We have the most fun time because we’re always thinking of something new, being creative,” Sitton says. “We understand the importance of groups.”

Supplier Certification Program

Messaging is one thing, but a training program to ensure hoteliers, venue operators and major attractions deliver what meeting professionals and attendees seek is a whole new ballgame.

San Diego Tourism Authority has implemented a certification program to train area hospitality suppliers. San Diego Meeting Certified has already graduated 158 area suppliers, helping to establish a unified set of expectations for sales professionals, from how to approach the selling process to creative ways to close the deal to building stronger destination experts.

“The San Diego hospitality community continues to be committed to provide meeting planners with an exceptional site and booking experiences,” says Margie Sitton, senior vice president of sales for San Diego Tourism Authority. “The program was developed to address meeting planners’ traditional booking issues. When meeting planners see the San Diego Meeting Certified logo next to a sales manager’s name, they can expect a high level of service and expertise when planning a program in San Diego. Our goal is to have every salesperson who interacts with a meeting planner become certified to ensure that San Diego is a preferred destination for future meetings.”

Topics presented during the six-month program included: Wired Tight for Destination Sales and Service; Expert Qualifying: Understanding Them…Getting Them to Buy You; Tailor Made Site Experience; The Skill Set Needed to Sell an Experience vs. Sell a Destination or Hotel; Cultivating Creativity:  Making Yourself Stand Out from the Rest; and General Managers Unite: How Hotel Leaders Join the Sell in a Way That Matters.

The second installment of the course begins May 21. Continuing education credits are available through Meeting Professionals International, and Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International.

Dana Point Mini-Wide

St. Regis Monarch Beach ResortSt. Regis Monarch Beach Resort

Dana Point is in the middle of it all, situated 65 miles north of San Diego and 60 miles south of Los Angeles. Located at the southern edge of Orange County with a dazzling Pacific Ocean coastline, Dana Point makes a great pre- or post-convention destination for those meeting in San Diego, especially anyone looking for a little R&R.

Some executives are actually doing the reverse, meeting at Dana Point’s distinctive resorts and then heading south or north for big-city experiences. Dana Point certainly has the venues to support small to midsized meetings, with four properties that regularly team up for mini-wides in their coastal town.

The properties are St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort (pictured); The Ritz Carlton, Laguna Niguel; Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa; and DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel Doheny Beach. The state-of-the-art and eco-friendly properties combine for 1,371 guest rooms and suites, and 233,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor event space.

For an educational day-trip, consider visiting Eco-Adventure Center, located at The Ritz. Guests can learn about marine life and ocean ecosystems from expert naturalists and a variety of excursions, including snorkeling and guided sea hikes.

Major Meeting Venues

Greater San Diego

Bahia Resort Hotel

Located on ritzy Mission Bay; less than five minutes from SeaWorld San Diego; 314 guest rooms, studios and suites; 20,000 sq. ft. of event space.

Catamaran Resort Hotel and Spa

Polynesian-themed resort on Mission Bay; spa features hot tubs that overlook the bay; 311 guest rooms and suites; more than 20,000 sq. ft. of event space; team-building activities include kayak races, stand-up paddleboarding races and sailing regattas.

Embassy Suites San Diego Bay–Downtown

Completed $8.5 million renovation in March; major upgrades to atrium and lobby; 341 two-room suites; more than 5,000 sq. ft. of meeting and event space; ocean, bay and city views.

Hard Rock Hotel San Diego

Hard Rock Hotel San Diego

Walking distance to Gaslamp Quarter; AAA Four Diamond rated; 420 guest rooms and suites; 40,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor event space; 9,170-square-foot Legends can be divided into six separate spaces and holds up to 1,000 for receptions; rooftop pool.

Harrah’s Resort Southern California

Located 40 miles northeast of San Diego in Valley Center; completed a $160 million expansion last year, including the addition of a 21-story hotel tower; pool features swim-up bar; 1,056 guest rooms; 41,000 sq. ft. of event space; largest room offers 5,103 sq. ft.; gaming a bonus for after-hour activities.

Hilton San Diego Bayfront

AAA Four Diamond rated; evokes coastal culture of region; adjacent to San Diego Convention Center; across the street from Petco Park, home of the Major League Baseball Padres; 165,000 sq. ft. of event space; 1,190 guest rooms and suites.

Hilton San Diego Mission Valley

Polanco Kitchen & Bar specializes in Latin-style cuisine with a twist of Baja flavor; 350 guest rooms; 18,000 sq. ft. of event space; ballroom can accommodate up to 750.

Hotel del Coronado

Crown Room adorned with chandeliers designed by Wonderful Wizard of Oz writer L. Frank Baum; 65,000 sq. ft. of event space; 757 guest rooms.

Hyatt Regency Mission Bay Spa & Marina

Private marina; 429 guest rooms; 30,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor space; complimentary Wi-Fi.

Loews Coronado Bay Resort

Located on its own 15-acre peninsula; 439 guest rooms and suites; 65,000 sq. ft. of event space; private gondola cruises available through resort; spa.

Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego

Located near convention center; 1,628 guest rooms; more than 130,000 sq. ft. of event space, including 30,000-square-foot ballroom; full-service spa.

Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina

Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina

Adjacent to convention center and walking distance to Gaslamp Quarter; $106 million renovation expected to be complete in June 2016; 446-slip marina; 80,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; 1,360 guest rooms; Marina Kitchen boasts more than 300 wines from 14 countries.

Omni La Costa Resort & Spa

Spanish Colonial-style village in Carlsbad; home to The Chopra Center for Wellbeing; lodging features 607 guest rooms, suites and villas; 110,000 sq. ft. of event space; two golf courses; 17 tennis courts.

Omnia San Diego

Nightclub in Gaslamp Quarter opened in April; owned by Hakkasan Group; designed with corporate events in mind; accommodates up to 2,200 people; more than 22,000 sq. ft. including main club, balcony level and outdoor terrace.

Pala Casino Spa and Resort

Located in Native American community in northern San Diego County; 507 guest rooms and suites; 40,000 sq. ft. of event space, including 20,000-square-foot ballroom; two concert venues; near 20 wineries in Temecula Valley appellation.

Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa

Forbes Five Star-rated; Southern California’s only Relais & Chateaux property; located in Rancho Santa Fe, 24 miles north of San Diego Airport; lawn spaces can accommodate up to 500; largest indoor space has room for 250; 18 tennis courts; 49 hacienda-style suites.

San Diego Convention Center

One of the premier convention centers in the world; LEED Silver certified; has been recycling since 1990; 525,701 sq. ft. of contiguous exhibit space; 90,000 sq. ft. of column-free exhibit space in upper level pavilion; 72 meeting/banquet rooms totaling 204,114 sq. ft.

Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina

Bayfront location; 1,053 guest rooms; more than 120,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor space, including 20,000-square-foot ballroom; pet friendly; three pools; two fitness facilities.

The Grand Del Mar

Southern California’s only AAA Five Diamond, Forbes Five Star property; 249 guest rooms and suites; more than 20,000 sq. ft. of event space; Tom Fazio-designed golf course; four pools.

The Lodge at Torrey Pines

The Lodge at Torrey Pines

AAA Five Diamond resort in La Jolla, 15 miles north of downtown San Diego; 169 rooms and suites; renowned golf course hosted 2008 U.S. Open; resort blends in with adjacent Torrey Pines State Reserve; full-service spa; more than 13,000 sq. ft. of event space. q

The US Grant Hotel

San Diego icon since 1910; located in Gaslamp Quarter; 270 guest rooms, which feature Native American and French art; two sophisticated ballrooms that offer 6,000 sq. ft. and 3,000 sq. ft.; 24-hour fitness center.

The Westin San Diego Gaslamp Quarter

AAA Four Diamond rated; near convention center; 450 guest rooms and suites; meeting space spread out on four levels; ballroom provides 9,100 sq. ft.; outdoor pool; fitness center; nutrition-packed SuperFoodsRx menus and Westin Fresh by The Juicery beverages.