Meetings That Make a Splash


But the area, located just 35 miles south of Los Angeles, offers more than surfing, with major attractions such as Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm and outdoor sports ranging from stand-up paddleboarding and rowing to sailing and beach volleyball. For major meetings, Orange County is a top destination with plenty of possibilities for outdoor activities and team building. After all, the region contains more than 55,000 guest rooms and 42 miles of coast.

“Orange County is the center of southern California and the hometown of the surfing industry,” says Elaine Cali, vice president of communications at the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau (AOCVCB). “The OC’s beach areas feature international surfing competitions in Huntington Beach, yacht races in Newport Beach and world-class festivals in Laguna Beach and Dana Point. Orange County’s ideal weather, amazing coastline and trendsetting beach communities are the perfect backdrop for meetings and special events and capture a slice of the classic SoCal lifestyle.”

Whether your group is destined for boat-building in Newport Beach, lounging poolside in Laguna Beach or cresting waves in Huntington Beach, there’s something for just about every type of attendee—no suntan required.

Dana Point Harbor, courtesy of
Anaheim CVB


Serving as the backdrop for don’t-miss attractions such as Angels Stadium, Honda Center and Knott’s Berry Farm (where three new rides were added this year to the Boardwalk area), Anaheim is a prime destination for planners. It will host the U.S. Travel Association’s International Pow Wow in 2019. Founded in 1857, the city has a plethora of outdoor activities, from kayaking on the Santa Ana River to hiking at the Oak Canyon Nature Center.

For non-water-sports-related activities outdoors, groups can head to Disneyland and experience new attractions, including the Fantasy Faire area, a village-like spot where visitors can mingle with Disney characters and take in two new live performances. At the newly expanded Disney California Adventure Park, groups can check out the 12-acre Cars Land, inspired by the Pixar film Cars.

Set for completion this fall, the Anaheim Packing District, formerly a citrus-packing house dating back to 1919, will further improve meeting experiences in the city. Recalling public markets in Europe and around the globe, the 42,000-square-foot food emporium will offer live music, picnic areas and vendors including The Iron Press, serving specialty beers and waffle sandwiches.

Where to Meet

Thanks to the Anaheim Convention Center and a slew of resorts in town, there are plenty of lodging options for planners. The Anaheim Convention Center Grand Plaza, which opened in January, is a 100,000-square-foot outdoor multiuse event space located between the Hilton Anaheim and the Anaheim Marriott hotels and features 151 palm trees, 60 orange trees and fountains. The AOCVCB has also launched Grand PlazaVille, a virtual meeting-planning tool.

Anaheim Convention Center, courtesy of Anaheim CVB

Another popular spot for meetings is the Honda Center, the main venue for the Anaheim Ducks pro hockey team. The facility will debut a new 15,000-square-foot grand terrace with an 80-foot bar and a 220-seat restaurant later this year.

Construction on the 10-story Great Wolf Lodge Water Park Resort was scheduled, as of press time, to begin this year; when completed, it will offer more than 600 rooms, 30,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and a water park a mile south of Disneyland.

Three new hotel developments are in the works in the Anaheim Resort District, a 1,100-acre development that has undergone a $5 billion transformation. Properties include the 178-room Hyatt Place Anaheim Resort (opening next year) and the 252-room Hyatt House Anaheim Resort, slated to open in 2015. Plans are also under way for Two Spring Hill Suites to open next summer.

In Santa Ana, an unconventional meeting venue is the Discovery Science Center, featuring 100 interactive exhibits. Next year, the center will unveil the new 40,000-square-foot Discovery Pavilion and Education Wing and expanded 4,000-square-foot Grand Hall of Science.

Newport Beach

Sailing near Balboa Bay Resort, Newport Beach

Known for restaurants headed up by celebrity chefs such as Rick Bayless, five-star hotels and resorts, and world-class shopping—most notably at the Fashion Island Shopping Center—Newport Beach is also synonymous with sailboats, Duffy boats and surfboards. Plus, there’s the famous Balboa Fun Zone, with retro arcade games and a Ferris wheel, located on Balboa Island, a manmade island that’s home to about 3,000 residents in Newport Beach.

“Newport Beach provides the most diverse and largest water recreation setting in all of Orange County,” says Michelle Donahue, vice president of sales for Visit Newport Beach Inc. “And thanks to the stunning nature preserve of Back Bay, sparkling Newport Harbor and pristine beaches, attendees can try stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, surfing, renting an easy-to-navigate Duffy Electric Boat or simply admiring the scenery on a walk or bike ride.”

There’s no shortage of surf culture here. In fact, the city will host the 26th annual Newport Beach Surf Championships Sept. 28–29. Hard-core surfers and surf enthusiasts can grab a beach chair and a pair of binoculars and watch pro surfers take on massive waves at The Wedge at the end of the Balboa Peninsula. Located four miles from Balboa Bay Resort, this famous surfing spot (where scenes from the iconic film Endless Summer were shot) has been known to produce waves up to 30 feet high.

Outdoor activities can be easily coordinated or prearranged through the CVB or hotel concierges, including stand-up paddleboarding lessons at nearby Newport Aquatic Center or winding through the harbor via electric boats rented through the California Recreation Company. For stand-up paddleboarding instruction, groups can enlist the help of local company SupCore at Newport Dunes, a waterfront marina offering kayaking, fishing and paddleboarding.

Where to Meet

The Island Hotel Newport Beach is reminiscent of a far-flung tropical hideaway with an outdoor swimming pool and newly upgraded guest rooms with island-inspired decor. Late last year, it added 6,000 sq. ft. of event space to push its total to more than 30,000 sq. ft. Post meetings, guests can lounge poolside or check into the onsite spa for a signature Balinese-style massage using herbs and essential oils. The resort’s lounge features live music and is quite popular with locals. 

Opened 65 years ago, the 169-room waterfront Balboa Bay Resort (formerly the Balboa Bay Club & Resort) is also a staple for locals and visitors. Situated on 15 acres, the AAA Four Diamond property features a 24-hour fitness center, an outdoor swimming pool, nightly entertainment in Duke’s Place and more than 17,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. The resort is a part of the new Meritage Collection, a lifestyle-focused coalition of California properties that planners can rotate among for their meetings; the other hotels are the Meritage Resort & Spa in Napa, Bacara Resort & Spa in Santa Barbara and Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa in San Diego.

Other lodging options include the recently renovated 403-room Hyatt Regency Newport Beach, with 26,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and extras including complimentary shuttle service to John Wayne Airport and the Fashion Island Shopping Center. Following a multiphase $15 million renovation (which began late last year and was completed in May), the 26-acre property now offers three swimming pools: the Oasis for families, the Serenity for those seeking peace and quiet and the Indulge with a sandy-beach area. Groups can also head to one of several nearby beaches for a picnic or beach volleyball.

Situated on 504 acres, The Resort at Pelican Hill is a prime destination for groups. Rated the No. 1 Golf Resort in the World and No. 1 Resort in the United States last year by Conde Nast Traveler, Pelican Hill is the epitome of luxury, featuring a spa with 22 treatment rooms and outdoor activities that include hiking in the Irvine Ranch Land Reserve and beach excursions to Crystal Cove and a three-mile-long beach. Sunscreen, towels, bottled water and beach toys are provided. Want to take your group surfing? Pelican Hill regularly arranges private surf lessons for guests.


Irvine Marriott

Named after farmer and landowner James Irvine of the Irvine Company, the city of Irvine is a major hub for meetings. Located 45 miles south of Los Angeles, it is home to the University of California Irvine, as well as 14 hotels and more than 20 parks and 282 miles of bicycle lanes. Designed by Los Angeles architect William Pereira, the pristinely manicured city offers manmade waterways, shopping centers and many restaurants.

“With 16,000 acres of open space, Irvine offers groups outdoor recreation including hiking and biking that make for fun team-building activities,” says Trisha Edmonds, director of sales for Destination Irvine. “In addition, our park areas can be utilized for unique offsite-event venues.”

With Newport Beach and Dana Point a few minutes away by car, whale watching and surfing are also popular outdoor activities. For whale-watching cruises, check out tours such as Dana Wharf for a glimpse of gray whales, fin whales, dolphins and minke whales. 

Where to Meet

Major meeting venues include outdoor spaces such as Aldrich Park, a 19-acre botanical garden at UC Irvine, and several luxury hotels and resorts fit for groups.

Opening next summer, the Courtyard by Marriott Irvine Spectrum will feature a swimming pool, spa and fitness center, as well as 8,500 sq. ft. of meeting space. Another go-to spot for meetings is The Atrium. Originally named The Airporter (for its convenient location across the street from the airport), the property features newly updated guest rooms fashioned with pillow-top deluxe mattresses, 42-inch flat-screen TVs and iPod docking stations, as well as a lobby with upgraded furniture and a new pool bar.

Other noteworthy properties include The Courtyard by Marriott Irvine John Wayne Airport/Orange County with 1,250 sq. ft. of meeting space. Last year, the hotel (offering free breakfast buffets for groups and complimentary wireless) unveiled refreshed carpets in its lobby, meeting rooms and hallways.

The 536-room Hyatt Regency Irvine boasts more than 36,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and recently completed a variety of renovations, including the introduction of Hyatt Grand Beds, new furniture for banquets and events, and two shuttles for transportation to and from John Wayne Airport. For a breath of fresh air, guests can play tennis on a lighted tennis court, take a few laps in the outdoor swimming pool or explore Irvine on a complimentary cruiser bike.

Last month, the 485-room Irvine Marriott, with 25 meeting rooms and 27,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, underwent a $5 million lobby renovation in celebration of its 30th anniversary. Located 10 minutes from John Wayne Airport, The DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Irvine, Spectrum, formerly known as The Meritage, features more than 4,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. The hotel offers free airport shuttle service, a complimentary daily breakfast and an onsite restaurant and wine bar, 90 Pacifica.

Other recently revamped hotels include La Quinta Inn & Suites Irvine Spectrum with 864 sq. ft. of meeting space. Once a grain warehouse, the 147-room property is listed on the National Registry of Historical Sites.

Dana Point

Lauded for its rich surfing heritage, Dana Point is one of the most historic surf towns in southern California. It is where surf magazines such as Surfer’s Journal and Surfer Magazine were formed; Hobie Alter opened his first surfboard shop in the 50s; and scenes from the iconic Endless Summer were filmed. Today, this tradition continues. Girl in the Curl offers surf camps and lessons, while events such as the Doheny Surf Festival (slated for June 28–29 next year) celebrate riding the waves.

Not surprisingly, this coastal community offers plenty of post-meeting activities, from weekend tours at the Ocean Institute—a mega marine educational facility and aquarium—to paddleboarding in Dana Point Harbor. The Ocean Institute will host the 29th annual Toshiba Tall Ships Festival (Sept. 7–8), with seven types of schooners and interactive exhibits and displays. 

Where to meet

With its private beach, ocean kayaking and surf butlers, The St. Regis Monarch Beach is a must-book for meeting planners. The Forbes Five Star, AAA Five Diamond property features 400 guest rooms, three swimming pools, six onsite restaurants, a lounge and a spa voted one of the Top 25 Spas in the World by Travel+Leisure magazine. It has more than 68,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Located a short drive away, atop a 150-foot-high bluff, The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel features 30,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. In honor of the resort’s 30th anniversary next year, recent upgrades include first-floor suites with outdoor fireplaces, the new Eco-Adventure Center and refreshed meeting rooms. The resort offers Surf Breaks, designed to replace mundane 15-minute coffee breaks with an energizing simulated surf ride. Surf Breaks include private instruction on surf-inspired skateboards and can be completed in 15 or 30 minutes at offsite locations such as Doheny State Park.

Huntington Beach

The Waterfront Beach Resort, a Hilton Hotel, Huntington Beach

Dubbed “Surf City USA,” Huntington Beach, or HB, is the largest beach city in Orange County (population: approximately 190,000) and is home to surfing legends such as Rick “Rocking Fig” Fignetti. Thanks to 8.5 miles of beaches and surfing championship competitions including the U.S. Surfing Open held every summer, the city welcomes more than 8 million annual visitors.

For a close-up look at legendary surfers and the history of surfing in Huntington Beach, head to the International Surfing Museum. The nonprofit museum, dedicated to surfer and swimming icon Duke Kahanamoku, is filled with a well-edited mix of surfboards, photographs, surfing music and films. Every week, bands perform live in the museum’s parking lot as part of the Surfin’ Sundays concert series, which is free to the public.

To get their outdoor fix, groups can pack a picnic and venture to Bolsa Chica Beach for an afternoon of Frisbee or beach volleyball, or book a sport-fishing adventure to the Huntington Flats via private charter tours through Newport Landing. Other activities include kayaking the idyllic Huntington Harbour. 

Where To Meet

Surf culture and a laid-back lifestyle are Huntington Beach trademarks, luring sporty and athletic types. Attendees who step inside the 196-room Shorebreak Hotel, where guest rooms are decked out with surfing prints and binoculars (for checking out morning waves, of course), might think they’ve landed on Oahu. After an afternoon at the beach or a post-meeting surf lesson, guests can stow their surfboards or boogie boards on the beach level, then enjoy a complimentary wine hour. The property offers 8,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

At the 290-room Waterfront Beach Resort, a Hilton Hotel, with 21,500 sq. ft. of meeting space, attendees can check out surfers and beachgoers in the distance from their private patios. The hotel has a long list of extras, from the Surf Hero Market, with grab-and-go options, to complimentary Disneyland transportation. Groups can also enjoy Sunday brunch at the hotel’s Shades Restaurant & Bar, featuring a magician who entertains guests. 

The Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa effortlessly mixes meeting convenience—it has more than 110,000 sq. ft. of meeting space—with fun-in-the-sun options. Features include three outdoor spa pools and a water playground with three slides, nine cabanas, a bar and cafe, and a hot tub.

Laguna Beach

Montage Laguna Beach

Lined with picturesque coves a rugged coastline, Laguna Beach is a surfer’s paradise. Hot spots include Rockpile, a 700-foot-long cove, and St. Ann’s, used mainly by locals. The area is also known for skimboarding, a water sport that features a small board used to skim on top of shallow water as waves ebb and flow.

“Laguna Beach is unique in that there are more than 20 coves and beaches within city limits, whereas most beach cities have one main wide stretch of beach,” says Ashley Johnson, marketing director for the Laguna Beach Visitors & Conference Bureau. “Each cove offers a different experience, from surfing or skimboarding to snorkeling, kayaking, tide-pool exploration or simply relaxing on the beach. In addition to the beaches and coves, Laguna also offers 20,000 acres of wilderness perfect for hiking and biking. All of this adds up to a complete experience in an environment of creativity, culture and natural beauty.” Standouts for team building include the 7,000-acre Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, featuring more than 20 hiking and multiuse trails.

Where to Meet

The vacation-like vibe and unobstructed ocean views from many of the resorts in Laguna Beach are a big draw for meeting planners. The 167-room Surf & Sand Resort, situated right on the beach, offers 13 suites, an onsite spa that uses organic products, 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and group coffee breaks hosted on the sand. The resort also features several team-building and group-activity options, including guided, 1.5-mile power walks (conducted the morning before the big meeting day), yoga on the beach, beach Olympics, hula hooping, sack racing and sand castle-building contests.

At Montage Laguna Beach, guests can comb the perimeter of the Craftstman-style property and watch surfers catch waves in the ocean below. Opened in 2003 and set on 30 acres, the 248-room luxury resort features 14,500 sq. ft. of meeting space, an extensive art collection with works by plein-air artists such as Edgar Payne and William Wendt, and a 20,000-square-foot spa with 21 treatment rooms.

The Montage is one of many in the area that melds seamless service with luxe amenities and plenty of options for team building and oceanside retreat. Whether lounging in a cabana by the pool in Laguna Beach, hiking and biking in Irvine, donning mouse ears in Anaheim, hitting the waves in Huntington Beach or cruising the harbor by boat in Newport Beach just in time for sunset, attendees are sure to enjoy their time in sun-soaked Orange County. Consider it southern California’s ultimate outdoor playground.

Jennie Nunn is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and editor who covers travel, home and fashion. She was previously an editor at Sunset magazine.

Main image: Surfing in Laguna Beach, courtesy of Laguna Beach CVB

Hotel Chart

Click here for detailed information on the hotels in this story.


Meeting Spotlight

Aliso Creek Inn, Laguna Beach

  • Who: ISES Orange County; 20 attendees
  • What: ISES-OCC Board Installation
  • When: June 25, 2013
  • Where: Aliso Creek Inn, Laguna Beach
  • Why: “Aliso Creek has a fabulous golf course and is very serene with amazing views. It also has accommodations right there, which made it convenient. Andrea Wilde, Aliso Creek’s director of catering and conferences, is fabulous to work with. We golfed and had our dinner reception at the property and had breakfast at Penguin Cafe on the Pacific Coast Highway.”  –Tracy Hueth, president

Surf’s Up: 3 Top Surfing Schools

Whether your attendees are looking to learn the basics or hone their surfing skills with help from the pros, there’s little doubt they will enjoy lessons at one of three top surfing schools in the area:

1. At Aqua Surf School, there’s no need to worry about buying expensive equipment. Everything is provided, including wet suits and surfboards (9:30–11 a.m., from $75 per person). Classes are offered in Laguna Beach, Newport Beach and other beach cities.

2. Founded 18 years ago by surfer Michael Pless Sr., M&M Surfing School (three-hour group lessons from $65) offers groups instruction on everything from surfing fundamentals to proper form and water safety.

3. At Newport Surf School (from $75 per person), groups can learn key elements of surfing, including board positioning, balance techniques and timing, from founder Matt Binswanger, who has been surfing for several decades.