Get in the swing with meetings in San Diego North
It’s easy to get overlooked when you’re located adjacent to a city such as San Diego, perennially one of the most attractive meetings destinations in the U.S.
But meeting planners should be advised not to pass up San Diego North, or do so at their own risk. Just north of downtown (and as close as a 20-minute drive from San Diego International Airport) the region is known locally as “North County” and offers an array of Southern California landscapes and lifestyles—from the beaches to the nearby mountains and interior deserts—besides being home to some of the best weather in the world. And with a total of 2,400 square miles in its territory, San Diego North has plenty for meeting planners to choose from.
First and foremost is the coastal region and its low-key cities of La Jolla, Del Mar, Encinitas, Carlsbad and Oceanside. Laden with top-end resorts set in hills overlooking the ocean or abutting world-class golf courses, the area also offers an array of outdoor activities for attendees that take advantage of numerous beaches and miles of coastline, such as kayaking, surfing and hang gliding.
Inland between the coast and the Laguna Mountains you’ll find hills, mesas and canyons, with snow-capped mountains in the northeast and the Sonoran Desert to the far east (and within the Anza Borrego Desert State Park). Cleveland National Forest and Palomar Mountain State Park take up much of the central portion of the county, while Escondido, Rancho Bernardo, Fallbrook and parts of Temecula are the primary towns in the area.
“I think one of the most attractive things about this area in the San Diego North region, with its resorts, hotels and off-site venues, is that groups can own the property,” says Cami Mattson, president and CEO of the San Diego North Convention & Visitors Bureau. “You can have an intimate group and meeting, and you don’t get lost in the sea of multiple conferences and conventions [as in a large city]. Our properties are buffered with lagoons, oceans and golf courses that really allow for that creative spirit, and that don’t lose delegates to the downtown [distractions], but still have access to shopping and activities. It becomes a uniting and bonding destination because of the amenities.”
Mattson adds that as a casual resort destination, San Diego North allows for a more laid-back experience, which leads to more creative problem solving by attendees. “It makes us different than the same old, same old. [Planners] want people to feel excited about where they go, and there are elements of relaxation here even though [attendees] may be intensely working,” says Mattson, who has been with the CVB (and its earlier incarnation) for 24 years.
But more important to the local travel and hospitality industry are the sustainability practices that have taken hold in the region, from the locally sourced food served in restaurants to the green initiatives in hotels and resorts and the preservation of land and indigenous flora. “Because of where we’re located, [the hotels] find it critical to preserve the destination surrounding them, whether on a bluff, with endangered Torrey Pines, or backing up to a canyon in Carlsbad,” she says. “All of these make the property unique. Plus, it’s of really huge interest right now; people choose to go places that are giving back. If we just have a monochrome-type destination, without the open space, then you lose a lot of the distinction.”
According to Mattson, the number of corporate meetings has decreased here (like everywhere else), with groups (typically 50–200) coming mostly from within California in the technology, medical and wellness sectors. “People don’t realize how many properties there are up here, and how different it is from an urban downtown experience,” she says.
Pool at Rancho Bernardo Inn.
One planner who knows what San Diego North has to offer is Darla Mathey, CMP, of Conference Direct, who has been bringing groups to the area for years. “My clients like San Diego. It has easy airlift, there are a variety of properties, and if they want more of the ambience of a resort or coastal area, then San Diego North is a perfect destination,” she says. “Famous resorts like La Costa and Rancho Bernardo Inn have a wonderful following and a reputation throughout the nation. People come to those locations to be outdoors. It really depends on what the goals and objectives are of the specific meeting, if they want more of that ambience and feel, if they want to get away from the hustle and bustle and enjoy the serenity of what North County has.”
With 36 miles of picture-perfect Southern California coastline, North County has been attracting beach and water-sports enthusiasts to its shores for decades. Not to be left out, meeting groups have gotten in on the action as well, taking advantage of seaside golf courses and the many outdoor recreational activities—try Dennis Conner’s America’s Cup Experience for a sailing race experience, SurfDiva for surf lessons and team-building packages and La Jolla Kayak for kayak, snorkel and bike tours and rentals. The string of towns found here all offer meetings hotels and resorts, many with views of the ocean and a built-in retreat atmosphere.
The southernmost city in North County’s coast and the closest to downtown San Diego, La Jolla’s most compelling feature is seven miles of coastline that alternate from soft sandy beaches to rugged, rocky shores. A popular surfing destination even before the Beach Boys sang of it, the upscale community is home to numerous hotels and resorts as well as the University of California, San Diego, the Salk Institute and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Part of the latter institution is the Birch Aquarium at Scripps, perched on a bluff overlooking the ocean, with exhibits of more than 60 habitats of fishes and invertebrates, including jellyfish, tide pools and a shark tank. The aquarium is also a popular setting for rentals for groups of 10 to 1,200.
Just north of the UCSD campus and set along the coast is the storied Torrey Pines Golf Course, an annual stop on the PGA and LPGA tours and home in 2008 to the U.S. Open Championship. Graced by the rare long-needled Torrey Pines (found only here and on Santa Rosa Island, Calif.), the course has attracted golf enthusiasts from around the world eager to retrace the steps—and swing—of Tiger Woods and other PGA professionals. Meeting groups can easily access the course or simply watch the action through adjacent hotels, such as the Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines, with 394 guest rooms and 60,000 sq. ft. of meeting and event space.
Event space at The Grand Del Mar.
To the south and also set along the golf course is The Lodge at Torrey Pines, built in the California Craftsman style down to the finest detail, such as wooden nails in the cabinetry, and offering 170 guest rooms and 13,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Lost in the greenery of the nearby hills (but across the road from several UCSD facilities) is the palm-lined and Key West-style Sheraton La Jolla Hotel, with 252 guest rooms and a separate meetings facility that includes 10 meeting rooms for a total of 9,000 sq. ft. of space.
Also located adjacent to the university is the Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa, a Spanish-style resort that borrows architectural touches from its horse-farm past. It features 210 guest rooms and 21,500 sq. ft. of meeting space, including its state-of-the-art Learning Theatre that seats 125. Farther inland, and near the cluster of businesses that make up the area’s thriving bio-tech industry, is the Hyatt Regency La Jolla, a Michael Graves-designed complex that includes several restaurants, 419 guest rooms and 21,156 sq. ft. of meeting space. For a trip to Italy’s Tuscan hills (no passport necessary), a few miles east of the coast is The Grand Del Mar, North County’s newest luxury property, designed in the Mediterranean style of fabled architect Addison Mizner, who designed the early resorts in Palm Beach, Fla. (think verandas, porticos, archways and fountains). The resort has a true retreat feeling with a Tom Fazio-designed golf course, 249 guest rooms and 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
The city north of La Jolla is Del Mar, another popular surf destination (cue the Beach Boys) and home to the 2,000-acre Torrey Pines State Reserve, complete with unspoiled beaches, a lagoon and eight miles of hiking trails. Del Mar is also where you’ll find the Del Mar Fairgrounds, which hosts the San Diego County Fair as well as seasonal horse racing (with suites and Skyrooms available for groups up to 150), and offers 180,000 sq. ft. of event space. Other meetings possibilities include the recently renovated L’Auberge Del Mar, a Four-Diamond seaside property with 120 guest rooms and 15,500 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Inland from Del Mar, past horse ranches and country clubs, is the hilltop town of Rancho Santa Fe. One of the most exclusive addresses in the state, the charming downtown is across from The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe, a historic property built in 1924 and set on 23 acres that offers 87 guest rooms, suites and cottages and 9,349 sq. ft. of meeting space. Guests at the inn can also use the private Rancho Santa Fe Golf Course, otherwise open only to the town’s residents.
Next stop up the coast is the town of Encinitas, also known as the “Flower Capital of the World” for its large collection of nurseries and gardens, including the San Diego Botanic Garden, formerly the Quail Botanical Gardens. The 35-acre garden is available for group events and includes rare bamboo groves, desert gardens, a tropical rainforest, California native plants, Mediterranean climate landscapes, succulent gardens, an herb garden and a subtropical fruit garden. For another slice of nature, the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve offers seven miles of hiking trails through its 1,000 acres.
Exterior of the Lodge at Torrey Pines.
Farther up the road is the Village by the Sea, as Carlsbad is known, although it has grown into a legitimate city with corporate headquarters for a number of companies, such as K2 Sports, Jenny Craig and 24 Hour Fitness. But there’s still plenty of “quaint” to the seaside city, with an attractive and historic town center and nearby neighborhoods. Carlsbad is also home to the The Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch, which features 50 acres of vivid color courtesy of the 50 rose varieties and numerous other flowers (from poinsettias to anemones) planted in broad swaths overlooking the ocean.
One of the bigger attractions in the area is Legoland, an amusement park geared mostly toward youngsters but with plenty of opportunities for groups to enjoy the many rides and shows. On the more adult side, La Costa Resort & Spa is set on 400 acres of idyllic SoCal gardens and includes two 18-hole golf courses, 17 tennis courts, 610 guest suites and villas, and 50,000 sq. ft. of indoor meeting space (with another 50,000 outdoors). Also nearby is the Four Seasons Resort Aviara, North San Diego with 329 guest rooms and 75,000 sq. ft. of meeting and convention space.
The last stop on the coast, and the farthest north in North County, is the town of Oceanside, with some of the area’s most popular beaches and where you’ll find ample opportunity for surfing, sailing and fishing. It’s also where you’ll find the Mission San Luis Rey with 5,786 sq. ft. of function space, as well as the longest over-water wooden pier in Southern California.
Just point your GPS eastward from the beach, and you’ll soon discover a landscape of valleys, hills and mountains of the North County’s vast inland. Like the seaside, there are plenty of world-class golf courses spread throughout the area, even as you continue eastward into the desert regions of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Located within Cleveland National Forest is the world-renowned Palomar Observatory, operated by the California Institute of Technology and available for group tours.
The largest city in North County, Escondido has plenty of activities to keep attendees busy beyond meeting hours. The California Center for the Arts, Escondido is a 12-acre campus for the performing arts with two theaters, art and education studios, and a 9,000-square-foot conference center. For groups who want to go wild, the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park is one of the best venues in the U.S. for viewing lions, tigers, giraffes, rhinoceroses and other exotic animals in a natural setting. The park can accommodate groups of 20 to 3,000 for tours and special events, as well as a team-building scavenger hunt.
Guest room at La Costa Resort and Spa.
Just south of Escondido along I-15 is the town of Rancho Bernardo. It’s where you’ll find the 2,352-acre Black Mountain Open Space Park, with numerous trails throughout. The area is also home to the Bernardo Winery which was established in 1889 and is the oldest continually operating winery in Southern California, and can accommodate groups up to 225. For meetings, Rancho Bernardo Inn is the crown jewel and largest property in the area and offers 287 guest rooms, 22 meeting rooms and more than 45,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including the 10,140-square-foot Aragon Ballroom.
The town of Fallbrook is located just 20 minutes from the beach, but is a true slice of Americana, with its historical Main Street featuring numerous antique stores, art galleries, shops and restaurants. Also located here is the Fallbrook Winery, offering award-winning wines and space for events. The largest meeting venue in the area is the Pala Mesa Resort, with an acclaimed 18-hole golf course, 133 guest rooms and 17,600 sq. ft. of indoor/outdoor meeting space.
Located at the northern edge of the county (at the border with Orange County) is Southern California’s largest wine region in and around Temecula. Groups can enjoy tours and wine tastings in the area with stops at Ponte Family Estate Winery, which offers 6,500 sq. ft. of meeting space, or South Coast Winery Resort & Spa, with 76 guest villas and 15,000 sq. ft. of indoor meeting space.
North County is dotted with resort casino properties that include extensive meeting facilities. Located outside Escondido, the expansive Harrah’s Rincon Casino & Resort has 662 guest rooms and 13,500 sq. ft. of meeting space. Just to the north of Harrah’s is the Four-Diamond Pala Casino Spa & Resort, with 507 guest rooms and 40,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including 17 meeting rooms and a 20,000 sq. ft. banquet hall. The Barona Resort and Casino, in the Barona Valley of the southeast area of North County, offers a championship golf course as well as 397 guest rooms and 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. And to the north in Temecula, the Four-Diamond Pechanga Resort & Casino has 517 guest rooms and 40,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space, including a 22,000 sq. ft. ballroom and a 120-seat teleconference center.