Discover San Diego's natural beauty and meetings-friendly hotels
Almost 50 years after Columbus first glimpsed the shores of the New World, explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo entered into San Diego Bay, the first foray of European adventurers into the coast of what is now California.
He claimed it for the King of Spain, noting succinctly in his log that the bay was “a closed and very good harbor,” and naming it San Miguel, after a saint whose feast was the next day. His ships remained for six days, gathering provisions while sheltered in the land-locked bay from a storm that swirled out at sea.
Today’s visitors are greeted by an equally spectacular sight, as their plane descends into San Diego International Airport: a sea of tall, architecturally unique buildings and lush palm trees fringing the shores along a vast, still-magnificent harbor. And while most meetings are shorter than the six days Cabrillo gave his crew before pushing onward, attendees often will extend their stays just to do their own exploring.
The Gondola Company.
And there’s plenty to explore. The once-small city (whose name changed when another explorer, Sebastian Vizcaino, arrived to map the coast) has expanded its original boundaries inland and north, joining other smaller cities and rural areas to form San Diego County, a 4,269-square-mile region with a 70-mile, picturesque coastline, boasting beaches to match.
Had Cabrillo stayed longer, his armada of 250 men and three ships would have learned even more about this new territory, particularly its mild weather. San Diego enjoys a sunny climate with daytime temperatures that average around 70 degrees year-round—a factor in many planners’ booking decision.
Other factors in these decisions, of course, are San Diego’s myriad attractions for meetings and conventions, from a 2.6-million-square-foot, state-of-the-art convention center to a plethora of hotels and resorts that support it or can host self-contained conferences and events. There’s also a full range of cultural, recreational and tourism options adding to its appeal.
Today, fortunately, you don’t need to rely on the stars or sketchy maps for your “expedition” needs: Just contact the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau, and you’ll be well on your way.
DOWNTOWN SAN DIEGO
Within its nearly 320 square miles, the city of San Diego encompasses a clutch of meetings destinations, including Downtown, a vibrant area with eight distinct neighborhoods. Flanking the waterfront, Downtown is where you’ll find the convention center, several major meetings hotels, the historic, but very trendy, Gaslamp Quarter (with more than 100 restaurants and 40 nightclubs), Petco Park (the San Diego Padres’ baseball stadium), Seaport Village shops and restaurants, and more.
MAJOR MEETINGS VENUES
You can’t get much more major when it comes to meeting venues than the San Diego Convention Center, which features more than 615,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space, including 72 meeting/banquet rooms, two ballrooms and 184,500 sq. ft. of landscaped terrace levels for receptions and breaks. Located on the Embarcadero on San Diego Bay, its distinctive sail-like architecture reflects its setting. Like all of downtown, it’s easily accessible to the airport—an easy five minutes—and the San Diego Trolley stops right out front.
Downtown houses two additional dedicated meeting and event facilities: the San Diego Concourse, which features 300,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; and the Civic Theatre, next door, which presents live musical and theater performances (it’s also home to the San Diego Opera).
Meetings hotels run the gamut between brand-new contemporary designs to hundred-year-old luxury properties—and everything in between. Among the larger, convention hotels are the new Hilton San Diego Bayfront, a sleekly modern hotel with 1,190 guest rooms and 100,000 sq. ft. of meeting space (the highest ratio of meeting space to hotel rooms in the downtown area); the San Diego Marriott Hotel & Marina, immediately adjacent to the center, with 1,362 guest rooms and 75,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; and the Manchester Grand Hyatt, with 1,625 guest rooms and 125,000 sq. ft. of function space, including the largest ballrooms in San Diego. The Omni San Diego Hotel, which is connected by skybridge to Petco Park, features 511 rooms and 27,000 sq. ft. of function space.
Boardroom at the Westgate Hotel.
For a recent event for a corporate client—one of the world’s largest energy companies—Los Angeles Party Designs created a wel-come night, California Beach Party at the Omni’s pool for its 400 attendees. According to Event Producer Renee Frangella, the event company used a variety of bright colors and beach-themed décor, including surfboards, tiki torches, beach chairs and unique florals to bring this beach bash to life.
CSR—corporate social responsibility—plays a big role in many companies’ agendas, and Access Destination Services, a San Diego-based DMC, recently assisted in organizing a work day for Underwriters Laboratories, whose meeting participants had traveled from all over the world for their annual meeting. A group of 80 rolled up their sleeves and spent an afternoon enhancing a San Diego Neighborhood House Association’s First Step Head Start site. “As a group, we are so pleased to have had the opportunity to give back to a wonderful community of people,” says Jill Oakman, global marketing manager for Underwriters Laboratories.
Convenient also to the convention center are two properties with a long history in the city. Still fresh from a $58-million renovation completed in 2006, The US Grant features 270 guest rooms and 33,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. The landmark hotel celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, with a history that includes stays by 13 U. S. presidents. The nearby Westgate Hotel, also featuring classic luxury décor, features 223 guest rooms and 75,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
There’s no lack of hip, smaller hotels either, if that’s your audience and group size. The Hard Rock Hotel San Diego comes to mind immediately, with 420 guest rooms and 40,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. So do Andaz San Diego, formerly the Ivy, featuring 159 rooms and 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, and Sé San Diego, with 161 rooms and 20,000 sq. ft.
The 1,200-acre Balboa Park is San Diego’s land-based playground, with lush gardens, bike paths, 15 museums (including the San Diego Museum of Art) housed in ornate Spanish Colonial palaces, art galleries, The Old Globe Theater and the noted San Diego Zoo. You can arrange private events in the museums and the zoo, or take in a Broadway-bound show before it hits Manhattan.
San Diego’s harbor offers a huge variety of waterfront activities that reflect the history of the bay as well as its many natural attractions.
Setting at The Westin Gaslamp.
Come nighttime, the Gaslamp Quarter is the city’s fun zone. Defined by its so-named, period-style lighting, the district is only eight blocks long and two blocks wide, but it crams in a raft of restaurants, sidewalk cafes, nightclubs, shops, galleries and hotels, giving it a happening vibe any day of the week. Buy out a restaurant or club, do a dine-around or just give your group some free time to enjoy the scene.
For the meeting attendees who like to live up to their bumper-sticker (“Life’s a Beach”)—or want to escape their own snowy city for a meeting in March—San Diego is a preferred destination, with more than 20 beaches throughout the county, including several on Coronado Island, a little world of its own over the San Diego-Coronado Bridge, and many others a little north of downtown.
Mission Bay is San Diego’s other bay, with 4,235 acres of jogging paths, bike paths, parks and resorts (it’s the largest man-made aquatic park in the country, of which approximately 46% is land and 54% water). Its close proximity to downtown (about 10 minutes north) makes it a retreat-like, yet easily accessible, alternative.
Several resorts entice planners with upgraded and renovated features, plus a wide array of outdoor recreational activities. The Hyatt Regency Mission Bay Spa & Marina, which recently underwent a $65-million redesign, has 430 guest rooms and 30,000 sq. ft. of indoor/outdoor function space. The Dana on Mission Bay offers meeting space for up to 400 along with its spectacular views, plus 271 guest rooms. Both are adjacent to the Marina Village Conference Center, a venue that can accommodate groups up to 350.
Event at Hilton San Diego Mission Bay.
A pristine island retreat, Paradise Point Resort & Spa has just emerged from a $20-million renovation of its 462 bungalow-style guest rooms and its bayfront meeting facilities, which encompass 29 meeting rooms and three ballrooms, for a total of more than 35,000 sq. ft.
Located on a 14-acre peninsula, the Bahia Resort Hotel offers 16 event venues for a total of 20,000 sq. ft. of function space with views of Mission Bay. Bahia’s sister property, the 313-room Catamaran Resort Hotel and Spa can accommodate up to 450 guests in 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and also features hidden gardens with exotic flora and fauna.
For a fun off-site, SeaWorld San Diego is a 189-acre adventure park packed with group opportunities. Along with its shows, rides and animals, it offers special areas for picnics and other outdoor functions, for up to 10,000 attendees. (And there’s always that VIP option of a kiss from Shamu, the world-famous orca.)
North of Mission Bay is La Jolla, an upscale seaside enclave of luxury homes, galleries, boutiques, restaurants and hotels, interspersed with a few surfer shacks for atmosphere. The draw, of course, is the beach, the waves and the laid-back ambience—not to mention the spectacular views.
You can, in fact, put your toes in the sand right out of your guest room door at the La Jolla Shores Hotel. This ideally situated property attracts guests with its 7,500 sq. ft. of indoors and several outdoor venues. It has 128 guest rooms.
Located adjacent to the University of California, San Diego (La Jolla’s other claim to fame), is the 210-room Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa . Its 26,000-square-foot IACC-certified conference facility plays host to many retreats, such as one held last fall for the Torrance Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine Group. According to Teri Deabler, practice administrator, it was a very successful physician retreat where “it was so nice to be able to concentrate on my agenda and not have to worry about A/V needs, food and drink needs, and the comfort of the attendees. Everything was handled so professionally and expediently.”
From its vantage point on the La Jolla bluffs, the Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines overlooks the world-renowned Torrey Pines Golf Course, with its stunning backdrop of the Pacific Ocean. The hotel has 394 guest rooms and 26,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, plus an additional 20,000 sq. ft. of landscaped gardens.
The Lodge at Torrey Pines is another scenic option. Located along the 18th fairway and green of the Torrey Pines Golf Course, this Craftsman-style resort has 170 guest rooms, more than 13,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and a full-service spa. Guests can take advantage of the guaranteed tee times offered exclusively to the lodge—a true VIP perk.
NORTH SAN DIEGO
North San Diego is likely well-known to leisure travelers who have beelined it to the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, Legoland (which keeps expanding), the Birch Aquarium at Scripps and the Del Mar Fairgrounds. These are all fun venues you can utilize for unique off-site events, team-building opportunities and spousal and family activities. The San Diego North Convention & Visitors Bureau is a great resource for further information and assistance.
This is also San Diego’s resort area, where you can keep your meeting-goers sequestered with no complaints. Along the coast is The Grand Del Mar, a new luxury property that lives up to its name. The hotel, designed with influences from Morocco, Portugal and Spain, features 249 guest rooms and more than 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including a 10,000-square-foot ballroom. Its setting, in the Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve, offers both privacy and exclusivity. An on-site championship golf course can host your play or tournament.
L'Auberge Del Mar.
L’Auberge Del Mar, located in the village of Del Mar, is just a short stroll from the beach. It provides 120 guest rooms, more than 15,500 sq. ft. of indoor/outdoor meeting space (including 2,000 sq. ft. of newly added outdoor, ocean-view event space) and two lighted championship tennis courts.
Inland, in tony Rancho Bernardo, is the Rancho Bernardo Inn, which recently completed a $25-million renovation that included its 287 guest rooms and suites, plus the Rancho Bernardo Inn Conference Center, which now features 22 meeting rooms totaling 45,000 sq. ft. of flexible indoor and outdoor meeting space.
The region’s largest event venue is the aforementioned Del Mar Fairgrounds, which holds the annual San Diego County Fair and the Del Mar horse races in summer. Your group can convene here in 180,000 sq. ft. of meeting and exhibit space, in venues such as O’Brien Hall, which can accommodate up to 6,800 people. Outdoors, the Grandstand and Del Mar Arena can host up to 7,000.
MISSION VALLEY/OLD TOWN
About 10 miles inland, east of downtown, is Mission Valley, an area that features the city’s largest shopping mall, Qualcomm Stadium (home field for the NFL’s San Diego Chargers), and numerous parks and recreational areas. It’s also the site of the Mission San Diego de Alcala, San Diego’s first mission. Nearby is Old Town, a popular San Diego neighborhood due to its numerous restaurants—particularly its authentic Mexican eateries—and historical sites.
Meetings hotels cluster around what’s dubbed Hotel Circle, and include Town and Country Resort & Convention Center, which has been in the valley for more than 50 years. This is the largest of the properties, with 1,000 guest rooms and 250,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space. Other options include The Handlery Hotel and Resort, with 217 lodging accommodations and 42,000 sq. ft. of indoor/outdoor function space, and the Doubletree Club Hotel, with 219 guest rooms and more than 10,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including a newly renovated ballroom.
If you’d like to be immersed in the culture and history of Old Town, the Spanish-style Hacienda Hotel Old Town San Diego offers 200 guest rooms and 9,450 sq. ft. of meeting space.
For more information about properties, venues and attractions in San Diego, visit smartmeetings.com/showcases/san-diego.
A Big Bay Scenario
A statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo claims the promontory on 165 acres of parkland at Cabrillo National Monument, honoring his discovery of San Diego Bay and the first landfall on the California coast under the Spanish flag. It serves as a reminder of this beautiful bay and its importance not only in history but also of opportunities for enjoyment. Standing on the point, you can see the history of San Diego encapsulated, with its protected harbor, schools of racing sailboats, tankers, cruise ships and a parade of imposing military vessels.
Planners can arrange a meetings’ worth of activities around San Diego Bay, whether their group is headquartered at a waterfront hotel, such as the new Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel, or on another tip of land to the south, Coronado Island, such as the Loews Coronado Bay Resort.
Event set-up at the USS Midway.
Interestingly, along with the military, the Unified Port of San Diego is a major land/leaseholder along the shoreline, which berths cruiseliners, historic tall ships, excursion and whale-watching boats, dinner boats, ferries, water taxis, the USS Midway Museum and multimillion-dollar racing yachts, as well as a working fishing fleet.
Not just for the leisure market, these marine attractions can serve as event venues as well as jumping off points for dining, recreation and outdoor team-building possibilities.
The USS Midway Museum is one example. This retired aircraft carrier is an awe-inspiring museum where thousands of meeting-goers can convene for special events on its expansive flight deck, among restored aircraft. With a play on its battleship-grey color and the orange signal flags of its long-ago flight deck crew, Los Angeles Party Designs created a welcome event for 1,350 guests on the Hangar Bay Flight Deck for one of the world’s largest data service companies. The Midway, with its 360-degree panoramic views of the bay, provided a lifelong memory for the guests, according to Renee Frangella, event designer, most of whom had never stepped on an aircraft carrier or any ship of that magnitude.
Another example is Hornblower whale-watching boats, which depart from the downtown waterfront in season, while others of the company’s fleet serve up fine dining, champagne-brunch cruises and chartered events.
Guest room at Loews Coronado Bay Resort.
And, for something entirely different, Loews Coronado Bay Resort can arrange a cruise in private gondolas through the canals and waterways of the Coronado Cays off the bay. The cruises, ideal for small VIP groups, include complimentary hors d’oeuvres or dessert, an ice bucket and wine glasses—oh, and singing gondoliers. (You or Loews provide the vino.)
Back on the shoreline, a new 4.5-acre park lines the waterfront between the Hilton and the Convention Center and Seaport Village, a cluster of restaurants and shops with a nautical ambience. Here your joggers, strollers and shoppers can exercise their passions pre- and post-meeting on one of the most pleasant waterfronts you’re likely to find.