Smart Meetings cracks the mysteries of SoCal
To many, Southern California is a place of sunshine, flip-flops and endless sand. It’s where you can ride a Ferris wheel along the Santa Monica Pier, run beside the crashing waves of La Jolla or shop in perfect weather at a downtown farmer’s market.
But beneath this exterior, another SoCal lurks—and it is just as enticing as what meets the eye. Here, there are shades of gray and wafts of smoke. You can uncover the history of film noir, eat at the restaurant where a classic mystery came to life or explore the dark stories of Old Hollywood.
For meeting planners, this SoCal promises an experience like no other, if you just know how to dig it up. Luckily, Smart Meetings is on the case.
The hub of Southern California, Los Angeles, is also the hub of the area’s mysterious roots. It was in the City of Angels that film noir took off, providing a platform for such stars as Robert Mitchum and Barbara Stanwyck. L.A.’s enigmatic nature is also what inspired author Raymond Chandler to write his Philip Marlowe whodunits, and what made it the setting for such contemporary classics as L.A. Confidential.
Today, intrigue continues to pulse through the metropolis. A popular visitor spot is Union Station, a Mission-style, palm tree-lined landmark that served as the focal point of a 1950 noir film by the same name, as well as a backdrop in such films as Blade Runner and The Italian Job. And for noir buffs, bus adventure company Esotouric offers treks through Chandler’s L.A., including stops at Paramount Studios’ gates and the Hollywood grill Musso & Frank, where he penned The Big Sleep.
Exterior of the Hilton Universal City Hotel.
CLUES TO A GREAT MEETING
Imagine that detective Philip Marlowe was put on the case of finding an ideal event venue in SoCal. Pipe in hand, he would no doubt start his sleuthing at L.A. Live, the bustling downtown district comprised of restaurants, entertainment options and ample meeting properties. Venues range from the 235,000-square-foot Nokia Theatre to the 20,000-seat Staples Center and the 40,000-square-foot open-air Nokia Plaza.
Brand-new to the scene are the JW Marriott Hotel Los Angeles at L.A. Live and The Ritz-Carlton, Los Angeles. The two properties comprise a unique, 54-story tower with an 8,000-square-foot spa, rooftop pool and 100,000 sq. ft. of shared meeting space. They are also conveniently located across the street from the Los Angeles Convention Center, a sprawling facility with 147,000 sq. ft. of meeting room space, three food courts and art-filled lobbies.
Upon completing his detective work, Marlowe might retire to one of L.A.’s historic hotels. And he would no doubt hit the Noe Bar at the Omni Los Angeles Hotel at California Plaza first; after all, it’s home to a renowned fine cigar selection. The Four-Diamond venue also brims with Old Hollywood luxury, including a rich color scheme and floral accents. It offers 20,000 sq. ft. of event space in 22 rooms.
Old-school elegance also reigns at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown. Several decadent chandeliers sparkle throughout the property, and the palette is almost entirely gold. The hotel is also seeped in history; when it opened in 1923, it was the largest hotel west of Chicago. Today, a Now, Then and Again package is available to provide a glimpse of that past. For planners, the venue provides sophisticated rooms that can accommodate 15–1,000 attendees. (It doesn’t take a hard-boiled detective to discover the Millennium and Omni are quality spaces; both have received coveted Platinum Choice Awards from savvy Smart Meetings planners.)
For more throwback glamour, there’s the Beverly Garland Holiday Inn in Hollywood. Its namesake is a starlet whose debut movie in 1950 was—you guessed it—the noir film D.O.A.
Lobby at Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa.
Nancy Uber-Rose, spokesperson for the venue, says the Garland family still owns the property, and staff has taken steps to “ensure her legacy is carried on, with old photos in the lobby, old films and things of that nature.” It’s very much an Old Hollywood, glamorous feel, she says.
The Garland recently completed a $2-million renovation to spruce up its meeting space, which includes 12,000 sq. ft. of indoor meeting rooms, 2,500 sq. ft. of landscaped outdoor area and a 132-seat theater. The property is also nearby the magical offerings of Universal Studios Hollywood—itself a popular event spot that offers meeting areas and can even be entirely rented out. Attractions at the theme park include a backlot tour and top-notch performances at the Gibson Amphitheatre, situated in the park’s entertainment center, CityWalk. To further mix business with pleasure, there’s NBC Universal Studio Special Events, which organizes group functions on sound stages and backlots.
Though Raymond Chandler primarily resided in Los Angeles, his final home was San Diego. Here, he would frequently haunt the Whaling Bar & Grill, a popular literary watering hole that also counts Dr. Seuss and Gregory Peck as former patrons. The spot is on-site at La Valencia Hotel, the famous pink-exterior inn with ocean views and space for 10–500 meeting attendees.
The US Grant, San Diego.
Chandler isn’t the only legendary name tied to the city; Wyatt Earp also leased several saloons and gambling halls there. One of those properties has since become George’s on Fifth, a Gaslamp Quarter restaurant that has kept the captivating legend of the gunslinger alive.
For a different kind of intrigue, there’s the Hotel Del Coronado, a Victorian property with a storied history of hauntings. The most famous house ghost is Kate Morgan, a young woman who passed away at the hotel in 1892, and has been known to roam the property and flip light switches on and off. The 757-room hotel, a National Historic Landmark, provides more than 65,000 sq. ft. of meeting and event space.
CLUES TO A GREAT MEETING
It’s no mystery why San Diego was able to lure both a literary hotshot and legendary sheriff to town, or why it’s one of the most sought-after event destinations. In addition to its miles of beach and sunny climate, the city is filled with unusual gems.
For meeting planners, one of the best-kept secrets is the USS Midway Museum, says Margie Sitton, senior VP of sales for the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau. Up to 3,500 attendees can be accommodated on the hanger bays and flight deck of the enormous vessel, which is one of the country’s longest-serving aircraft carriers. “Unless you’ve done it, you can’t understand the impact it has on attendees,” Sitton says. “It’s absolutely incredible and very moving to be there.”
The US Grant is another enticing option. The lavish property was originally constructed in 1910 by the son of Ulysses S. Grant, and since then, 14 U.S. presidents have stayed there. That tradition is honored in the luxurious Presidential Ballroom, a 9,300-square-foot space that helps comprise the venue’s total 33,000 sq. ft. of event facilities.
In Orange County, mystery comes with a healthy dose of fun. The O.C.’s most well-known attraction, Disneyland in Anaheim, provides such thrill rides as The Tower of Terror—inspired by the mystery classic The Twilight Zone—and the Haunted Mansion. The world’s most famous theme park is also a meetings mecca, with 136,000 sq. ft. of event space at the Disneyland Hotel, 20,000 sq. ft. at the Paradise Pier Hotel and 20,000 sq. ft. at the Grand Californian Resort & Spa.
For more adult suspense, the Clarion Hotel Anaheim Resort, with 7,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, plays host to a “Hollywood Confidential” show. The mystery comedy tells the tale of a movie wrap party gone awry, with the audience encouraged to join in. A similar experience can be had at the Wyndham Orange County Hotel in Costa Mesa. The property, which can host 10–250 attendees, is currently showing “The Password is Murder,” a mystery set at a speakeasy in the ’30s.
Another venue that mixes amusement with intrigue is Strike Orange County in Tustin, a bowling spot that stays open through the night and offers ominous, lights-out promotions. Planners can rent out its 30 glow-in-the-dark lanes, each of which comes with a 12-foot customizable screen.
CLUES TO A GREAT MEETING
Disneyland isn’t Orange County’s only attraction to promise intrigue. At the Discovery Science Center (discoverycube.org) in Santa Ana, guests can ponder the mysteries of the universe at the Planetary Research Station, or the puzzles of the world at the Dynamic Earth exhibit. The venue provides a great opportunity to host a unique event. In addition to its 100 hands-on exhibits, it includes a 125-seat theater equipped with A/V.
If there’s one thing about The O.C. that’s not cloaked in mystery, meanwhile, it’s the area’s reputation as one of the best beach spots around. Two venues stand out in high-end Newport Beach: The Balboa Bay Club & Resort, a stylish retreat with 17,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, and the Island Hotel, a luxurious spot with such meeting options as a private dining room and 6,600-square-foot grand ballroom. Over in Huntington Beach, there’s the Waterfront Beach Resort, with 21,500 sq. ft. of event space and oceanfront ballrooms that have made it a top destination for meeting planners.
The popularity of the Anaheim Convention Center also fails to mystify. With 815,000 sq. ft of exhibit space (the most of anywhere on the West Coast), 130,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and a 38,000-square-foot ballroom, the venue’s allure is easy to uncover.
In Palm Springs, the mystery is all in the setting. The arid and sparse desert oasis evokes a sense of the unknown, providing the perfect backdrop to intrigue. Rob Osterberg, director of convention sales and services for the Palm Springs Desert Resort Communities CVA, says the ambient seclusion of the area has made it a popular spot for events and entertainment.
Each spring, the town hosts the Arthur Lyons’ Film Noir Festival, which features the best of the genre. The event was started by the late, great mystery author Arthur Lyons, and a portion of the proceeds benefits the Palm Springs Cultural Center.
Guest room at Rancho Las Palmas, Palm Springs.
Other mystery writers, too, have found inspiration in the Palm Springs environment. Albert Simon’s Henry Wright detective series is set in the desert town, and includes such tomes as For Sale in Palm Springs and Palm Springs Predicament. And Ann Hollstein’s Aggie Underhill series focuses on a sassy female crime-solver who lives in the area.
CLUES TO A GREAT MEETING
For a taste of this mysterious setting, there’s no better choice than the Palm Springs Convention Center, with an aesthetic designed to blend in with its surroundings. The property offers up to 112,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space, a 20,000-square-foot ballroom and outdoor areas with views of the desert and mountain backdrop.
Another good option to experience the setting is The Living Desert. Located in Palm Desert, 15 minutes outside of Palm Springs, the 1,200-acre zoo and botanical garden is home to mountain lions, bobcats, giraffes and other animals indigenous to the terrain. Attendees can take in the scene while conducting business in boardrooms, an African Village, a garden patio and more.
In addition to its enigmatic landscape, Palm Springs also promises the more obvious SoCal charm of near-perfect weather. Beckie Biedebach, vice president of ConferenceDirect, who has held at least six meetings in Palm Springs, says climate has been the biggest factor in her return appearances. Not to mention, she says, “There is something special about the mountains, the sunsets and the terrain.”
To experience this weather, one good option is to hit up the countless golf courses in the area. The Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa has a 27-hole course, as well as a 20,000 square-foot-spa, 25 tennis courts and 41,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Fantasy Springs Resort Casino provides an 18-hole course in addition to its 250 guest rooms, entertainment options and meeting rooms to accommodate 70–5,000-plus attendees. Or, if you’d prefer R&R to hitting balls, Miramonte Resort & Spa has a renowned, 12,000-square-foot spa, as well as classes for yoga and hydro yo chi, a mix of yoga and tai chi exercises performed in a 98-degree spa pool.
A blonde actress named Nikki Grace takes a role in a Hollywood movie she believes to be cursed, and is sent into a tailspin of dangerous fantasy. So goes the plot of David Lynch’s Inland Empire, which derives its name from a central character from the area tucked between Orange County and Palm Springs.
The eponymous movie isn’t the area’s only source of mystery. In Riverside, the Mission Inn Hotel & Spa is known for its occasional hauntings, and each year the property participates in the Riverside Ghostwalk, a Halloween tradition that mixes historic venues with spooky tales. The 239-room property also has a spa, multiple restaurants and more than 20,000 sq. ft. of event space.
The Bracken Fern Manor is another eerie location. Situated in beautiful Lake Arrowhead, it opened in 1929 as a private gambling resort run by mobster Bugsy Segal, and was later a bordello and speakeasy. More than a decade ago, it was restored to an elegant and charming B&B, with 10 rooms, a private cottage and indoor and outdoor meeting areas. But its past lives on in the ghosts known to roam the floors, including a young woman whose perfume transpires when she enters a room.
CLUES TO A GREAT MEETING
There’s a lot of people that don’t know about the Inland Empire, an affordable, diverse area that sometimes gets overlooked among the more publicized quarters of SoCal. This is indeed puzzling, because there’s plenty to entice planners.
To start, several great CVBs can help guide you to a memorable event, including the Riverside CVB, with its upgraded website; Ontario CVB; and San Bernardino CVB.
For rustic fun among pine trees and glistening water, there’s Northwoods Resort in Big Bear Lake and Lake Arrowhead Resort & Spa. Northwoods has more than 9,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, and provides opportunities to parasail, fish, hike, snowboard and more. And Lake Arrowhead Resort provides 24,000 sq. ft. of event space, as well as a luxurious spa, a top-rated restaurant and such activities as star gazing and boating.
For a taste of the vino-rich Temecula Valley, meanwhile, South Coast Winery & Resort is a great bet. In addition to its award-winning winery and tasting room, the property offers 76 villas, a spa and 30,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor meeting space.