Surf, sand and sun. Coastal Orange County already seems to have it all, and to sweeten the deal the seaside communities are armed with the latest programs in group travel, whether it’s saving endangered species or charming planners with clever breakout ideas.
“Group business in Newport Beach has gained momentum coming out of the recession,” says Michelle Donahue, senior vice president of sales with Visit Newport Beach. “Newport Beach has seen an influx of planners that are no longer taking groups to international destinations due to fiscal constraints, but seeking safe, convenient destinations that still boast a ‘resort style’.”
Local Southern California planners are also booking closer to home to save on transportation costs, and the area’s coastal communities, from Laguna Beach to Dana Point, are thriving with a year-round Mediterranean climate and assortment of luxury properties.
Newport Beach attracts conference business from pharmaceutical groups, insurance companies and national and state associations.
The biggest trend Donahue has noticed this year is the influence of tech on the meetings sector. From eRFPs, custom branded mobile apps and tablet-friendly websites, hotels and destinations are stepping up their online game, in social media and beyond.
“We’ve seen the creation of conference microsites,” she says. “Facebook pages have real-time updates, and brands are using hashtags on Instagram and Twitter to track attendee experience.”
While this poses a challenge for her staff, it also creates opportunities to draw in new clients and build relationships.
“We are finding that our marketing and conference sales staff must not only understand but cultivate and integrate technology, social media and other tech initiatives into their overall strategy and plans,” she says, citing the new Visit Newport Beach mobile app that the organization created specifically for attendees of the Bowl Championship Series football game, coming to the city in January.
Also of interest to planners, the Newport Beach Civic Center recently underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation, designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, the architecture firm behind Apple’s retail stores, and offers a 150-person Community Room for group events.
While tech may be the talk of the town in Newport Beach, other properties in the area are quick to tout their own buzzwords, showcasing unique programs and experiences for groups that range from dining offerings to exciting off-site adventures.
Surf & Sand Resort in Laguna Beach has unveiled new group programs, including beach fitness programs, interactive outdoor food stations like “build your own pancake” or “build your own risotto,” and new spa offerings that can be customized for groups. The property’s new executive chef David Fune updated the food and beverage offerings and also owns a food truck that can be incorporated into programming. A San Diego native, Fune has worked at resort properties throughout Southern California, including Hotel Del Coronado and the Pechanga Resort in Temecula, and he specializes in “California coastal cuisine”, with line-caught swordfish and sashimi being highlights of the menu this summer.
Farther south, where Dana Point juts out into the Pacific Ocean, the local lodging companies have joined together in support of Elephant Parade, a travelling exhibition founded in 2006 that has raised more than $6 million to help protect Asian elephants from extinction. The Resorts of Dana Point properties include The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Nigel, St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort and Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa, which each have 14 to 18 pieces on display, including four 6-foot elephant sculptures at The Ritz-Carlton.
The centerpiece of the parade is an open-air exhibition selling art pieces to raise funds for elephant hospitals and sanctuaries around the world.
With 396 guest rooms, six restaurants and 30,000 square feet of function space, including a ballroom with ocean views, The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Nigel is an easy choice for planners. The resort’s eco-adventure offerings epitomize the coastal Orange County experience and a new “Hang Ten” meeting break gets attendees to experience the thrill of surfing without getting wet. Surf-style skateboards simulate riding a wave, which can also be done off-property at Doheny State Park for a more extensive team-building activity.
To catch some actual waves, Huntington Beach and its 8.5 miles of coastline are home to a classic surf culture and a packed schedule of surfing competitions. Beginners can get their feet wet as well, and a string of sandy beaches can accommodate large outdoor events.
According to Chris Anderson, director of sales for Visit Huntington Beach, the destination’s hotel portfolio is up to date and group sales have been thriving. A major new development, the Pacific City project, is set to reshape downtown over the next few years with 190,000 square feet of retail and dining right along the Pacific Coast Highway, but details such as the hotel flag were not available at press time.
For a dash of international flavor, groups can convene at Newport Beach’s Resort at Pelican Hill (see On the Scene, page w20), where the Italian inspiration doesn’t end with the architecture and decor. It permeates the resort’s atmosphere and wows guests when they sit down to a flavorful meal, especially at the resort’s Andrea restaurant, named for the Italian architect Andrea Palladio, where the acquerello risotto is made with specially aged rice and served from the center of a 90-pound wheel of parmesan. Reportedly, one giant cheese wheel lasts about a week at the restaurant.
Groups can also combine the world-class dining with the region’s marvelous scenery. Dario Puig, the associate director of off-campus catering, works closely with planners to get a detailed sense of the event they want to create. Bursting with energy and creativity, Puig has an extensive local network and has catered programs at local venues including Mission San Juan Capistrano, the Lyons Aviation Museum and local estate homes.
Irvine Company, which owns the Resort at Pelican Hill and the Island Hotel in Newport Beach, plans to open a new Courtyard by Marriott in the Irvine Spectrum Center in 2014, with 210 guest rooms and a 5,000-square-foot conference room.
Destination Irvine reports that the inland city has also seen increased visitor spending over the last year, with 2012 numbers indicating a three percent increase in spending, totaling more than $510 million in travel expenditures.