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Monterey and Santa Cruz inspire with distinctive group facilities and experiences

Within easy reach of California’s largest urban centers, Monterey and Santa Cruz offer not only convenience, but a restorative atmosphere where organizations can recharge and find inspiration. Along with some of the state’s most glorious coastal and mountain scenery, groups will also find sophisticated conference facilities, imaginative teambuilding options, abundant outdoor activities and other ingredients for a great meeting experience.


In Monterey County, the biggest news is January’s grand reopening of the Monterey Conference Center, following a two-year, $60 million renovation that turned the 40-year-old facility into a modern LEED-certified venue featuring over 40,000 square feet of flexible meeting space with a capacity of 3,200 people.

“This is not a renovation, but a transformation,” said Mark McMinn, vice president of sales for the Monterey County CVB. “We took the existing space and reconfigured it for today’s meetings. For example, the Steinbeck Ballroom, which was an amphitheater, was leveled out to create a multi-space ballroom that provides for much greater flexibility.”

The entire facility was taken back to the studs and rebuilt, resulting in not only more flexibility, but capacity, he added.

“Literally, everything is brand new—the air walls, the windows, the escalators and bathrooms,” McMinn said. “It’s wired for today’s meetings with built-in Wi-Fi and audiovisual. There are loading docks on both floors and higher ceilings. We also added some breakout rooms, giving us more square footage than we had before.”

A big advantage of the renovation is that the conference center is now more conducive for hosting multiple groups, according to McMinn. 

“Now we have the ability to do more than one meeting at time, with a group on one level and another on the second level,” he said. 

McMinn said the conference center is targeting meetings in the range of 800 to 1,000 attendees.

“We can do more, but that’s our sweet spot,” he said. “You will own downtown Monterey with a group of that size.”

The downtown facility is connected to the Monterey Marriott and adjacent to the Portola Hotel & Spa, which recently completed a $10 million renovation. In combination with the conference center, these properties offer 85,000 square feet of meeting space, 19,150 square feet of exhibit space and 700 guest rooms. 

“When the conference center was closed, hotels had to focus on in-house business, primarily smaller association meetings,” McMinn said. “Now we can start to entertain the citywide meeting that requires multiple properties, with the conference center as the hub.”

To transform the facility, which opened in April 1977 and hosted the first-ever TED Conference in 1984, the City of Monterey hired Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) to oversee the architectural design and engineering. The goal was to preserve the historic character of the building and surroundings, while modernizing it to suit contemporary needs, according to Michael Dunn, design director for SOM in San Francisco. 

“The new conference center energizes the adjacent Portola Plaza and simultaneously embodies and facilitates connectedness—of people and ideas, of downtown businesses to waterfront amenities, and of a community to its future,” he said. 

The conference center’s reopening comes at a time when Monterey is experiencing a healthy surge in meetings business, particularly from the tech sector, according to McMinn. 

“The tech boom in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area has definitely had a big impact, giving us a big lift with occupancy rates,” he said. “Part of the reason is that our hotel inventory is so diverse and high-quality—we offer everything from 20-room properties on up to the 550-room Hyatt Regency Monterey.”

State and regional association business is another strong source of business for Monterey, which is hosting the California Society of Association Executives at the new conference center in March, McMinn said. 

With hotel room demand in Monterey particularly strong during summer and on weekends due to leisure visitors, McMinn advises planners to be flexible with dates and to consider the spring and fall shoulder seasons. Winter, a time when the weather is usually mild and the crowds are fewer, is also well worth considering, he said.  


While the conference center has turned a spotlight on downtown, major hotel and venue improvements have been taking place all over Monterey County, with close to $100 million in investment over the past two years, according to McMinn. 

“There is activity everywhere, including a major redo at the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa on Cannery Row, new restaurants and tasting rooms in Carmel and Carmel Valley, the new Fairway One addition at The Lodge at Pebble Beach and a lot of redevelopment, including new shopping and hotels, taking place in Seaside and Marina,” he said.  

Another significant development is the reopening of the storm-damaged Canyon Bridge on Highway 1 in October, restoring southward access from Monterey to Big Sur and such resorts as Ventana Big Sur and Post Ranch Inn. 

Inland from Monterey, Salinas Valley beckons groups with an interest in agriculture, McMinn said.

“Salinas is the salad bowl of the world, so when we talk about locally sourced food here, we really mean it,” he said. “Groups really enjoy seeing the produce being grown. We do farm tours and CSR events where groups can get out in the fields and gather produce left over from the harvest. It then gets donated to local charities.”

In August, Monterey will offer a new off-site venue for groups with the Barns at Cooper Molera, a historic site adjacent to the Cooper Molera adobe in downtown Monterey. The early 19th century barns, which are undergoing an extensive restoration, will host catered events for up to 600 people. 

“Among the things that planners always ask about are Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which can host up to 3,000 people,” McMinn said. “And you’ve got so many outdoor possibilities like whale watching, hiking at Point Lobos, visiting Carmel State Beach or doing the 17-Mile Drive. Monterey has no shortage of things to see and do.”

Santa Cruz 

Santa Cruz County is a small region that packs an amazing variety of experiences for meetings, according to Laura Manriquez, director of sales and marketing for Visit Santa Cruz.  

“About 75 percent of our business is the San Francisco Bay Area drive market—our proximity to Silicon Valley is what we focus on,” she said. “Groups get a real change of pace in a short travel time, enjoying the beach and the redwoods. We do a lot of retreats.”

Santa Cruz’s beach and forest settings, which include 29 miles of coastline and 14 state parks, make ideal backdrops for teambuilding and unique learning opportunities for groups, she added. 

“Experiences are not in a box here,” Manriquez said. “Customization is something we really strive for. There isn’t any idea that is too wild for us. There’s a lot of variety and creativity here.” 

Among local companies that provide experiences for groups is Mountain Sea Adventures, which offers the Edible & Medicinal Wild Foods Walk led by a foraging expert. While hiking through redwood and pine forests, creek beds and chaparral, participants learn wild food harvesting techniques.

“At the end of the walk, they pair up with a local chef and enjoy a delicious lunch using some of the foods they found on the hike,” Manriquez said. 

Wilderness survival skills designed to help teams become more productive and collaborative are the focus of Adventure Out, which offers a five-hour session where participants learn to build a fire and find wild foods and shelter in the woods with techniques used by Native Americans.

The company also offers surfing lessons as well as rock climbing, backpacking and mountain biking. 

Run by Watsonville-based glass artist Annie Morhauser, whose works have been exhibited at the Smithsonian, Annieglass offers a variety of workshops where participants can engage in glass and pottery making, block printing, succulent gardening and more.

Annieglass also offers a tasting room for sampling local wine and craft beers paired with organic foods.  

“Annie provides a range of participatory experiences that really work well for groups,” Manriquez said. “Everything is hands-on and they can take their creations home with them.” 

While Santa Cruz does not have a convention center, it does provide a number of properties conducive for sophisticated conferences, according to Manriquez. 

“Most of our meetings tend to be self-contained as we’re not equipped for citywides,” she said. “However, we are fully equipped for the high-tech market, with companies like Google, Apple and Facebook among our top clients.” 

Among popular retreat options is the 156-room Chaminade Resort & Spa, a 300-acre property spread along forested hills overlooking Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay. Chaminade includes IACC-approved conference facilities as well as a full-service spa, pool and hiking trails. Selected rooms and suites feature meditation alcoves with forest views, soothing lighting and Zafu cushions and flameless candles. 

Seascape Beach Resort in Aptos is another conference and retreat destination for tech companies and other organizations. Along with 17,000 square feet of meeting space, the clifftop resort overlooking Monterey Bay offers 285 suites and two-bedroom beach villas, three pools, a ropes course, championship golf course and award-winning restaurant.

Specializing in groups ranging from 10 to 200 in size, Seascape also features a full range of teambuilding activities and catered events, including a clambake on the beach with volleyball, sandcastle-building competitions and other options. 

In downtown Santa Cruz groups will find such group-friendly properties as the new Hotel Paradox, an Autograph Collection Hotel, which offers the 4,400-square-foot Sequoia Ballroom, and the beachfront Dream Inn Santa Cruz, which exudes a 1960s surfing vibe. 

Just a few miles inland from the coast, the Santa Cruz Mountains are home to the Hilton Santa Cruz/Scotts Valley and venues such as Roaring Camp Railroad, which features event space and excursions on a vintage steam train through towering redwood groves.

Monterey/Santa Cruz CVB Contacts


Monterey County CVB

Visit Santa Cruz County

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About the author
Maria Lenhart | Journalist

Maria Lenhart is an award-winning journalist specializing in travel and meeting industry topics. A former senior editor at Meetings Today, Meetings & Conventions and Meeting News, her work has also appeared in Skift, EventMB, The Meeting Professional, BTN, MeetingsNet, AAA Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Christian Science Monitor, Toronto Globe and Mail, Los Angeles Times and many other publications. Her books include Hidden Oregon, Hidden Pacific Northwest and the upcoming (with Linda Humphrey) Secret Cape Cod.