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San Diego Shows Off Its Many Lures During PCMA Convening Leaders

Drone photo from PCMA Convening Leaders closing night event at Rady Shell.

Maybe it was the virtual guarantee of warm(ish) weather in the depths of winter? Or maybe it was having not one, but two, Clintons—former President Bill and Secretary of State Hillary—on stage during the second-day general session?

Whatever the reason, the end result of San Diego hosting PCMA Convening Leaders (CL) was the association setting an attendance record for the event, drawing approximately 5,000 (4,200-plus in-person) to the January 7-10 meetings and events industry gathering in sunny SoCal.

Photo of Bill and Hillary Clinton on stage at PCMA Convening Leaders 2024.
Bill and Hilary Clinton on stage at PCMA Convening Leaders. Credit: Jacob Slaton, Whatever Media Group.

While having arguably the best weather in the country—a Mediterranean climate with free air-conditioning courtesy of the Pacific Ocean—and the A-list draw of the “Power Couple of Power Couples” is undeniable, San Diego also boasts a safe, compact convention district in the form of the Gaslamp Quarter, a cuisine scene picking up major steam, harbor views seemingly at the end of every street and a raft of new developments that will augment its draw power all the more.

[Related: PCMA Convening Leaders 2024 Sets Attendance Record; New Programs Launched]

Photo of Julie Coker, standing with plants in the background.
Julie Coker. Credit: San Diego Tourism Authority.

"With an impressive turnout of over 5,000 attendees, spectacular outdoor events including an unforgettable networking reception, our tourism community demonstrated that San Diego is a premier destination for meetings and events," said Julie Coker, president and CEO of San Diego Tourism Authority. "Additionally, PCMA offered us the opportunity to have meeting professionals experience diverse regions beyond downtown, including Mission Bay, Mission Valley and La Jolla. Each area offers unique options for in-hotel meetings, showcasing the versatility and appeal of San Diego’s meeting spaces."

Meetings Today got a chance to tour some of the top meetings and events attractions—existing and soon to come—during a pre-CL tour provided by the San Diego Tourism Authority.

Juniper & Ivy

Our itinerary kicked off with a dinner at Juniper & Ivy, a chef-driven Little Italy eatery that is turning heads, having gained recognition from the James Beard Foundation and plating locally produced meat, vegetables and seafood brought in daily.

Set in a formerly abandoned warehouse, the venue shows off its culinary bona fides via an open kitchen, all under rustic rafters in a giant open space that translates into a convivial environment. 
Joining us were the top brass of the San Diego Tourism Authority, including President & CEO Julie Coker and Chief Sales Officer Kavin Schieferdecker. Adding to the destination leadership was San Diego Convention Center Executive Vice President, Sales and Revenue Andy Mikschl and finally, Bill Reed, chief event strategy officer for the American Society of Hematology (which frequents the destination with its 30,000-strong annual) and a past chair of PCMA. Lots of firepower at the table, suffice it to say.

An endearing part of any evening enjoying the elevated dining scene in Little Italy is the frequent sight of passenger jets over the neighborhood as they approach San Diego International Airport (SAN), the roar of which adds an air of high-octane excitement to a night on the town!

Photo of media group at Juniper & Ivy restaurant.
Media group arriving at Juniper & Ivy restaurant. Credit: Tyler Davidson.

San Diego Airport Expansion

San Diego Airport expansion parking structure construction and rendering.
San Diego Airport expansion parking structure construction and rendering (inset)

The next day ushered in an opportunity enjoyed by few—driving around the live tarmac of a major international airport to view a nearly $3.8 billion project (at publication time) that will greatly enhance the visitor experience by massively expanding and updating the terminals.

In an ideal world, San Diego would love to add a second runway, but because the footprint of the airport is hemmed in by the bay, it’s not possible. The next best strategy is to invest heavily in the user experience at an airport that is beloved due to its extremely close proximity to downtown—less than three miles, in fact!

“We are not LAX, but we’ve seen our international service here continue to grow and existing markets increasing, so that’s a good place to be in,” said Angela Shafer-Payne, vice president of planning and operations at the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, and who is responsible for all development at the airport. “We are an origin destination market—people want to come to conferences here and vacation here.”

Shafer-Payne said SAN currently serves 80 nonstop destinations and more than 25 million passengers annually, with both stats exceeding its fiscal 2019 numbers.
While the expansion project will only add 19 gates in the first phase and an additional 11 in the second, the result will virtually be a new airport compared to the current first terminal that opened in 1967 and a second terminal that began life in 1979.

“We’re not increasing capacity, but we’re vastly improving customer service,” Shafer-Payne said as we scooted about the tarmac in a van past luggage carts, parked aircraft and construction sites blocked off by chain-link fences.

Photo of behind the scenes tour of San Diego International Airport expansion project.
Tour of San Diego International Airport expansion project. Credit: Tyler Davidson.

Highlights of the project include:

  • The first phase will add 19 new gates by late summer 2025 followed by an additional 11 gates set to open in 2028, totaling 30 gates for the revamped terminal. The initial phase will also include a 5,200-space parking plaza and an elevated departures roadway. 
  • Other elements include outdoor check-in pavilions, a dedicated arrivals roadway and an outdoor dining terrace with runway views. 
  • The expansion will triple the amount of concession space, with dozens of new F&B outlets reflecting local favorites.
  • Two new airline club lounges, with one boasting a deck overlooking Mission Bay.
  • A curved “Luminous Wave” glass wall that will utilize cutting-edge glass and architectural technology to reduce glare while not obstructing views from the inside.
  • When the project is complete, SAN will offer 61 gates and a second taxiway to help speed departures on the single runway.

Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina

Photo of Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina harbor view.
Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina harbor view. Credit: Tyler Davidson.

After a busy morning darting past planes and squeezing between luggage trolleys on the tarmac, the tour was off to the closest hotel to the airport, Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina.

The hotel’s Marina Tower has embarked on a multimillion-dollar renovation that is set to wrap in early 2024 and will upgrade its 130,000 square feet of meeting space, add a splashy new restaurant and event space and improve other public spaces, along with upgrading 1,053 guest rooms and suites with features that include new productivity tools such as height-adjustable worktables and layered lighting.

A highlight will include the hotel’s lobby level Rumorosa restaurant space, an elevated Cal-Baja-style eatery that can accommodate up to 200 for a reception with views of the luxury yachts bobbing in the harbor right outside its picture windows.

Another restaurant addition will be the lobby Brewery X Harbor Island, a partnership between the property and the Orange County Brewery X restaurant, which carries the motto “Brew Local, Drink Social.”

Photo of Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina "crack tacos."
Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina "crack tacos." Credit: Tyler Davidson.

A true highlight of the Sheraton tour was a special food presentation starring local favorites, including Executive Chef Marcos Seville’s interpretation of the “Crack Tacos” made famous by Jack in the Box, which was founded in San Diego in 1951.

Seville said he is going to partner with local sport fishing companies to offer half-day fishing excursions that will be ideal for executive retreats, in which eight to 10 participants would venture out into the Pacific to catch whatever is running and then come back to prepare the fish for a group meal at Rumorosa. Other group culinary offerings may include a tamale-making class and programs highlighting the Mexican wine region just to the south of San Diego, as well as the country’s signature spirit, tequila.

Petco Park

Considered a standard-bearer in terms of major sports facilities that operate year-round as event venues, the home of the MLB San Diego Padres is within a short walk of the convention center and thus is often combined with programs there.

Photo of Tyler Davidson in Petco Park locker room, standing with jersey.
Author Tyler Davidson in locker room of Petco Park

The ballpark and its multiple event venues, such as the visitors locker room, luxury suites, bars and on-field activations for up to 5,000, have set a standard for year-round operations for stadiums purpose-built to also accommodate special events.
“Our job is to activate this park 365 days a year,” said Kristie Ewing, senior director, special event sales for Petco Park Events.

Petco Park is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and marking the occasion with a $20 million renovation of its Gallagher Square community park just outside of the outfield walls and set for a 2024 unveiling on Opening Day. 

Highlights of Gallagher Square include: 

  • Tony Gwynn Terrace, a new viewing deck that can be used as picnic space outside of game time
  • An improved playground and mini field
  • Public art displays
  • A fenced, off-leash dog park

But Petco Park Events’ operations aren’t limited to the stadium, as it also operates a diverse set of other event venues in the city, including the jaw-dropping new Rady Shell and a much-anticipated new entrant, Eve, a 7,800-square-foot indoor-outdoor venue that boasts absolutely spectacular views of San Diego Bay and can accommodate 1,000 attendees and 570 seated.

Photo of Eve event venue in San Diego, at sunset.
Eve event venue. Credit: Tyler Davidson.

While construction was still underway at the ambitious new six-block, waterfront RaDD life sciences development in which it resides, Eve was the location for a PCMA CL VIP reception to show off what is probably the most impressive new event venue in the city.

Photo of bar area at Petco Park.
Bar area at Petco Park. Credit: Tyler Davidson.

San Diego Convention Center

The tour concluded, quite appropriately, where PCMA Convening Leaders would begin in earnest the next morning, at the San Diego Convention Center.

“We’re known for hosting lots of great events, such as Comic-Con,” said Rip Rippetoe, president and CEO of the San Diego Convention Center, “but we’ve become one of those venues that bio and medical want to be at, too, and the kind of impact it has on us as a destination is second to none.”

Guiding the tour, Rippetoe introduced the group to convention center Executive Chef Sufi Karaien, who in turn introduced us to the facility’s enviable sustainability practices, including multi-stream recycling, local sourcing, food donation, animal feed repurposing and employee dining.

Photo of San Diego Convention Center Executive Chef Sufi Karaien with PCMA Chocolate Bar.
San Diego Convention Center Executive Chef Sufi Karaien with PCMA Chocolate Bar. Credit: Tyler Davidson.

Of particular note is the small-batch chocolate confections Karaien’s team produces for convention groups, including a special edition for PCMA delegates for which they made 600 bars. An additional note: The convention center admirably acted as a shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic, serving 1 million meals during the first year and 750,000 in the following three months.

With an enviable location facing the beginning of the Gaslamp Quarter—full of top-brand hotels, bars, entertainment venues and restaurants representing cuisine from across the globe—the 2.6 million-square-foot convention center’s back door is the idyllic San Diego Harbor, full of multimillion-dollar yachts and the stunning new Rady Shell, where CL’s final night networking event would stage Boyz II Men. The home of San Diego Symphony, Rady is an acoustics and optical jewel in which billion-dollar city views vie for attention with whatever act is on stage.

RaDD: San Diego's New Life Sciences District

Formerly known primarily as a military town, being home to several Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard bases, San Diego has grown by leaps and bounds to assert its position as a top leisure as well as meetings and conventions destination—the 135,000 attendees of San Diego Comic-Con can’t be wrong!

This SoCal standout is also chasing life sciences meetings and other intellectual capital, with IQHQ’s massive new Research and Development District, aka RaDD, set to transform the waterfront steps from the San Diego Convention Center.

[Related: How to Leverage San Diego’s Intellectual Capital for Meetings]

Spanning 1.7 million square feet, the IQHQ-developed, Turner Construction-built and Gensler-designed project is set to activate the following:

  • Approximately 150,000 square feet of retail space
  • The stunning Eve event space on the 4th floor of the Edge building on the southwest side of the district and boasting panoramic views of San Diego Bay
  • A public art walk
  • Over five acres of open green space
  • 90,000-plus square feet of expansive outdoor decks
Rendering of San Diego's RaDD life sciences development.
Rendering of San Diego's RaDD life sciences development

With San Diego already the third-largest life-sciences market in the U.S., according to IQHQ, the mixed-use development will contain five new buildings in its eight acres, making it the largest urban commercial waterfront site along the California coast and a draw for young professionals who want to live in walkable urban neighborhoods close to amenities.

As a minimum, the project, expected to be ready for occupancy this year, is targeting LEED Gold certification, according to IQHQ.


San Diego Tourism Authority 

Read this next: Why San Diego Should Be on Your Meetings Radar

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About the author
Tyler Davidson | Editor, Vice President & Chief Content Director

Tyler Davidson has covered the travel trade for nearly 30 years. In his current role with Meetings Today, Tyler leads the editorial team on its mission to provide the best meetings content in the industry.