“We love to bring planners in for site visits—to show them that we have every California experience here except snow,” said Anne LeClair, president and CEO of the San Mateo County Silicon Valley CVB. “People often think that Silicon Valley is south of us, but it’s here, too, especially biotech.”

Less than an hour south of Silicon Valley, Santa Cruz County provides a variety of geographic landscapes ranging from surfing beaches to redwood groves, all within a compact area. It includes two major conference properties with a retreat atmosphere, Seascape Beach Resort in Aptos and Chaminade Resort & Spa on a forested hilltop above Santa Cruz. In downtown Santa Cruz, two new options with space for small groups are Hyatt Place Santa Cruz and Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott.

“The full-service properties in Santa Cruz County each have their own individual appeal, whether nestled into the redwood or eucalyptus covered hills, set right on the beach or conveniently in town,” said Christina Glynn, communications director for Visit Santa Cruz. “We also offer unique meeting spaces like Hollins House at Pasatiempo Golf Club and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center.”

East Bay

Just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco, East Bay communities such as Oakland, Berkeley and the Concord/Diablo Valley area offer an array of meeting choices, many of them conveniently linked to downtown San Francisco and the Oakland and San Francisco airports by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). Along with convenience, relative affordability is among other assets, according to Rhanee Palma, director of sales for Visit Oakland.

“In terms of pricing, Oakland is more competitive than San Francisco, but you also get a personal experience that you can’t quantify,” she said. “You’re not fighting for space and availability—our hotels are fully paying attention to your group. Added to that, we’re going through a renaissance here, especially on the arts and culinary scenes.”

In downtown Oakland, where Art Deco buildings are getting new life as acclaimed restaurants, entertainment venues and tech start-ups, the major meetings hub is the newly renovated Oakland Marriott City Center and the adjacent Oakland Convention Center. Nearby, the city’s hip Uptown neighborhood is set to include the 150-room West Elm hotel in 2020.  

Home to the flagship University of California campus, Berkeley reaches out to meeting planners through its marketing organization, Visit Berkeley. A refreshed offering for small meetings, the former Hotel Durant reopened in July as the Graduate Berkeley following an extensive renovation to its 144 guest rooms and conference rooms. The historic property is adorned with local artwork and retro touches, including posters of The Graduate, the iconic 1967 movie that was partly filmed just outside the hotel.

Another iconic Berkeley property, the Claremont Club & Spa, also recently underwent a makeover and is now managed by Fairmont Hotels. The elegant hotel, which turned 100 in 2015, offers stellar views of San Francisco Bay, over 20,000 square feet of meeting space and a resort atmosphere with 22 acres of landscaped gardens, a full-service spa, tennis courts and multiple pools.

East of Oakland and Berkeley, the region that encompasses cities such as Concord, Walnut Creek, Livermore, Pleasanton and San Ramon offers not only affordability but sunny weather, scenic hiking trails along Mount Diablo and an abundance of wineries, craft breweries and fine dining. The region is marketed by Visit Concord, formerly Visit Diablo Valley, and the Tri-Valley CVB.

According to Kerri Harris-Gay, director of sales and catering for the Concord Clarion Hotel and a representative for Visit Concord, the area’s affordable rates and convenience to both San Francisco and Sacramento make it a particularly strong draw for SMERF and government groups and youth tournaments.

Concord offers nine hotels with 1,300 guest rooms, including the meetings-friendly Concord Crowne Plaza, Hilton Concord and Concord Clarion Hotel, and such attractions as Water World and the Concord Pavilion, a major concert venue available for events. New on the scene is Round1, an activity center featuring bowling, billiards and other games.  

North Bay

For locals and visitors alike, Marin County, 80 percent of which is protected open space, is a place to unwind and rejuvenate. With its beaches, forested hiking trails and organic farms, the county offers abundant opportunities for teambuilding and outdoor adventure, said Christine Bohlke, director of sales and marketing for Visit Marin.

“We can handle meetings of up to 350, but typically meetings are in the 100 to 150 range, along with board meetings and executive retreats,” she said.
Group-friendly hotels in Marin include two upscale properties in Sausalito—Cavallo Point Lodge, a waterfront property at Fort Baker with 14,000 square feet of meeting space and a popular cooking school, and Casa Madrona Inn, which recently expanded with new meeting space featuring sweeping Bay views. Other meetings-oriented hotels in Marin include the Embassy Suites San Rafael-Marin County, Four Points by Sheraton San Rafael and Best Western Plus Novato Oaks Inn.

North of Marin are Sonoma and Napa counties, two of the world’s premier wine and culinary destinations. The city of Napa is stepping into the spotlight with outstanding venues like Copia, an educational center for food and wine that was acquired by the Culinary Institute of America and reopened last October. The newest of downtown Napa’s growing roster of chic, group-friendly hotels is the 180-room Archer Hotel Napa, offering 15,000 square feet of meeting and event space and a restaurant operated by celebrity chef Charlie Palmer.

In Napa Valley, Las Alcobas, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Napa Valley opened in St. Helena last spring with 68 guest rooms, a fine-dining restaurant, spa and meeting and event space. The Silverado Resort and Spa recently unveiled 30,000 square feet of new event space, including Mansion Gardens, an outdoor reception area with a pavilion.

In Sonoma County, the major newcomer is Graton Resort & Casino in Rohnert Park, which includes a 200-room hotel and meeting and event space for up to 600. Also new is Oxford Suites Sonoma County-Rohnert Park, which offers 163 suites and 6,773 square feet of meeting space.  

Set to open later this fall in one of Petaluma’s most historic buildings, the 75-room Hampton Inn Petaluma is the result of a major restoration of a former textile mill dating from 1892. The rooms and suites feature exposed brick, ornate ceilings and other original features. Another newcomer with a retro vibe, the 34-room Astro Motel in Santa Rosa is a complete redo of a classic mid-century property that had fallen into disrepair.

A new event venue and teambuilding option in Rohnert Park is Game the Room, an immersive themed environment. Groups can book an Escape Room in which they have 60 minutes to solve puzzles, crack cryptic locks and engage in escape challenges.

Many acclaimed wineries are opening tasting rooms in downtown locations, making it easier for groups to sample wine in a compact area. Two new options just off the historic plaza in the town of Sonoma are Falcor Tasting Salon and Jeff Cohn Cellars. New in Healdsburg is Hirsch Winery & Vineyards Tasting Room, which offers the chance to sample wines paired with a selection of locally sourced cheeses. In Kenwood, the new Fathia Vineyards includes the option of enjoying its signature wines with chocolate truffles.