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Northern California: A Premier Meeting & Event Destination

California Showcase

Few regions offer as diverse an array of meeting environments as Northern California. Whether it’s urban vibrancy, dramatic coastline, rolling vineyards or redwood forests, the upper half of the Golden State has something for everyone. Added to that are state-of-the-art meeting facilities, a vibrant culinary scene and one of the world’s most temperate climates.

All of these benefits come with a price, especially for planners seeking reasonable hotel rates and availability. According to a June 2017 hotel occupancy report from STR, hotel occupancies in the San Francisco Bay Area reached 86 percent and average daily rates were slightly over US$205.

On the positive side, hotel development is on the upswing throughout Northern California. Planners will find no shortage of intriguing venues to consider.

San Francisco

Those who haven’t been to San Francisco in recent years are in for a shock. While the cable cars, Fisherman’s Wharf and other classic elements remain, a whole new city is rising up south of Market Street. Fueled by the booming tech sector, acres of new office and residential towers, transit hubs and start-ups housed in repurposed industrial buildings are transforming the scene.

One of the earliest catalysts for growth in the South of Market area, the Moscone Convention Center, is going through a transformation of its own. An expansion and redesign of its North and South halls, set for completion in December 2018, is intended to not only add more space, but better integrate the facility with the surrounding neighborhood. Along with a new, 50,000-square-foot ballroom, the updated center will offer 108,000 square feet of light-filled pre-function lobbies with city views, outdoor terraces and open plazas with public art.

According to Lysa Lewin, senior vice president of convention sales for San Francisco Travel, the expansion will improve the functionality of the facility by creating 500,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space between the North and South halls.

“Our large conventions will no longer have to split their exhibits when occupying the North and South buildings,” she says. “The expansion and increased functionality will allow us to host a few more conventions each year and give us the necessary space to grow with many of our existing customers.”

Another benefit will be an improved convention experience.

“We will also have two outdoor terraces where people can grab a cup of coffee and enjoy the fresh air,” she says.

While San Francisco’s growing tech sector has had a positive impact on meeting and convention business in the city, Lewin says medical meetings remain a potent force, accounting for about half of all bookings at Moscone Center.

Even though the construction necessitated the closure of the North and South halls for several months earlier this year (Moscone’s West Hall was not affected), the entire facility is back in operation.

While hotel development in San Francisco had been dormant for nearly a decade, an uptick is under way. Several new hotels are in the pipeline for sites close to Moscone Center. Set to open by the end of the year, the 194-room Virgin Hotels San Francisco will offer a rooftop lounge as well as multiple dining and meeting options. The Waldorf Astoria San Francisco and Langham Place are both expected to debut as early as 2020.

Further development near Moscone may also include a 600-room convention hotel. “There’s talk about it, but nothing is in the works yet,” Lewin says. “We definitely need another convention hotel, so we’re hopeful.”

In the meantime, this year brought the opening of two boutique properties with rooftop event space: the 159-room Hotel Via across from AT&T Park and the 131-room Hotel Proper near the civic center.

Silicon Valley

South of San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, much of which is better known as Silicon Valley, form a dynamic region that draws groups to its innovative atmosphere and state-of-the art infrastructure.

San Jose, the largest city in Silicon Valley and Northern California, offers a pedestrian-friendly urban center where the San Jose McEnery Convention Center is close to a growing number of hotels, cultural attractions, entertainment venues and dining options, according to Cheryl Little, CMP (MPI Northern California Chapter), director of sales and destination services for Team San Jose, the city’s CVB.

In particular, she recommends downtown’s SoFA district, an eclectic strip of museums, galleries and nightlife.

“Attendees can stroll down the district and enjoy live music, handcrafted cocktails and some of San Jose’s best food,” she says. “It also offers great event venues like Forager, a rustic, modernized warehouse setting where attendees can refuel their innovative thinking.”

Like San Francisco, San Jose is adding to its hotel inventory. Kimpton Hotels is planning a 173-room property for Museum Place, a mixed-use complex set for 2021 that will also include residences, collaborative office space and an expanded Tech Museum of Innovation. Another new mixed-use complex will include Virgin Hotels San Jose, a 200-room property set to open in 2019. New this year are the 210-room AC by Marriott San Jose Downtown, which has a saltwater pool and 3,400 square feet of meeting space, and the 236-room Sonesta Silicon Valley, which offers 4,400 square feet of meeting space and free shuttle service to San Jose International Airport.

Insider Tips

How can planners get the most bang for the buck in one of the nation’s most enjoyable but priciest regions? Several Northern California-based meeting professionals offer insights.

While San Francisco is Northern California’s best-known city, it’s far from the only choice. Stewart Hall (MPI Northern California Chapter), founder of Rock the Stars, which stages music-themed events and team-building programs, advises planners to consider destinations throughout the region.

“Hotel space is limited in San Francisco at busy times of year, which can put prices at a premium,” he says. “For planners working on a budget I suggest looking outside the city core to places like San Jose/Silicon Valley, Monterey Bay and the East Bay. Deals can also be found in Napa and Sonoma during the winter months.”

Independent planner MaryAnne Bobrow, CAE, CMP, CMM (MPI Sacramento/Sierra Nevada Chapter), advises planners to consider Sacramento, less than two hours from the Bay Area. Anyone who thinks the state capital is a “cow town” hasn’t been there recently, she says.

“Sacramento has gotten approval for a convention center expansion and other new things are coming in every day, including excellent restaurants, craft beer places and hotels,” she says. “There’s great entertainment like the California Music Theater and plenty of easy and inexpensive ways to get there, including Southwest Airlines and Amtrak. Plus, Visit Sacramento has a real vision for the city and will really help you through the planning process.”

Things to Do

Visiting Northern California’s celebrated wine country, which includes not only Napa and Sonoma counties but other areas such as the Livermore Valley, is one of the chief delights of meeting in the region, according to Zorianna Smith, CMP, DMCP (MPI Northern California Chapter), director of marketing and product development for AlliedPRA Northern California.

“The wine country is really accessible and there are some amazing experiences for groups there,” she says. “One fun experience is the Sensory Wine Tour, where they visit a series of wineries that engage the different senses.” Smith is equally fond of the Bay Area’s vibrant culinary scene.

“I love the food tours around San Francisco and Oakland because groups get to see the real flavor of the neighborhoods and experience something off the beaten path,” she says.

Team-building options also abound, including many that reflect the locale. For instance, Rock the Stars pays homage to the Bay Area’s musical heritage, according to Hall.

“It’s kind of a rock fantasy camp where participants experience what it’s like to play and perform in a rock band,” he says. “Our activities can be done in hotels and convention centers as well as in venues unique to San Francisco like Live Nation’s The Fillmore.”

Another local team-building option Hall suggests is the America’s Cup Experience provided by ACsailingSF. The activity enables groups to engage in simulated races on San Francisco Bay in the same boats used in the famous yachting competition.

The bucolic pleasures of Marin County rank high with Lucy Giovando Watts, owner of the event technology firm LASSO40 and president of the MPI Northern California Chapter.

“I love a nice hike and the Tennessee Valley trail is a beautiful one that takes you from Mill Valley to the beach,” she says. “You can work with Marin Outdoor Adventures to set up something like this for a group.”

She also recommends the Farmstead Cheese Company near Marin’s Point Reyes National Seashore, a historic dairy farm where groups can enjoy cheese tastings, tours and private events in a new venue called The Fork.

In San Francisco, Giovando Watts favors AT&T Park, home of the Giants baseball team. Giants Enterprises operates over a dozen venues at the bayfront ballpark and recently added two luxury yachts docked nearby that accommodate private events.

“On game days, you can sail into McCovey Cove alongside the park and try to catch one of the balls coming over the fence,” she says.

About the Author

Maria Lenhart

Maria Lenhart is a former editor of multiple meeting and event industry publications, and has won numerous awards for travel writing, including a prestigious Lowell Thomas Award from the Society of American Travel Writers.