by Maria Lenhart
For the Central California Coast, location has proved to be a blessing. While the area is easily accessible, it is just far enough removed from the state’s major population centers that urbanization and overdevelopment have not spoiled its scenic splendor and laid-back ambience.
For those seeking a meetings destination that provides a retreat-like atmosphere yet has plenty of sophisticated dining and activity options close at hand, it’s hard to beat the Central California Coast. From San Luis Obispo County south to Ventura County, the golden strip of coastline and vine-covered valleys offer a wide choice of hotels and resorts, along with stellar wineries, restaurants, art galleries and outdoor adventures on land and sea.
San Luis Obispo County
In a time when affordability and accessibility are paramount concerns for many meeting planners, San Luis Obispo County is ideally positioned, according to Mollie Morrison, group sales manager for the San Luis Obispo Visitors and Conference Bureau.
"We’re centrally located right between Los Angeles and San Francisco, plus we’re a convenient drive from Sacramento as well," she says. "We offer an escape from city life—a slow-paced way of life where you can still get your meeting accomplished. And our hotels are very affordable and are used to working with planners to accommodate their budgets."
The majority of meetings in the county come from within California, often drawing attendees from around the state for a "meet in the middle" situation, according to Morrison.
"We typically accommodate small to midsize meetings, ranging anywhere from 10 up to 300 people," she says. "We tend to see small association groups and a lot of government groups. Corporate retreats are another source of business, one we’d like to see more of. We get mostly drive-to business, but we do have a regional airport with direct flights from Los Angeles and San Francisco."
The hub of the county is San Luis Obispo, a small city with a vibrant downtown centered on Mission Plaza, which overlooks San Luis Obispo Creek and is surrounded by tree-lined streets filled with boutiques, cafes and galleries. The area is at its liveliest on Thursday nights when an open-air farmers’ market comes to Higuera Street with seasonal produce, along with performers, arts and crafts booths and barbecued specialties from local restaurants.
A new option for group events in downtown is the San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum, which accommodates up to 250 people with an outdoor patio and three floors of interactive exhibits.
Up the coast are the coastal communities of Cambria and San Simeon as well as the region’s major attraction, Hearst Castle. The magnificent estate built by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst is where stars from Hollywood’s golden age once partied among the priceless art and architectural objects from around the world.
"Events can be held at Hearst Castle, but they are very costly, so most groups stick to touring the estate—an especially great option for spouse programs," Morrison says. "You can also do some cool events nearby at the Best Western Cavalier Oceanfront Resort in San Simeon, which has significant meeting space as well as outdoor areas with fire pits on the cliffs overlooking the ocean."
At the inland northern edge of the county, Paso Robles is the nucleus of one of California’s most important wine regions. Downtown Paso Robles is a food and wine mecca, boasting gourmet cheese shops, an olive oil tasting room and 14 wine-tasting rooms. Newly opened to the public is Studios on the Park, an art center with nine studios with 24 working artists, an art gallery and an exhibition showroom, which offers customized tours and events for groups.
To the south of San Luis Obispo are a string of idyllic seaside communities, starting with Morro Bay, where the 578-foot-high volcanic Morro Rock punctuates the northwest side of the harbor, a favorite spot for kayaking. Adjacent to the harbor is a federally protected estuary that is a habitat for an estimated 250 bird species, including the brown pelican. Also along the harbor, the Embarcadero is lined with shops and restaurants.
Along with kayaking, groups can enjoy the waters of Morro Bay on dinner cruises offered by locally based Chablis Cruises.
"It’s a great way to combine a meeting with a meal—the chefs on the boat are fantastic," Morrison says.
Just south of Morro Bay, Los Osos is the gateway to Montana de Oro State Park, which is blanketed by wildflowers in the spring and offers 50 miles of hiking, cycling and equestrian trails. DMCs such as Central Coast Outdoors, based in San Luis Obispo, offer recreational programs in the park that combine hiking and other activities with a gourmet picnic lunch.
In many ways the quintessential California beach town, Pismo Beach is known for its classic Pismo Pier, a 1,200-foot-long span where visitors can fish for red snapper and lingcod, and for beaches offering surfing, swimming and horseback riding along the shore. Nearby is the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, a place where groups can rent all-terrain vehicles to traverse miles of sand dunes.
"These dunes are the only drivable beach in the state of California," Morrison says. "In addition to ATV vehicles, groups can also take guided Hummer tours over the dunes."
A couple of miles inland from Pismo Beach, Arroyo Grande is a historic village surrounded by miles of rolling hills studded with vineyards, orchards and flower fields. The village center, which visitors can reach by crossing a rustic swinging bridge spanning Arroyo Grande Creek, is marked by antique shops, restaurants and pubs.
San Luis Obispo’s largest meetings hotels are the Embassy Suites, which offers 12,000 square feet of meeting space; the Madonna Inn, which has a 20,000-square-foot Expo Center and is famous for its quirky wagon-wheel-inspired decor; and the Holiday Inn Express, which recently completed a $2.5 million renovation.
Elsewhere in the county, notable hotels include Cliffs Resort at Shell Beach; Cambria Pines Lodge; Inn at Morro Bay; Shore Cliff Lodge and Pismo Lighthouse Suites in Pismo Beach; and La Bellasera Hotel & Suites and Villa Toscana in Paso Robles.
Santa Barbara County
A beguiling region characterized by hillside vineyards, horse ranches, golden beaches, Spanish Mission-style architecture and even a touch of Denmark, Santa Barbara County offers a wealth of experiences and plenty of amenities to ably satisfy all but the largest meetings.
"If groups need a big convention center, they’re not for us," says Catherine Puccino, director of sales for the Santa Barbara Conference and Visitors Bureau. "We’re ideal for small meetings who want a boutique experience, and also for larger groups who want a resort with a significant amount of meeting space."
Puccino likes to emphasize that Santa Barbara, located about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, provides all the good things associated with the Southern California lifestyle, including idyllic weather and a touch of celebrity glamour, but without "the crowds, traffic and air pollution."
The city of Santa Barbara owes much of its architectural charm to an earthquake back in the 1920s, which necessitated rebuilding the city with many of the distinctive red-tile-roofed structures that still characterize much of the downtown. The heart of the city is State Street, lined with clusters of bougainvillea-draped shops and cafes linked by winding pathways called paseos.
Another focal point is Stearns Wharf, a local landmark since the 1940s, which overlooks the yacht harbor and is home to several restaurants, wine-tasting venues and a seafood market.
The cultural hub of the Central Coast, Santa Barbara has an impressive roster of museums that can also serve as off-site venues, including the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, which explores the city’s close relationship to the sea; the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, known for its works by American artists and French Impressionists; and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, which is largely devoted to coastal California.
Santa Barbara’s largest meetings hotel is Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort, which offers 360 rooms and 23,000 square feet of meeting space. Other major properties are the 234-room Four Seasons Biltmore, featuring 15,000 square feet of meeting space; and Bacara Resort & Spa, a destination resort located a few miles north of the city, with 25,500 square feet of meeting space.
Just inland from Santa Barbara, the Santa Ynez Valley is dotted with several quaint towns, each with its own distinctive character, including the artistic enclave of Los Olivos and Danish-inspired Solvang, with its windmills, one-of-a-kind shops, bakeries and wine tasting rooms. The valley is prime equestrian country, known for its Arabian and Icelandic horse ranches.
"Equestrian-related events are very popular options for groups," Puccino says. "They can do events at places like Flag Up Farms, which is owned by Marty Roberts, the original horse whisperer. The movie The Horse Whisperer was loosely based on his life."
Located just outside of Solvang, the Alisal Ranch & Resort, which offers 73 suites, golf and 6,500 square feet of meeting space, features horseback riding as well as a "Cowboy Ethics Bootcamp" corporate retreat program, which includes motivational workshop sessions with James Owens, author of Cowboy Ethics.
Also in Solvang, the former Royal Scandinavian Inn reopened earlier this year after an extensive renovation as Hotel Corque. Owned by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, the 124-room luxury property offers a restaurant run by Chef Bradley Ogden, a full-service spa and 3,825 square feet of meeting space.
While not as well known as some other California coastal cities, Ventura has everything that visitors could want from a classic beach destination: a downtown filled with great restaurants and entertainment; a historic pier; a harbor brimming with water-related activities; and, most of all, plenty of sand and surf.
"You’re outside of the metro L.A. area, so everything kind of slows down," says Kathleen Fitzgerald, director of sales for the Ventura Visitors and Convention Bureau. "It’s laid-back. You can park. The people are wearing shorts and flip-flops."
For groups, a major selling point is accessibility. Ventura is not only a short drive or train ride from Los Angeles, but also offers convenient access to four airports—Los Angeles International, Burbank, Oxnard and Santa Barbara.
"We get a lot of in-state business, not just up and down the coast, but inland all the way to Arizona," Fitzgerald says. "When it’s over 100 degrees inland, it’s in the 70s here, so we’re very appealing in the summer."
For groups, perhaps the biggest draw is that most hotels are beachfront, she adds "The Crowne Plaza, which is one of our largest hotels, is one of the few hotels in California that has a license to hold events right on the beach," she says. "They can bring in a surf band, tiki torches, grass skirts and set up a bamboo bar on the sand or do Moroccan themes with rugs and pillows on the sand."
Ventura and the growing community of Oxnard are gateways to the Channel Islands National Park and Marine Sanctuary, encompassing five protected islands that are home to unique vegetation and marine life. Groups can charter boats for tours of the islands, including the chance to kayak around sea caves and pristine shoreline.
In Oxnard, the 60-passenger Bill of Rights tall ship is a popular option for Channel Island tours as well as team-building activities. Also popular for cruise charters out of Oxnard is the Scarlett Belle, a replica of a 19th century riverboat with enclosed and walk-around decks that can be themed for various events.
Like the rest of the Central Coast, Ventura County is taking off as a food and wine destination.
"Organic foods are very big here, with a lot of restaurants using local ingredients that abound here, like strawberries and watercress," Fitzgerald says. "There are also a lot of winemakers who make very small batches—you can only get these wines here."
Meetings-friendly hotels in the county include the Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach; Courtyard by Marriott Oxnard/Ventura; Ventura Beach Marriott; Ojai Valley Inn & Spa; and Embassy Suites Mandalay Beach Resort in Oxnard.
For More Info
Herzog Wine Cellars
Rancho Ventavo Cellars