Legends of the Fall- Creating a Memorable Event in a Historic Setting

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Janet Fullwood
California Meetings + Events Magazine
Fall 2012

Quick, name 10 California venues that are on your meeting or event "bucket list."

Chances are you’ve included at least some of the 10 legendary settings that we profile here. After all, there’s no denying the appeal of a landmark venue with deep roots in California history, especially when that cultural past is combined with fresh creativity.

"When people think of an historic hotel, a lot of times they think, ‘No, I don’t want to be locked in the past,’ " notes Rita Moore, director of catering and convention services for San Diego’s U.S. Grant Hotel. Her pitch to meeting planners emphasizes innovative ways in which the hotel, built in 1910, melds tradition with modern amenities to create events that are altogether new.

"For us, that’s where the fun is," she says. "We’re constantly challenging ourselves as to how we can pay tribute to various eras and still fit within the brand today."

The challenge is much the same for planners and staff at other venues where history is a main attraction. The Grant and the nine other bucket-list sites have earned their stars over the long term. They bring their legends to life in ways that are totally 21st century.

U.S. Grant Hotel
San Diego

(U.S. Grant Hotel)

A lot can happen in 112 years, and the U.S. Grant Hotel has seen it all. Built in 1910 by the son of the famed Civil War general and U.S. president, the elegant 270-room edifice serving the San Diego Convention Center is a Gaslamp Quarter landmark that has hosted 14 U.S. presidents. Owned since 2003 by the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation and managed under the Starwood brand, the Grant interprets its history for guests in myriad ways.

"We have complete events and food and beverage menus designed to showcase some of our history," says Rita Moore, director of catering and convention services. "One of the eras we focus on is Prohibition. We create a kind of secretive, jazz-club atmosphere recalling the days when our Celestial Ballroom was a speakeasy. Another era we highlight is the 1940s and 1950s, when our Palm Court was a coffee shop and the hotel had a huge victory garden. For the 1960s and ’70s we do a colorful, pop culture theme.

"Guests coming into any of these events are getting a touch of history with modern-day luxury," Moore says. "What the Grant has done so perfectly is to celebrate all of our eras but make it fun and fresh for the traveler of today."

By The Numbers » The Grant’s 22 meeting and event rooms reflect the hotel’s gracious Edwardian architecture, span three floors and total more than 33,000 square feet. Showcase venues include three ballrooms, the Vintage Boardroom and the elegant Palm Court.

Riviera Palm Springs
Palm Springs

(Riviera Palm Springs, Kevin Syms)

Not every legendary hotel has a century old pedigree-but then who said Victorian bones are required for a classic? The Riviera Palm Springs came on the scene in 1959 with an innovative footprint featuring wings of rooms arrayed around a central hub, a futuristic theme and a swinging reputation that shot it into the Hollywood limelight. Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack partied and performed here (so did Elvis Presley). Sonny and Cher were also regulars.

Now mid-century modern is all the rage again, and Palm Springs is at the forefront of the revival. The 406-room Riviera, glowing from a 2006 renovation and in the process of adding meeting space, has reinvented itself as a retro icon with 21st-century amenities. Hollywood glam-replete with Mad Men parties and Frank Sinatra cover bands-is a theme that can be played up or down according to a planner’s wishes.

Michele Lux planned one of the meetings for the Central Region of the Young Presidents Organization, which brought 300 members here for an October 2011 conference. She chose the Riviera precisely because it was so out-of-the-box different. "Since almost all the attendees were from the Midwest and had never been to Palm Springs, we were looking for a unique venue other than a typical golf resort," Lux says. "The Riviera was brand-new all over, and the staff was fabulous. It’s a magnificent property that’s edgy, elegant and everything we were looking for."

Jessie Korosec, marketing and events manager for the Equipment and Tool Institute, an automotive trade association, got rave reviews from members who gathered here in April 2012. The hotel worked with her to develop customized menus, and the group’s closing banquet, "was one of the best meals I have ever had at any event," Korosec says.

By The Numbers » The Riviera offers more than 30,000 square feet of indoor meeting space, two-thirds of it devoted to the oval-shaped Grand Ballroom. Many events move outdoors in the evenings to 15,000 square feet of poolside and garden function space. A third pool, along with 3,000 square feet of indoor meeting space geared to high-end events, is being added.

Westin St. Francis
San Francisco

(Westing St. Francis)

The Westin St. Francis on San Francisco’s Union Square is one of the city’s most evocative institutions, a landmark frequented both by shoppers who come to rest their weary feet and by convention guests seeking first-class accommodations with historic flair in the heart of the city.

The St. Francis offers many opportunities for guests to learn about its illustrious history, says Jon Kimball, general manager. Six new museum-quality display cases are filled with treasures that tell the story of the hotel since its first incarnation in 1904. A majestic grandfather clock installed in the lobby in 1907 has been a popular meeting place for generations. And few convention delegates returning from nearby Moscone Center can resist sampling a vintage cocktail from the Tipple Menu in what is now the Clock Bar, overseen by Michelin starred chef Michael Mina.

For meeting groups, the 32-story 1,195-room hotel’s service, location and panoramic views are all strong selling points.

Darlene Shepard, who has brought groups of Trader Joe’s executives to the hotel for the last 10 years, says the company favors the St. Francis "because of its location in the city, the breathtaking views from Victor’s and Alexandra’s meeting rooms, the fair price and, of course, the outstanding staff serving the guests."

By The Numbers » The hotel’s 56,000 square feet of function space is spread among 34 rooms, the largest of which is the 10,700-square foot Grand Ballroom, comfortably accommodating 1,100 seated guests. Victor’s and Alexandra’s, private function rooms on the 32nd floor of the Tower Building, feature floor-to-ceiling windows with spectacular city vistas.

Alcatraz Island
San Francisco Bay

(Alcatraz Island, Alcatraz Cruises)

There was a time when nobody went to "The Rock" unless they worked there or were doing time. But things have changed since the notorious island prison in San Francisco Bay was closed in 1963 and then turned over to the National Park Service in 1972. Nowadays, lotteries are held for the "privilege" of spending the night in Cell Block D, and large-scale evening events see hundreds of revelers arriving by ferry to enjoy lively receptions-always after taking a ranger-led tour of former lock-down facilities.

Many strings are attached to staging special events on Alcatraz, but regardless of the occasion "interpretation is taking place 100 percent of the time," says John Pimentel, special events manager and projects director for the island and its concessionaire, Alcatraz Cruises. "The minute guests step off the boat, they’re turned over to the rangers for a guided tour or to the Alcatraz Conservancy for an audio tour. Tours are absolutely mandatory."

The largest function held on "The Rock" to date brought 3,500 travel-industry professionals to the island during the 2011 International Pow Wow convention. More recent high profile events include a premiere party for Fox TV’s short-lived show Alcatraz and a gala event for Audi in conjunction with the brand’s Super Bowl commercial and the National Auto Dealers Association convention.

By The Numbers » Special events for under 400 people on Alcatraz are limited to Tuesday and Wednesday evenings for most of the year. Most functions are held in the prison’s former mess hall and shower room, which together can accommodate 500 guests. Transportation to the island is provided by Alcatraz Cruises. Interpretive tours are required for all visitors; these last about an hour and 15 minutes and begin immediately upon arrival at the island. Overnight visits are available by lottery only to nonprofit associations.

Hotel Del Coronado
Coronado Island

(Hotel del Coronado, Tangerine Tree Photography)

The red-turreted "Del" is one of Southern California’s most recognizable landmarks and a venue guaranteed to produce high attendance at conferences and events. With a 125-year history, sand and sea right out the door and an old-fashioned summer resort ambience, the 757-room Del is a place where everyone wants to meet.

"We find that groups have better attendance when they come to the Del because this is a bucket-list destination for them," says Director of Sales Cheryl Ferguson, CMP.

For groups intent on events themed to a period or episode in the hotel’s history, the Del can oblige with everything from customized historical tours to elaborately themed galas.

"One of the neatest things we’ve done is resurrect an old-school Hollywood theme capitalizing on the Marilyn Monroe era, when Some Like It Hot was filmed here," says Ferguson, who recounts details of an swank event created for a software firm that brought about 600 people to the oceanfront property. "We had a red carpet coming into the Crown Room and giant posters of actors hung from the ceiling. It was all Hollywood glam; they even had an area set up where men could get a shave, a haircut and a shoeshine. The idea was for a company on the leading edge in technology development to take a step back."

By The Numbers » The Del boasts 65,000 square feet of oceanfront meeting space, including nearly 50 indoor and six outdoor venues ranging from intimate to vast (capable of accommodating 1,000 or more guests).

The Queen Mary
Long Beach

(The Queen Mary, Thomas McConville)

It doesn’t take much convincing to inspire meetings on this retired ocean liner, which was launched in 1936 and has been moored in Long Beach since 1967. The art deco icon has been updated for the 21st century but still evokes nostalgia for the glamour days preceding World War II. Whether you stroll the teak wood decks or peer out of the porthole from a period-decor stateroom, it’s one of Southern California’s most popular gathering spots.

A combination hotel/museum/entertainment/conference venue, the Queen Mary hosts everything from on-board conferences and weddings to shore-side festivals and concerts for crowds of up to 5,000.

"What we sell is history and experience," says Sabine Dubois, director of catering for the venue. "People select us because they don’t want to go into a box hotel; they want to do their conference in a different atmosphere. We’re on the water, we’re floating and our history is unique."

To interpret its colorful past, the ship offers multiple exhibits and tours themed to different periods and events in the vessel’s history. Tours can be customized to meet specific interests, Dubois says. "Some want to talk about ghosts, some are interested in a comparison with the Titanic, some are interested in the mechanical side."

The Queen Mary’s forte, she adds, is off-site events in conjunction with the Long Beach and Anaheim conventions centers. "Many times groups will lease the entire ship for an evening and host a big event with fireworks."

By The Numbers » The ship offers 80,000 square feet of meeting and event space in 11 art deco salons accommodating 10 to 700, plus a tri-level exhibition hall with 45,000 square feet of space for up to 1,900 guests. Events with a 1940s-’50s theme are specialties. On shore, the 75,000-square-foot Queen Mary Dome is a large-scale recreational event and production venue with a 130-foot-high ceiling and capacity of up to 2,160 people. There’s also a versatile four-acre event park.

Pebble Beach

(The Lodge at Pebble Beach, The Pebble Beach Company)

Monterey Peninsula Golfers relishing a game on four of the world’s most famous courses will, of course, jump at the chance to gather with their peers at Pebble Beach. But while golf tournaments are a major focus, the legendary resort on the Monterey Peninsula also hosts meetings and events that attract non-golfers, thanks to its premier facilities, history and reputation.

The 161-room Lodge at Pebble Beach, dating back to 1919 and wrapping around the 18th green of Pebble Beach Golf Links, is the most traditional and historic of three resort hotels. Versatile, too, it can host everything from an intimate board meeting to a gala ball. Golf, spa, tennis and other activities are powerful lures for national sales meetings and incentive-group gathering from across industry lines. Discretion and privacy are paramount, ensuring an oasis-like experience for high-profile guests.

By The Numbers » The Lodge at Pebble Beach has 10 principal meeting rooms with occupancy for up to 500 guests, while the Inn at Spanish Bay offers 14,000 square feet of flexible meeting space, much of it with ocean views, and a ballroom that can accommodate 800. Casa Palmero is a boutique venue with 24 guest rooms, private dining and boardroom facilities for a maximum 85 guests.

Hearst Castle
San Simeon

(Hearst Castle, California State Parks)

William Randolph Hearst’s legendary estate at San Simeon kindles the imagination of all who visit, yet only a relative few experience the privilege of attending a private event where they can linger on the "Enchanted Hill."

Weddings and private parties at Hearst Castle are permitted under strictly controlled conditions; numerous such events are staged each year, says Jim Allen, marketing director for the estate. The only fundraisers allowed, however, are those benefiting Friends of Hearst Castle and the Hearst Castle Preservation Foundation, nonprofit cooperating assocations dedicated to preserving and interpreting the estate. Its "Enchanted Evening" gala is an annual highlight that begins with a reception at the Neptune pool and concludes with dancing under the stars.

Regardless of the occasion, all special events at the castle must include an educational or interpretive element. "That element is required by the Deed of Gift document that was part of the donation by the Hearst Corporation to the California Parks and Recreation department," Allen explains. Among the more intriguing private tour options are evening excursions brought to life by living-history docents in vintage costumes.

By The Numbers » Special events at the estate can be staged for as few as one and as many as 250 people. Pricing starts at $11,000 for a gathering of 50 or fewer lasting up to three hours. Costs for guides, security, maintenance, buses, catering and insurance are additional.

The Mission Inn Hotel & Spa

(The Mission Inn Hotel & Spa)

The Mission Inn Hotel & Spa in Riverside is graciousness personified and a tribute to classical elegance. President Theodore Roosevelt visited the hotel, as did George W. Bush. Most meeting rooms open onto outdoor courtyards and gardens offering a fresh-air view of the Mission Revival architectural style that reached its zenith under 19th-century entrepreneur Frank Augustus Miller, whose family’s two-story adobe home was the seed for the ornate hotel that took root wing by wing. A hotel museum is on site, and docent-led tours can be arranged for meeting guests.

Dawn Aronson, global accounts director for ConferenceDirect in Marina, Calif., selected the Mission Inn as a venue for the Sacramento-based County Councils Association, which sent 40 people to a two-and-a-half day confab here. "It’s an absolutely beautiful hotel and offered a very attractive room rate," she says. "The staff was supportive and efficient, and the location was user-friendly. Our feedback came back positive. They did a great job on the service side of things, which is where they had the most impact for me."

By The Numbers » The 238-room inn has 20,000 square feet of flexible function space that can accommodate everything from board meetings to receptions for up to 275. Numerous courtyards and terraces can be reserved for breakout sessions, parties and group gatherings.

Beverly Hills Hotel and Bungalows
Beverly Hills

(The Beverly Hills Hotel and Bungalows)

Glamour is the keyword at this pink-walled retreat of the rich and famous, which celebrates its centennial this year. The hotel pool, Polo Lounge and bungalows are the stuff of Hollywood legend; to walk in the door is to enter a world where see-and-be-seen is the common currency. Vintage photographs and décor play up the hotel’s illustrious history, and there’s even a "These Walls Are Talking" cocktail menu with libations inspired by bungalow habitués Marlene Dietrich, Howard Hughes, Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe.

And the stars don’t stop there. Neil Diamond’s wedding, Gene Simmons’ wedding, the Night Before Oscar Party and a summer-long Remy Cointreau Poolside Soiree Series are a few of the recent celebrity-driven events at the Beverly Hills.

"When I first meet with a client, we base our introductory discussion on the heart of the hotel and its rich history," says Tracy Koven, associate director of catering and events. "We have a great timeline piece we give planners to keep. Also, since it’s our 100-year anniversary, we have established five large historic panels in the lobby that showcase the history of the hotel. Guests thoroughly enjoy viewing these while they are visiting for an event.

"Our charismatic and warm staff engages each guest by sharing the history of the hotel and ensures every small detail and need is met beyond expectations," she adds. "From the moment guests are greeted on the red carpet, to entering each unique guest room, they are transported back to an era rich with glamour and personalized service."

By The Numbers » The 208-room hotel on 12 lushly landscaped acres has 30,000 square feet of meeting space that includes three ballrooms, a boardroom and the Polo Private Room. All have natural lighting and private foyers, and some open onto the 2,777 square feet of outdoor space also available for group functions. Board meetings, executive retreats and VIP events are hosting specialties.

The Government Factor
Planners contemplating historic venues for their meetings and events should be aware that special requirements and restrictions can add time and money to the bottom line, especially if government agencies are involved.

For example, special events at Alcatraz or other sites within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area must go through a project review process in which planners may be asked to address issues such as how to keep light in a tent from disturbing nesting sea birds, or how to attach equipment to historic structures without damaging them. Project review takes three weeks, does not guarantee an event will be approved and involves a nonrefundable application fee.

State and national parks require similar processes.

If you’re considering an event at a venue where government oversight is involved, allow extra time to familiarize yourself with requirements that could lengthen your planning schedule.

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