When Eliza and Luther Tibbets planted their first navel orange tree in Riverside in 1873, they could not have imagined the prosperity the citrus fruit would bring to Southern California. Much of what is known today as the Inland Empire has historic roots in this golden era of California agriculture. Spanning the western parts of Riverside and San Bernardino counties, as well as eastern Los Angeles County, the modernday Inland Empire boasts a varied landscape of urban centers, historic downtowns, alpine lakes, scenic wine country and, yes, orange groves.
With its affordably priced hotels, plush conference centers and variety of attractions, the Inland Empire offers meeting planners an array of venues, activities and lodgings. Conveniently located east of Los Angeles, near where the 10 Freeway, 60 Freeway and Interstate 5 converge, this thriving region continues to grow as a successful meetings and events destination.
The Neighborhood Charm of Claremont and Pomona
While Fairplex in Pomona is best known as the site of the annual LA County Fair, the 487-acre complex also hosts consumer and trade shows throughout the year, such as the SoCal College Fair and the Pomona Home Improvement and Remodeling Show. With its giant capacity, including a 33,620-squarefoot carpeted exhibition hall that connects to a 30,000-square-foot Convention Center, in addition to eight exhibition halls with columnfree meeting space of 325,000 square feet, Fairplex hosts megaevents, but smaller venues are also available within the facility. For example, the on-site 244-room Sheraton Fairplex Hotel & Conference Center can arrange for groups to enjoy an intimate alfresco dinner at the Fairplex farm, with sustainable ingredients from the hotel’s own 5-acre organic farm.
To the east of Pomona, the City of Claremont is centered around a charming New Englandstyle downtown village, complete with noted restaurants, tree-lined shopping streets, inviting art galleries, and its prestigious seven Claremont Colleges campuses (Pitzer College, Claremont-McKenna College, Scripps College, Harvey Mudd College, Pomona College, Claremont Graduate University and Keck Science Institute). The school’s facilities provide quiet, serene meeting and event destinations, though availability is limited during the school year.
“Each of the colleges does their own event coordination,” says Janice O’Neill, conference and events coordinator for Pomona College, who notes that Pomona College facilities are only available when school is out. “Most of the events we host are academic in nature or some kind of a group retreat.” Event spaces vary in size—from a classroom that can host 10 attendees to the school’s Bridge Auditorium, which holds up to 2,500. Dorms and dining halls can also be made available for groups.
Event planners eager to take advantage of Claremont’s beautiful location at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains may want to consider the 86-acre Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, which offers several different outdoor garden venues. Its popular California Courtyard can accommodate 400 guests in theater-style seating or more than 200 at tables. The Garden works exclusively with Gourmet Gourmet Catering Inc., and they can handle everything from snacks to a sit-down dinner among the garden’s renowned collection of California native plants.
Claremont’s 195-room DoubleTree by Hilton, which offers 12,500 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space, or the more intimate 28-room Hotel Casa 425, with its Casa Room that hosts up to 50 guests, are other options for groups meeting in the Claremont area.
Under the direction of Michael K. Krouse, president and CEO of the Greater Ontario Convention & Visitors Bureau and Ontario Convention Center, the Greater Ontario area has been experiencing rapid growth. With the Ontario Convention Center—which has more than 225,000 square feet of flexible exhibit, meeting and function space—the 11,089-seat Citizen Business Bank Arena, and more than 50 affordably priced hotels (which have a combined 6,000-plus hotel rooms), it’s no surprise that the area’s meetings business is on the rise.
“The thing that is unique is that we manage the convention center, the CVB and the arena,” says Krouse. “We are like the king of the world in the Ontario area.” A hospitality industry veteran, Krouse also manages the new California Welcome Center, which is located in the Ontario Mills Mall. As California’s largest indoor outlet shopping destination, with more than 200 stores, Ontario Mills is a popular destination for groups and bus tours.
Just east of Ontario in Fontana, the Auto Club Speedway welcomes corporate groups for NASCAR racing. Meeting planners can organize a day at the races for up to 70 in Richter’s Club, located above the pit lane with floorto-ceiling glass overlooking the start/finish line. The club, which opened in March, has hosted events for groups like the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society—Inland Empire Chapter, and offers food and beverage service from the track’s Americrown catering group. Speedway’s team-building options are popular group activities. From Exotics Racing School, where participants get behind the wheel of a Ferrari or Lamborghini, to CalSpeed Karting with Go-Karts that reach speeds up to 50 mph, this is bonding at its most fast and furious.
Inside Riverside and San Bernardino
Riverside maintains its Spanish Colonial charm, especially in the city’s historic downtown area, which has undergone a renaissance in the past decade thanks to a $1.57 billion initiative to improve the community. Those improvements include an extensive $43 million renovation of the Riverside Convention Center, which now offers 66,000 square feet of indoor event space, plus an additional 14,000 square feet of outdoor space, including an open-air plaza and lush lawn and gardens.
Groups meeting at the Convention Center may opt to stay across the street at the 292- room Marriott Riverside at the Convention Center, which has 12,942 square feet of its own meeting space, or two blocks away at the historic 238-room Mission Inn Hotel & Spa. With more than 20,000 square feet of flexible meeting space as well, the Mission Inn is one of the area’s architectural highlights, featuring Spanish Mission-style buildings dating back to 1876. It was recently named the Best Historic Hotel in America by USA Today. The hotel’s annual Festival of Lights, a public holiday lights display that features more than 4 million holiday lights, attracts more than 250,000 visitors annually. The display, now in its 24th year, starts on Nov. 25 with its Switch-On Ceremony and lasts for five weeks.
The nearby City of San Bernardino has also preserved a piece of the city’s history with its California Theatre for Performing Arts, a former vaudeville movie palace dating back to 1928. The grand 1,718-seat theater, which offers plays and musical performances throughout the year, can also be reserved for group events. Now owned by the City of San Bernardino, the well-maintained venue boasts updated production capabilities and upgraded seating.
Into the Mountains
Set high in the San Bernardino Mountains, the resort towns of Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead offer crisp mountain air, towering pines and a quaint Bavarian setting for groups to experience all four seasons. “Winter is our peak season,” says Rebecca Hrabia, executive director of the Big Bear Visitors Bureau, “but fall is a great time to enjoy the changing leaves and our annual Oktoberfest at the Big Bear Convention Center.” After the last beer has been consumed and the pretzels are gone, the 11,000-square-foot venue is available for meetings with a maximum capacity of 1,400.
Hrabia says the 140-room Holiday Inn Lodge Big Bear Lake, with its six meeting rooms, and 8,014 square feet of space, and the 80-room Best Western Big Bear Chateau, with its three meeting/banquet facilities for up to 140, are the area’s most popular group destinations. Boutique lodges and rental homes are available for smaller groups.
In neighboring Lake Arrowhead, Marriott Autograph Collection Hotels’ Lake Arrowhead Resort and Spa, which underwent a $5.5 million renovation in 2014, offers 162 rooms and 23,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor meeting space. With its lakeside setting, the resort encourages groups to get out on the water for a private boat tour, enjoy a guided nature hike or partake in a dockside fishing derby.
When business is done, meeting-goers can hit the slopes at nearby Snow Summit Ski Resort or Bear Mountain or do zip lining, tree ropes or segway tours through Action Tours Big Bear. “Groups should also experience the uniqueness of the shops,” says Hrabia. “Everything is privately owned, and the shopkeepers are really passionate about their businesses.”
Temecula Valley’s Wine Country
Boasting a luxurious yet affordably priced wine country setting with locally grown, sustainable foods, Temecula Valley is about a onehour drive from San Diego, Orange County and Palm Springs and 90 minutes from the Los Angeles area.
Several new event spaces have recently debuted in the area, including Galway Downs, a picturesque equestrian and event center dotted with shady eucalyptus trees, ponds and walkways. Its large barn-like Carriage House is among several events spaces on the grounds; with 5,000 square feet, it’s able to accommodate groups of 250 seated and 500 for cocktails. Over at the 127-room Temecula Creek Inn, the Meadows outdoor venue rivals the Inn’s historic Stone House. The new space, which can accommodate up to 400 guests, boasts an arbor-covered lounge and tree-lined reception area.
“Temecula Valley has several new wineries that recently opened: Carter Estate Winery, Avensole Winery, and Fazeli Cellars,” says Annette Brown, marketing and PR manager for Visit Temecula Valley. “Also, Oak Mountain Winery opened the first wine cave in California this year. Most of these venues were designed to accommodate indoor and outdoor meetings.” In addition, Peltzer Family Cellars opened mid-September.
Groups interested in team-building activities have plenty of options. For example, Brown suggests a grape-stomping competition during harvest season (August and September), hot air ballooning, with teams competing in such activities as beanbag target tosses from the air, or even private poker tournaments or Bingo games at nearby Pechanga Resort & Casino. Guests can rent out the 14,000-square-foot Pechanga Bingo or Pechanga Poker Room, which seats 43.
Indeed, with so much to do in the area, all bets are on the Inland Empire for a successful meeting or event.