THE TERM "SILICON VALLEY" DOESN’T APPEAR ON MAPS-unless you search it on Google Maps, in which case you get an arrow pointing to the intersection of Highways 101 and 237 in Santa Clara, just spitting distance from Google headquarters (the Googleplex) in neighboring Mountain View. But ask those in the know about which city is most closely associated with the tech boom that has transformed how the world does business, and a common answer you’ll get is San Jose.
San Jose is home to household names such as Apple, Google, Facebook, Intel, Adobe, Twitter, Cisco, Yahoo, eBay, Hewlett-Packard and Netflix-and is also the region’s meetings capital. But city leaders have an even bigger vision: A $130 million expansion and renovation of the San Jose McEnery Convention Center was completed last fall with the goal of sharpening the city’s competitive edge in attracting meetings and trade shows, especially with higher-profile market such as San Francisco an hour north. With 550,000 square feet of flexible meeting space now available (the expansion added 169,957 square feet), the results have been both dramatic and immediate.
"Now that we have a renovated convention center, we can compete for the large tech meetings that we weren’t able to book before," says Karolyn Kirchgesler, CEO of Team San Jose, the integrated management corporation that operates the convention center and six other downtown venues. In the half year since the center’s grand opening in October, she adds, they have secured 43 new events using the expanded space. Of those, 12 were citywide pieces of business, meaning they use several hotels.
Mini Peiris, vice president of global marketing for NetSuite, a cloud-based business-management software firm based in San Mateo, is among the planners excited about the contemporary new space. In May, the company’s 2014 user conference will bring an anticipated 6,000 attendees to the convention center, with lodging spread among a half-dozen or more hotels. Peiris moved the annual event to San Jose last year after two years in San Francisco.
"We looked at both San Francisco and San Jose," she says. "The package that Team San Jose put together was very competitive in terms of space, hotel rates and availability. The other big factor was that Team San Jose set up options for us so we could brand the conference downtown. We did that with streetpole banners, so when attendees arrived, the whole area was pretty much branded."
From Casual to Elegant
Perhaps the biggest surprise for first-time meeting visitors to California’s third-largest city (after Los Angeles and San Diego) is that it feels much smaller than a metropolis of more than a million people. Downtown has a clearly defined nucleus in Plaza de César Chávez, a palm-encircled, oval park that hosts many public festivals. The Fairmont San Jose occupies a prime position right across the street, while The Sainte Claire hotel, which has been welcoming guests since 1926, sits kitty-corner. The Hilton San Jose and San Jose Marriott hotels are directly connected to the convention center. Cultural landmarks on or near the plaza include the San Jose Museum of Art, The Tech Museum of Innovation, Montgomery Theater and the City National Civic auditorium (the latter two also are managed by Team San Jose).
Walkability and a campus-like setting are huge selling points for planners seeking a destination where attendees can be left to their own devices for off-site entertainment, attractions and dining (more than 200 restaurants, from casual to elegant, beckon in the downtown core). And it helps that downtown San Jose feels not just affluent, but safe; Forbes.com consistently ranks San Jose among the nation’s 10 safest cities.
The city’s mild, Mediterranean climate is a major draw in its own right, especially when it comes to attracting attendees from colder climes. "We have gorgeous weather yearround," says Kirchgesler, who moved to San Jose from Minneapolis last year. "I thought, ‘Oh, it’s going to be so hot here,’ but it’s not. In summer, it’s nice and warm in the day and in evening it cools down enough for a sweater. In winter, the average high is between 50 and 60 degrees."
With so many resources so close together, planners don’t have to worry about transportation for most off-site gatherings. The Tech Museum of Innovation, just across the plaza from hotels and filled with inventive exhibits, is one of downtown’s most popular venues for corporate receptions and sales kickoffs. Its Hackworth IMAX Dome Theater, with seating for 280, boasts the biggest dome screen in the West. "We’re all about experiential learning, hands-on play and technology," says museum spokesperson Michelle Tran.
Professional sports, in the form of the National Hockey League’s San Jose Sharks, also have a place in downtown San Jose. As a perk for meeting attendees, Team San Jose often arranges blocks of tickets for visitors to join rabid fans at SAP Center (aka the Shark Tank), just a few blocks from convention hotels. Also nearby, the recently renovated City National Civic (formerly San Jose Civic) is a concert venue that celebrated its reopening in October with a performance by Wynonna Judd.
For off-site dinner and reception venues, several locales with views in the downtown core stand out. Peiris’ group last year held a sales dinner on the rooftop patio at Scott’s Seafood, a leading downtown restaurant, while top customers were treated to an evening event at the Silicon Valley Capital Club, an 11th-floor venue in the Knight Ridder office tower.
"We’re a private club for business, networking and social events," says Capital Club Membership Director Michelle DiMarino. Fresh from a $3 million renovation, the elegant venue boasts two boardrooms and a 2,200-square foot main ballroom with floor-to-ceiling windows opening onto terraces with breathtaking views of the city and the mountains beyond. "We’re unparalleled as far as views go in the Silicon Valley," DiMarino says.
More casual dining and entertainment options are found at San Pedro Square Market, a twoyear- old venue adjacent to the historic Peralta Adobe, which dates back to 1797. The market, taking its cues from Granville Island in Vancouver, Pike Place Market in Seattle and the Ferry Building in San Francisco, houses about 30 businesses, most of them food outlets featuring everything from fresh produce to Asian noodle dishes and Venezuelan specialties. It hosts many private events, outdoors and in, and also produces its own events, from Friday-night jazz sessions and a summer movie series to a rousing Oktoberfest celebration.
"It’s become a very big regional draw," says John McEnery, owner and managing partner of the market. "We’re very family-friendly, and it’s a grand enough environment for people to make a special trip to see what’s going on."
The market has hosted private groups as small as 25 for market-to-table dinners, while accommodating as many as 7,000 for a public buyout bash the San Francisco 49ers threw last April, replete with big screens and cheerleaders, to celebrate the NFL draft.
Secluded and Spooky Venues
Outside of the immediate downtown area, the Dolce Hayes Mansion, a private estate turned conference center, hotel, resort and spa, is favored by planners seeking a secluded setting. In contrast, the Hotel Valencia Santana Row is a see-and-be-seen property in the middle of the city’s hugely successful, Mediterranean-style residential, dining, entertainment and fashionforward shopping district. Many Santana Row restaurants offer private dining options, and savvy planners know to schedule a free morning or afternoon here so meeting attendees and spouses can explore the district.
And then there’s the Winchester Mystery House, one of America’s most curious constructions. Built by eccentric firearms heiress Sarah Winchester, the mansion has operated as a tourist attraction since the 1920s. Among other things, it’s a statistical wonder, boasting 2,000 doors and 47 fireplaces, along with a treasure trove of Tiffany windows. An on-site firearms museum, extensive gardens, food offerings-and, yes, meeting space-help make the Winchester Mystery House a can’t-miss attraction for first-time visitors.