Mention Davis, California, to almost anyone, and two images come immediately to mind: a prestigious university and a town teeming with bicycles.
So, first things first. The University of California, Davis, founded in 1905, sprawls over 5,300 acres, enrolls about 34,500 students, and offers some 200 undergraduate and graduate programs. It’s home to one of the top-ranked agricultural and environmental science colleges in the nation and offers professional degrees in medicine, law, veterinary medicine and nursing, among other disciplines.
Plop nearly 35,000 ambitious, high-achieving students into a city with a permanent population of 66,000, and what you’ve got is one of the brainiest cities in America.
Intellectual resources combined with ample amenities and small-town charm are a winning combination for planners looking for low-key settings.
“It’s very much a college town,” says Julie Rogers, principal of Marketing Matters, a Davis firm that plans meetings both on and off campus for health care professionals and other corporate groups. “It’s great for walking, but there are lots and lots of bicycles; whether you’re walking or driving, you really have to look both ways.”
As for those bicycles: Davis pioneered the first designated bike lane in the nation back in 1967 (then-governor Ronald Reagan signed off on the legislation) and today boasts more than 100 miles of designated bike lanes, trails and off-road bicycle paths. When classes change, or during morning and evening rush hours, the traffic on the streets is so pedal-centric, you’d think you were in Beijing.
“An estimated quarter of all trips in town involve a bicycle; it’s the highest percentage in the country,” says Bob Bowen, public relations manager for the city manager’s office and board president of the US Bicycling Hall of Fame. “There’s an absolutely huge amount of bike use here.”
Davis is the largest city in mostly rural Yolo County, which abuts Sacramento County on the east and Napa County on the west. Its topography is diverse, encompassing flat Central Valley farmland, the rugged hills of the Coast Range and parts of the watery Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Agriculture dominates throughout, and, since the advent of the farm-to-table movement, a curious public has begun to explore and support a growing number of agritourism venues.
Downtown Davis is home to scores of shops, galleries, pubs and restaurants that cater both to budget-conscious students and to the town’s largely affluent permanent population. Planners often direct conference attendees to Bistro 33, a top restaurant occupying the former city hall and featuring an alwayspacked, three-tiered patio with a warmly blazing fireplace. Nearby, Seasons, with a private dining room seating up to 60 and audio-visual capabilities, is a favorite venue for Rogers, who reserves it often for small conferences.
The patio at Seasons merges into that of an adjacent hotel, the 120-room Hallmark Inn, catering primarily to group, corporate and government travelers. “Hands down, location is our biggest plus,” says Marisa Schaffer, the inn’s general manager. “We focus not just on selling guest rooms and meeting space, but on selling the experience of Davis.”
The Hallmark offers two meeting rooms: a 460-square-foot space for small gatherings and an 840-square-foot room that can accommodate up to 40 in classroom configuration. The spacious patio-pool area and recently remodeled lobby provide additional spaces for meeting and mingling. Breakfast vouchers for a hot meal or grab-and-go at Café 110 next door are sometimes included in the rates, as is a complimentary drink at the manager’s reception staged most evenings. Bicycles—an essential part of the “Davis experience”—are available by reservation on a complimentary basis and come with helmets, locks, lights and what Shaffer terms “a really cute basket.”
Another main focal point downtown is Central Park, home to a lively farmers market held Saturday mornings year-round and Wednesday evenings spring to fall. On the park’s periphery, housed in a former teen center, the three-story US Bicycling Hall of Fame attracts aficionados from around the world with its upstairs collection of historical memorabilia and basement museum tracing the development of two-wheeled, pedal-powered transportation. The main floor is available for private, government, nonprofit, corporate and individual functions, and attracts some of each, says Bowen. Docents are available on request to lead tours, interpret exhibits and talk shop.
UC Davis each year hosts hundreds of events and conferences large and small, and has a full-time staff to coordinate and assist. “We hold all kinds of events on campus: weddings, sporting events, religious events, concerts and more,” says Kari King, business development manager for UC Davis Conference and Event Services. “A lot of state groups come over for meetings and conferences, and we also get a lot of associations, medical groups and local corporations.”
On-campus venues are many and diverse, ranging in scale from the glitzy Mondavi Center, a state-of-the-art performance space seating 1,800; to the low-key Putah Creek Lodge, an indoor-outdoor venue at the visually stunning UC Davis Arboretum. “The grounds are beautiful,” says King. “There’s a fire pit and barbecue and we can hold up to 100 at banquet rounds inside.”
Also used frequently by off-campus groups are the UCD Conference Center and adjacent Alumni Center, which can be booked together and combined offer more than 22,000 square feet of meeting and learning space. The complex is adjacent to Hyatt Place UC Davis, a 127-room hotel with 1,000 square feet of flexible gathering space and the ability to accommodate up to 70 for meetings and seminars.
Planners booking business at UC Davis are assigned an event coordinator who walks them through permit, insurance and catering information, King says, adding that planners are required to use a UCD-approved caterer.
Yolo County is home to numerous farm and ranch venues that are popular for weddings, and a few are now courting other types of events, as well.
The Inn at Park Winters, a 10-acre estate anchored by an immaculately restored 6,000-square-foot mansion, came on the scene in 2012 as the vision of partners Rafael Galiano and John Martin, who previously operated a boutique inn in San Francisco. The luxury property, which doubles as a four-room inn, recently added a 40-by-60-foot event barn that opens onto a patio with views of farmland and features a 24-foot fire pit.
“The event barn has been really life changing for us,” Martin says. Since its addition last spring, the estate has branched out from weddings to host other types of events, including a wellness retreat for 170 employees of a biomedical firm and a very successful charity fundraiser. “We can now do seated dinners for up to 200 people indoors, which means we can operate year-round,” Martin says, “and our outdoor space can easily accommodate 300.”
Other facilities at Park Winters include a gorgeous salt-water swimming pool and hot tub, and a rustic cabin, dating to the 1860s, with charming décor that includes a collection of dried wedding bouquets hanging from the rafters. “We set it up like a home away from home, with a storybook feel,” Martin says.
On another rural road outside the city of Davis, Glide Ranch is an active cattle operation, horse sanctuary and multipurpose event venue. The meeting space, with two breakout rooms, the largest of which can seat 20-30, attracts agrelated meetings, workshops and staff retreats, says Megan Contreras, event and membership coordinator. The ranch often welcomes as many as 250 guests for outdoor events.
For larger gatherings, Yolo County boasts a truly unique venue in the 130,000-squarefoot California Agriculture Museum & Event Center (formerly called the Heidrick Ag History Center) on the outskirts of Woodland, a town of 55,000 about 11 miles north of Davis. A vast collection of agricultural implements highlights the nonprofit organization’s mission to enhance understanding of farming heritage, while two huge halls and a courtyard can accommodate expos, car shows, conferences, fundraisers and private events. The East Wing, unveiled in 2014, is a temperature-controlled, 45,000-square-foot exposition hall with roll-up doors, 30-foot ceilings and a full-service kitchen. A similarly sized banquet hall can seat 350 at rounds, and events also can be held within the museum section of the building.
“We get people from all over the world who come to see the museum, and every weekend we do private or museum-sponsored events for 500 to 600 people,” says Lindsey Hickman, the center’s marketing director. “It’s an incredibly versatile and out-of-the-ordinary venue.”
Get Outta Town
Too many hours in a conference room can make eyes glaze over, and planners often think hard about how to entertain their attendees during a half-day break or once the last meeting lets out. An engaging option in the Davis area is the recently renovated Sacramento RiverTrain. It chugs 28 miles between West Sacramento and Woodland, offering themed trips—Beer Train features several local breweries while Old Vine Express pours wine from 14 local wineries—and sunset dinners. Groups can charter the entire train or reserve a private car on a regularly scheduled excursion, says Rashael Parker, chief marketing officer for parent firm Sierra Railway Company. About 200 people can be accommodated in enclosed cars if the entire train is chartered, while coaches can comfortably seat 40 to 80, depending on whether tables are required. “We also have a club car with a dance floor and can do DJ events there,” Parker adds.
Throughout Yolo County, wineries and tasting rooms offer additional opportunities for group gatherings. The scenic Capay Valley, about 30 minutes from Davis, is coming into its own as an off-the-beaten-track farm-trail destination.
One of its newest additions is the Séka Hills Olive Mill & Tasting Room, which offers the opportunity to taste olive oils milled on location as well as local honeys and wines. Several spaces are available for group events, including the main tasting room, which can accommodate up to 100 for presentations and 90 for dinner. Large gatherings of up to 775 receptionstyle or 500 for dinner can be handled on the lawn, while indoor-outdoor “flow” receptions for up to 300 guests are another possibility.
Meanwhile, the Clarksburg wine-growing region along the Sacramento River has sprouted several new wineries even as existing ones are ramping up their event capabilities.
The Old Sugar Mill, a repurposed beetprocessing facility, now houses 11 wineries and has become much in demand as a venue for private and corporate events. Rental spaces include a central gallery, interior courtyard, barrel room, boiler house and large lawn areas. “We do annual corporate retreats, big galas, team-building and fundraisers,” says Marketing Manager Melissa Haines Lavin. “We have three very large lawn areas that can hold 5,000 to 7,000 people. All our interior spaces have power, easy load in and out and places for caterers and bands to set up. Plus, we can tent anything!”
For all that Davis offers, there’s one thing it doesn’t have: a downtown conference facility. That’s coming. “By the end of next year we should have in place a 132-room hotel with as much as 18,000 square feet of meeting space for conferences,” says Alan Humason, executive director of the Yolo County Visitors Bureau. “There’s a need. We know from our own experience that having everything under one roof is a prerogative for many.”