IN THE LATE 1800s, the Inland Empire was one of Southern California’s lushest, most prosperous agricultural regions, booming with acres of citrus and bustling railroads. Riverside was then the richest city per capita in the United States, and it welcomed affluent Easterners, who migrated in the winter to bask in the sunny climate. Today this vibrant city anchors a burgeoning commercial center that offers meeting planners reasonably priced venues, historic charm and a walkable downtown, as well as a treasure trove of nearby natural beauty highlighted by Big Bear’s lakes and mountains and the stunning desert vistas of Joshua Tree National Park. Riverside is only an hour from Los Angeles by car, and the adjacent Ontario International Airport (25 minutes away) serves most national carriers.
About a decade ago, the city began the Riverside Renaissance, a $1.57 billion initiative investing in infrastructure and community. This year, the Riverside Convention Center unveiled a sparkling $43 = million renovation, which has completely transformed it into a spacious state-of-the-art venue. If you’re looking a bit outside the box, there’s the nearby Morongo Casino Resort and Spa, a four diamond property situated between the colossal ironwork dinosaurs that loom over the hillside (courtesy of the Jurupa Cultural Center) and the Desert Hills Premium Outlet malls that features world-class golf and some terrific meeting planner packages.
The New Side of Riverside
The Riverside Convention Center is nestled amid the splendid Spanish Revival architecture of downtown Riverside, steps away from a lively, pedestrian-friendly Main Street and a host of historic spots. The convention center shares the nostalgic charm of its surroundings with a Spanish Colonial Revival design that features arches, a dramatic tower entrance with a wide, luxurious stairway, and elegant desert landscaping. Southern California temperatures average about 76 degrees, making the outdoor relaxation and meeting areas—10,000 square feet including a sprawling openair plaza, lawn and garden—even more inviting, especially under the stars.
“The Riverside Convention Center is not only much improved, it’s almost entirely new, a leading-edge facility that is perfectly suited for a wide range of meetings and events,” says Debbi Guthrie, senior vice president of Raincross Hospitality Corp., which manages the venue. “The center is well positioned to make a grand return. There’s a hip and exciting vibe to the new side of Riverside.”
Inside is 65,000 square feet of event space, upper and lower concourses, state-of-the-art audio-visual technology, free Wi-Fi and hightech security. The main exhibit hall (28,000 square feet) now has 22 breakout rooms, and the center can accommodate groups from 70 to 3,000. Since its March opening, the center has hosted 95 events, including conferences by Mary Kay and BIG Independent Groups, and has commitments for over 120 upcoming events. A boon for planners is the Convention Concierge service, which helps coordinate hotels, catering, transportation and other services. Hungry attendees will savor the center’s new food and beverage program by a culinary team helmed by chef Brad Martin, who recently competed alongside Anthony Bourdain on the ABC show The Taste.
Meetings Mission Style
The iconic Mission Inn Hotel & Spa in Riverside is a destination unto itself—not to mention a National Historic Landmark with its own museum—and meetings here take on a special stately elegance and style. From humble beginnings as an adobe boarding house in 1876, the hotel slowly became a grand resort built in stunning Mission and Spanish revival styles by owner Frank Miller. It has been host to 10 presidents, including William Howard Taft, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard Nixon (who was married here), as well as visiting royalty and Hollywood stars.
The inn has 238 guest rooms and suites, and 20,000 square feet of flexible function space. A notable element that sets apart this venue is the stunning décor, with grand signature event rooms lined in gleaming wood, the majestic Spanish Art Gallery and replica pews of Westminster Abbey. The hotel’s in-house convention services department also provides a professional on-site audio-visual staff and highly trained banquet personnel.
Framed by snowy mountain peaks, the romantic courtyards and terraces are adaptable for alfresco gatherings, including cocktails and high-end catering; four on-site restaurants include the fine-dining destination Duane’s Prime Steaks and Seafood. For a modern touch, try 54° at Duane’s, a new wine, sushi and tapas bar. For free-time relaxing, Kelly’s Spa offers exclusive treatments, private poolside Tuscanstyle villas and customized yoga classes.
Other centrally located Riverside hotels include the Marriott Riverside at the Convention Center. Adjacent to the convention center, it offers 14,000 square feet of meeting space, with 14 meeting rooms and a grand ballroom with a capacity of 500. Audiovisual services and on-site event planners ensure smooth meetings; the hotel’s catering offers special event menus, with breakfast, lunch and dinner at C3 Restaurant and a lounge for drinks. The Hyatt Place Riverside/Downtown is ideal for smaller corporate events and gatherings, offering three meeting spaces that can combine for a total of 1,775 square feet. In addition, there’s a separate dining space, a gallery and an outdoor pool patio. The hotel offers all-inclusive meeting packages that can include a dedicated meeting host, catering options and cutting-edge technology.
The Fox Performing Arts Center, a historic theater built in 1929 that was restored and redesigned in 2010, is another successful reinvention in the Riverside Renaissance. Known as the first theater to screen Gone With the Wind in 1939, today it offers 1,600 seats and the stage has hosted stars such as Sheryl Crow and musicals like Miss Saigon. Only four blocks from the convention center, the theater is managed by Live Nation, and offers an in-house team that can assist clients with event planning, including booking local bands and DJs.
“I treat every event like it’s my own,” says Denise Bray, director of sales and special events. “The historical buildings are absolutely amazing, and people love the atmosphere. Upstairs we have the Encore Room, decorated with dark brick and candle chandeliers—it’s a favorite for meetings. Outside it’s beautiful, too, and the patio has fountains and palm trees wrapped with lights.”
Event enhancements include co-branded merchandise, customized gobo lights and interactive entertainment. Catering is provided by Wolfgang Puck; planners can also bring in their own catering. Beyond the stage and theater, the venue offers five spaces, including the bar, lobbies and private rooms that can hold from 50 to 250 people.
Dinosaurs, Meetings, Gaming and Golf
Planners looking for a luxe and lively atmosphere head to Morongo Casino Resort & Spa, which towers over the I-10 freeway in Cabazon. This is the home of the iconic giant Tyrannosaurus rex and Apatosaurus sculptures that greet desert travelers. Located 90 minutes from Los Angeles and 20 minutes from Palm Springs, the $250 million resort sits on 44 acres nestled between the dramatic San Gorgonio and San Jacinto mountains. It has a state-of-the-art conference center, a luxury spa, one of the largest casino floors on the West Coast and a water park. There are 310 guest rooms, including 32 suites and six poolside casita suites. Morongo’s meetingplanner packages include low group rates, free meeting rooms and free transportation to the Palm Springs International Airport, nearby golf courses and Desert Hills outlet stores.
“Morongo offers a focused getaway, with added amenities of gaming, golfing and great restaurants,” says Phil Cooper, executive director of marketing. “We’re not the biggest, but we strive to be the best—we’re a four-diamond property, and have a high level of service for meetings and conventions.”
The 12,000-square-foot deluxe ballroom can be divided into seven individual meeting or breakout rooms, complemented by 3,000 square feet of foyer and pre-function areas. The 80,000 total square feet of unique function space includes a former casino floor that holds 200-plus exhibits and a water park pool deck. A modern state-of-the-art executive boardroom has updated audio-visual technology, with additional tech support if desired.
The 27-story hotel is topped by Cielo, a two-story glass penthouse restaurant and lounge, which offers steak and seafood amid chandeliers and killer views. Meeting planners can choose to have a welcome reception on the 26th-floor event space 360, or host a themed nightclub event at VIBE nightclub. Groups also like to gather at the 24-lane professional bowling center. Attendees have nearby access to 36 holes of world class golf at the property’s rolling Morongo Golf Club at Tukwet Canyon, home of the Southern California PGA. It offers customized corporate team-building outings led by an experienced staff. The club itself also offers banquet and conference spaces and a team dedicated to corporate events.
Spectacular Day Trips
Whether it’s soaking in mineral hot springs, hiking in breathtaking scenery or line dancing at a country saloon, the Inland Empire is the gateway to some of Southern California’s not-to-be-missed spots. Joshua Tree National Park is a little more than an hour’s drive east from Riverside, and offers spectacular landscapes of giant boulders, desert wildflowers and the iconic Joshua tree yucca. About 5 miles northeast off the Route 62 is Pioneertown, built around an historic Wild West movie set from the 1940s (The Cisco Kid was filmed here), originally developed by Roy Rogers. Today, free gunfights are staged every Saturday and Sunday on Mane Street. Its honkytonk and barbecue joint, Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, is a local legend, featuring live country, rock, folk and bluegrass music nightly—the stage here has hosted Robert Plant, Leon Russell and Vampire Weekend. On the way to these high desert spots you’ll pass Desert Hot Springs, a tiny resort town with spa and midcentury-modern boutique hotels; many of the mineral spas are available with day rates. Mountain hiking, lake fishing, boating and, in the winter, skiing are found at neighboring Big Bear, Lake Arrowhead and Idyllwild, all within an hour’s drive of most Inland Empire locations. For recreational shoppers, the Desert Hill Premium Outlet malls feature 180 stores, including Prada, Jimmy Choo, Coach, L’Occitane and Swarovski.