"Experience the allure of the American Riviera," Visit Santa Barbara’s invitation in its promotional materials, appeals not only to Californians but to visitors who live near the Italian Riviera and the French Riviera as well. Walk down the palm tree-lined thoroughfares of downtown or the seaside promenades, especially during the summer months; drop in at one of the 220-plus local wineries, or the historic mission and other architecture that refl ect the city’s Spanish, Moorish, Portuguese and Native American infl uences, and you’ll hear lots of French and Italian, among other languages, being spoken.
Small surprise: Santa Barbara, with its Mediterranean climate, sandy beaches, extraordinary dining and wine tasting, worldclass shopping and natural beauty has universal appeal. It’s here, out of all of Southern California, that the ocean is closest to the mountains.
Lucky for California meeting planners, the coastal city is just 92 miles north of Los Angeles, while Santa Barbara Airport, which is 8 miles north of the downtown area, has nonstop flights from Dallas, Denver, LA, Phoenix, Portland, San Francisco and Seattle. Once your group is here, Santa Barbara is a cinch to navigate. The compact city can easily be explored on foot or on bike, from the ocean to the boutiques and restaurants of downtown, to the burgeoning Funk Zone. That booming neighborhood, which sits between the Pacific Ocean and Highway 101, is both hip and welcoming, with warehouses converted into tasting rooms, microbreweries, art galleries, mom-and-pop shops, sidewalk cafés and acclaimed restaurants.
For local event planner Jackie Blackwell, The Kimpton Canary Santa Barbara is her hotel of choice for multiday gatherings. Located steps from State Street, the heart of downtown, the stylish Spanish Colonial 97-room boutique hotel has 7,300 square feet of venue space, including a rooftop terrace (capacity 180) that offers, she notes, unparalleled views of Santa Barbara, including the ocean, Santa Ynez Mountains, and the distinctive red-tile roofs of the Riviera neighborhood. “The Canary is a favorite of locals and it’s centrally located,” Blackwell says. “Most of all, the entire team, from the general manager to the housekeeping staff, are incredibly accommodating.”
Blackwell typically has breakfast and lunch set up on the rooftop, weather permitting; hosts one dinner on property, (small groups can convene at the hotel’s signature Finch & Fork restaurant, while the Riviera Ballroom accommodates up to 160 guests); and takes her group off property for excursions that might include kayaking through the caves of the Channel Islands, hiking, biking or sail ing adventures, a visit to Lotusland or other botanical gardens, or a tour of the Museum of Contemporary Art.
The 200-room Hyatt Centric Santa Barbara is another property right in the thick of things. Built in the 1930s, it had opened as a Mar Monte property and then operated as a Radisson before joining the Hyatt family in 2011. “The new Hyatt Centric brand is all about being centrally located and engaging with a destination with its guests,” says Digna David, director of sales and marketing. The Hyatt Centric works closely with local DMCs to plan group outings, which might include visits to the Santa Barbara Zoo or a “Sideways” tour of wine country. There are lots of reason to stay on property, too, including almost 14,000 square feet of meeting space, including meeting rooms and ballrooms that offer sweeping views of the ocean and mountains. The largest space, El Cabrillo and Gazebo, can accommodate 270 guests for a banquet and 320 for a reception.
Just down the street from the Hyatt Centric is the Fess Parker, A DoubleTree by Hilton Resort (currently undergoing at $15 million renovation). With 360 guest rooms and 49,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor meeting space, this is the largest meetings venue in Santa Barbara proper. (Bacara Resort & Spa, in nearby Goleta, has 73,000 square feet of meeting space and 358 guest rooms.) The property’s iconic Plaza Del Sol is the city’s largest outdoor event space, seating a maximum of 1,200 people when it’s utilized in combination with the Upper Rotunda, a third-floor terrace connected to the Plaza. Over the years, it’s been home to car shows, tailgate parties with pickup trucks and bbq stations, flash mobs, fireworks and Hawaiian-themed luaus.
Renewal That’s Not Remote
Accessible as it is, Santa Barbara also feels like an away-from-it-all retreat. Nowhere is this truer than at two of the city’s most luxurious properties, the Belmond El Encanto, which turns 100 in 2018, and the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore. Nestled on a hilltop in a residential neighborhood, the 7-acre El Encanto has 92 bungalows and suites in the California Craftsman and Spanish Colonial Revival style. It emerged in 2013 from a seven-year, $134 million renovation and has been Santa Barbara’s only Forbes Five-Star resort for three years running. For a boutique property, as Marc Fialip, executive assistant manager, notes, El Encanto offers groups a wide variety of venue options. The 10,000 square feet of event space includes the Arbor and Lily Pond (capacity 200), the Riviera Ballroom (300), a terrace that seats 109, a fireside room and patio that can host 125 and the more intimate Santa Ynez Room (44) and Wine Room (14).
El Encanto, Fialip likes to say, provides “flawless but invisible service.” Take, for example, the “surprises,” such as a snack like a macaroon or frozen skewer of grapes, that are offered every 90 minutes at the zero-edge swimming pool. The staff is also eager to arrange off-property activities, like a round of golf at the Rancho San Marcos Golf Course, electric bikes to the beach or horseback riding excursions.
With 207 guest rooms set on 22 acres of gardens and Spanish Colonial architecture, Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara is the city’s only AAA Five-Diamond Resort. The 15,000 square feet of meeting space, including the largest ballroom in Santa Barbara, can accommodate groups of 10-500. Just across the street from the resort and located right on the beach, La Pacifica Ballroom and Terrace can host a reception for 500, with 180-degree views of the Pacific. Back at the resort, the new Luna Terrace, a cozy Moroccan space, seats eight. “Everyone is looking for a meeting space that doesn’t feel like a meeting space and this certainly delivers that,” says Kirsten VanBrunt, director of meetings and events. Four Seasons service means anything is possible and that included setting up a Soul Cycle studio in a fitness room for one recent group, arranging kayak polo at the beach or golf-cart polo at the Santa Barbara Polo Club, or, for groups wanting to give back, an organized cleanup at beautiful Butterfly Beach.
Expanded Offerings for Groups
Santa Barbara is expanding to meet growing demand. Several new hotels will add to Santa Barbara county’s current inventory of 9,014 rooms offered by 143 properties. Among the most anticipated is the new 121-room Hotel Californian, which sits adjacent to the Funk Zone and just steps from the beach on the site of the original hotel of the same name. The property’s 20,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space, spread among three buildings, can accommodate groups of several hundred, and is also available for smaller executive retreats. What’s expected to be a coveted space is in the State Building, which includes a 4,200-square-foot lawn, a 3,000-square-foot ballroom and a 3,5000-square foot rooftop event deck (total capacity 300).
In summer 2018, Santa Barbara will see the expected opening of the beachfront Rosewood Miramar Beach Montecito, with 124 guest rooms and 37 suites and 12,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space, including a 6,000-square-foot ballroom.
Planners will also want to check out Santa Barbara’s new science museum. MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, opened in February 2017 and had surpassed 100,000 visitors by the end of July. While the downtown space is filled with schoolchildren and families by day, it’s available after 5 p.m. until midnight for private events. The appeal of MOXI has proven to be age defying, says Katie McNab, the museum’s events manager, with the adults-only “Afterparty” events often selling out in minutes.
The popularity comes from engagement. “Unlike other museums where you need to keep your hands off the exhibits, everything is interactive at MOXI,” McNab points out. The three floors are filled with immersive experiences whether that’s laying down sound tracks in the Foley Studios or taking part in “Build It, Test It, Race It,” where guests race cars they assembled themselves on the speed track. Planners can rent MOXI’s rooftop Sky Garden, which offers spectacular unobstructed views and has a capacity of 200. Or, the entire museum can be rented, doubling the capacity to 400. At one recent private event, guests made key chains with their corporate logo laser-cut into the design, engaged in robot wars and moved through the various exhibits while enjoying passed cocktails and appetizers, as well as food stations that included a mashed potato station.
The evening took place during a one company’s week-long sales/tech conference of more than 500 during which several hotels were bought out. It’s an example of the kind of event that wouldn’t have been possible in Santa Barbara just a few years ago, but now can be pulled off with ease. As Michelle Carlen, director of sales for Visit Santa Barbara, says, “Santa Barbara is set up in an idyllic way to execute large groups that might be staying at multiple properties. More than at any other destination in California, you can easily start off at one venue for cocktails and appetizers, move somewhere else for a seated dinner and cap off the night at a third spot for dessert. That kind of roving event is very possible here and makes for an unforgettable evening.”