Planners in large California cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco are all too familiar with the experience of local attendees arriving at meetings already tired and frazzled from battling bumper-to-bumper traffic. More and more, “train-to meetings” are emerging as an environmentally friendly and stress-free alternative to driving. Attendees show up relaxed and ready to jump into brainstorming and team-building sessions.
Amtrak is the major player, of course, with three in-state routes and a half-dozen long-distance trains in the game. Add to this the extensive commuter-rail networks in cities like Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, and, despite California’s reputation as a car-centric state, it’s easy enough to get around car-free (and avoid those astronomical parking and valet charges in the bargain).
“In this day and age of traffic and pressing deadlines, the train is the perfect way of travel up and down the coast,” says Terra Williams, associate director of sales at the Hotel Palomar in San Diego. “When bidding on groups, we always promote that you do not need to drive or rent a car. You can enjoy the beautiful beaches from the train, treat yourself to a glass of wine and take in the scenery.”
Williams’ hotel is in downtown San Diego, just outside the historic Gaslamp District and half a mile from the Santa Fe Depot now used by Amtrak. “It’s an easy walk to our hotel, or guests can take the trolley to the 5th Avenue and C Station, which is a mere block away,” she notes.
Both San Diego and Los Angeles, along with San Luis Obispo and other California destinations, have climbed aboard the “California Car Free” bandwagon, touting Amtrak and local public transportation as a convenient, sustainable and (usually) hassle-free way to travel. Santa Barbara started the car-free train rolling in 2001 when the city’s Air Pollution Control District created a program to incentivize travelers to take a vacation from their vehicles as a way to reduce pollution, recounts Laura Kath, the program’s promotion coordinator. Visitors who book through the Santa Barbara Car Free website get 20 percent off Amtrak Pacific Surfliner train fares, up to 20 percent off at participating hotels (which throw in a welcome bottle of wine and a free shuttle from the station), plus discounts at more than 35 partner businesses, from restaurants and museums to outdoor activity providers.
Today, notes Kath, about 20 percent of visitor arrivals in Santa Barbara are by train. “The business portion of that we don’t know, because so many people combine business and vacation. But many come for retreats, incentives, association board meetings and corporate business. And the wedding business, of course, is huge.”
Santa Barbara is on the 351-mile Pacific Surfliner route between San Diego and San Luis Obispo, on tracks shared by long-distance Coast Starlight trains journeying between Los Angeles and Seattle. Up to 12 Amtrak trains arrive or depart daily. Once on the ground, passengers who show their ticket enjoy free transportation on electric shuttles traveling set routes along beach and downtown avenues.
The Kimpton Canary Hotel, about a mile and a quick Uber or Lyft ride from the train station, isn’t a program participant. But Sherrin Thomas, director of sales and marketing, says it’s always a priority for her staff to promote environmentally friendly travel options to clients. “Train travel is definitely a huge part of that,” she says. “The Pacific Surfliner, with its scenic views and complimentary Wi-Fi is every business traveler’s least stressful mode of transportation. This is valuable time given back to finish up a presentation, check email, have an impromptu meeting or just enjoy the ride without the stress of traffic.”
Los Angeles, car-centric capital of the universe, has taken a somewhat different approach to promoting car-free travel for both business and leisure travelers. The city’s beautifully restored Union Station is the busiest Amtrak terminus in the West, but it’s not the only rail option in town.
Darren K. Green, senior vice president of sales for the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board, points to a new website, Car Free LA, an eco-friendly initiative designed to showcase the destination with a series of carefully curated itineraries that detail must-see and must-do activities on foot, by bike or pubic transport. “By promoting our Car Free LA program, we can enhance the Los Angeles experience without having our visitors or meeting attendees rely on getting around by car,” he says. “In fact, we are conducting entire site visits with planners using only public transportation and walking downtown so they can see how easy it is firsthand.”
The city, he adds, is in the midst of a “transit revolution” committed to changing perceptions. Voters recently passed Measure M, an initiative that will raise $120 billion over the next four decades to build a 21st-century public transit system. In the meantime, notes Green, the city’s Metro trains can be used to access iconic attractions like the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Los Angeles Music Center, Universal Studios Hollywood, L.A. Live, Staples Center and Memorial Coliseum, as well as Santa Monica. “Planners can work hand in hand with our client services team to plan their ancillary events in areas that are easily accessible off public transit lines, such as the Red Line, which conveniently connects downtown to Hollywood and the valley,” Green says.
Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) is San Francisco’s version of LA’s Metro system, while CalTrain routes head south from the city to Silicon Valley and San Jose. Lesser known is the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) train connecting San Raphael, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, with Santa Rosa in Sonoma wine country.
San Francisco and Sacramento are natural partners when it comes to train travel: Up to 17 Capitol Corridor trains in each direction run daily between them, taking less than two hours for a trip that by car can stretch to three or more. The Sacramento Valley Station, fresh from a $30 million makeover, is situated on the edge of downtown, walking distance to the Old Sacramento Historic District and just a few blocks from the State Capitol and nearby convention center.
On the San Francisco end of the line, Capitol Corridor passengers disembark in Emeryville, on the Oakland side of the Bay Bridge, and are whisked by bus to their choice of three drop-off destinations, all within walking distance of numerous hotels. The train, with San Jose as a final destination, continues from there to Oakland, stopping not only at the Jack London Square dining and entertainment district, but at Oakland Alameda Coliseum (home of the Oakland Athletics baseball and Oakland Raiders football teams) and the new Levi’s Stadium, where the San Francisco 49ers play.
Convenience Factor: Where the Stations Are
Most Amtrak stations are in or near downtown centers and within a few blocks of convention facilities and hotels.
San Francisco: Trains disembark passengers at the Amtrak station in Emeryville, just across the Bay Bridge from the city. From there, buses whisk passengers to their choice of three dropoff points: Hyatt Regency, Transbay Terminal or Fisherman’s Wharf Pier 39, all within walking distance of hotels and BART stations.
Sacramento: The recently refurbished Sacramento Valley Station is on the edge of downtown, walking distance to some hotels and to the Old Sacramento historic district.
Oakland: The station at Jack London Square is just a stroll away from a busy waterfront dining and entertainment district and a short ride to downtown hotels.
San Jose: The station is about a mile from the convention center and associated hotels.
Stockton: Two choices here—both the Robert J. Cabral Station and the historic San Joaquin Street Station are near the downtown and waterfront districts.
Fresno: The handsome Santa Fe Passenger Depot now serving Amtrak is conveniently located downtown.
Bakersfield: The sleek, modern station is adjacent to the Rabobank Arena, Theater and Convention Center and walking distance to several hotels.
San Luis Obispo: The Spanish colonial revival station is six blocks from downtown.
Santa Barbara: The station is downtown and just a few blocks from the beach.
Los Angeles: Union Station, dating to 1939 and beautifully refurbished, is the largest railroad passenger terminal in the West and offers meeting, event and entertainment space in addition to comings and goings.
San Diego: Three train stations serve this SoCal city; one downtown, one in Old Town and another in the north county.
Planner Tips for Train-to Meetings
With a few simple steps you can encourage your guests to skip the car and ride the rails.
» Choose a venue within a short distance of the train station.
» Inform attendees how to get to and from the station without a car.
» Check with Amtrak regarding discounts for meeting attendees. Inform attendees of discounts available to them as individual travelers or part of a group.
» Advise attendees about onboard amenities such as Wi-Fi. California’s Pacific Surfliner, Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin trains are fully wired, but not all long-distance trains are.
Amtrak Discounts and Deals
It’s hard to keep up with all the discounts and deals offered by Amtrak, both for individual travelers and for groups, but planners can put these on their radar:
In general, passengers traveling together in groups of 20 or more are eligible for a 10 percent discount on fares or a free escort ticket. Amtrak also offers 10 percent off to attendees of conventions whose sponsors register an approved event. Reserved seating for groups also can be arranged. More information: amtrak.com/group-travel-requests, amtrak.com/onboard/onboardaccommodations-for-all-your-needs/ seating-accommodations.html
Discounts of 10 percent and up to 50 percent are available to seniors, military personnel and federal employees on specified trains and dates, while Amtrak SmartFares offer savings up 30 percent on select dates and routes. Look also for discounted fares tied to special events and destinations such as Oakland Athletics home games, the Breeder’s Cup horse race classic in Del Mar and Disneyland. Details at amtrak.com/deals
Special deals for destinations participating in California Car Free programs also are available. Santa Barbara has the most robust offer with 20 percent off Amtrak fares and discounts at dozens of other car-free partner businesses. santabarbaracarfree.org/ california-car-free
For Post-Convention Fun, Consider a Rail Tour
The Reno Fun trains and scenic snow trains, offering three-day excursions between the Bay Area and Reno for more than 50 years, have been put on hold by Amtrak this season, to the disappointment of many incentive groups. But operator Key Holidays, based in Walnut Creek, is still offering package rail-tour vacations aboard regular Amtrak trains. The most popular post-convention destination out of San Francisco and Sacramento is Yosemite National Park, with Reno, Monterey and Hearst Castle not far behind for out-of-state and international visitors who don’t want to drive, says Key Holidays President Jade Chapman. “My recommendation is that people make their plans for a rail tour as soon as they register for a convention, especially for Yosemite,” she adds. “National parks sell out a year in advance; it’s not a spur-of-the-moment thing.”
Hold Your Meeting on the Train
For off-site team-building, just plain fun or even a board meeting on the go, California’s excursion trains offer refreshing diversion. Here are two that regularly cater to corporate, association, incentive and tour groups.
Under new ownership since 2015, the venerable wine-country attraction is diversifying its business model to offer all manner of new options for the group market. While traditional “gourmet express” lunch and dinner trains continue to roll, six new cars in the collection, including an open-air model and a vintage coach that can be configured as a boardroom and convert into a dining car, present more intimate opportunities.
“We feel like we’ve struck gold in many respects with the new additions,” says Denise Perkins, director of sales and marketing. As an example, she points to a recent event for an international corporation that held a board meeting for 14 in the boardroom car while other meeting attendees enjoyed a reception in the open-air venue. Afterward, the group of about 50 sat down to dinner as the train journeyed between Napa and St. Helena.
“We’re really excited to offer the outdoor car, which lets people come, have refreshment and enjoy entertainment, from musicians to magicians and mentalists,” Perkins says.
“Our group business comes primarily from corporate incentive or corporate meetings,” she adds. “They’re meeting at the Westin, Silverado, Meritage, and looking for off-sites. With the new cars, we can run multiple configurations for groups, from up to 300 on the big trains to smaller groups that want to have a meeting followed by dinner. For those who want an extended trip visiting several wineries along the way, we can do private trains and tastings all up and down the valley.”
The Wine Train’s new Quattro Vino offerings—six-hour trips that include a four-course meal on the train interspersed with tours and tastings at three wineries along the route—are proving especially popular. “We have 18 journeys to choose from,” Perkins says. “On any given day, four to five tours are out.”
Among other options are excursions providing wine tasting and nibbles on the train and a sit-down dinner at a winery. An evening option features jazz musicians playing onboard followed by a show at downtown Napa’s Blue Note nightclub.
The wine train is now owned Noble House Hotels & Resorts, Ltd. and Brooks Street, a California-based real estate development and investment company. On the drawing boards: a 150-room hotel at the site of the Napa depot.
The Sacramento RiverTrain, running a leisurely, 28-mile roundtrip between West Sacramento and Woodland, is an increasingly popular off-site option for meeting and convention groups in Sacramento. While family-friendly excursions, murder mysteries, Wild West dinners, seasonally themed trips, and specialty beer and wine trains are offered to the public and available to groups, groups can also customize their excursions in a variety of ways, says Christopher Hart, president of passenger operations for Sierra Railroad Company, which also operates the Skunk Train in Mendocino County.
“Meeting groups can have an entire event on the train, from receptions with entertainment to a variety of meal options,” he says, citing as an example progressive parties with each car offering a different set of entertainment and food choices. A new, openair grill car has added barbecue to the mix, he adds, “and for larger groups, we’ve added a special-event site about midway along the route where we’ve put in picnic grounds, evening lighting, fire pits and other facilities We’ll ride out to the spot, let everyone off and do a cocktail party overlooking the river.”
Another option: farm-to-fork trains stopping at Peabody Farms, a prominent supplier of organic produce to restaurants in Sacramento and beyond. “We can do it either as a high-end event or low-key, depending on needs,” Hart says. “Sometimes there’s an elaborate meal, sometimes a tour of the farm and a simple meal.”
Customized beer- and wine-tasting trips are available by request, he adds, along with basic excursions, murder mysteries and dinner trips. The train can accommodate 170 passengers for sit-down meals, 450 or so for informal excursions. “We typically go for two and a half hours; other times we add a mid-trip stop. We have total flexibility.”
Sierra Railroad Company also has added an event site—this one with hiking trails as well as picnic facilities—to its Skunk Train operation out of Willits and Fort Bragg. Look for “rail bikes” to make an appearance this summer.