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The Group Travel Leader Going on Faith Select Traveler

Golden State Charm

Meeting planners don’t have to visit San Francisco or Los Angeles to take advantage of first-class lodging and meeting spaces in California. Many small towns in the state offer big-city amenities alongside small-town charm, a taste of history and culture, epic backdrops and fun outdoor recreation.

Consider some of these smaller destinations for your next California event.

South Lake Tahoe

South Lake Tahoe sits right on the border of California and Nevada, blending seamlessly into the town of Stateline on the Nevada side. Meeting planners that want to take advantage of the large casinos and meeting spaces on the Nevada side can do so quite easily, even if their groups stay on the California side. Both sides have access to beautiful Lake Tahoe, known for its crystal-clear chilly water and its preponderance of outdoor activities.

“We’re not only a mountain destination,” said Stuart Maas, sales and marketing manager for the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority. “Because we straddle the border with California and Nevada, we have day and night activities, casinos and a newly revamped downtown area, Heavenly Village. Because we are known as America’s playground, a recreation mecca, we have really fun off-site activities and unique venues attendees can book.”

The largest meeting spaces on the California side reside in the Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel, with its 10,000 square feet of meeting space, and in Edgewood Tahoe, a lakefront resort with 154 rooms and 8,000 square feet of meeting space. South Lake Tahoe has a total of 10,000 beds. The area offers many unusual off-site activities. Meeting planners can book an event on the MS Dixie II, which takes guests on daytime scenic and sunset cruises around Lake Tahoe, or plan teambuilding activities like paddleboard yoga, rides on the 2.4-mile-long Heavenly Mountain Gondola, skiing the mountain or doing a ropes course. Watersports are also popular with groups.


Ukiah is the largest town in Mendocino County and a great jumping-off point to see northern California’s towering redwoods and sample locally grown wines. The area sits in one of California’s best wine-growing regions. Meeting planners can choose from more traditional meeting hotels in the area, or they can host a retreat at more rustic properties, like the Bell Valley Retreat at the Toll House in Boonville or Campovida Hopland, a farm and winery that offers retreat space. Ukiah itself has a small conference center that can host groups of up to 300 people right in the heart of downtown.

“It is really walkable and accessible to dining and retail shops,” said Travis Scott, executive director of Visit Mendocino County. There are 1,200 lodge rooms in the area, including chain properties like the Hampton Inn, Best Western, and Comfort Inn and Suites.

Mendocino County is also renowned for its wines, and the “farm-to-table food scene is outrageous,” he said.

Nearby Anderson Valley has about 40 wine-tasting rooms open to the public. A ride on the 150-year-old Skunk Train, an old logging railroad that takes visitors through the old-growth redwood trees, is a great group excursion. Meeting group attendees can also take time off from their conferences to ride two-person rail bikes down the tracks. These offer power assist just in case attendees don’t have the stamina for the ride.

“It is a spectacular experience and fun to do,” said Scott. Ukiah also is the gateway to two state parks that protect the area’s redwood forests.

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is a beach community that prides itself on not being overcommercialized. There are no chain restaurants in the area, and the city has a building height limit that helps maintain the area’s breathtaking ocean views.

“While we have the amenities of a bigger community, with arts and culture, activities and recreation, we don’t have that big-city feel,” said Beth Olson, director of sales for Visit Santa Barbara.

Santa Barbara’s 80 hotels have 5,349 total rooms, and about 30 of the hotels have meeting space. The hotels range from more independent properties like the San Ysidro Ranch, where the Kennedys honeymooned, to large chain properties like the Hilton or the Ritz-Carlton. The Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront and the Ritz-Carlton Bacara Santa Barbara both have 11,000-square-foot ballrooms that can host events for up to 1,200 people. Most of the resorts and hotels in the area can comfortably host midsize groups of 75 to 150 people. Beautiful outdoor venues with fabulous views of the Pacific Ocean and the nearby mountains are also available throughout Santa Barbara.

Moxi, the Wolf Museum of Exploration and Innovation, which is two blocks from the waterfront, is a unique off-site venue with a charming rooftop space. The mural room at the historic courthouse, which is covered with floor-to-ceiling murals that tell the story of the founding of Santa Barbara, is a great spot for smaller groups. Group wine-tasting trips, whalewatching excursions, and teambuilding activities like sailing regattas and guided kayaking tours of Santa Barbara’s sheltered harbor are also available.


With its four wooden windmills and Danish architecture, Solvang is a perfect place to immerse oneself in Danish food and culture. The area is compact, and it’s easy to walk from any of the area’s hotels and resorts to the kitschy downtown shops, local eateries and wine-tasting rooms.

The area has 867 lodge rooms, many of them at more intimate properties. The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort is a working dude ranch with indoor and outdoor event spaces that can accommodate up to 250 guests. Groups like to rent out the entire property, which includes two 18-hole championship golf courses, 100 quarter horses and 50 miles of riding trails, 73 premium guest suites and a fleet of boats and watercraft that can go out on the property’s private lake. Teambuilding activities include ropes courses, fishing derbies and table tennis matches.

Hotel Corque and its sister property, the Chumash Casino Resort, both have meeting rooms for private events. Hotel Corque has 122 guest rooms and can host up to 300 people. K’Syrah Catering and Events is a 3,500-square-foot meeting venue with a rustic wood-lined dining room, a bar, an outdoor garden and an enclosed patio for smaller meetings and board retreats.

The area is surrounded by vineyards that offer off-site private events, and the Santa Ynez Guest Ranch cottages at Flying Flags RV Resort and Campground are great for small group retreats. Each cottage can hold six guests, and amenities include a pool and bocce ball courts.

Nevada City

Founded as a gold-mining town during the height of the California gold rush in 1849, Nevada City retains its Old West charm, with narrow streets and wooden storefronts. Situated on the Western Slope of the Sierra Nevada, the town is surrounded by forest. The small town is excellent for small meetings or events, with several boutique hotels and bed-and-breakfasts from which to choose.

Two of the area’s most historic and largest hotel properties, the National Exchange Hotel and the Holbrooke, are both being renovated. The National is scheduled to reopen by the end of the year.

The Northern Queen Inn has 55 rooms, eight cabins, eight two-story chalets, a ballroom and meeting space in old trolley cars. In nearby Grass Valley, a couple of larger hotel options with meeting space are available, including the Grass Valley Courtyard Suites, which has 42 guest rooms and 1,400 square feet of meeting space in a historic brewery building, and the Gold Miners Inn, which has six distinct meeting spaces, including a 2,215-square-foot grand ballroom and a 3,500-square-foot event patio. The Gold Miners Inn is near the Empire Mine State Historic Park, one of the oldest and richest gold mines in California. The mine operated for more than 100 years. Now visitors can tour many of the mine’s buildings, the owner’s home and the restored gardens.

For something completely different, groups hosting meetings in the area should consider glamping at Nevada City’s Inn Town Campground, which has 18 posh glamping tents to choose from. The site offers guided history hikes, outdoor movies, crafting and nightly campfires.