Northern California: Sea to Sky Meetings

In our March/April 2013 issue, explored three regions in California and learned what’s new for meetings and incentives in the Golden State. The following covers Northern California. 

See other sections: Central California and Southern California

It’s no secret that California is a land of plenty when it comes to the number and variety of activities, attractions and venue options for meetings. After all, with 840 miles of scenic coastline, rugged mountain ranges, fertile valleys, 300+ state/national parks, famous wine regions and world class cities, in a climate that runs from Mediterranean mild to snowy Alpine, there’s something for everyone.

“Sometimes meeting planners get overwhelmed because they didn’t realize the magnitude of the experiences available,” says Gordon Thompson CMP/DMCP, president/CEO of DMC Cappa & Graham in San Francisco. “California is absolutely unique as a destination. We can do anything here. Just recently I was surfing in Santa Cruz in the morning and was knee deep in snow Friday evening in Tahoe. And how many cities beat San Francisco from a destination point of view?”

For meeting planners, a easier approach is to break it down: city experiences on one hand, and countryside resort options on the other. Both are found in abundance in California, often in close proximity to the other. And of course, combining both urban and outdoor experiences can be as easy as a short bus ride across the Golden Gate Bridge.

“Our groups can be sleeping in the Four Seasons in downtown at night, experiencing zero gravity in the morning —a cool and super high-end program—and be in wine country in the evening,” says Thompson. “They can have a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and then it gets eclipsed by something else…. Biking across Golden Gate Bridge, having a lunch arranged in Sausalito, taking the ferry back and shopping the fine food shops in the Ferry Building—that makes for an unbelievable day.”

He also advises groups to stay where they want to do most of their activities. For those who prefer wine, food or golf, he recommends the resort-friendly Napa Valley.

“There are so many wineries and varietals, that you can always enjoy a wine-themed meeting here,” he says. Besides wine tastings, Thompson recommends groups blend their own wines. “Sales people love it because they get to pitch their wine to a panel, and some of these people are very creative, which can be really fun.”


Where’s the best place to start a meetings tour of California? How about on the frosted summit at Northstar California ski resort, overlooking stunning views of the valley and North Lake Tahoe. With 20 downhill and cross-country ski centers around the lake, the largest such concentration in North America, groups can all but ski-in, ski-out from their meeting room.

While the slopes are king here, planners may be surprised by the number of other activities available, many of which can be tied to teambuilding programs. Dog sled tours and racing, broomball, snowshoeing, ice skating at the Olympic Ice Pavilion, wall climbing, snow tubing, snowmobiling and horse-drawn sleigh rides are all popular in winter. While summer activities go well beyond the many golf courses, including adventure geocaching, fly fishing, mountain biking, hiking and horseback riding through alpine meadows and forests.

While Tahoe offers the ultimate nature getaway for groups, there’s also plenty of city amenities available in places like the Village at Squaw Valley and the Village at Northstar. A range of spa treatments and wellness classes are found here, from post-ski massages and yoga to shopping, group dining and an active après-ski nightlife at several bars and clubs.

Three hours down I-80, Napa Valley is easily accessible from anywhere in Northern California, and the jewel in the region’s crown of destinations.

“It’s a spectacularly beautiful place,” says Clay Gregory, president/CEO of Visit Napa Valley. “We have more Michelin stars than any other wine region in the world—12 to be exact— and the only 3-star restaurants with the French Laundry and the Restaurant at Meadowood Resort, and very much unknown arts collections with more than 60 wineries having permanent or rotating exhibits.”

With the resurgence of downtown Napa over the last decade, groups can meet and play here without ever having to set foot in a tour van, where food and wine is the main attraction and eating is the number one activity.

“A group can stay in Napa and never have to leave,” says Gregory. “And now there’s at least 22 tasting rooms downtown. Everything is within walking distance.”

That includes the Oxbow Public Market featuring 10 restaurants, wine, cheese and fine food merchants, while group dining options along the revitalized riverfront run from popular Cole’s Chop House and Morimoto Napa to Michelin-rated Celadon, which hosts groups up to 75 on its garden terrace.

Next door from Celadon, the 66-room Napa River Inn offers 2,000 sf of meeting space inside the historic Napa Mill warehouse. There’s a warm country inn charm with floral motifs, antique furnishings, earthy reds and exposed brick walls. Making a splash as the newest, and hippest, property downtown, the 141-room Andaz Napa houses 2,500 sf of meeting space. Its artsy, cosmopolitan style brings the best of urbane LA or SF to the cool vibe of NorCal wine country.

Similar in style, combining contemporary design and retro winery architecture, the 62-room Bardessono offers 2,000 sf of meeting space. General manager Jim Treadway says, “It’s modern with lots of wood and iron on a 7-acre site in Yountville, designed to feel remote, private and exclusive.”

For teambuilding, Gregory recommends some type of food education during your meeting. For example, the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone has a full program of cooking demos and classes. The Fatted Calf Charcuterie offers classes in whole hog butchery and salami making.


Less than an hour from Napa’s many sun-splashed vineyards, the 313-room Hyatt at Fisherman’s Wharf on San Francisco Bay offers both seclusion and easy access to the attractions and activities of the fabled Wharf, like Bay tours, sunset cruises and deep-sea fishing excursions. The hotel also just unveiled its renovated 19,000 sf of meeting space.

“The new décor is designed to reflect the hotel’s proximity to the waterfront,” says GM Matt Humphrey of the modern motifs, shimmery silvers and sandy browns. “The colors, images and furnishings are reminiscent of that.”

Look west from Fisherman’s Wharf on a clear day, and you’ll notice a shining white structure in the green hills across the Bay. Surrounded by a phalanx of palm trees, the historic Claremont Hotel Club & Spa in Berkeley, with 279 rooms and 30,000 sf of meeting space, has been a Bay Area landmark since it first opened in 1915. The classic furnishings and wood-paneled spaciousness of its interior suggests elegant, post-gold rush California, while the blue and gold color scheme reveals its deep ties with the nearby University of California, Berkeley.

“It’s iconic charm at an urban retreat,” says Adrian Larick, director of sales/marketing. “But we want our guests to feel it’s contemporary enough and feel comfortable.”

Larick says resort is designed to cater to all of a group’s post-session needs, including group spa treatments, 10 USTA tennis courts, and Zumba and belly dance classes. Onsite restaurants include Meritage or Paragon, or groups can venture out for dine-arounds at Berkeley’s famed gourmet ghetto, which includes Chef Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse.

At the south end of the Bay Area, San Jose is home to a host of tech industry titans, but there’s more going on here than just business. The city is also a burgeoning cultural hub, unknow to many national groups.

“Attendees love that downtown San Jose is laid out like a cultural campus, so they can walk to all the performing arts venues, from Broadway to ballet,” says Meghan Horrigan, spokesperson for Team San Jose.

Downtown groups with an appreciation for history opt for Hotel De Anza, a classic 10-story hotel with 100 rooms and 2,400 sf of meeting space. The property features a contemporary Mediterranean style with a nod to its 1930s origins—neon rooftop sign included—yet with thoroughly modern guest rooms and spa-like bathrooms.

One advantage to San Jose’s location is its proximity to area attractions, including an often overlooked but superb wine region on the slopes of the Santa Cruz mountains. Ridge Vineyards produces some of the best wines in California, while The Mountain Winery caters to group meetings and events.