‘Happiness Is’ San Diego

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‘Happiness Is’ San Diego

By Rich Luna | Sep 15, 2021

There’s a bit of a bounce in San Diego’s step these days.

“America’s Finest City” has begun the recovery of its meeting and event industry by welcoming back face-to-face business meetings.

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to create challenges, Julie Coker (MPI San Diego Chapter), president and CEO of the San Diego Tourism Authority, says she is incredibly optimistic about the recovery of meeting and convention business in San Diego.

“I think it is clear to everyone now that there is just no replacement for face-to-face meetings,” she says. “We here in San Diego have proven again and again that we can safely host meetings and conventions while still delivering the experience and service our customers have come to expect. Because of its weather and ability to hold events outdoors year-round, San Diego is better positioned than most destinations to recover sooner and faster.”

That’s welcome news for Coker, who arrived in her role in San Diego in June of last year, just months after the pandemic brought the global meeting industry to a halt. But if anyone was positioned to lead the San Diego effort, it was Coker, who brought with her more than 16 years of experience at the Philadelphia CVB, including nearly five as president and CEO.

“I think it is clear to everyone now that there is just no replacement for face-to-face meetings.”

She says the transition to San Diego was challenging, with learning the new job while getting accustomed to the new environment.

Coker developed and deployed a $400,000, multi-layered program called the “Happiness Is” campaign designed to connect leisure advertising and highlight all of San Diego’s attributes as a meeting destination. Another plus: San Diego has one of the highest vaccination rates in the U.S., with more than 85 percent of eligible residents having received at least one dose and more than 75 percent fully vaccinated.

“We really were able to come together as a team to help San Diego begin its recovery,” Coker says. “San Diego has been one of the top two or three performing destinations in the country since May in terms of occupancy and average daily rates. While leisure has been fueling much of that performance, we know that meeting planners and attendees love San Diego for the same reasons that people who vacation do—our near-perfect weather, our natural beauty, our variety of experiences and our warm and hospitable spirit.”

The city’s convention center welcomed SPIE Optics + Photonics in early August—the center’s first event since the start of the pandemic. Later in August, the city hosted the American Kennel Club’s Meet the Breeds event, the UA of Plumbing and Pipe Fitting General Convention and the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons annual meeting. There are more than 20 events scheduled through 2021, along with events at hotels.

“The pandemic continues to impact the size and scope of meetings, but we have proven that we can hold meetings and conventions safely and responsibly in San Diego,” Coker says.

Ready for business

The return of business meetings is welcome news for Town and Country, a landmark resort in San Diego’s Mission Valley for more than 60 years and the first resort hotel conference center in the city. The property’s recent $90 million renovation spanned its 25 acres and nearly 300,000 square feet of meeting space, all 675 guest rooms, three new dining outlets and a new sun-drenched pool deck with a zero-entry family pool, a hot tub, a children’s pool and the four-story “Twister” waterslide. The property also features the brand-new, three-acre Riverfront Park.

The renovations included the property’s meeting and event space, which includes five ballrooms, the largest being the 40,000-square-foot Golden State Ballroom. In all there are more than 40 meeting spaces, an 80,000-square-foot exhibit hall and nearly a dozen outside spaces that can accommodate meeting attendees.

“It’s very, very exciting to see the transformation,” says April Shute, vice president and area managing director at Town and County. “We are a California classic reborn. It’s truly a transformation in the meeting space. The renovation was created to build upon a legacy that will guide the property for the next 60 years.”

The renovation involved demolishing and rebuilding 70% of the resort, or 25 buildings, and the addition of a significant amount of outdoor meeting space—a much-needed asset in the era of social distancing. The largest space is the Flamingo Lawn with 6,720 square feet.

The transformation is resonating with meeting planners.

“We are hearing a great deal of excitement in (meeting planners’) voices, especially those who have been here in the past,” Shute says. “They’re shocked at the transformation. People are very, very excited because there aren’t a lot of resorts out there that have 290,000 square feet of meeting space.”

She is also proud of the food and beverage upgrades, led by Executive Chef John Shelton. The property has opened five new dining outlets with the renovation including ARLO, the resort’s signature standalone destination restaurant led by Chef Josh Mouzakes.

“I am very optimistic that the back half of ‘21 will be great, and I think ‘22 is going to be an incredible year,” Shute says. “We are seeing a lot of leads come in as we speak. We have a very good pace. We came off of a few years of construction, heavy construction, and then COVID hit.

“This has been a tough year for this industry. We’ve really never seen anything like this. I think the takeaway is you learn a great deal of patience and you learn to look forward to the future and plan very, very carefully and know that, as I was telling my team a few months ago, every day, we’re one step closer to the end of this.”

That aligns with Coker’s optimism.

“Everything we are hearing is positive,” she says. “(Meeting planners) and their attendees want to come here. The feedback from the conventions and meetings that we’ve already hosted has been glowing. Those customers recognize the work we have put in as a destination to ensure their attendees’ safety at every point of their visit.”

Photos courtesy Town and Country Resort and John Bahu, San Diego Tourism Authority.



Rich Luna

Rich Luna is Director of Publishing for MPI and Editor-in-chief of The Meeting Professional.