San Diego a new destination

Torrey Pines State BeachClose your eyes and transport yourself to San Diego in the early ‘80’s. The downtown area is situated on a pristine bay teeming with activity—aircraft carriers in port, fishing vessels returning home with their catch and sailboats on a lazy tack. On land, the quiet little town is simply reflective of its military beginnings. There are a few top-of-the-line hotels, and the San Diego Concourse, with its 64,207-square-feet of exhibit space, provides the city’s primary convention venue. The Concourse is located in the heart of town, but in the San Diego of the early ‘80’s, there isn’t a very strong pulse beat . . . yet.

Fast forward to 1996. Open your eyes and look around, but take your time, because as Reint Reinders, president of San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau describes, “Today’s San Diego isn’t the city of a decade ago. It’s a new destination.”

The waterfront still buzzes with activity and the weather, of course, remains the same—perfect.

Local hotels have been restored and rebuilt. The U.S. Grant, a San Diego institution, reopened in 1986 following an $80 million restoration, and the San Diego Marriott Hotel & Marina has constructed its second tower. Downtown additions include major players such as Hyatt, Wyndham and Doubletree, and world-class resorts spread throughout the county complete the mix.

Horton Plaza, a pastel, multi-colored complex of 140 upscale shops and restaurants, occupies six open-air levels and seems to be at the very heart of this city’s vortex.

The surrounding streets comprise the newly-renovated, yet historic Gaslamp Quarter, with its eclectic assortment of eateries and nightclubs. At the Quarter’s southernmost boundary is the anchor responsible for the city’s renaissance—the San Diego Convention Center.

The 760,000-square-foot waterfront Convention Center opened in November 1989 at a cost of $165 million, and has made the city an “instant destination,” says Carol Wallace, general manager and executive vice president of the San Diego Convention Center Corporation (SDCCC). Since its opening, more than three million people have attended over 1,000 Convention Center events.

Though only six years old, expansion plans with a summer ’98 completion date are already underway. Initial projections indicated that the Center would peak at 15 events annually after five years, yet, according to Wallace, it hosted 47 conventions its first year, and at least that number in each of the following years.

The expansion will double exhibit space to over 525,000 gross square feet of contiguous exhibit space. This addition, doubling the size of the Center to 1.5 million square feet, will allow for back-to-back conventions, as well as simultaneous conventions. “Build it and we will come,” is the message Wallace is receiving from large convention planners.

Wallace has brought to the San Diego Convention Center a level of service which far exceeds the expectations of most convention goers: uniformed front doormen; concierge services and Escoffier service, complete with white-gloved waiters and silver serving trays. “Before, all that was expected was for the hot dogs to be hot and the beer to be cold,” Wallace muses.

In conjunction with the SUPERCOMPUTER convention, the San Diego Convention Center was recently fitted with some 25 miles ($390,000 worth) of fiber optic cable. This 21st century technology allows the Center to provide its clients with satellite uplink and downlink capabilities, Internet access, multi-media teleconferencing and high-speed data transmission.

Apart from these exceptional amenities, perhaps the Center’s greatest draw is its location: overlooking one of the world’s most picturesque harbors and within a one-mile radius of 7,500 hotel rooms. The same can be said of its sister facility, the smaller, more intimate San Diego Concourse—the city’s original convention center.

SAN DIEGO CONCOURSE

In addition to the San Diego Convention Center, the city offers the San Diego Concourse, a multi-purpose facility that hosts 350-400 events annually and just completed a $1.7 million renovation. “It’s an amazing transformation,” says Wallace. “It has the feel and look of an elegant, stately hotel.”

Renovations included the complete redesign of the Concourse’s 10,000-square-foot lobby, with new lighting and acoustics. The 23,000-square-foot Golden Hall was also fully renovated, along with all meeting and exhibit space, and now features a multi-purpose area seating 4,337.

SAN DIEGO INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT-LINDBERGH FIELD

Centrally located just one mile from downtown San Diego, Lindbergh Field will experience a transformation over the next two years, as some 30 improvement projects worth $165 million are accomplished.

Plans include an eight-gate terminal, state-of-the-art baggage handling, a new roadway system with pedestrian overpasses, upgraded parking lots and twice as many exit lanes. The Market Place, another new addition, will offer a distinctive selection of local food and world-class shopping.

CITY TRANSPORTATION

The San Diego Trolley, a light rail transit system, will expand from 35 to 47 miles by January 1998. These bright red cars connect downtown San Diego to the Mexico border and the East County, and link downtown hotels to the Convention Center. The expansion will include stops at San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium and historic Old Town.

The Coaster is a recent addition to the city’s transportation. This commuter train runs 43 miles along the coast, connecting the downtown area with the beach communities. Alternative travel options include open-air trolleys, pedicabs, horse-drawn carriages, water taxis and ferries.

PROPERTY RENOVATIONS

The San Diego area offers some 45,000 hotel rooms, with room rates in the $100-$130 range for a first-class property, and around $200 for the finest resorts—a reasonably-priced destination, says Sandra Butler, the Bureau’s vice president of sales.

But San Diego properties are not content to remain with the status quo, and renovations are ongoing. The San Diego Hilton Beach and Tennis Resort completed a $25 million renovation on target in July 1995. Shelter Island’s Kona Kai Continental Plaza Resort & Marina recently celebrated its gala grand reopening following a two-year, $30 million renovation. In fact, at least 11 Mission Valley properties have undergone $30 million renovations over the past 24 months.

NEW ATTRACTIONS

Opening this summer at the San Diego Zoo is Polar Bear Plunge. This spectacular exhibit will feature two-tiered underwater viewing of the Arctic creatures within a chilled, 125,000-gallon pool.

Another new addition is the ARCO Training Center—the country’s first warm-weather, year-round, multi-sport Olympic training complex—which opened last summer in San Diego’s South Bay.

GROUPS

San Diego has hosted nearly everyone—from skateboarders, elementary school principals and Baptists to 80,000 delegates for an Alcoholics Anonymous convention. So why do such diverse groups choose this destination?

The Bureau’s Reint Reinders says it’s the result of close relationships throughout the city’s tourism infrastructure, from the hotels, to the DMCs, to the transportation companies. “Over the last few years, everyone sees the importance of making this destination click. Everyone’s looking at the same page,” he explains.

This philosophy must work. In January 1996 the city hosted 2,000 meeting planners, representing 78,000 meetings, at the 40th Annual Meeting of the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA). One of the more dynamic moments was the debut of Virtual PCMA, the meeting industry’s first on-demand broadcast network on the Internet, with the San Diego Bureau as the first CVB to appear. According to Sandra Butler, the meeting was such a hit that PCMA’s executive vice president/CEO Roy Evans, Jr., expressed interest in San Diego becoming the permanent host city for the event.

Upcoming events are equally impressive: in July 1998, Meeting Professionals International (MPI), with an estimated attendance of 3,000, will be in San Diego; Super Bowl XXXII will be in San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium in January 1998; and the city’s biggest coup to date is its selection as host of the Republican National Convention (RNC).

Though the dates of the RNC are August 12-15, it will require five to six weeks of set-up for the 30,000 expected to descend on the city. Brad Gessner, RNC event manager/event services director, SDCCC, says the greatest benefit for San Diego is simple. “All the meeting planners, all the decision-makers seeing the event that is usually held in a stadium will think, ‘If they can do that, they can do my event blindfolded.’”

San Diego’s commitment to the meetings industry includes the Bureau’s team of 16 sales managers. Twenty-five percent of their efforts concentrate on citywide conventions; the remainder is focused on groups of all types and sizes.

COMMITMENT TO THE FUTURE

The expansion of the Convention Center is expected to be in tandem with hotel development on the waterfront, explains Reinders. “There is lot of talk about the continued renaissance of downtown, especially retail, but with restaurants and entertainment too.”

Development isn’t isolated to the downtown area. A Four Seasons Hotel in San Diego’s North Coastal region is expected to open in summer 1997 and a major attraction, LEGOLAND, is scheduled to open in 1999.

It is already possible to surf the net for city information by accessing San Diego’s home page at http://www.sandiego.org. Future possibilities include CD-ROM and e-mail as methods of distributing information.

“We may get the information out quicker,” concludes San Diego Bureau president Reinders, “but that won’t change the fact that people still want to meet face to face. Meetings may become an even greater focus.”