In the world of meetings and events, there are as many reasons to gather as there are venues, from the casual team building effort to the critical annual all hands. But even among high-stakes get togethers, meetings that aim to chart the future of the human race are rare.
Technology entrepreneur, investor, and engineer Elon Musk attended such a meeting in January 2017. “We’re headed toward either superintelligence or civilization ending,” said Musk, during a panel discussion at the Beneficial AI 2017 conference, organized by the Future of Life Institute at the Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, California. Musk, alongside other thinkers, including futurists like Google’s director of engineering Ray Kurzweil and Oxford University professor Nick Bostrom, aimed to answer a critical question. “What is the world we’d like to be in where there is this digital superintelligence?” While the 100 or so attendees of the conference didn’t quite solve that puzzle, the group did set 23 Asilomar AI Principles to guide future research in artificial intelligence.
These principles were just the latest to arise from numerous agenda-setting scientific conclaves that have been held in Monterey County, one of California’s most in-demand destinations for truly forward-looking meetings. Back in 1975, the Asilomar Conference Grounds hosted a breakthrough gathering of around 150 scientists who came to debate the future and ethics of the then-nascent field of genetic engineering. Organized by Paul Berg, who’d go on to win the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1980, the conference not only set scientific standards for biomedical research but also helped redefine the way researchers interact with the public.
But what do these high-minded events have to do with more earthbound meetings? Plenty. Recent scientific studies have determined that when people visit new and inspiring destinations, they really do come up with more creative and innovative ideas than they would’ve otherwise, according to a number of researchers. It’s also true that connecting attendees with nature can have a measurable impact on creativity and productivity during an event, according to researchers at the University of California, San Diego. No matter the subject of the meeting, whether an internal team gathering or a conference on the future of artificial intelligence, those places that offer fresh environments and proximity to stunning natural beauty should be top of mind for planners.
Small wonder then that Monterey County, with its beautiful natural setting and forward-thinking venues, is a place where countless innovations have been born, whether it’s the breakthrough that led to the Macintosh computer or a framework for the future of AI. Those same assets are likewise what makes it such a popular choice among meeting planners looking to tap into the destination’s creative potential.
How Monterey County Makes Meetings Innovational
“Monterey is a hot place for us right now,” said Gail Stein, a strategic sourcing manager at BCD Meetings & Events. “It just has so much to offer with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and activities outside the hotels, as well as properties that like to think outside the box and get creative in their spaces.”
The combination of things to do and creative venues have led to some highly innovational meetings and events, Stein said. “Hotels like La Playa Carmel have some really cool outdoor venues where you can take your food functions outside, do a cooking demonstration, or walk from the hotel to downtown. One of my groups did an art walk progressive dinner: apps at one place, then the main course elsewhere, and dessert was in an art gallery — we partner up with hotels on these sorts of programs that are like a city tour.”
The combination of amenities in Monterey County makes the destination particularly compelling, said Danielle Restaino, a meeting planner at Genentech. “There are hotels that suit every budget range, every specific group personality, and then you have the total destination. It’s walkable, so you can meet all day long and then everyone can find, within blocks, dozens of places to go enjoy their evening.” Properties like the recently renovated Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel & Spa, for example, offer golf, tennis, and two swimming pools, all within a five-minute car ride (or 20-minutes walk) of downtown Monterey.
The wellness options are rich as well, said Restaino. “One of the trends we’re increasingly seeing in meetings, and I know we try and focus on, is making sure we’re providing a balance of wellness and healthy options for attendees that do have a little bit of free time. And there’s nowhere better than the Monterey Peninsula area for that. You can jump on a bike or in a kayak, go for a hike or a swim. There’s so much there.”
What Monterey County Offers That Few Can Match
Indeed, the destination has more than 220 lodging facilities and over 12,000 rooms with a variety of meeting-ready venues that accommodate anywhere from 10 to 3,000 people, including Asilomar, the Monterey Conference Center, and the Sunset Cultural Center. The destination is also home to the Esalen Institute, the famed resort and event center along the Big Sur coast that’s drawn countercultural luminaries and influential thinkers since its founding in 1962.
“Esalen is about curating meaningful experiences,” said Cheryl Fraenzl, its director of programs. “It could be something in the workshops that is speaking to [visitors] or it could be simply being here in nature — on this land — that’s transformational for them.”
On the opposite end of the stillness spectrum, yet just as experiential, is WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, the famed motorsports track that’s now a year-round attraction. Part of the county-managed Laguna Seca Recreation Area, the facility has unique meeting and events space that can accommodate hundreds of attendees and truly exhilarating options for team building.
Beyond those biggies, “there’s a huge variety of properties to choose from,” said Stein, the sourcing manager, including Carmel Valley Ranch and the InterContinental The Clement Monterey, and Bernardus Lodge, where “they do a really cool wine tasting experience,” she added. “We have repeat customers that go there year after year.”
New Innovations at an Scientific Institution
One of the best places to get up close to the coast is also one of the region’s most iconic attractions. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has, since its founding in 1984, gone from cutting-edge science center to global brand, known as much for its impossibly cute sea otters as its influential Seafood Watch program that helps consumers identify sustainable ingredients. The institution is also a pivotal member of the Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau’s Sustainable Moments Collective, a group of businesses and public utilities with the shared goal of maintaining the region as a sustainable destination. The group, which also counts the city of Carmel-by-the-Sea and Monterey’s Portola Hotel & Spa among its participants, is the first of its kind in California.
And while the Aquarium, like Monterey County more generally, is a leader in sustainability, it’s also one of the region’s most incredible event venues, with a reputation for evocative spaces — jellyfish displays, an outdoor deck with views of passing humpback whales — and working collaboratively with event planners to develop creative programs.
“I can’t say enough about the aquarium,” said Ross Hutchings, the executive director of the California Self Storage Association who has, in a variety of roles, been planning events in Monterey for decades. “I’ve taken groups there to do the behind the scenes tour, which is fabulous. And we’ve done evening events with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres with string quartets, while looking at the jellyfish, which is phenomenal.”
It’s those types of only-in-Monterey experiences that become the memories that attendees take home, Hutchings said. When it comes to meetings, “everybody wants to be efficient,” he said. “But I think the younger generation is looking for something different, because everything is so technologically connected and impersonal today. Everything is done via Instagram or Facebook, or texting or email. So they’re craving something that gives them a real experience. We’ve seen that trend in vacations, and I think meetings need to play into that as well.”