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Glamorous gatherings are written in the stars


by Josh Krist
Meetings West, March 2005

Flashy cars, smiling, well-tanned people and celebs where you least expect them. Where else can you bump into Liza Minnelli in an elevator and see Gwyneth Paltrow out shopping? Glamour is the natural resource of Los Angeles, and there's plenty of it to go around. In downtown L.A. and Hollywood attendees can feel like marquee stars while the meeting planner feels like a well-connected, under-budget producer who keeps cranking out the hits.

Downtown Los Angeles

With 8,500 hotel rooms in the area, 720,000 square feet of exhibition space and 147,000 square feet of meeting space at the Los Angeles Convention Center, and a number of hip restaurants and art spaces, downtown Los Angeles is already a stand-alone meetings success. But success usually earns you a sequel in this town, so tourism officials are cheering the next installment in downtown's ongoing revitalization: A mixed-use retail and entertainment complex that will include a convention center headquarters hotel is on the drawing board.

"Here in Los Angeles we're certainly talking about change, and all that has happened in the last couple of years," says Katie Callahan-Giobbi, senior vice president of sales, service and membership for LA Inc., The Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Much of the development has been fueled by the Downtown Center Business Improvement District, and many entrepreneurs are jumping in.

Last year, AEG, the developers and owners of the Staples Center, announced that in addition to a 1,200-room headquarters hotel attached to the convention center, it is building a complete entertainment district called L.A. Live. The district will include live performance venues, movie theaters, television and radio broadcast facilities, retail outlets, and a nightclub.

"When we are through, there will not be a single city that can compete with Los Angeles to land the biggest conventions, the biggest shows and the biggest, most important events," says Timothy Leiweke, president and CEO of AEG.

Highlights of the mega-development include the Nokia Theatre, a 7,000-seat live performance venue; Nokia Plaza, a 40,000-square-foot, open-air plaza; Club Nokia, a stand-alone club able to accommodate up to 2,400 people; numerous restaurants; and 4,000 residential apartments and loft condominiums within three blocks of the district.

The entertainment district will take up to 10 years to complete, and tourism officials are hoping the headquarters hotel will open by the end of 2007.

Another welcome development in downtown Los Angeles is the ever-increasing number of working professionals who call the area home, and almost half of them work downtown as well—a good sign of a neighborhood's health and long-term prospects, says Giobbi-Callahan, noting that there are currently 15,000 residential units in downtown L.A., with 8,000 under development.

"Other things are happening in downtown that complement this whole renaissance," Callahan-Giobbi says. "One is called the Grand Avenue Development, a mixed-use project on Grand Avenue that's going to create another center of activity where people can live and work and play. Those plans are still kind of being formed, but they're saying by 2006 or 2007 they'll have some groundbreaking there as well."

The Walt Disney Concert Hall, which opened in October 2003, is probably the most spectacular new attraction in the area. Designed by noted architect Frank Gehry, the building seems to flow into place and never stand still.

"Housed in that same complex is the Red Cat Theatre, an incredibly cutting-edge performing arts venue where the same acoustician who did the interior of the Disney Concert Hall did the interior here, so they have amazing acoustics," Callahan-Giobbi says. "Also, the highest ticket price is $40, which is a great bargain for live theater."

For culture lovers interested in arts of a culinary nature, Patina is also housed in the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Relocated from the upscale Westside—as are many of the downtown residents—the restaurant is famous for its classic ambiance and traditional French and American cuisine.

"It's really an amazing restaurant," Callahan-Giobbi says.

The Patina group operates 10 restaurants in downtown L.A., where a burgeoning restaurant and nightlife scene is well supported by a variety of meeting facilities.

In addition to the Los Angeles Convention Center, the area has two meetings-friendly hotels: the Millennium Biltmore and the Westin Bonaventure.

The 683-room Millennium Biltmore Hotel has been hosting on-screen and on-throne royalty since 1923. Boasting 70,000 square feet of meeting and banquet space, the hotel opened in 1923 and has the bygone elegance of a simpler time burnished into its Spanish Italian Renaissance interior decor. The Oscar statue is said to have been sketched on a napkin in the property's Crystal Ballroom in 1927, and many of the statues were handed out at Academy Awards ceremonies in the hotel in the 1930s and 1940s.

The Westin Bonaventure Hotel & Suites offers 1,354 rooms, including 41 hospitality suites ranging in size from 360 square feet to 2,500 square feet. In addition, the hotel has 110,000 square feet of meeting space, including a 26,000-square-foot ballroom.

"Both of these hotels are close enough to the convention center to be walkable," Callahan-Giobbi says. "We also have a small bus system called DASH that costs 25 cents and runs all the time on weekdays."

For longer trips to different areas of the city, Los Angeles sports a world-class subway system. For $1.25 per trip or a $3 all-day pass, attendees can take the Red Line that runs from downtown to Hollywood in 15 minutes, and they can continue on to North Hollywood and Universal Studios. The Blue Line runs from downtown to Long Beach; the Green Line runs from Redondo Beach to LAX and Norwalk; and the new Gold Line runs from downtown to scenic Pasadena.

Meanwhile, downtown L.A.'s California Science Center recently opened a new 9,000-square-foot indoor atrium that can accommodate up to 900 people. With the new facility, the Science Center now has 240,000 square feet of space and can host 800 people for banquets, 4,000 guests for receptions and 720 people theater style.

"The new space is a major renovation that we opened in September 2004," says Chris Sion, vice president of event services at the center. "This project is in the old Historic Armory Building. It's all brick with columns on the outside, but on the inside there's this wow factor. During the day it's a professional development center for science teachers, but at night it becomes this amazing event space. It wasn't built as an event space, but it looks like it."

Hollywood

From the Walk of Fame to movie premieres to the most famous billboard in the world, Hollywood is all about star power. Officials here say that if planners give the area a chance, they'll soon be singing Hooray for Hollywood!

"With a lot of new restaurants and nightclubs, celebrities are hanging out in Hollywood," says Kaylee Kiecker, director of special events and tourism for the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. "The city has put a lot of money into rebuilding and cleaning up the area, and it's now a great place to be at night. We've got Jimmy Kimmel Live, who does his show at night, so that brings a lot of people into Hollywood at night."

The mecca for movie premieres is Grauman's Chinese Theatre, and it's been said that to go to Los Angeles and not visit the theater is like going to China and not seeing the Great Wall. The courtyard area has the foot and hand imprints of famous stars, and the theater offers a VIP lounge, daily backstage VIP tours and a list of upcoming premieres. Tickets are impossible to score for non-industry types, but attendees may appreciate the chance to gaze at their favorite celebrities on the red carpet.

"There are always movie premieres in Hollywood and a lot of activity," Kiecker says. "There has been more of a police presence added—it's a safer place to be. A lot of the areas have created Business Improvement Districts, so that there's proper lighting, and the streets are clean and safe for the visitors. It's a hot place to be for the in crowd."

Hollywood also boasts hotels with ample meeting space that any group would be happy to call home.

"We've got two premier hotels here in Hollywood: the Renaissance and the Roosevelt," Kiecker says. "The Renaissance is a very high-tech, state-of-the-art hotel, whereas the Roosevelt is the home of the first Oscar ceremony and is just dripping with nostalgia. So you've got two types of space here in Hollywood to plan your meeting."

The Renaissance Hollywood Hotel is the cornerstone of the Hollywood & Highland mixed-use retail and entertainment destination that debuted in November 2001. The complex was designed to look like the sets of one of the historical epics that Tinsel Town produced in its glory days and lives up to the "city within a city" hype, with two nightclubs, the Mann Chinese 6 Cinemas (located next to Grauman's Chinese Theatre), a bowling alley, eight restaurants, and more shopping than you can shake a credit card at.

Situated next to the Kodak Theatre—the new home of the Academy Awards—the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel is already a mainstay after only three-plus years of operation. The 637-room property features 50,000 square feet of indoor meeting space and the acclaimed Twist restaurant, and it offers catering by Wolfgang Puck for group events.

The 302-room Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel bills itself as Hollywood's only historic hotel that is still open for business. The property recently underwent major renovations to its guest rooms and meeting areas. The home of the very first Academy Awards (1929), the hotel was built for an unheard of $2.5 million by Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and other Hollywood luminaries. The property now has 18,000 square feet of meeting space, and even though the setting is historic, the technology is state-of-the-art, with high-speed wireless Internet and modern lighting and audiovisual equipment.

Other projects are planned for the city, including a 300-room W hotel set to up the cool factor and available rooms in Hollywood at the Hollywood & Vine Project, another major mixed-use development on the drawing boards.

"There has been about $1 billion put into the revitalization of Hollywood and a projected additional $1 billion to go in," Kiecker says. "It's really made an impact on the community and on L.A. as a whole."

Besides venues such as historic theaters, groups can stage events at unique facilities such as the House of Blues Sunset Strip, which offers foot-stompin' music and Southern-inspired cuisine for private groups of up to 1,400 people. Sunday's Gospel Brunch is a one-of-a-kind live music show and buffet dining experience—can we hear an "amen?"

Meanwhile, three miles north of town is Universal Studios Hollywood, which is opening a Fear Factor attraction in May. The theme park/movie studio is available for group buyouts, and attendees in the audience can volunteer for a "challenge." At press time, the challenges that would make up the Fear Factor attraction hadn't been announced, so stay tuned. Events at Universal Studios Hollywood offer some only-in-L.A. experiences, such as faux Oscar ceremonies complete with red carpets and paparazzi; cocktail parties on the back lot, where many movies have been shot; or private studio tours that will have attendees leaving with stars in their eyes.

If meetings were movies, then planners would be the producers, and the savvy planner who leveraged all downtown L.A. and Hollywood have to offer would certainly be in the running for an Oscar come Academy Awards time.
 
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