From desert spas to Disneyland, Southern California provides insurance executives with a range of activities for their groups. Year-round warm weather means attendees can always hit the golf courses. The Palm Springs area alone has more than 90 courses. Harbors up and down the coast offer dinner and sightseeing cruises. Even the sky is fair game, with hot-air ballooning one of the desert's most exhilarating diversions.

Back on terra firma, Southern California's cities are pushing on with infrastructure improvements. Long Beach is building the 120,000-square-foot Aquarium of the Pacific, which will be a centerpiece of its waterfront renovation when it opens in 1998.

San Diego and Anaheim are scheduled to break ground this year on convention center expansions, projects that are likely to spur additional hotel development. The Anaheim Convention Center expansion is part of a sweeping revitalization, currently under way, that also includes roadway, signage, and landscaping improvements in the vicinity of the convention center and Disneyland.

The Walt Disney Company will be investing more than $1 billion in the construction of a separate, 55-acre theme park, Disney's California Adventure, just to the south of Disneyland. The new park will celebrate the state's diversity and include a 750-room hotel, the Grand Californian. Neither the park nor the hotel has broken ground; however, Walt Disney Company is projecting that both will be complete by 2001.

The only other resort property under construction at the moment in Southern California is the 331-room Four Seasons Resort at Aviara, north of San Diego.

The virtual standstill in hotel construction tips the supply/demand ratio against executives looking to book meetings. Research firm PKF Consulting projects that hotel occupancies will continue to creep up in 1997-to 72 percent in San Diego and 74 percent in Orange County.

On the upside, because the area has one of the nation's largest concentrations of upscale resort hotels, the ensuing competition can give corporate executives a bargaining edge.

Hotel News San Diego The Four Seasons Resort at Aviara, about 30 miles north of San Diego in Carlsbad, is scheduled to open in July. It will have 331 guest rooms, ballrooms of 12,000 and 4,000 square feet, and nine smaller meeting rooms. Amenities will include a spa, a free-form swimming pool, six tennis courts, and a business center. An 18-hole Arnold Palmer-designed golf course is already open.

The San Diego Port Commission has endorsed a plan to develop more than 2,000 hotel rooms along the bayfront in downtown San Diego. Plans include the addition of at least 500 guest rooms to both the Hyatt Regency San Diego and the San Diego Marriott Hotel & Marina, the closest hotels to the expanding San Diego Convention Center. The other proposal is for a 1,000-room hotel and marina complex to be built by Campbell Shipyards on Eighth Avenue, near the convention center.

The San Diego Hilton Beach & Tennis Resort has opened a full-service spa. The addition follows the Mission Bay property's $25 million renovation, which included all 357 guest rooms and 16,000 square feet of meeting space.

The Hyatt Regency San Diego has opened the Gallery, a converted art showroom that offers 1,500 square feet of meeting and banquet space.

La Casa del Zorro Desert Resort and Tennis Club, a 77-room property in Borrego Springs, was scheduled to complete a new 2,900-square-foot conference center in March.

Anaheim/Orange County The Anaheim Hilton and Towers, adjacent to the Anaheim Convention Center, began an $18.5 million renovation in September. The project, due for completion in the spring, involves redecorating meeting space and all 1,576 guest rooms.

The Radisson Plaza Hotel in Irvine has been reflagged the Orange County Airport Hilton. The 289-room property has 30,000 square feet of meeting and ballroom space.

Concierge-level guests at the Disneyland Pacific Hotel now have a fitness center, business center, and lounge at their convenience. The hotel, purchased a year ago by the Walt Disney Company, has 502 guest rooms.

Los Angeles County The 300-room Hotel Nikko Beverly Hills has unveiled eight suites with separate meeting/dining areas and high-tech amenities such as dual phone lines, fax machines, modem ports, CD players, and built-in speakers.

Last year, as part of a $6 million renovation, the Omni Los Angeles Hotel & Centre renovated its 900 guest rooms and expanded its fitness center. A previously announced project to add a conference center has been put on hold.

The new owners of the Westin Bon-aventure Hotel and Suites are spending $8 million to renovate the 1,868-room property in downtown Los Angeles. The work is scheduled to be completed by late 1997.

The Ritz-Carlton, Huntington Hotel, in Pasadena has opened a 20,000-square-foot exhibit hall and a 5,500-square-foot cottage for use as a retreat. A full-service spa is now being developed.

Last August, the 374-room Renaissance Long Beach Hotel completed a $4 million renovation that included guest rooms and its 14,000 square feet of meeting space.

Santa Barbara Fess Parker's Red Lion Resort completed a $5 million renovation of its 337 non-suite guest rooms last spring; the 23 suites will be finished this quarter. The property will soon change its name to reflect the merger of the Red Lion and Doubletree chains.

At the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort, the 18-hole, Billy Bell-designed Ranch Golf Course is undergoing refurbishment. The project, which includes reconstructing the greens to meet USGA standards, is expected to be complete by April 1. The Alisal also has two new buildings in its Adobe Camp. Set for completion late this year, the buildings will be used as small meeting sites and will contain displays of historical artifacts and area wildlife information.

Palm Springs Marcus Hotels and Resorts acquired the 226-room Erawan Garden Resort in Indian Wells last summer. The resort was immediately closed and is now undergoing an extensive renovation that will double its meeting space to about 10,000 square feet. A new name for the resort is forthcoming. The resort is slated to reopen November 1.

Last March, 640-room La Quinta Resort & Club opened the $7.1 million Salon de Flores, a 16,000-square-foot ballroom that increased meeting space to 66,000 square feet. Other major properties that have recently renovated guest rooms: the 512-room Westin Mission Hills Resort and the 889-room Marriott's Desert Springs Resort and Spa in Palm Desert.

The 410-room Wyndham Palm Springs Hotel, adjacent to the Palm Springs Convention Center, begins the second phase of a $6 million renovation early this year that will include renovation of public areas and meeting space.

The Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage has opened a 5,000-square-foot, full-service spa offering 30 different treatments and using products indigenous to the desert. The 219-room hotel also has developed an outdoor function space, the Ritz Ranch, that has permanent Old West props.

The Givenchy Hotel & Spa, formerly the Gene Autry Hotel, reopened early last year following a renovation that halved the room count to 98. The luxury resort has a meeting room that accommodates 70 persons.

Tax and Money Matters Southern California hotel taxes are as follows: In San Diego, 10.5 percent; Anaheim, 15 percent; Newport Beach, ten percent; the Palm Springs area, nine to 11 percent (depending on municipality); Los Angeles, 14 percent; Long Beach, 12 percent; Pasadena, 11.49 percent; and Santa Barbara, ten percent. Sales taxes-not applied to hotel rooms-range from 7.75 percent to 8.5 percent.

Getting There Los Angeles County is served by Los Angeles International Airport, 15 miles from downtown Los Angeles and convenient to Santa Monica, Marina del Rey, and Beverly Hills. There are three satellite airports: Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport, Long Beach Airport, and Ontario International Airport, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles.

San Diego International Airport-Lindbergh Field is four miles from downtown San Diego, ten miles from Coronado, and 15 miles from La Jolla. The airport opened a new commuter terminal in July as part of a $165 million program to upgrade the airport. Meanwhile, renovations and expansion of the 29-year-old East Terminal and 17-year-old West Terminal should be completed by November 1997.

Orange County's John Wayne Airport is 16 miles from Anaheim and five miles from Newport Beach.

Palm Springs Regional Airport is approximately two miles from downtown Palm Springs and convenient to all desert communities. Major carriers provide direct flights to Palm Springs from such hubs as Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth, and Denver.

Santa Barbara Municipal Airport is just ten miles from downtown.

Monterey: The Northern California Golf Alternative Famed for its sea otters and premier golf resorts, the Monterey Peninsula offers the Southern California resort destinations a run for their money.

Some 335 miles north of Los Angeles, the peninsula offers renowned attractions such as its 17-Mile Drive, which wends along the coast and through the Del Monte Forest; Monterey's Cannery Row, the sardine packing hub-turned-shopping-mecca immortalized by novelist John Steinbeck; the shops and restaurants of Monterey's Fisherman's Wharf; the village of Carmel-by-the-Sea, once presided over by Mayor Clint Eastwood; and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

And while the attractions are fabulous, the big draw is golf. The peninsula has 16 courses, most of them public or resort. Die-hard golfers inevitably dream of Pebble Beach Golf Links, one of the public courses, where the greens slope toward the sea and the 18th hole is sited on a promontory overlooking the ocean. The course, along with the equally notable Links at Spanish Bay and Spyglass, is owned by the Pebble Beach Company, which also has two luxury resorts, the Inn at Spanish Bay and the Lodge at Pebble Beach, in its fold.

The peninsula's largest hotels are in the town of Monterey. The Hyatt Regency, with 575 guest rooms and meeting space accommodating 1,200 people, is the biggest.

For groups requiring more space, the Monterey Conference Center offers 58,000 square feet of meeting space, including ballrooms of 19,600 and 10,624 square feet. The center also includes the 494-room Steinbeck Forum Theater.

Peninsula Parties The peninsula's most popular visitor attraction, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, harbors more than 340,000 individual creatures, according to its recent census. For groups of 20 to 2,500 people, the aquarium has a variety of galleries and meeting rooms, as well as an ocean-view restaurant and a 273-seat auditorium.

Holman Ranch is a 70-year-old hacienda outside of Carmel, suitable for western-themed events. The ranch accommodates 300 for open-air dinners and receptions. For indoor events, a theater seats 60 and a carriage house 100.

Though not as well known as the Napa Valley to the north, the Monterey Peninsula is a major wine-growing region. Many wineries offer tours and tastings; for information, contact Monterey Wine Country Associates at (408) 375-9400.

Adventures by the Sea arranges beach parties and teambuilding programs at Pirates Cove, its 3,000-square-foot facility on Monterey Beach. But you can't wear your bathing suit year-round like you can down south: The weather on the Monterey Peninsula is more akin to San Francisco's than Southern California's.

Last January 2 to 5, Koral Flynn, manager of public affairs for the southwestern territory of MetLife, brought area managers to the Hyatt Regency San Diego for their annual merchandising meeting. She appreciates the hotel's bay and ocean views, versatile space, and downtown location, which allowed her to turn attendees loose. Most walked the five minutes to the Gaslamp Quarter, the downtown's dining hub, or shopped at Seaport Village, a New England-style marketplace. The concierges helped arrange transportation to the San Diego Zoo and to area golf courses. And several attendees boarded the San Diego Trolley's bright-red rail cars for the short trip south to the Mexican border and Tijuana. "Downtown San Diego itself is its own playground," says Flynn.

Last March, 250 salespeople for Hartford, CT-based Travelers Insurance attended a three-day conference at the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, perched on a rocky stretch of coastline in southern Orange County. "It's one of the most beautiful places on the California coast," says Martha Fetter, senior meeting planner for Travelers Insurance. "I would say it's second only to the Big Sur-Carmel area."

Perhaps because of the appeal of Laguna Niguel, which is south of Newport Beach, more people ended up qualifying than Fetter had expected. The Ritz-Carlton worked with her in arranging overflow accommodations at the area's other first-class resort, the nearby Marriott at Dana Point.

The incentive program consisted of business sessions at the Ritz-Carlton in the morning, with afternoons devoted to recreation. Avid golfers, Fetter's attendees enjoyed the Pelican Hill Golf Course, which Fetter calls "the Pebble Beach of Southern California." Schooner sailing out of Dana Point was easily arranged, and Fetter also offered a tour of the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda. One evening event was a dine-around involving ten restaurants in artsy Laguna Beach. She worked with a destination management company and lauded the local dining scene.

Fetter saw to it that her attendees left Laguna Niguel with memories of the coastline. ("Everyone wanted an oceanfront room," she says, "but not everyone gone one"). The final-night pillow gift was a framed and signed print of a local artist's painting of the Laguna coast.

Anaheim /Orange CVB Tony Toth, convention sales director Jim Kissinger, VP convention sales (714) 999-8999; Fax (714) 991-8963 www.anaheimoc.org

Long Beach Area CVB Steve Hammond, senior vice president of sales and chief operating officer (310) 436-3645, (800) 4LB-STAY Fax (310) 435-5653

Los Angeles CVB Jo Ann Worthington, associate vice president of convention sales (213) 624-7300; Fax (213) 624-9746

Newport Beach CVB Christine Castro corporate sales manager (714) 722-1611, (800) 94-COAST Fax (714) 722-1612 www.city.newport-beach.ca.us

Palm Springs Desert Resorts CVB Douglas Small, director of sales (760) 770-9000, (800) 96-RESORT Fax (760) 770-9001

www.desert-resorts.com

Pasadena CVB Barbara Garcia, director of sales (818) 795-9311; Fax (818) 795-9656 www.pasadenacenter.org

San Diego CVB Sandra Butler, vice president of sales (619) 232-3101; Fax (619) 696-9371 www.sandiego.org

Santa Barbara CVB Kathy Janega-Dykes, director of sales (805) 966-9222, (800) 676-1266 Fax (805) 966-1728