A Stress-free Meetings Destination For insurance industry conferences, there is much more to San Diego than predictably fabulous weather and picture-postcard good looks. This is a destination that boasts a mother lode of riches and conveniences--from top-flight attractions and museums tailor-made for special events to an abundance of guest rooms (40,000 in all), from dozens of golf courses to a lively downtown brimming with shopping and nightlife, from a roster of experienced destination management companies and other suppliers to a centrally located airport that is an easy drive from most anywhere in the county.

Still, it is San Diego's ambience--the towering palms, the canyons and bluffs and coves, the ocean-cooled breezes, the temperatures that seldom stray from the 70s--that has a hold on many insurance industry groups.

"San Diego isn't limited to being a resort city or a business city. It's really a blend of both, and I'd use it for incentive programs as well as business meetings," says Karen Hopkinson, executive director of the Insurance Conference Planners Association (ICPA) in Vancouver, British Columbia, who brought the organization's annual meeting to the city last November. "San Diego is easily accessibile, with a lot of lift in and out, and there are many top-of-the-line and midpriced hotels to choose from."

ICPA's 500-person annual meeting was staged at downtown's Hyatt Regency San Diego, one of scores of area hotels that overlook water--in this case, San Diego Bay. "The bay is beautiful--the whole area has such visual effect," says Hopkinson. "San Diego is truly a city that draws you back--you can return time and again, because being there is such a pleasant experience."

All in all, it's a destination that is as versatile and practical as it is alluring and rewarding.

ARTS, ETC. Come to San Diego and do absolutely nothing--or work up a sweat. Your attendees will have their choice--before, during, and after the meeting--because San Diego's relentless sunshine and year-round balmy temperatures are just right for lolling at poolside or on the beach (70 miles worth, but who's counting?), or enjoying tennis, boating, volleyball, jogging, in-line skating, swimming, golf, hot-air ballooning. . . any pursuit, really. And San Diego's attractions are in a league of their own: the incomparable San Diego Zoo; the San Diego Wild Animal Park, where the animals roam free over 2,150 acres; Sea World, home of Shamu the killer whale and many other marine friends; and Old Town, a colorful splash of Mexico in one of California's most historic settings.

Of course, there's also Mexico itself. For a day at the bullfights or a night of jai alai, for international shopping and dining, Tijuana--the other city that never sleeps--is just over the border, no passport required.

In San Diego, the arts and cultural offerings are so numerous, so intertwined with everyday life, that the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau has created the full-time position of cultural tourism manager to promote cross-marketing between arts organizations and businesses serving the visitor industry. The cultural tourism manager works with some 80 museums and 100 performing arts groups, many with far-ranging reputations. The Tony Award-winning company at the Old Globe Theatre, part of a cultural complex in Balboa Park, draws some of the nation's most acclaimed performers, and the respected La Jolla Playhouse, another Tony winner, has mounted productions that have seen their way to Broadway.

Within a few blocks of one another in Balboa Park are 14 museums dedicated to such disciplines as photography, natural history, folk art, and aerospace. The CVB can help meeting and incentive planners incorporate local art and culture into their programs--whether by securing tickets to performances, or arranging behind-the-scenes tours, or finding special-event spaces in the city's premier museums.

NOTHING LIKE THOSE NEIGHBORHOODS San Diego is much greater than a single destination--it is a collection of regions, towns, and neighborhoods, from Mission Bay to Mission Valley, from El Cajon to Carlsbad, each with its own distinct ambience and, in some cases, weather. The hardest part of planning a San Diego meeting may be deciding where to hold it, so broad and appealing are the choices.

Downtown San Diego. Hugging the bay, San Diego's downtown has undergone a sweeping transformation since the mid-1980s, one that has brought hotels, the convention center, acclaimed shopping, and cultural and performing arts facilities. Seaport Village, the New England-themed marketplace; Horton Plaza, the fanci fully designed, pastel-hued shopping complex; and the restored Victorian Gaslamp Quarter, a hub of dining and nightlife, are some of the highlights at the city's colorful, walkable heart. Close by is the lush, 1,200-acre Balboa Park, full of museums and performing arts centers and site of the San Diego Zoo. And don't forget to stroll along downtown's Embarcadero, where you might just see a cruise ship steaming into port or fishermen unloading the day's tuna catch.

Mission Valley. For shopping, dining, golf, and professional sports, all roads--and now, the trolley--lead to Mission Valley. Convenient to the airport, beaches, and downtown, and located just east of Mission Bay, the valley is home to the area's largest shopping centers and Qualcomm Stadium, home of Super Bowl XXXII. Two local attractions are also San Diego's most historic--Old Town, the first European settlement in California and now a state historic park, and the exquisitely preserved Mission San Diego de Alcala, the first of California's 21 missions. For meetings, Mission Valley has a wide variety of resort- and business-style hotels, 6,000 guest rooms in all.

Coronado. Cooled by Pacific breezes, this gracious peninsula city across the bay from San Diego has a century-old tradition of hospitality, thanks to its signature hostelry, the landmark Hotel del Coronado.

A quintessential Navy town--North Island Naval Air Station occupies the peninsula's northern tip--Coronado is renowned for its wide beach. From practically anywhere in Coronado, the views--of downtown San Diego, of Point Loma's majestic promontory, of the bustling bay, of the ocean--are inspiring.

Mission Bay. Minutes from the ocean, what is considered San Diego's sprawling aquatic park is a network of waterways, greenery, jogging trails, volleyball courts, and ball fields, and site of first-class resort hotels and Sea World of San Diego. All water sports can be enjoyed in MIssion Bay. Nearby Mission Beach is the place to tie on the Rollerblades or take a ride on the historic Belmont Park roller coaster.

Harbor Island and Shelter Island. These twin peninsulas jutting into the bay offer resort hotels, fine dining, and the convenience of being minutes from the airport and downtown.

La Jolla. San Diego's posh oceanfront community, aptly named La Jolla ("the jewel" in Spanish) has a breathtaking coastline, pearlescent beaches tucked into coves, Mediter ranean-style ambience, art galleries, luxury shopping, and intimate hotels. Nearby is the University of California at San Diego and Scripps Institute of Oceanography; a short distance inland, the Golden Triangle has a number of meeting hotels; and just up the coast, Del Mar offers fine stores, cultural pleasures, and the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and Racetrack.

Carlsbad. Amid brilliant commercial flower fields, this coastal community 35 miles north of downtown San Diego is squarely on the meetings map, as home to La Costa Resort and Spa and the just-opened Four Seasons Resort, Aviara. Fine beaches, picturesque lagoons, and tree- shaded streets in the European-style village center make Carlsbad a quiet and accessible getaway. Coming in 1999 is LEGOLAND, the Danish toy company's first building-block theme park in the United States.

GOLF, GOLF EVERYWHERE It's always tee time in San Diego, with more than 80 golf courses to choose from and temperatures that are never too cool or too warm to enjoy the sport. San Diego's golf courses offer a diversity of playing conditions--from the bluff-top splendor of Torrey Pines, the fabled public course overlooking the Pacific in La Jolla, to Steele Canyon, Gary Player's rugged layout in the hills of inland San Diego County.

Now, the area's newest course is also one of its most centrally located: Riverwalk Golf Club, in the heart of Mission Valley's Hotel Circle, minutes from downtown, Mission Bay, and the beach. On the site of the original Stardust Country Club, onetime host of Bing Crosby's San Diego Open, Riverwalk features 27 undulating holes where water hazards--a lake and the meandering San Diego River--are a challenging fact of life.

INCREDIBLE ACCESS You know what they say about Southern California--that everything is far from everything else, that you can spend half your day on the freeway? Welcome to San Diego, where everything is close at hand.

Expanded and renovated in 1997, San Diego International Airport-Lindbergh Field is one of the nation's most convenient airports--less than a ten-minute ride from the San Diego Convention Center and downtown hotels, and within 20 minutes of most other meeting centers, such as Coronado, La Jolla, Mission Valley, and Mission Bay. And getting around town is a whole lot easier now that the area's light-rail system, the San Diego Trolley, has been extended to Mission Valley. There, hotel guests can board the trolley for the quick trip to downtown attractions and the San Diego Convention Center. The trolley is also the best way to break for the Mexican border, a leisurely 45-minute ride from downtown.

UP-TO-THE-MINUTE CONVENTION CENTER With palm trees out front and San Diego Bay lapping at its back door, the San Diego Convention Center occupies a most attractive setting. From the rooftop pavilion--sheltered by the sweeping sails that are the center's architectural signature--the bay, the ocean, downtown's gleaming towers, and the distant mountains are spread out before you.

But the aesthetics belie the convention center's functionality. This is an up-to-the-minute meeting place, wired for the 21st century, with a 254,000-square-foot exhibit hall and an abundance of flexible meeting space. An expansion, which is due to get under way later this year, will add more than 270,000 square feet of exhibit space and double meeting space to 204,000 square feet.

What's more, the San Diego Convention Center is right in the middle of it all--within walking distance of several thousand hotel rooms (many more are just a trolley ride away) and fine stores, and across the street from the entrance to the Gaslamp Quarter.