The state that is consistently chosen as the number one preferred destination in Medical Meetings' Annual Physicians Preferences Survey has good news for meeting planners: an infusion of new space, as convention centers scramble to keep pace with behemoth facilities elsewhere.

Anaheim fired the first shot, launching the fourth, and most ambitious, expansion of its convention center. The project is tied in with the Walt Disney Company's development of Disney's California Adventure, a companion theme park to Disneyland.

Meanwhile, 100 miles to the south in San Diego, financing was solidified in November for an expansion that will more than double exhibit and meeting space at the San Diego Convention Center. Construction is likely to get under way this year. San Francisco will follow with an expansion of its Moscone Convention Center at the dawn of the new century if voters approve the use of hotel tax proceeds for the project in the November election.

Michael Smith, meeting planner with the California Medical Association in San Francisco, is following these projects with interest. "The convention industry is booming, and meetings seem to be moving from hotels to the convention centers," he says. Because of this, Smith adds, "hotels are courting meeting business now, and that translates into fairly attractive rates."

That's good news for Smith, whose organization holds its conferences exclusively in hotels. Meeting executives from national medical associations, however, are cheering the convention center expansions, especially those planned for San Diego and San Francisco, two attractive cities where exhibit space, compared with destinations elsewhere, is at a premium.

As always, California is actively improving its infrastructure and adding attractions. For example, the city of Newport Beach is rebuilding a bridge and improving access to Balboa Island. The Hyatt Newporter has openedits Corporate Training and Development Center complete with on-site teambuilding programs.

Other projects around the state range from a major new aquarium opening this year in Long Beach to a massive rebuilding of San Francisco International Airport to Disney's new Anaheim theme park, which will incorporate a 750-room hotel. In recent months, the San Diego area has unveiled three major projects of note--a luxury resort in Carlsbad; a golf course in Mission Valley; and a light rail extension linking the city's two busiest meeting centers, downtown and Mission Valley. Even Ontario, best known to planners as an air gateway east of Los Angeles, got into the act, opening its own convention center in November

Hotel News San Diego * The Four Seasons Resort Aviara opened last summer in Carlsbad, about 30 miles north of downtown San Diego. The 331-room resort has 29,000 square feet of meeting and function space, including ballrooms of 12,000 and 4,000 square feet.

* In Coronado, Marriott has taken over management of Le Meridien San Diego, which is now called the Marriott Coronado Island Resort. The 300-room property on San Diego Bay has a 7,500-square-foot ballroom and six additional meeting rooms.

Anaheim/Orange County * The Waterfront Hilton in Huntington Beach is due to acquire a sister property, the Hilton Ocean Grand Resort. Anticipated to break ground this April and open in 2000, the Ocean Grand will have 500 guest rooms, a 10,000-square-foot spa, and 70,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space.

* The Anaheim Hilton & Towers recently completed an $18.5 million renovation that included all 1,576 guest rooms and the 100,000 square feet of meeting space.

Santa Barbara * The Fess Parker Red Lion Inn is now the Fess Parker Doubletree Resort. The property has 360 rooms and 16,000 square feet of meeting space.

* The Hotel Santa Barbara, a circa-1926 boutique property in downtown Santa Barbara, completed a multimillion-dollar renovation of its 66 guest rooms last year. The hotel has a library seating up to 18 persons for meetings, and two additional meeting rooms totaling 920 square feet.

San Francisco * Starwood Lodging Trust is building a 30-story, 423-room hotel at Yerba Buena Gardens, one block from the Moscone Convention Center. The yet-to-be-named hotel will have 13,000 square feet of meeting space. It is anticipated that the hotel will open in May 1999.

* At the Hotel Nikko San Francisco, a three-phase, $8 million renovation continues throughout 1998, with completion expected by December.

* The 527-room Hilton San Francisco Airport closes on March 31, 1998. It will be demolished as part of the expansion of San Francisco International Airport.

The good news about the 1997 annual meeting of the American Academy of Otolaryngology--Head and Neck Surgery was that it attracted 8,702 people--including 4,788 physician members--the largest attendance yet. The bad news is that the Alexandria, VA-based association would be hard pressed to return to San Francisco, site of the September 7 to 10 meeting, because of space limitations at the Moscone Convention Center.

"It wasn't easy for us logistically," says Jennifer Lubold, meetings manager. "We just didn't fit into the convention center, and we had to use the San Francisco Marriott for overflow instruction courses."

Although San Francisco "always pops up on the top of our destination surveys," the association is holding off booking the city again for its major meeting until the convention center expands. Lubold, nonetheless, took full advantage of the area's diversions while her group was there. She arranged for a San Francisco Bay cruise and a tour of the one-time prison on Alcatraz Island, and sent attendees and spouses off on vineyard tours, less than an hour away in the Napa Valley.

"The weather, the atmosphere, the hustle and bustle--there's so much to do," Lubold says, explaining San Francisco's appeal to physicians. She also praised the communication between the Moscone Center and the nearby Marriott, and said both facilities worked efficiently in shifting instructional courses to the hotel.

As with the Moscone Center, space is a major consideration at the San Diego Convention Center, which is poised for its first expansion. The American Society of Anesthesiologists booked the center for its 1997 annual meeting in the late 1980s, when "it was just a hole in the ground," says Bill Marinko, assistant executive director of the association, in Park Ridge, IL. Little did he know that by the time the meeting rolled around, the convention center would be too tight a fit.

The meeting had a total registration of 17,676, including 7,600 physician members. The adjacent San Diego Marriott Hotel & Marina accommodated the scientific sessions, and the Hyatt Regency was used for governing-body meetings.

"We were very glad those hotels were just next door," Marinko says. The lobby was too small to accommodate the association's registration, so that was moved to the convention center's rooftop pavilion. "We had registration under the sails," Marinko said, referring to the center's signature rooftop adornment. "I was concerned because if you get heat and humidity, it could affect the computer equipment. But it hardly ever rains in San Diego, and it didn't while we were there."

Marinko, however, says he was more troubled by the fact there were not enough hotel rooms downtown for the October 18 to 22 meeting. He housed some attendees in Coronado, which is connected to downtown San Diego by water taxi, and in Mission Valley, about seven miles to the north. "It was an expensive proposition shuttling people back and forth to Mission Valley," he says, noting that the $150,000 shuttle costs for the meeting were considerably higher than usual.

For a complete guide to California convention bureaus, centers, and hotels, visit Medical Meetings' World Wide Web site at www.meetingsnet.com.

Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau James Kissinger, vice president, convention sales

* (714) 999-8945 Fax: (714) 991-8963 www.anaheimoc.org

Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau Jo Ann Worthington, associate vice president, western region sales

* (213) 624-7300 Fax: (213) 624-9746

Newport Beach Conference & Visitors Bureau Susan Pedersen, sales manager

* (714) 722-1611, (800) 94-COAST Fax: (714) 722-1612 www.newportbeach-cvb.com

Palm Springs Desert Resorts Convention & Visitors Bureau Douglas Small, vice president of sales

* (760) 770-9000, (800) 96-RESORT Fax: (760) 770-9001 www.desert-resorts.com

San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau Jeff Bradley, sales manager (for convention center meetings)

* (415) 227-2629 Fax: (415) 227-2602 www.sfvisitor.org

San Jose Convention & Visitors Bureau Donna Ortega, director of sales

* (408) 295-9600 x1108, (800) 726-5673 Fax: (408) 295-3937 www.sanjose.org

Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau & Film Commission Kathy Janega-Dykes, director of sales and marketing

* (805) 966-9222, (800) 676-1266 Fax: (805) 966-1728 www.santabarbaraCA.com