Insurance conference planners seeking to cut their risks frequently look to California. Consider: The benign, generally dry climate practically ensures that golf matches and other outdoor events will go off without a hitch. The resorts and downtown hotels are battle tested, and the countless attractions--from wineries to theme parks to aquariums--are adept at hosting group events. What's more, California is not content with the status quo: Its major destinations are rolling out a host of improvements that insurance groups will find to their liking--notably major new hotels in Orange County and San Francisco, a new theme park north of San Diego, and an expansion of the theme park that started it all, Disneyland. Santa Barbara's largest meeting property broke ground last summer on a bluff next to the Sandpiper Golf Course. Tentatively called the Santa Barbara Resort and Spa, the property will have 400 guest rooms and 55,000 square feet of meeting space.

Anaheim/Newport Beach/Orange County hotel news * At Disneyland in Anaheim, the development of a new theme park called Disney's California Adventure includes construction of Disney's Grand Californian, a 750-room, Arts and Crafts-style hotel with 20,000 square feet of meeting space. It opens in 2001.

* The 454-room Doubletree Hotel Anaheim/Orange County has completely refurbished its Grand Ballroom, California Ballroom, and prefunction space. The revamping was part of a $1 million redo that also included new kitchen equipment and the remodeling of five junior suites that can be used as hospitality suites. The hotel offers 20,000 square feet of meeting space.

* The Doubletree Costa Mesa/Orange County is planning to break ground later this year on a $4 million expansion/renovation that will convert one of its wings to high-end meeting space. Recently, the hotel's 21 staff members in sales, catering, and convention services became fully PCMA-certified. The hotel currently has 35,000 square feet of meeting space.

* Evans Hotels, which owns three hotels in San Diego, plans to construct the 400-room Newport Dunes Resort in Newport Beach. With 1,000 feet of bay frontage, it will have a pair of contiguous 12,000-square-foot ballrooms included in its 55,000 square feet of meeting space. A 2001 opening is planned.

* The Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort, in Dana Point, last year completed a $3.5 million renovation that included all 350 guest rooms, suites, and meeting space, and added an ocean-view meeting room and restaurant/lounge. The property has 43,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space.

* Construction began in December on the Hilton Ocean Grand, a 516-room luxury hotel in Huntington Beach with 52,000 square feet of meeting space.

* The 290-room Waterfront Hilton Beach Resort completed a $2.5 million guest room renovation in November. It has 21,000 square feet of meeting space.

important info * Newport Beach sales tax: 7.75%;

* hotel tax: 10%;

* Anaheim sales tax: 7.75%;

* hotel tax: 15%

Newport Beach CVB (949) 722-1611, (800) 94-COAST Fax: (949) 722-1612

Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau (714) 765-8842 Fax: (714) 991-8963

Long Beach hotel news * Two new hotels are in the offing for Long Beach: A developer is seeking financing for a 430-room Marriott property with 15,000 square feet of meeting space next to the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center, with groundbreaking as early as this spring. Also, the Queensway Bay Project, a massive, $650 million retail/restaurant/entertainment project on the downtown waterfront set to begin this spring, could eventually include a boutique hotel in the 150- to 200-room range.

* The West Coast Long Beach Hotel last year completed a $3 million renovation of all guest rooms and meeting space. The 200-room hotel has 10,000 square feet of meeting space.

* The Sheraton Long Beach became the Westin Long Beach in early 1998, and underwent a $4 million renovation. The 460-room property has 41,000 square feet of meeting space.

* The Hotel Queen Mary has launched an $11 million project to renovate its 365 guest rooms and public areas, to be complete this fall. The hotel has 60,000 square feet of meeting space.

important info * Sales tax: 8.25%;

* hotel tax: 14 %

Long Beach Area CVB (800) 452-7829 Fax: (562) 435-5653

Los Angeles hotel news * Los Angeles' largest hotel, the 1,354-room Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Suites downtown, completes its $25 million renovation this spring. All guest rooms will be renovated, and 10,000 square feet of meeting space added, for a new total of 100,000 square feet.

* The Regent Beverly Wilshire, in Beverly Hills, completed a $35 million expansion in December. The hotel added 120 rooms, for a new total of 395 (including 120 suites). The property has 25,529 square feet of meeting space.

* The Hyatt Valencia opened in August with 244 guest rooms and 26,000 square feet of meeting/function space.

* The Doubletree Club Hotel at Ontario International Airport is being rebranded the Sheraton Ontario International Airport this spring. A $4 million renovation will reduce guest room inventory from 170 to 165 and double meeting space.

important info Los Angeles CVB (213) 236-2315 Fax: (213) 624-9746

Monterey Peninsula hotel news * The Monterey Plaza Hotel opens a $4.2 million, European-style, 10,000-square-foot rooftop spa in spring 1999. The property has 285 rooms and 16,000 square feet of meeting space.

* The Monterey Marriott has closed its top-floor restaurant and is using the space for meetings and private functions. It accommodates 180 for a dinner buffet, 300 for a reception. The 341-room hotel has 12,000 square feet of meeting space.

important info * Sales tax: 7.2%;

* hotel tax: 8-12%, depending on municipality (10% in Monterey, Carmel, and Pacific Grove)

Monterey Peninsula Visitors & Convention Bureau (831) 648-5355 Fax: (831) 648-5373

Palm Springs/Desert Resorts hotel news * The desert's first new resort property of the decade opened last year in Indian Wells--the Mediterranean-style, 226-room Miramonte Resort. The luxury property, a member of Preferred Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, has 15,000 square feet of meeting space, including a 5,000-square-foot ballroom. The resort, set on 11 acres, is opposite three championship golf courses.

* La Quinta Resort & Club opened a 20,000-square-foot spa and 2,000-square-foot fitness club last summer.

* Marriott's Rancho Las Palmas Resort in Rancho Mirage just wrapped up a $32 million project that added a 20,000-square-foot spa, a 10,000-square-foot ballroom, a rooftop deck, and a pool/entertainment complex.

* The 560-room Renaissance Esmeralda Resort in Indian Wells last year added the Pavilion, a freestanding, 12,000-square-foot multifunction ballroom that accommodates up to 900 people. The property has 55,000 square feet of meeting space.

* International Conference Resorts is now managing the 265-room Marquis Resorts in Palm Springs and renamed it the Palm Springs Conference Resort. Later this year, meeting room space is to be increased to 38,000 square feet.

important info * Sales tax: 7.75%;

* hotel tax: 9-11%, depending on municipality

Palm Springs Desert Resorts CVB 760) 770-9000, ext. 103 Fax: (760) 770-9001

San Diego hotel news * The San Diego Convention Center expansion has spurred a flurry of downtown hotel proposals, including a second, 810-room tower at the neighboring Hyatt Regency San Diego. No timetable has yet been set.

* The San Diego Marriott Hotel & Marina has completed a $1.3 million renovation of its 14,000-square-foot San Diego Ballroom. A proposal is on the table to add 500 guest rooms and a 10,000-square-foot ballroom.

* The 130-room Grand Pacific Palisades Resort and Hotel is scheduled to open in March in Carlsbad, adjacent to the new Legoland theme park, which also is opening in March. The hotel will have 4,400 square feet of meeting space.

* A $3 million refurbishment of guest rooms and suites at Loews Coronado Bay Resort is scheduled for completion this spring.

important info * Sales tax: 7.75% (not applied to hotel rooms);

* hotel tax: 10.5%

San Diego CVB (619) 557-2803 Fax: (619) 231-9783

San Francisco hotel news * The 423-room W San Francisco opens in spring 1999 across from the Moscone Convention Center. The 30-story luxury hotel will have 9,500 square feet of meeting space in seven rooms.

* The Omni San Francisco Hotel is being developed in the historic Financial Center Building. The $55 million, 362-room luxury hotel, slated to open in early 2000, will have 15,000 square feet of meeting space.

* Four Seasons Hotel and Tower, part of a mixed-use, $350 million complex, is under construction close to the Moscone Convention Center. The hotel will have 285 guest rooms and 16,300 square feet of meeting space, and will open in mid-2000.

important info * Sales tax: 8.5%;

* hotel tax: 14 %

San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau (415) 227-2617 Fax: (415) 227-2646

Insurance Meeting Planners Say For four straight years, National Life of Vermont had taken its annual President's Club incentive to offshore destinations. In 1998, it was back to the U.S. mainland, and the company, says Lynn Averill, director of travel and conferences, figured it needed some "sizzle" after Hawaii, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

National Life of Vermont decided on Palm Springs--specifically, Marriott Desert Springs Resort in Palm Desert. "Palm Springs is perceived as the destination of the stars," Averill says. "And then you have the snow-capped mountains, which are just an awesome sight."

The late April weather was quite warm but "not unbearable" for the 650 qualifiers and guests, says Averill, who adds that the group got a good rate by bringing the meeting there in the shoulder season.

Averill kept most social functions on site, but found one off-site venue just around the corner from the Marriott: the lavish Ann Carter estate, which she used for a wine-tasting dinner. "Rather than put our people in limos, we tried something different--golf carts," she says. "We met at the resort's golf barn and everyone got on a cart and cruised through the golf course to the estate."

Averill says the only inherent challenge in mounting the incentive was dealing with the airlift into the Palm Springs' airport. "Airlift is the only issue, really, but we didn't have that bad a time of it," she says. "The lift has improved over the past couple of years."

With its splendid coastal scenery and picture-perfect golf courses, the Monterey Peninsula is popular with corporate groups, so Patricia O'Reilly takes no chances: When Norcal Mutual Insurance Co. of San Francisco takes its quarterly board of directors meetings to Monterey, O'Reilly, the insurer's corporate secretary, books three years in advance. "It's such a popular venue--to get 40 guest rooms and the desired meeting space, you need those contracts signed that far in advance," she says.

In 1998, as is its custom, Norcal brought two of its four board meetings to the peninsula--in May at the Monterey Plaza Hotel and August at the Quail Lodge Resort & Golf Club in Carmel Valley. Golf has a lot to do with the decision to meet twice a year in the Monterey area, O'Reilly says, as does the proximity to San Francisco (120 miles) and the wide variety of venues for off-site dinners and functions.