Business trip: San Diego

With a laid back atmosphere, a near perfect climate and an abundance of new hotels, the Southern California city has practically perfected the combination of business and pleasure.

San Diego’s laid back, country club-like atmosphere, near perfect climate and wide range of outdoor activities make this Southern California city a huge draw for visitors.

A modern convention centre, an abundance of new hotels and an easy and accessible airport make it an even larger draw for business travellers. If a company or organisation wants to bump up attendance for a meeting or event, holding it in San Diego is sure to attract a crowd.

This alluring combination of business and pleasure is working – the San Diego Tourism Authority reports that visitors spent a record $8 billion in the city in 2012.Like most California cities, San Diego sprawls, making a rental car necessary if your business takes you beyond the central core. Most of the region’s top restaurants, upscale boutiques and best-known luxury lodging (such as The Grand Del Mar or The Lodge at Torrey Pines) lie about 16 miles northwest of downtown in the seaside suburbs of La Jolla and Del Mar.

With the city’s temperate climate and obsession with sunsets, nearly every high-rise hotel in the downtown business district sports a rooftop bar or pool deck. Most of these accommodations are sprinkled around the rowdy Gaslamp Quarter; the new East Village district which is anchored by the Petco Park baseball stadium; and the city’s expansive harbour-side convention centre near the Gaslamp Quarter. Little Italy on the western edge of downtown offers a quieter, more residential feel, packed with some of the city’s most popular cafes and restaurants.  

Situated  just three miles northwest from downtown, San Diego International Airport’s location (referred to locally as “Lindberg Field”) makes transfers easy, but its 1960s architecture feels dark and dated. However, a glassy, $900 million addition to the west side of Terminal 2 – completed in August 2013 and used by Delta, JetBlue, United and US Airways – provides a glimpse of how the entire airport will eventually look.


Among the giant hotels lining the harbour near the convention centre, the newest is the bright white, ultra-modern 1,190-room Hilton San Diego Bayfront, which opened in December 2008. Nearby, the Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego’s two soaring pitched-roof towers make up the second largest hotel in California, with 1,628 rooms. A large-scale room renovation was completed in June 2013, and  there is a new Executive Club Lounge on the 33rd floor with complimentary food and beverages, private workstations and breathtaking views across the Pacific Ocean. 

The strikingly modern, 511-room Omni San Diego has been a business travel favourite since it opened in 2004. The hotel’s 32-storey steel-and-glass tower is located on the edge of the Gaslamp Quarter, across the trolley line tracks from the convention centre and adjacent to Petco Park.

The 270-room US Grant hotel, located in the heart of downtown, is San Diego’s most gracious grand dame, featuring rooms and suites with heavy moulding, Italian linens, marble showers, original art and Empire-style furnishings. The iconic hotel has been open since 1910 and is part of the Starwood Luxury Collection.

Despite the East Village neighbourhood noise, Hotel Solamar and Hotel Indigo remain relatively calm, peaceful and businesslike because neither has the thumping nightclub scene that is found in several other “edgy” downtown hotels. (Tip:  inquire about room noise when making your San Diego hotel booking.)

The 235-room Hotel Solamar is part of the popular Kimpton chain, offering free wi-fi to members of its InTouch loyalty program (sign up at check in if you are not a member), a complimentary wine hour each evening to mingle with hotel staff and guests, and of course, the requisite rooftop Solamar Terrace, with a heated swimming pool and bar.

The 210-room Hotel Indigo, part of the IHG chain, is the first LEED-certified hotel in downtown San Diego and offers guests free wi-fi, hypo-allergenic hardwood floors and windows that open to the great outdoors in all rooms. The hotel also has sustainable roof garden chock full of native plant species as well as herbs used to flavour the hotel restaurant’s small plate menu.

Expense account
Dining out in San Diego is a mostly casual affair, and with its moderate climate, most restaurants offer al fresco seating.

For a celebratory meal, jump in your car and drive up to La Jolla for a sunset dinner at California Modern at Georges on the Cove, a longstanding favourite featuring an extensive wine list of more than 400 selections from around the world. Enjoy locally caught seafood, such as octopus served with melon, cucumber sorbet, chilli and lime, or chef Trey Foshee’s upscale take on San Diego’s most famous staple: fish tacos.

For something more casual and closer to downtown, try a salty-sweet starter such as “bacon cracker jacks” along with an artisanal cocktail (like the Eastern Prospector made with orange spice tea-infused bourbon, lemon and honey) at the buzzy Craft & Commerce in Little Italy. Then enjoy an eclectic menu that leans toward American comfort food such as fried chicken served with buttermilk coleslaw and mashed potatoes, or macaroni and cheese made with aged cheddar, sautéed mushrooms, roasted garlic and lemon zest.

For freshly-caught seafood hot off the grill accompanied by one of San Diego’s numerous locally-brewed lagers, check out Searsucker in the Gaslamp neighbourhood, where chef Brian Malarkey turns out carb-free crab cakes, seabass dressed with drunken cherries and smoky almonds or hanger steak with roasted tomato bordelaise, blue cheese and radicchio.

Cheese lovers – as well as those seeking more sophisticated surroundings – should consider Bice, tucked into a quiet corner of the Gaslamp Quarter, where Chef Francesca Penoncelli curates an impressive board of fine Italian formaggio. This California outpost of the Milan-based chain offers upscale Italian fare such as braised rabbit ravioli with kale, olives and a creamy leek-and-thyme sauce; an unusually bright red beetroot risotto with cheese fondue; and fresh Mediterranean sea bass cooked on a cedar plank and topped with tomatoes and herbs.

Off the clock
If you have extra time on your hands, grab a cab and check out the distinctive personalities of San Diego’s beach communities located to the west of downtown.

Ocean Beach (known as OB) is a funky throwback to the 1960s, with one of the longest piers (about 0.5 miles) in California, a frisky dog beach, antique and vintage clothing stores, an eclectic mix of restaurants (such as the popular French-Mediterranean Bo-Beau Kitchen) and bars perfectly positioned to take in the sunset.

Mission Beach and Pacific Beach (PB) are magnets for the region’s young, tanned and fit collegiate and surfer crowds, who are drawn to the sun, surf and sand as well as a lively three-mile boardwalk packed with surf shops, hot dog stands, bars and the popular Belmont Amusement Park.

To the north is upscale La Jolla, where you can stroll through its elegant downtown shopping area or walk along its Coast Walk Trail overlooking small beaches and rocky coves full of seals, sea lions and pelicans as well as surfers, kayakers and divers.

Go local
San Diego’s location just 22 miles north of the Mexican border means the beverage of choice among locals is likely to be the margarita… but that is changing. Over the last decade, the number of craft breweries in San Diego has grown to more than 70 – enough to have local beer aficionados declare the region Napa Valley for beer. You’ll notice the enthusiasm for local brews in the extensive selections posted on chalkboards at most restaurants and bars. Two standouts include the Stone Brewing Company’s award-winning Arrogant Bastard Ale and the Karl Strauss Tower 10 IPA. A word of warning: many local brews have higher alcohol content than national brands.

Don’t do this
Do not assume that the tanned, relaxed person at a meeting or convention is just a “surfer dude” or someone on holiday. He or she could be the head of a major company, or a key contact in your negotiations. San Diego prides itself on its laid-back, Southern California lifestyle and a business casual dress code that can include jeans, flip-flops and Hawaiian-style shirts. A business trip to San Diego is likely one where you can leave your dark suit at home.