The Magic of Winter Meetings in Santa Cruz County

Renowned for its scenic California coastline, laid-back atmosphere, and vibrant community, Santa Cruz County captivates meeting groups year-round. Summer may steal the spotlight, but there’s an undeniable charm to meetings in winter.

Considered low season for tourists, winter promises a unique and memorable experience for attendees. They can bask in the same cool, crisp air and tranquility enjoyed by the locals while pursuing everything from sales seminars to awards dinners and networking, team building to whale watching, wine tasting to museums. Here’s what makes the county not only budget friendly in winter but also truly special for meetings:

1. Mild Winter Climate: The placement of mountains and sea creates a comfortable microclimate year-round. With nighttime temperatures rarely dipping below 40 degrees Fahrenheit from mid-December to mid-March or topping 64 degrees by day, attendees can enjoy the refreshing coolness of a coastal California winter without the bitter cold of other destinations.

While the climate affords ideal conditions for outdoor team building and other activities, it also makes quick breaks between meetings delightful for attendees. Picture a mid-morning break at the Dream Inn Santa Cruz, for instance, where participants can step outside for a breath of fresh air with mugs of steaming hot coffee to enjoy on Cowell Beach off Steamer Lane, one of the world’s most iconic surf spots.

2. Breathtaking Scenery: Winter in Santa Cruz transforms the landscape into a wonderland of towering redwoods, lush greenery, and vibrant flowers against a backdrop of ocean and sky. Most of the county’s meeting facilities incorporate the scenery through floor-to-ceiling views of woodland, sea, or both.

The beaches in winter—previously bustling with crowds—take on a serene and thoughtful atmosphere ideal for brainstorming and strategic discussions. Strolls along the coastline or team building on the sand add unforgettable moments to any gathering. With luck, they may conclude with some of the year’s most spectacular sunsets. Winter produces the best—a fact backed up by Stephen F. Corfidi of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

3. Winter Wildlife: Nature lovers thrill to see some of the estimated 20,000 gray whales that pass through Monterey Bay on their way from Arctic waters to the birthing lagoons of Baja California between December and April. Favored sites for spotting whales from shore include West Cliff Drive in the City of Santa Cruz, Wilder Ranch State Park, and Año Nuevo State Park. Stagnaros Charters offers narrated whale, dolphin, and other ocean life encounters via luxury boats year-round.

Año Nuevo has the added honor of being home to the world’s largest mainland breeding colony of northern elephant seals. Visitors can view the majestic mammals (up to 4,500 pounds) and their pups only in winter, from December 15 to March 31.

Another cool-season opportunity lasts from mid-October through January, when groups can visit the thousands of western monarch butterflies sheltering at Natural Bridges State Beach. Meanwhile, bird watchers can spread far and wide to spot a huge number of migrating birds. Attracted by the diversity of rocky coastline, marshes, forests, and grasslands, the migrants swell the already impressive year-round avian population to more than 400 species in winter.

Some nature lovers extend their fascination with wildlife to mushrooms. Just begging to be identified, more than a thousand common and exotic species pop up along the Redwood Coast in winter. Tide pooling is at its best in winter, too, when the moon is closest to the earth and the alignment of sun, moon, and planet result in king tides, the highest and lowest tides of the year.

<For more information, request a Santa Cruz Wildlife Watching Guide here. Or arrange state park tours for your groups of ten or more by visiting Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks.> 

4. Venues and Accommodations: Santa Cruz County typically hosts fewer visitors during the winter months, which translates into wider room-night availability for groups and lower rates than other seasons. Most of winter is also slow season for domestic and international flights, which means easier availability and more budget-friendly rates as well.

Plus, the county’s meeting venues and accommodations exude a special warmth and coziness in winter. Meeting planners choose from a wide range of facilities to suit any meeting need, whether seeking a seaside conference room with adjoining deck (and display tanks!) (Seymour Marine Discovery Center), or a baronial lodge and cabins nestled deep in the redwoods (Waterfall Lodge & Retreat).

Or take another example, Chaminade Resort & Spa, where attendees find first-class conference facilities in a mountaintop setting with fireplaces and panoramic views of the forest and bay. In fact, many establishments feature fireplaces, including Seascape Beach Resort, with flexible conference rooms and the only all-suite, all ocean-view accommodations in the county.

Another favorite for meetings, Hotel Paradox, Autograph Collection, entertains in a newly renovated, self-described urban forest aesthetic. The transformation combined modern comfort, whimsical touches, and rustic materials: reclaimed wood panels for headboards and tables, lacquered tree stumps as side tables, and sliding barn doors to divide bedrooms and bathrooms—all creating an engagingly fun and woodsy atmosphere for groups.

5. Culinary Delights: Widely known for its organic farm-to-table cuisine, the region produces an extraordinary bounty of local specialties in winter, from wild mushrooms, artichokes, and broccoli rabe to Dungeness crab, pea shoots, and winter squash. Your attendees can sample the unmatched artistry and commitment of local restaurants and caterers, who take great pride in showcasing each day’s star ingredients while providing a delightful gastronomic experience. From formal ballrooms to cozy cafes, winter’s venues invite visitors to savor some of the region’s best—if lesser-known—culinary ingredients.

Another best-kept secret (backed up by Food & Wine magazine): The Santa Cruz Mountains produce some of California’s best chardonnays and pinot noirs, as well as several benchmark cabernet sauvignons. For delegates visiting in winter, wine country excursions can be a completely different experience than in other seasons. The harvest is in, the crowds have thinned, and the new wines are tucked away in the barrels. Now’s the time when wine makers can personally share their earlier vintages, techniques, and philosophies with the wine-tasting public.

6. Festive Atmosphere: The holidays bring an extra layer of delight to Santa Cruz County in winter. The streets come alive with festive lights and decorations, and various events and markets create a joyful atmosphere. Attendees can join in local festivities during breaks between meetings or explore the vibrant downtown areas during free time, enhancing the overall meeting experience with holiday cheer.

To name just a few of these group-pleasing attractions: Winter Wonderland at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk; winter-themed vintage train rides out of Roaring Camp; and Holiday Lights, a .75-mile drive-through light and sound experience at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds.

The mild weather, spectacular scenery, cozy venues, fascinating wildlife, delightful cuisine, and seasonal cheer add up to pure magic in winter—and guarantee a unique and memorable experience for groups. Come to Santa Cruz County for your next event—and discover the authentic charm that makes it truly great for meetings in wintertime.

By Annette Burden