A lot of what makes the Inland Empire a great leisure drive market—proximity to Los Angeles, the second-largest metropolitan area in the U.S.; a wealth of nearby activity options; and an expanding roster of annual festivals—also makes the region a standout for meetings and conventions.
“We’re centrally located, only 30 minutes from downtown L.A., 30 minutes from Disneyland, less than an hour from Big Bear and less than an hour from Palm Springs,” says Michael Krouse, president and CEO of the Greater Ontario CVB, adding that the destination is also situated on a direct route between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
Because its much bigger sister directly to the west is rich in entertainment offerings, the Inland Empire—its two major tourism destinations are Ontario and Rancho Cucamonga—has to get creative to attract visitors.
“We don’t have a Disneyland or a Universal Studios,” Krouse says, “so we’ve created new experiences for our visitors.”
The region’s major festivals include the Route 66 Cruisin’ Reunion, a mid-September event that can draw more than 2,000 vintage cars along with a half million visitors—it doubled attendance this year compared to the 2013 event—from as far away as Australia; the three-day Huck Finn Jubilee, the largest bluegrass festival in the West, held every Father’s Day weekend; and the new Christmas on Euclid Experience, which capitalizes on a holiday decoration tradition stretching back to 1958 and features carriage and train rides, an ice-skating rink, a snow hill, a classic car show, more than 100 crafts vendors and even a Christmas tree climbing wall.
Krouse says the destination is also working on adding a fall jazz festival.
In addition to the festival lineup is one of the biggest shopping venues in the nation, Ontario Mills, which draws more visitors annually than Disneyland, and even skiing an hour and a half away.
And, the whole package can be bought at a much lower price point than nearby Los Angeles.
“I have 6,000 hotel rooms in Ontario, and downtown L.A. doesn’t have 4,000 convention-quality hotels,” says Krouse, who used to work for the Los Angeles Tourism Board. “So it’s pretty funny that I have more hotels in my downtown than L.A., and then have a million square feet of meeting space. And the best part is that Ontario’s room rate is 50 percent of Los Angeles’ rate.”
According to Krouse, the Greater Ontario area primarily draws SMERF groups due to its favorable rates, but is also reaching into the sports market, forming the Inland Empire Sports & Entertainment Commission to attract amateur sporting groups to its many special venues.
Interestingly enough, the destination also has made significant inroads into the Chinese group tour market, having sold some 20,000 rooms through just one Chinese operator last year.
Overall, Krouse says the destination’s occupancy rate is up double digits over 2013.
The biggest news as far as tourism development is the new 1,000-seat Ontario Town Square amphitheater, which opened in October.
On the sustainability front, the city of Ontario is putting the finishing touches on a project that added solar panels to a quarter-million square feet of roof space atop the Ontario Convention Center, which offers 225,000 square feet of flexible meeting and exhibition space.