The cold air was biting, but I could barely feel the sting through my thick, blue winter coat. Surrounding me, floor to ceiling, was glistening, solid ice — 10-feet-tall princesses, towering castles, and humongous lollipops. While it sounds as if I was trapped inside a life-sized snow globe, I was actually attending CHILL, a winter-themed festival that included an Ice Kingdom inside a 75,000-square-foot dome in Long Beach, Calif.
This was my first time visiting the Golden State, and I wasn't sure what to expect, but a kingdom made of ice surely wasn't on the list. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised several times during the action-packed, three-day press trip, hosted by the Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau from Nov. 19-22. During my whirlwind stay, I did everything from pet jellyfish at the Aquarium of the Pacific to ride a gondola through Naples Island.
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Upon landing in Long Beach the first night, two fellow reporters and I joined Megan Rodriguez, public-relations manager for the Long Beach CVB, for dinner by an open fire pit inside the newly renovated Long Beach Airport. The warm glow from tiki torches lining the airport's indoor boardwalk backlit our smorgasbord. We sampled favorites from local eateries with outlets housed inside the airport: skewered lamb and fresh pita from George's Greek Café, sliders from McKenna's Burger Bar, and delectable cakes and cookies from Sweet Jill's Bakery.
After a rejuvenating rest at the stunning, 469-room Westin Long Beach Hotel, we started our first day bright and early with a hotel tour. First up, our host hotel — home to the largest ballroom of any Long Beach hotel and offering more than 51,000 square feet of indoor meeting space. From the Westin, we moved on to the 360-room Renaissance Long Beach Hotel, with an impressive lobby bar, SIP Lounge. Next, we visited the trendy, 138-room Hyatt the Pike, with versatile meeting space punctuated by bright greens and deep purples, and the elegant, 538-room Hyatt Regency Long Beach, offering 22,000 square feet of meeting space with breathtaking views of the city.
Later that day came the crux of our visit — the unveiling of the new Pacific Ballroom at the Long Beach Arena. Completely revamped, the arena — originally built in the 1960s for sporting events — was transformed into a state-of-the-art meeting facility last year. The new, 45,000-square-foot ballroom is equipped with LED lighting and cutting-edge audio capabilities, plus a “technical ceiling” that allows organizers to completely reinvent the room. “We were really inspired by the way TED uses space,” said Long Beach CVB President and CEO Steve Goodling. The annual TED conference has been hosted in Long Beach for the past five years, but will move to Vancouver in 2014 and 2015. “I think they'll be back when they see what we have,” said Charlie Beirne, general manager of the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center. So far, the renovated arena has booked $29 million in economic impact for the city. Beirne said: “The new ballroom gives us a competitive edge.”
During the launch party, the ballroom buzzed with excitement — blue and purple and green lights filled the room, and AV booths and food stands lined the perimeter. Demonstrating how versatile the space is, halfway through the party, organizers lifted the back “wall” and the ballroom nearly doubled in size. In the back was a stage where William Close and the Earth Harp Collective played; the experimental band includes a harp that fills an entire room. Music floated throughout the vast ballroom space as the harp's strings reverberated above our heads, secured tightly to the floating tension grid.
After the excitement at the arena, it was nice to unwind by the water the following morning, enjoying authentic chilaquiles at Hotel Maya, a boutique resort overlooking the Long Beach coastline. Before heading to lunch, we stopped by the Aquarium of the Pacific, where we explored the new Wonders of the Deep exhibit, then toured the Hilton Long Beach & Executive Meeting Center, home to a variety of meeting rooms capable of hosting anywhere from 10 to 1,400 people, and to the 9,730-square-foot Castleton Ballroom.
For lunch, I enjoyed a grilled cauliflower steak at James Republic, an organic and sustainable restaurant in the heart of Long Beach, before hopping into a gondola to explore the canals of Naples Island. When we attended CHILL later that night -hosted by The Queen Mary, a historic cruise liner and military ship turned event space — we decided to gorge on all things fried, including snickers and Oreos, before tubing down large ice slides. After witnessing how much the hotels and event spaces have remade themselves, it wasn't shocking that Long Beach could transform into a winter wonderland. This city is constantly reinventing itself. While I might not have known what to expect, Long Beach was a most pleasant surprise.