When it comes to Bay Area destinations, Oakland has made a name for itself, with a slew of major developments and thriving art, culture and food scenes. San Francisco may be known as "The City" for Bay Area residents, but Oakland is known as "The Town."
Visit Oakland recently hosted a "fum" trip — the destination management organization's fun version of a fam — to allow a group planners from across the country to experience what the city has to offer. A major selling point for planners is its diversity: Oakland is one of the nation's most diverse cities, with more than 125 languages spoken throughout.
LaToya Williams, a Buffalo, New York-based independent planner who works with HelmsBriscoe, raved about Oakland's diversity. "It is absolutely a melting pot," she enthused. "If you want to see limitless diversity, inclusion and team-building, this is the place."
The city is conveniently accessible via the Oakland International Airport, which offers 300 flights daily — and additional travel options abound, given the proximity to the larger San Francisco International Airport. Accessibility is a major selling point for the destination.
Those living in Oakland -- both natives and transplants -- truly take pride in the city and being a part of the local, inclusive community. Maria Maddock, a global accounts manager for HelmsBriscoe, remarked that Oakland is an appealing event destination for her, given the allure of the Bay Area and the fact it's a more cost-effective option than San Francisco. But what surprised her the most upon visiting Oakland is the city's "small-town charm" -- she loves meeting Oakland natives who are so filled with hometown pride.
Oakland's Food Scene
The city's multicultural food scene is thriving. In a 2018 article, Eater made that clear when it set the record straight that the Bay Area's "most dynamic dining scene" isn't San Francisco -- it's Oakland. The cuisine is diverse and the local chefs are proud to promote the city through local ingredients and native cuisine. Notable restaurants range from small eateries to fine dining, from Bakesale Betty's, Burma Superstar and Homeroom to Lake Chalet, Mägo and Cosecha.
Recently opened is Sobre Mesa, the brainchild of chef Nelson German, who already owns the acclaimed alaMar. With Sobre Mesa, Chef Nelson steers away from entrees to focus on cocktails and tapas-style plates — each small plate can be perfectly paired with a cocktail. His inspiration comes from Latin American countries like the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico.
Visit Oakland's fum trip featured a group experience on the opening night of chef Nelson's new restaurant. Planners got to sit together in a private booth and experience the masterfully prepared small bites, each paired with an accompanying beverage.
An Oakland culinary staple is chef Tanya Holland's Brown Sugar Kitchen. The restaurant, which is available for private events and buyout opportunities, features a soul food menu but with Chef Tanya's special twist to it: Cornmeal waffles, classic buttermilk fried chicken, biscuits, beignets and cheesy grits are just some of the decadent dishes on the menu. One fum trip attendee (jokingly) volunteered to set up shop and live at the restaurant -- true testament to the allure of the food and ambience.
"The food reminds me of home," said planner LaToya Williams. "Buffalo is known for food, and known for the diverse options in the food scene. Here you see so many local chefs, using locally sourced ingredients — and then pairing with a beverage can be wonderfully surprising."
Event Spaces in Oakland
Most of the aforementioned spaces are available for groups, as well. Sobre Mesa and Brown Sugar Kitchen, for instance, are both available for private events. Lake Chalet has multiple private dining rooms and an outdoor fire pit lounge that can also be turned into an event space.
Oakland also has a slew of hotels that are well-equipped for events. Oakland Marriott City Center, just a short walk from the Oakland Convention Center, has 37 meeting rooms and more than 100,000 square feet of total event space, with the largest space able to accommodate 7,900 guests. In the center of Jack London Square, Waterfront Hotel is, as the name suggests, on the water. The 145-room property has 13 event and meeting spaces, many of which offer waterfront views.
Claremont Hotel Club & Spa sits on the border of Oakland and the neighboring city of Berkley. The historic 276-room property recently underwent a four-year, $80 million renovation. With more than 20,000 square feet of event space, the resort can cater to groups of all sizes, from intimate gatherings in the Hillary Tenzing Room to larger parties in the Claremont Ballroom. What makes the property truly one of a kind for events is its expansive Bay views. With great on-property dining options (Limewood is the signature restaurant, and East Bay Provisions offers quick eats for attendees on the go) and a world-class health club, Claremont is really a destination within a destination.
Claremont Hotel Club & Spa also has an Adventures & Experiences team, which can coordinate activities from wellness classes and sewing challenges to food-truck-related team-building. Following a light, healthy breakfast of fresh fruit, protein balls and juice shots, Visit Oakland coordinated a low-impact hike just beyond hotel grounds, offering tremendous views of the skyline.
Things to Do in Oakland
Oakland offers a wide variety of one-of-a-kind activities to groups. Wine enthusiasts can hop onto Oakland's Urban Wine Trail, where the wineries are in renovated warehouses. One featured on the trail is Brooklyn West Winery, which can accommodate small- and mid-sized groups of up to 30 for a seated dinner or up to 60 for a cocktail party. It's also a great option to source local wine, as the team is fluent in all things wine and can assist in pairings as well as explain the science and why certain wines work better with specific dishes. For those who aren't into wine, the Oakland Ale Trail might be just the thing.
To get involved on a local level, consider a group mural activity. Murals are big in Oakland, with the streets of the city estimated to showcase more than 1,000 of them. Painting a mural is a great example of a local team-building activity; not only is it engaging for groups, but it also spotlights the importance of businesses giving back to the local community.
The bonding experience is exactly what planners received on the recent fum trip. Dressed in ponchos and equipped with a can of spray paint, everyone got to let loose and show their creative side. The instructors thoughtfully trained planners how to hold a can and how to create thick and thin strokes. Planners loved getting the opportunity to leave their mark on the walls of Oakland in what they called a "once-in-a-lifetime experience."
To provide this unique opportunity, Visit Oakland paired up with Dragon School — a nonprofit that holds outdoor mural sessions. It's run by a group of artists who are also skilled instructors and can demonstrate to your attendees how to dabble in basic graffiti art. "We use art and creativity to build a shared community identity based on collective experiences," notes the company's site. "When a common goal is shared, unity is strengthened by diversity."
For an interactive, Instagram-friendly activity, nothing beats The 90's Experience. The "Instagram" museum, which is available until Sept. 2020, has 6,000 square feet of curated exhibits from more than 20 local artists and contributors. Groups can touch, feel, see, hear and smell the 1990s there. The entire space can also be rented by the hour for private events. There's a Lisa Frank room, a chance to relive an iconic scene from "The Titanic," and plenty more. Visit Oakland coordinated a private experience in the pop-up museum so planners and their families could roam freely and get social media-perfect photo-ops.
To take a deep dive into Oakland's past and present, consider The Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) — an interdisciplinary museum that brings art, history and natural sciences under one roof. The 300,000-square-foot museum opened its doors in 1969. Coming soon to the museum are exhibits such as "You Are Here: California Stories on the Map" and "Hella Feminist." OMCA has space for private events and also offers private docent tours for groups of ten or more, by request.
Visit Oakland provided a true treat for planners on the fum trip by transforming a luxurious Airbnb home into an event space. The evening spotlighted how planners can create a great event in Oakland using local talent.
The ambience was set with live music from OakTown Jazz, a nonprofit organization dedicated to passing the tradition of jazz music to today's youth. Students can partake in private performances at events. For planners, hiring OakTown Jazz gets you great entertainment and supports the local community.
The meal was prepared by yet another local celebrity chef, Tu David Phu. A contestant in Season 15 of Bravo's "Top Chef," he specializes in Vietnamese-American cuisine and hosts pop-ups and private events in the area. Chef Tu prepared a menu inspired by Oakland's neighborhoods and their individual personalities: Vietnamese bread pudding, Pho-flavored beef short rib, kimchi-cured salmon and parmesan flan were a few of the items. Chef Tu is opening a restaurant soon in the Oakland area.
Over the course of the fum trip, Visit Oakland demonstrated a commitment to relationships — to the community, to local businesses and the planners they work with.
Oakland's undeniable charm, unbeatable diversity and strong sense of community had planners gushing. Each planner left learning something new and surprising about the city. "When people think California, some may not consider Oakland," said Williams. "I would say not only consider it, but experience it and spread the word that it is a great location and all are welcome."
To see social media coverage of Oakland, follow #NMGtakesOAKLAND on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. To learn more about meetings in Oakland, check out our destination guide and head over to Visit Oakland.