10 Great Drive-To Destinations

The goal of incentive travel planning is to choose as a destination a paradise worlds away from the office, with unique experiences that top performers would not likely be able to experience without pushing the extra mile for the company. But with the economy on the rocks, the dollar losing ground against foreign currencies, and air travel more troublesome than ever, many companies are keeping employees closer to home offices. Here then are Successful Meetings' top picks for resort destinations within 300 miles of the 10 largest U.S. cities that are still a special treat for guests. Pack a champagne lunch, order the luxury limo buses, and relax, knowing your attendees will be taken care of.

From: New York, NY
To: Lake George
208 miles

Nestled in New York's Adirondack Mountains are the peaceful shores of Lake George. Summertime ushers in a season of boating, sunbathing, and hiking, while cooler weather brings out stunning foliage, and winter guests enjoy ice skating and other snowy delights. At 208 miles from New York, it's one of the farthest drive-to destinations on our list, but transportation options include train as well as bus and car.

Look up "retreat" in the dictionary, and you might see a picture of The Sagamore. Originally built in 1883, the historic main property features 100 guest rooms (including 46 suites). For more seclusion, choose from a number of private lodges, or rent out the Wapanak Castle, a six-bedroom home that features five gas fireplaces and a formal dining room for intimate dinners. The resort offers a Donald Ross championship golf course, a sailing school, and a European-style spa. Best of all, the property features 26,000 square feet of meeting space, and welcomes business groups with a self-contained conference center, ballroom, boardrooms, and The Hermitage—a 10-suite enclave with its own board and hospitality rooms. The Sagamore helps organize teambuilding activities, including culinary classes, sailing classes, and challenges on an indoor ropes course that is the largest in New York State. Each program is designed to be a progressive series of activities, games, and problem solving custom-tailored to your group's goals.

From: Los Angeles, CA
To: Palm Springs
107 miles

In less than two hours, Los Angeles-based groups can be in the middle of a serene desert oasis. Palm Springs and surrounding communities, when mentioned in print, are usually prefaced with adjectives like "sun-drenched" and "magnificent." It may be the best place to find golf and spa within driving distance of Los Angeles.

The Rancho Las Palmas Marriott Resort and Spa, with 27 holes of Ted Robinson-designed championship golf, a stunning 20,000-square-foot spa, 25 tennis courts, and an on site water park featuring a 425-foot lazy river and two 100-foot waterslides, definitely fits the bill. Successful Meetings' readers seem to agree, giving the property 17 Pinnacle Awards over the years. Cecilia Stenger, manager of trade shows and events for Wonderware, says the property is "not a bad drive" from head offices in Lake Forest, CA, in Orange County. After holding the company's annual sales and marketing conference there in 2007, she will be returning in 2009.

"Rancho Las Palmas is an amazing property with the most courteous, attentive staff," adds Nikki Benatovich, meeting planner for Easton-Bell Sports, based in Van Nuys, CA, who took a group of 100 there in 2006 and plans a return visit this fall. "Our November 2006 program was a huge success, and I know our October program will be as well." Benatovich highly recommends the property for its great golf course and proximity to nearby restaurants and entertainment. "It's nice for us 'locals' to drive two hours and feel like we are actually away," she says.

From: Chicago, IL
To: Lake Geneva, WI
83 miles

It's time to take a second look at Lake Geneva. The area surrounding Wisconsin's second-deepest lake is sometimes called "the Hamptons of the Midwest." An eight-time Pinnacle Award winner, the Grand Geneva Golf Resort and Spa, in Lake Geneva, WI, offers 355 guest rooms, three restaurants, and 62,000 square feet of event space.

As the only four-diamond resort in the area, the Grand Geneva is a standout for regional incentives. The architecture, inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, sets clean modern lines against a picturesque backdrop of Wisconsin countryside. A 44,000-square-foot spa and sport center nourishes mind, body, and soul, and two golf courses, one Scottish style and the other a challenging course named "The Brute," offer 36 top-ranked holes. Horseback riding, rock climbing, hiking trails, a water park, and winter sports like snowboarding and skiing are also on offer. The property features 62,000 square feet of function space, including 35 breakout rooms, a grand ballroom, ski chalet, and a new 12,000-square-foot conference center with a private break area.

From: Houston, TX
To: Lake Charles, LA
143 miles

Texas is so big that it's hard to find a drivable destination that doesn't look exactly like, well, more Texas. But the town of Lake Charles, LA, brings a little flavor of the Big Easy closer to Houston residents. The city is known as the festival capital of Louisiana, with 75 annual events.

With 1,000 rooms, L'Auberge du Lac Casino Resort sits on 242 acres next to a 16-slip marina. The property opened in 2005 and debuted an additional tower of 250 rooms early this year. The Vegas-style casino spans 30,000 square feet, and a Tom Fazio-designed 18-hole championship golf course continues the fun outdoors. Adults-only sections of the pool area have a swim-up bar and are available for guests needing some peace and quiet; a spa and fitness center offers further seclusion. The property attracts a ton of groups from Houston looking for fun as well as a place to meet, says spokeswoman Kerry Andersen. The property features 26,000 square feet of meeting and event space, including a ballroom that can accommodate 1,500 theater-style. Off property, there are plenty of options for groups.

From: Phoenix, AZ
To: Puerto Penasco, Mexico
215 miles

A Mexican beach resort you can drive to? If your group is from Phoenix, you can. Across the U.S. border is Puerto Penasco on the stunning Gulf of California. Nearby are El Malecon/Old Port; Cet-Mar Aquarium; the Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans (CEDO), founded by a Tucson-based marine biologist; the beach of Las Conchas; Bird Island; and Cholla Bay. The gulf, also known as the Sea of Cortez, is renowned for its abundant marine life, including sea lions, dolphins, and whales as well as giant manta rays and sea turtles. World-class sport fishing, boating, sailing, swimming, scuba diving, and snorkeling activities are all available to groups. The best rooms in the area are the 430 luxury oceanfront suites at the Las Palomas Beach and Golf Resort. The property, boasting a private beach, seaside gardens, an infinity-edge pool, and an 18-hole golf course, also offers up 5,000 square feet of indoor meeting and event space. A 34,000-square-foot luxury spa opened earlier this year with 20 treatment rooms. Four-diamond gourmet meals at La Maria Bistro & Fine Cuisine, and French delicacies at the new Citron Restaurant are prepared by some of Mexico's most acclaimed chefs.

From: Philadelphia, PA
To: Atlantic City, NJ
62 miles

Maybe you've seen Atlantic City, but you've never seen it like this. New Vegas-style developments are bringing to the popular gaming destination sophistication and more entertainment and dining options than ever before.

Fresh off a June 27 opening, the 800-room Water Club—adjacent to the Atlantic City favorite and three-time Pinnacle Award winner Borgata Hotel, Casino & Spa—offers up five pools, a two-floor spa, and 18,000 square feet of meeting space. And with a staff ratio of one employee per room, the Water Club offers a sense of luxury and high-touch service for even the largest group. Famed chef Geoffrey Zakarian designed the in-room dining menus and banquet menus with fresh, French inclinations. The 1,000-seat Music Box theater is a regular stop on the entertainment circuit. Combined with the casino and seven first-class restaurants at the Borgata, the complex offers so much for groups that the free shuttle to the Boardwalk may go unnoticed. The property is a standout for the city, so attendees who may have been to Atlantic City before will still have a new and exciting experience.

From: San Antonio, TX
To: Galveston Island
255 miles

Galveston Island offers 32 miles of sandy beaches, fishing, the Lone Star Flight Museum, Railroad Museum, and The Strand Historic District, with a mix of shops, restaurants, pubs, and art galleries.

It's hard to miss Galveston's 428-room Moody Gardens Hotel, Spa, and Convention Center. Just look for the giant glass pyramids that jut up from the island, containing a rainforest, an aquarium, and an IMAX theater. The botanical setting created by the hotel brings a little of the tropics to Texas, making it a good alternative to a trip further south. The recently renovated Moody Gardens Golf Course, formerly known as the Galveston Municipal Golf Course, was given a $14 million redesign by Jacobsen Hardy Golf Course Design. A comprehensive spa gives attendees a place to unwind. An on site convention center offers up 100,000 square feet of flexible event space, and two on site restaurants have options for private dining. But the real star of the Moody Gardens is the entertainment scene—in addition to the pyramid parks, a new indoor/outdoor water park opened recently adjacent to the resort.

From: San Diego, CA
To: Tecate, Mexico
45 miles

If you head south across the border from San Diego, the prospects of a luxury resort seem dim. But keep driving, just past the wild border town of Tijuana, and you'll find the peaceful town of Tecate. The 3,000-acre Rancho La Puerta there has been voted best spa in Mexico by Luxury SpaFinder magazine, ranked among the top 15 destination spas by Travel + Leisure, and given top rankings by Zagat. Best of all, it's less than one hour from San Diego.

This sanctuary of healthy living has long been a tricky option for groups, as the focus on rest and relaxation requires guests to stay a full week at the property. But, in June, Rancho La Puerta launched a reasonably priced "Saturday at the Ranch" program for the San Diego market. "It includes complimentary transportation from a central location in San Diego, followed by the choice of several fitness classes, lunch, a hands-on cooking class, dinner, and transportation back to San Diego," says spokeswoman Roma Maxwell. Groups are limited to 20, and attendees need to bring a valid passport or birth certificate to cross the border. For guests who stay at the property, there are 87 private villas, each uniquely designed and featuring wood-burning stoves and fireplaces. Daily guided hiking trips, organic cooking using ingredients from the property's farm, and a focus on wellness and relaxation create the perfect getaway.

From: Dallas, TX
To: Austin
197 miles

Escaping the steel and glass kingdom of Dallas is easy when heading south toward Austin. Texas Hill Country is remarkably different than the capital, with rolling green hills and with temperatures as much as 10 degrees cooler than in other parts of the state. The region is also known as Texas wine country, and the New York Times named it "the number-one vacation spot in the nation" this year. The nearby four- diamond Barton Creek Resort and Spa offers the number-one- and number-two-ranked golf courses in the state, and a top-notch spa.

Linda Vest, event planner for State Farm in Dallas, is a regular patron of the property's meeting facilities, bringing groups ranging in size from 30 to 150. "It's centrally located," Vest says, adding that the attention to detail and service make it an appropriate location for VIP and executive groups. "It's an extraordinary place, with great amenities." Beyond golf and spa, the 303-room Barton Creek offers 4,000 acres of Texas Hill Country, 11 tennis courts, indoor and outdoor pools, a miniature golf course, and four restaurants. The property is near enough to downtown Austin for group members to take in the lively music scene, and enjoy top restaurants, retail shops, and museums. Back on property, there is more than 43,000 square feet of flexible meeting space, including the 8,240-square-foot Darrell Royal Ballroom and a tiered, 126-seat amphitheater.

From: San Jose, CA
To: Lake Tahoe
231 miles

America's largest alpine lake, Lake Tahoe is the natural choice for San Jose-based groups. Set against the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains, the lake is a national treasure. A visit to its pristine stillness can bring to mind the high hopes of would-be miners rushing to find silver riches, or induce shivers after hearing the story of Donner Pass. It's a totally different environment from nearby San Jose, CA.

Seven-time Pinnacle Award winner Harrah's/Harveys Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa, and Casino offers 1,265 rooms and suites and over 42,000 square feet of meeting space. Harveys was the first hotel-casino to be built in South Lake Tahoe, but the property is anything but dated. The four-diamond property offers a world-class casino, top-ranked spa, numerous restaurants and live entertainment. Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course and the Heavenly Ski Resort are both nearby. Noting the impact of high fuel prices, the property is offering $50 in gas credits to guests that stay a minimum of two midweek nights, making it a sweet deal for drive-in groups.

Originally published Sept. 1, 2008

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