Greater Palm Springs is Brimming with Ethnic Culture

Greater Palm Springs boasts plenty of Native American, Latino attractions

The legendary attractions of Palm Springs, California, haven’t changed much in the 106 years since the Desert Inn opened up Coachella Valley for tourism. Golf courses, tennis courts and swimming pools splatter the beige desert sand with bright flecks of color. Hollywood A-listers still turn up for the annual Palm Springs International Film Festival and retirees putter about with sunburned smiles.

Dig deeper, though, and Greater Palm Springs reveals itself as the hotbed of Native American culture in Southern California, and a gateway to the Southwest. During the last two decades, native tribal culture has made an energetic comeback, sparked in part by the self-pride that has come with casino ownership.

This cultural comeback is most apparent among the Cahuilla tribe, who live on nine reservations in the area. Groups and meeting planners looking for a rich cultural experience to augment their team building will find plenty of choices in the region’s vibrant ethnic attractions.

“Embracing the rich Native American culture and incorporating the stunning natural beauty, Greater Palm Springs is an inspirational backdrop for groups.” says Joyce Kiehl, director of communications for Greater Palm Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Located entirely in Riverside County, the Palm Springs region stretches from Cabazon, home of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians; through Palm Springs, where the Cahuilla reside; and out to Indio and Coachella. Each of the tiny communities—from posh Palm Desert to funky Joshua Tree and Desert Hot Springs, the spa city—has something to recommend in Native American and Latino attractions, as well as other under-the-radar features.

greater palm springsPalm Springs Convention Center

Center of the Action

The hub of activity is downtown Palm Springs, which, after suffering some blight in the post-spring break years of the early ’90s, has re-emerged as a dynamic community. Restaurants, cafes and shops line the sunny streets, iconic midcentury architecture still impresses and the lively arts scene buzzes more than ever.

Palm Springs Convention Center presides over it all, and is within walking distance of more than 1,600 hotel rooms, including Renaissance Palm Springs Hotel. With 120,000 sq. ft. of carpeted space, 19 rooms of various sizes, and an event lawn and ballroom, the convention center is versatile enough for any event.

Greater Palm SpringsPalm Springs Aerial Tramway

“Groups visiting the stunning venue can experience the culture and natural beauty of Palm Springs while hiking in the natural palm oases of Indian Canyons, riding to the top of the mountain on Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, strolling through downtown at Thursday night’s VillageFest and so much more,” says James Canfield, the convention center’s executive director.

Downtown Palm Springs is also the place to begin any tour of local Native American culture. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, descendants of the original settlers of the valley, is still the main landowner in Palm Springs. The wealth and prestige the tribe has acquired have empowered it to give back to the community in the form of cultural awareness. Agua Caliente Cultural Museum houses permanent and rotating exhibits that highlight Cahuilla’s history and culture.

“Our cultural festivals offer insights into many traditional Indian ways and increase awareness, understanding and appreciation of issues facing indigenous people from around the globe,” says Executive Director Michael Hammond.

Greater Palm SpringsBird Song & Dance Festival, Palm Springs

Each March, the museum also hosts the six-day Native FilmFest, a leading celebration of movies by and about Native Americans. Bird Song & Dance Festival, a daylong event at the end of January, attracts more than 500 Native American participants who perform in traditional regalia. Group discounts are available on program fees and museum store purchases. To schedule a group activity, contact the museum.

There are many other possibilities to experience the best of Palm Springs through its ethnic communities. They cover everything from group visits to indoor attractions on the hottest days of the year to outdoor adventures on sunny winter afternoons.

Greater Palm SpringsDesert Adventures jeep tour

Exciting Outdoor Options

Groups that are interested in being immersed in local lore should begin with Tahquitz Canyon, just outside of downtown Palm Springs. Home to the Cahuilla for millennia, it is also the site of their powerful creation myth. Legend has it that immortal shaman Tahquitz also controls the earthquakes in the region, so make nice and take a ranger-guided group interpretive hike.

Nearby Indian Canyons, also Cahuilla-owned, boast a rushing year-round stream—a stark contrast to the dry surrounding desert—as well as distinctive local plants and animals, including the endangered Peninsula Big Horn Sheep. The Agua Caliente and local rangers lead tours; discounts kick in for groups of 20 or more.

Another way to see the breathtaking Indian Canyons is by Jeep. Desert Adventures leads group Jeep and hiking tours focused on indigenous lore. Desert Adventures maintains a corporate event site at Enchanted Desert, a replica Cahuilla village that is historically accurate. Call to arrange a preview before booking.

To experience the canyons at a relaxed pace, groups should consider mounting up. Smoke Tree Stables tailors group offerings, ranging from a one-hour trail ride to an all-day canyon excursion. Western-style cookouts and themed parties are other options for memorable group events.

“We have been in operation since 1927, so groups can use and experience the trails as they were back in the day,” says owner Stacey Johnson. “It is especially beneficial for group bonding because riders truly disconnect from their busy lives and become one with the horses.”

No visit to the region is complete without a ride on the iconic Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. The largest rotating tramway in the world, it rises more than 8,000 feet above the desert floor and provides spectacular views in every direction.

Both tramway stations were designed by notable midcentury architects (Albert Frey and E. Stewart Williams), and the two dining options at an 8,500-foot elevation cater to every budget. Pines Cafe is informal, while Peaks Restaurant serves fine-dining cuisine with a view. Best of the Best Tours leads aerial tramway visits customized for groups that can be combined with architecture or famous house tours.

Greater Palm SpringsPalm Springs Art Museum

Fascinating Indoor Attractions

Crowds flock every year to the region’s Native American gaming tables, which offer the opportunity for Las Vegas-style conventions. Morongo Casino Resort & Spa in Cabazon, for example, mixes productive business meetings with casino gambling, headliner entertainment and award-winning restaurants.

Near the Morongo reservation sits Malki Museum, the oldest museum in California founded by reservation natives. Besides preserving the local culture, it hosts a wide variety of events, including a fiesta, agave roast and Cahuilla language classes.

Located just behind the convention center, Palm Springs Art Museum has championed Native American art in the community for many years. The permanent collection includes an exhibit, Native American and Art of the West, which emphasizes Mexican and Latin American art. Working with large groups, the museum hosts events ranging from large galas to intimate cocktail receptions.

While the art museum is the most prominent museum in the area, Coachella Valley has plenty of other excellent museums that are steeped in local culture and suitable for memorable group events. Palm Springs Air Museum, for example, offers novel ways to utilize its 65,000 sq. ft. of space, filled with World War II, Korean-era and Vietnam-era aircraft. It hosts groups from 20 to several thousand, and has held costumed and themed balls, as well as black-tie and smaller cocktail receptions.

“It’s a spectacular environment because guests are right next to the vintage planes,” says Ann Greer, a representative of the museum. “Large parties and dances have been held until as late as 4 a.m. because there are no noise issues.”

Lovers of smaller, more personal museums will revel in Cabot’s Pueblo Museum in nearby Desert Hot Springs. Cabot Yerxa (see sidebar on p. 75) was a traveler and an artist who was also a human rights activist concerned with the fate of Native Americans. Yerxa’s labor of love was the pueblo-style house he began building in 1941 and worked on for the last 24 years of his life.

Visitors can tour the house as well as peruse the Native American treasures and art gallery, collected by Yerxa over a lifetime of travel.

On the opposite (eastern) end of the valley, two other events are of great interest to teams wanting authentic experiences. Indio Powwow gives visitors the chance to join tribal dancing and drumming, sample Indian fry bread and listen to bird-singing contests.

The same Empire Polo Club fields that host The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in the spring give way to hundreds of Southwestern artists in a three-day jubilee, Southwest Arts Festival, at the end of January. Groups of 50 or more attendees receive discounts. The Travel Magazine named it one of the Top 100 events in North America.

As the county seat, the city of Riverside also does much to preserve and promote native culture. The University of California, Riverside has a campus in Palm Desert that hosts a regular lecture series covering Native American topics. Groups of up to 20 can book online, but larger groups should call ahead.

Also, Riverside Metropolitan Museum has curated an exhibition titled Cahuilla Continuum that charts the history of the tribe through paintings, photographs, baskets, clothing and stories. More than 160 objects have been gathered from local, tribal and national museums, as well as private collectors. Education Curator Teresa Woodard leads group tours of the exhibit, which runs through Aug. 31, 2017.

Greater Palm SpringsCabot’s Pueblo Museum, Indian Canyons

Wrapping Up

Many attendees now want to move beyond the typical onsite experiences offered at hotels and resorts throughout the world. When not in business sessions, these attendees want to visit offsite attractions that reflect the uniqueness of destinations. In Greater Palm Springs, the many Native American and Latino attractions perfectly fit the bill.

Healing Waters

The Agua Caliente Band inherited its name from its ancestors, the original settlers of the region. The Cahuilla called the place “Se-Khi” (boiling water).

When Cabot Yerxa arrived in the desert in 1913, he had no idea what he would end up creating by digging two wells behind his homestead. The first well struck scalding hot mineral water, and the second well found a cool pure aquifer.

The spot was dubbed Miracle Hill, and the town that eventually grew around the waters became Desert Hot Springs. Today, more than two dozen hot springs, spas and hotels line the town, catering to all budgets.

Greater Palm Springs

Beyond Steak & Lobster

The Palm Springs area has a history of offering outstanding Mexican food, although many other hotels and restaurants were stuck in a meat and potatoes mode. But desert dining has improved by leaps and bounds recently, and the revitalization continues. Agriculture is the area’s second-largest industry, and farm-to-table chefs provide the same fresh ingredients found in other foodie enclaves, but with desert flair.

Chef and hotelier Tara Lazar (who, along with partner Marco Rossetti, opened Alcazar Palm Springs hotel) sets the standard by sourcing all of her ingredients from within 100 miles of her two downtown Palm Springs restaurants. Breakfast joint Cheeky’s specializes in organic eggs with flights of bacon, while Birba (next door) offers pizzas served outdoors with local braised greens and chiles.

At Lazar’s latest restaurant, Chi Chi (at Avalon Hotel), she embraces the diversity of the local native and Latino culture with enchiladas of braised collard greens, as well as Yerba Mate salad with fennel, frisee, kale and quinoa-topped queso fresco.

At Palm Springs’ Workshop Kitchen + Bar, chef Michael Beckman uses locally sourced corn, poblanos and grilled tomatillo sauce for his veggie enchilada. The restaurant also offers special arrangements and menus for group dining. Revered Palm Desert chef Pierre Pelech at Chez Pierre Bistro sources his ratatouille provencal directly from the Certified Farmers’ Markets.

While locally produced wines are found in nearby Temecula, craft beer enthusiasts can find distinctive offerings from Coachella Valley Brewing Company all over the valley. Its Phoenix lager, brewed with Medjool, dates from Hadley’s Garden (home of the famous date shakes), and its Harvester IPA uses local Sea View grapefruit to add nuance to its hoppy blend. Mayahuel Tripel blends blue agave, Persian lime and tangerine, providing a tour of the Coachella Valley in a glass, including a new 10,000-square-foot event hall.


Agua Caliente Cultural Museum

Cabot’s Pueblo Museum

Greater Palm Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau

Malki Museum, Inc.

Palm Springs Art Museum

Palm Springs Convention Center

Riverside Metropolitan Museum (Cahuilla Continuum)

Major Meeting Venues

Central Valley

Empire Polo Club
Home of the annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival; available for group rentals; 100,000 sq. ft. divided over six different areas, with largest space offering 48,000 sq. ft.

Fantasy Springs Resort & Casino Indio
Hosts annual Indio Powwow Festival; 250 guest rooms; state-of-the-art 100,000-square-foot facility provides arena seating for 3,700 guests in 50,000 sq. ft. floor space.

JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa
Set on 400 acres of man-made lakes; 884 guest rooms; 210,000 sq. ft. of meeting space divided among 28 rooms.

La Quinta Resort & Club Waldorf Astoria Resort
796 guest rooms; seven restaurants; 41 pools; 53 hot tubs; 23 tennis courts; five golf courses; more than 190,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor meeting space.

Greater Palm Springs

Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa
Located in Rancho Mirage; 444 guest rooms; restaurant; golf course; swimming pool; full-service spa; 82,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including 28 rooms.

Renaissance Indian Wells Resort & Spa
Massive resort with 560 guest rooms; multiple restaurants; sandy beach; golf courses; 120,000 sq. ft. of meetings space divided among 55 meetings rooms and 60,000-square-foot conference center.

Spotlight 29 Casino
Recently completed $52 million renovation; 5,000-square-foot Medjool Ballroom hosts events for up to 300 guests.

The Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage
Deluxe resort with 244 guest rooms; 24-hour business center; nearly 31,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor meeting space, including 12 meeting rooms.

Palm Springs

Ace Hotel & Swim Club Palm Springs
Uber-hip venue located in the former Westward Ho; two miles from downtown; 176 guest rooms; rooftop terrace; 8,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Greater Palm Springs

Avalon Hotel Palm Springs
Boutique hotel; 67 guest rooms; new Chi Chi restaurant; 24-hour fitness center; weekend yoga and meditation classes; adults-only pool; 2,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Hard Rock Hotel Palm Springs
Music-themed resort with classic guitars and amps available to jam; 163 guest rooms; 29,000-square-foot conference center; business center.

Hilton Palm Springs
At the foot of San Jacinto Mountain; 257 guest rooms; restaurant; Elements luxury day spa; 33,000 sq. ft. of event space.

Palm Springs Convention Center
Less than two miles from Palm Springs International Airport (PSP); walking distance to more than 1,600 guest rooms; 261,000 sq. ft. of event space divided among 20 rooms.

Parker Palm Springs
Chic, upscale resort set on a 13-acre complex; features decor by designer Jonathan Adler; 144 guest rooms; 11,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Renaissance Palm Springs Hotel
Attached to Palm Springs Convention Center; 410 guest rooms; restaurant; two bars; full-service spa; 30,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Riviera Palm Springs
Stunning midcentury modern landmark; 398 guest rooms; 45,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, divided among seven rooms.

Saguaro Palm Springs
Brightly colored Joie de Vivre boutique hotel located two miles from convention center; 245 guest rooms; Tinto Palm Springs is a Basque tapas restaurant; 24-hour business center; gym; free use of bikes; Olympic-size swimming pool; spa; 9,831 sq. ft. of meeting space.


Marriott Riverside at the Convention Center
Five-minute walk from the Riverside Metropolitan Museum; 292 guest rooms; restaurant; bar; outdoor swimming pool;14,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, divided among 11 rooms.

Greater Palm Springs

Mission Inn Hotel & Spa
Historic property that hosted many U.S. presidents and dignitaries; 238 guest rooms; four restaurants; features 4 million holiday lights every December; 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Riverside Convention Center
65,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space; sustainable design; LED lighting; recycling; drought-conscious landscaping; free Wi-Fi.

West Valley

Hotel Lautner
Upmarket boutique hotel in Desert Hot Springs; named to Conde Nast Traveler’s list of Top New Boutique Hotels in the World; four guest rooms; 10,000 sq. ft. of open-air event space.

Miracle Springs Resort & Spa
Located in Desert Hot Springs; famous for natural hot mineral waters with therapeutic, healing properties;110 guest rooms; eight natural mineral pools; glass-enclosed atrium; more than 10,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space.

Morongo Casino Resort & Spa
310-room property in Cabazon; 150,000 sq. ft. of gaming; 24-hour business center; spa; health club; golf course; 112,000-square-foot conference center, including 12 meeting rooms.


Smart Meetings Related Posts

headshot from left to right of cathy nelson, casandra matej, julie coker and tammy blount-canavan

Destination Profs On Getting Back to an Eventful Future

Local experts at DMOs have stepped up over the last few years to help planners and their communities navigate new challenges posed by changing realities on the ground. We asked three female destination leaders who have taken the helm at major convention and visitor bureaus to share what recovery means for them.