It’s easy to think of Texas as simply another big state sprinkled with a handful of stereotypes.
Yes, it’s true that Texas offers heaping helpings of meals, hospitality, cowboy culture and bigness. After all, the Lone Star State is larger and more populous than dozens of nations. But don’t see Texas through generic perceptions.
The state is full of diverse destinations with their own unique offerings for association planners and attendees. Options range from Austin, with its 250 music venues to Fort Worth, which features the world’s only twice-daily cattle drive.
The state’s destination diversity and ability to meet the needs of all types of meetings large and small are big reasons why associations meet in Texas again and again.
“Dallas features an abundance of hotel options at every price point, making it easy to find a hotel or multiple hotels that fit an association’s needs and budget.” Beverly Brin, DMCP
The city booked 816,023 room nights last year, a 6% increase over the previous year. It was the fourth consecutive year of room-night increases.
Houston also attracted 19 million domestic visitors last year, an increase of 10% over the previous year. Meanwhile, the number of booked conventions and meetings last year jumped to 498 from 429.
Houston expects to attract even more meetings this year, including the annual conference of the American Association of Diabetes Educators (AADE). According to Gregg Lapin, CMP, the AADE’s director of meeting services, “We anticipate 5,000 attendees of educators, exhibitors and guests. We will be at the George R. Brown Convention Center (GRBCC) and 14 hotels, most within walking distance of the center.”
Like many associations, the AADE will be a repeat customer for Houston. “This will be our first time in Houston, but we have already contracted to hold a meeting there in four years,” Lapin says. ”It’s a great overall package of hotels, airlift, convention center and affordability. We are very happy with the value we are receiving.”
The AADE’s meeting hotels include the Hilton Americas-Houston, which plans to undergo an extensive $37 million makeover that will include new color, design, artwork and technology for all 1,207 guest rooms.
The Hilton Americas, which connects to the GRBCC via an indoor skywalk, offers 91,500 sf of meeting space. Known for its exquisite service, the AAA Four-Diamond property received the Hilton Brand Award of Excellence last year, the only Hilton property worldwide to have won the honor eight consecutive years.
The Big D is on the destination rotation list of many associations because it continues to offer more of everything planners need for successful meetings, including value.
The cost of doing business is Dallas is 7% lower than the national average. Visit Dallas touts the destination’s affordability with the slogan “Your Dollar Goes Further in Dallas.” Another Dallas marketing tagline, “Big Things Happen Here,” applies to its sizable and growing hotel inventory.
According to Beverly Brin, DMCP, general manager of Ultimate Ventures, a Fort Worth-based DMC, “Dallas features an abundance of hotel options at every price point, making it easy to find a hotel or multiple hotels that fit an association’s needs and budget. In fact, there are over 80,000 hotel rooms in Dallas alone.”
Dallas has more than 30 new, renovated and expanded hotel projects underway, including the following:
The Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center’s Glass Cactus event venue is a lakeside meeting and special events space that has undergone a $7 million renovation.
The reimagined, 43,000-sf venue offers a large stage accommodating 1,500 attendees as well as a customizable event experience, all-new interior décor and catering stations. Glass Cactus also seats 465 classroom-style, 830 theater-style and 450 in the round.
Located on the shores of Lake Grapevine, the Gaylord is Texas personified with 490,000 sf of event space, 10 restaurants and 4.5 acres of indoor gardens.
Earlier this year The Westin Irving Convention Center at Las Colinas opened next to the Irving Convention Center in the heart of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. The 350-room complex includes 30,000 sf of meeting space and a 10,000-sf “event lawn” between the hotel and the Toyota Music Factory retail and entertainment center.
Popular Dallas meeting hotels include the Omni Dallas Hotel, which connects via sky bridge to the Dallas Convention Center (DCC). The Omni offers 1,001 guest rooms and suites as well as 130,000 sf of meeting and event space.
The 606-room Hilton Anatole, located in the lively Design District a few miles from downtown Dallas, offers 500,000 sf of function space, including 11 ballrooms and 79 meeting rooms. Other meeting hotels include the Hyatt Regency Dallas and the Sheraton Dallas Hotel by the Galleria.
El Paso continues to offer more of everything planners need, including value, venues and meetings infrastructure.
The city is making a multimillion-dollar investment in revitalizing downtown, including a multipurpose performing arts center, Hispanic cultural center and new and improved parks.
No wonder groups such as the Texas Planning Association, Texas Chapter (APATexas) are repeat visitors.
According to Mike McAnelly, FAICP, PTP, executive administrator and planner, APATexas, “We have returned to El Paso over the years because our conferences there have been enjoyable, our members like going there and we want to give support to our members in West and Northwest Texas.”
APATexas will hold its annual convention in El Paso later this year at the El Paso Convention Center (EPCC). Repeat visits to El Paso began after the destination stepped in at the last minute to provide meeting space following a disaster.
The APATexas was scheduled to hold its meeting in Galveston in 2009 when Hurricane Ike hit the island. “Our West Texas Section and the City of El Paso stepped up to be a short-notice substitute, hosting our conference after Hurricane Ike destroyed Galveston,” McAnelly says.
The meeting was moved to El Paso’s Camino Real Hotel, now undergoing renovation and scheduled to reopen next year as the Hotel Paso del Norte by Marriott.
El Paso’s meeting space and expanding guest room space also attracted the APATexas.
“The EPCC meets our space needs very well, and the Camino Real Hotel was a great conference hotel and will be so again when it’s completed,” McAnelly says. “Not having other conference hotels within walking distance of the convention center was previously a limitation, but new hotel development is removing that limitation.”
El Paso’s value is a big plus. “The CVB provides significant grant funds to make holding the conference in El Paso financially viable,” McAnelly says. “Hotel prices and F&B costs are reasonable. Air travel to El Paso from other Texas cities is convenient and reasonably priced.”
While APATexas was a repeat visitor to El Paso, the South West Transit Association (SWTA) held its first meeting in the destination earlier this year.
“We move our meeting among eight states and multiple cities, says Kristen Joyner, SWTA executive director and planner of the conference. “El Paso was a choice because we had not been there before. It’s a wonderful city to hold a meeting of our size.”
The meeting included 600 transportation employees and executives who met at the EPCC, which draws raves from Joyner. “The space in the center was excellent for our group,” Joyner says. “It has plenty of space for breakouts and the general session. The expo was our largest and most successful in 12 years.”
The SWTA also chose El Paso because the city’s transportation infrastructure matched the organization’s professional interests.
“El Paso has a vibrant, thriving and innovative public transportation system that includes authentic 1930s streetcars and progressive bus rapid transit mobility options,” Joyner says. “The entire city of El Paso is involved in transformation and revitalization.”
The location of the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel El Paso Downtown, the SWTA’s headquarters hotel, was another factor.
“The Doubletree is within walking distance of the convention center,” Joyner says. “The breakfast meeting held at the Doubletree was stunning. It is a space that allows participants to see the entire city and appreciate the beauty of the mountains.”
In addition, several El Paso organizations pitched in to support the SWTA’s conference. “We received great value from our partnerships with the hotel, the CVB, the convention center and the transit system” Joyner says.
Attendees thoroughly enjoyed the meeting, although a sudden change in weather nearly ruined an outdoor event.
“We were set to have an outdoor event in the Arts Festival Plaza, but the March winds blew in the day before the event and we had only 24 hours to create a suitable substitute for our attendees,” Joyner says. “With the help of the CVB and the convention center, we were able to secure the lobby of the beautiful Plaza Theatre, which I highly recommend due to the beautiful architecture and history. The food and additional entertainment all worked together to make our attendees feel this venue was the first choice, not an emergency back-up.”
There was a time when Fort Worth was overshadowed by neighboring Dallas, which dominated the area’s meetings industry. Not anymore. These days Fort Worth more than holds its own.
Known as the “City of Cowboys and Culture,” Fort Worth is laid-back but animated, urbane but unpretentious. Attendees can enjoy 92 attractions within a 10-mile radius, including authentic cattle drives.
JJ Colburn, CAE, president of Austin, Texas-based Strategic Association Management and executive director of the Science Teachers Association of Texas, says Fort Worth’s diverse mix of modern and traditional makes it an attractive destination for conferences.
“The city and its venues provide all of the experiences you’d want and expect from a large city, but it has somehow maintained the familiarity and adaptability you’d expect from a smaller community,” Colburn says.
Colburn says one of Fort Worth’s best-kept secrets is its world-class experiences in museums, art, music and dining.
“We partnered with a local museum to host a private, offsite evening event for nearly 2,000 people,” Colburn says. “Additionally, attendees experienced educational excursions during the day to other museums, botanical gardens and glass blowing classes.”
Some attendees are surprised by all that Fort Worth offers. “People who aren’t familiar with Fort Worth don’t expect it or plan for it appropriately,” Colburn says. “One of our speakers from out of state stayed an extra day to explore the incredible museums and venues in the area.”
In addition to culture, Fort Worth offers ample guest rooms and meeting space.
Properties near the Fort Worth Convention Center (FWCC) include the Omni Fort Worth Hotel, the Hilton Fort Worth and the Sheraton Fort Worth Downtown Hotel, located a short drive from the iconic Fort Worth Stockyards.
Another property, The Worthington Renaissance Fort Worth Hotel, a four-star luxury property located downtown, offers 53,000 sf of meeting space.
Galveston Island, located 50 miles from Houston, offers 32 miles of beaches, amusements and plenty of opportunities for planners and groups.
Meeting facilities are headlined by the Galveston Island Convention Center (GICC) at The San Luis Resort and Moody Gardens Hotel Spa & Convention Center (MGCC), a four-diamond facility with 418 guest rooms and suites and more than 103,000 sf of meeting space.
The MGCC hosted the annual meeting of the Texas Association of School Business Officials (TASBO), which included 1,190 attendees. It was TASBO’s first meeting at Moody Gardens, which the group chose because it would help achieve several meeting objectives, says Becky Bunte, CAE, CTSBO, deputy executive director and planner.
“We wanted this to be a family friendly event,” Bunte says. “School business officials work long hours and we wanted them to be able to bring their families. Families had plenty of fun activities on property and then could join the attendees for lunch.”
The size, location and configuration of Moody Garden’s meeting space was also attractive. “The space was perfect for our meeting needs,” Bunte says. “The learning environment was great, and it was easy to find courses and sessions.”
In addition to meeting-compatible space, Moody Gardens fit TASBO’s budget. “Our attendees and TASBO officials thought the value was great,” Bunte says. “The CVB helped us plan offsite dinners and provided marketing materials.”
Away from meetings, attendees enjoyed a range functions, activities and entertainment. “We had a golf tournament at Moody Gardens Golf Course that was very successful,” Bunte says. “Staff was easy to work with and helped us make this a fun event. We had an evening event onsite at Moody Gardens.”
Austin, the music capital of Texas, has much more to offer planners and attendees than a seemingly endless number of live music venues. Austin, also the state capital of Texas, is an inland city bordering the Hill Country region. Home to the University of Texas flagship campus, Austin is known for its eclectic live-music scene centered around country, blues and rock. Its many parks and lakes are popular for hiking, biking, swimming and boating. South of the city, Formula One’s Circuit of the Americas raceway has hosted the United States Grand Prix.
Austin also has 11,000 downtown hotel rooms and plans to add another 1,000 over the next year.
Current meeting hotels include the new Hilton Austin, which connects via an overhead walkway to the fourth floor of the Austin Convention Center (ACC). The walkway construction project includes a new 1,891-sf outdoor terrace on the sixth floor.
Other convention hotels include the new Fairmont Austin and the JW Marriott Austin, both located near the ACC. Austin will get another convention hotel when the 613-room Austin Marriott Downtown opens next year with 64,000 sf of meeting space.
In addition, Kalahari Resorts & Conventions Round Rock opens next year in Round Rock, Texas, just outside Austin. The 350-acre resort will feature a 40,000-sf ballroom and a 22,000-sf ballroom.
San Antonio, one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities, celebrated its 300th anniversary last year while renovating and opening several properties, including the 1,003-room Grand Hyatt San Antonio, which finished its $19 million upgrade.
The Grand Hyatt’s renovation included guest rooms, meeting spaces, lobby, corridors and the bar. In addition, the hotel’s meeting space was updated with advanced lighting, modern reader boards state-of-the-art A/V technology and free wireless high-speed internet.
The Grand Hyatt sits adjacent to the Henry B. González Convention Center (HBGCC) which has hosted more than 5,000 meetings, including the Property & Liability Resource Bureau’s (PLRB) annual claims conference, which attracted 1,665 attendees and 1,320 exhibitors. The San Antonio Marriott Rivercenter and San Antonio Marriott Riverwalk served as headquarter hotels.
It was the PLRB conference’s third meeting at the HBGCC, and for several reasons.
According to Valerie Berka, PLRB senior meetings manager, “San Antonio is a good fit for our conference. Many hotels are a short walk to the convention center, and the meeting and exhibit spaces are centralized.”
The layout of the HBGCC, which offers 15,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting space encompassing 13 flexible indoor and outdoor venues, matched the PLRB’s needs.
“The flow of the convention center works very well for our meeting,” Berka says. “There are plenty of meeting rooms for our 100 educational sessions. Wide hallways allow attendees to network and the exhibitor floor is spacious with minimal pillars.”
Hospitality, good service and a range of activities also contributed to the PLRB’s choice of the Alamo City. “The people of San Antonio are very warm and hospitable to guests, and the city has many options for dinners and entertainment unique to San Antonio,” Berka says.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBF) has held its annual convention in San Antonio several times and is returning next year with about 8,000 attendees and a 300,000-sf trade show. San Antonio is ideally located for NCBF’s convention.
According to Kristin Torres, the NCBF’s executive director, meetings and events, “A large portion of our attendees are from Texas, and San Antonio is one of the cities within the state that they enjoy visiting. Also, it is a short drive from the airport, making travel easy for attendees.”
Additionally, the HBGCC’s service is a big reasons for the NCBF’s repeat visits to San Antonio.
“The convention center is an easy facility to work in for exhibitors as well as for my planning team,” Torres says. “Everyone from the general labor to convention center staff to catering is friendly, flexible and accommodating.”
Torres continues, “The exhibit space is set up with minimal columns and is on the ground level, which makes for an easy move in. There are plenty of docks and the facility is located close to the highway, which makes it easy for large equipment companies to move in.”
The HBGCC’s meeting space configuration, varying breakout room sizes and reception spaces all fit the NCBF’s goal of meeting several needs under one convention center roof. “Our group has several receptions and it’s nice to be able to host those in one facility rather than having to host them back at a hotel,” Torres says.
Planners who want a sure bet for a destination that will help achieve meeting goals and provide memorable attendee experiences can’t do any better than Texas. The Lone Star State is waiting with open arms. AC&F