Texas is a big state — the second largest in the country by size and population. Within its more than 268,000 square miles are some of the most popular meetings destinations in the country, each with its own distinct personality.
Irving may not have the same global recognition as Dallas and Fort Worth, but it’s an economic powerhouse in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area, which itself is among the top economies in the world. Sitting just northwest of Dallas and northeast of Fort Worth, Irving is less than 10 miles from DFW International Airport and has plenty of business infrastructure to meet the needs of associations of all kinds.
Teresa G. Alfaro, CMP, director, strategic meetings and events, with Volunteers of America, says the group has met in Irving multiple times. The national conference was held in Irving in April 2017, October 2018 and August 2019, bringing in approximately 650 attendees. Hilton Garden Inn Las Colinas has served as their base hotel.
“Volunteers of America has held several meetings in the Irving area since 2017, when the national conference was hosted by the Westin DFW Hotel. Unfamiliar with the destination until then, I can happily say it’s a city I look forward to booking for more and more groups in the future,” Alfaro says. “Irving has surpassed my expectations as a planner, as well as for all conference delegates. We have received VIP treatment at each event and attendance has been outstanding due to the meeting facilities chosen as well as for proximity to DFW Airport. All in all, our decision to hold meetings in Irving has proven to be the right one, and the monetary assistance provided by the convention bureau always puts a nice bow to each and every meeting.”
Alfaro says planners should become familiar with Irving. “Irving is a city that should be on every planner’s radar screen. Top-notch service is provided beginning to end with outstanding customer service and attention to detail by all involved. Whether it’s an annual meeting for 600 or for a small board of directors, you will be ‘wowed’ and will be ready and eager to book your next meeting there.”
The Hilton Garden Inn, notes Alfaro, was the perfect size for our 90-person meeting held in October 2018. “We were the big fish in the small pond and it worked out perfectly. From the meeting space to the lovely renovated guest rooms to the general areas of the hotel, everything contributed to outstanding attendance and a very successful meeting.”
She says the hotel is also a good choice for groups with a modest budget. “The staff will work with you to incorporate breakfast vouchers as part of the room rate, which in turn will aid your budget as you won’t have to provide that meal as part of the meeting agenda. And, again, the staff was friendly, knowledgeable and incredibly easy and pleasant to work with.”
In terms of meeting space, Alfaro says, “The meetings rooms are spacious, clean and comfortable. And if your needs for audio-visual are modest and non-elaborate, you can work a daily package deal incorporated into your contract. And last but certainly not least, you will feed your attendees for half the price you would in another destination. Most importantly, they’ll thank you for the excellent food they will enjoy.”
My only challenge, she adds, “had to do with attendance being a bit bigger than anticipated. However, because of the amazing staff at the Hilton Garden Inn, they made the situation work and found a way for everyone to be comfortable in the meeting room. We received VIP treatment and the attention to detail was outstanding.”
To planners considering Irving Alfaro says, “You will not be disappointed. You will plan your meeting for a fraction of the cost you would elsewhere. You will enjoy working with the staff. You will want to bring another group soon.”
Irving is only getting better. The new Westin Irving Convention Center at Las Colinas is now open as part of the walkable, mixed-use visitor district serving both meetings and leisure travelers. In addition to the 150,000 sf convention center, there’s also the Toyota Music Factory, an all-in-one dining and entertainment destination that includes an 8,000-seat Live Nation indoor/outdoor amphitheater, movie theaters and 20-plus restaurants and bars. The new hotel features 350 guest rooms and meeting space that accommodates nearly 4,900 attendees.
Over in Fort Worth, hotel development in 2019-2020 is strong. Four budget-friendly hotels opened downtown including Aloft, with 180 rooms. Also scheduled to open in 2019 is the Sinclair Hotel, while coming soon is the AC Hotel Fort Worth with 252 rooms and the Marriott Autograph Hotel Drover with 200 rooms, both slated to open in 2020. A 232-room Kimpton Hotel will open in 2021. Also scheduled to open this year is the $450 million Dickies Arena, a 14,000-seat facility that will host the annual stock show among other events. Perhaps best of all is the new 27-mile commuter rail line connecting DFW directly to downtown Fort Worth.
Like Irving, Arlington sits between Dallas and Fort Worth, providing planners with still another destination in the metro area. Live! by Loews-Arlington, a luxury 300-room hotel, recently opened in the city’s entertainment district with 35,000 sf of meeting space, a private rooftop terrace, a restaurant and banquet menus with a focus on local ingredients.
The city of Dallas has a lot going on as well. This year four hotels opened, adding more than 700 rooms from downtown to the Design District, Arts District and North Dallas. Another 15 hotels are slated for completion in 2020, which will add another 2,300-plus rooms. The new AT&T Discover District opens this fall with shops, outdoor event space, restaurants and more. Also opening is the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum in the historic West End District. In addition to its compelling exhibits and dedication to combatting prejudice, hatred and indifference, the museum features impressive space for an event.
Houston has long been a thriving center for the oil industry, and that’s where the Society of Petroleum Engineers holds its Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) each May. In fact, the OTC, which has drawn some 59,000 attendees, has met there since its inception in 1969.
“Houston is the energy capitol of the world,” says Hadley McClellan, senior manager for the OTC. “We have been at NRG Park, formerly Reliant Park and home of the NRG Astrodome, for 49 of those 51 years. Houston has ease of accessibility with two major airports, hotels all over the city in close proximity to the park and/or to the offices of the attendees.”
Exhibitors and sponsors hold events throughout the city at different venues and hotels the whole week of OTC, McClellan says.
In terms of assist from the city, McClellan has high praise for the staff at the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The CVB is always available to assist. They provide introductions to people, places and vendors we may not know firsthand, which assist us with development, as well as the ‘Show Your Badge’ program, which enables our attendees to take advantage of discounts and offers all over the city with partner venues.”
If you’re considering a convention in Houston, McClellan’s advice is simple. “Get involved with your CVB representatives. They have all the information you need when it comes to planning an event in Houston. And if they don’t have it as soon as you call with the question, they will find it.”
McClellan also points to Houston First, the arm of the CVB that owns and manages many of the convention venues in Houston, including the Hilton-Americas Hotel and George R. Brown Convention Center. “Their appreciation for meetings and meeting planners bringing shows to Houston is highly regarded.”
One of the city’s most famous facilities, Space Center Houston, is hardly resting on its historic laurels. Last year the $3 million permanent exhibit Mission Mars opened, and this year was the well documented restoring of the historic Mission Control Center back to its Apollo 11 look and feel. Downtown, the city’s Railway Heights Market will soon open, a new food market similar to Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. New hotels this year include the 354-room InterContinental Houston-Medical Center and C Baldwin Hotel, both with 354 rooms, and the 185-room AC Hotel by Marriott.
Just about an hour southeast of Houston, the island of Galveston offers a very different vibe. Galveston has been a popular seaside resort for more than a century, and that combined with business-friendly facilities and venues means there’s much to offer groups.
“The location works well for our group because there are plenty of housing options near the convention center and entertainment options such as the Pleasure Pier and numerous restaurants,” says Sammy Unberhagen, events and exhibits manager with the Texas Computer Education Association. “The location is easy to get to and there’s free parking at the convention center as well as a complimentary shuttle that runs to each of the hotels in our block.”
The association’s Elementary Technology Conference convened in Galveston in June, drawing 1,000 attendees. The group used many of the island’s properties, including the Hilton Galveston Island Resort, San Luis Resort, Spa & Conference Center and Holiday Inn Resort Galveston—On the Beach.
Galveston checks all the right boxes for the attendees at this conference in part because of its non-business offerings. “We don’t host any offsite events but the destination is perfect for our demographic, which is educators. We promote and encourage them to experience the tours, history and features that make Galveston unique,” Unberhagen says. “Proximity to the beach and nearby restaurants is also a plus for the group. Most of our attendees have just finished their school year. This location gives them the opportunity to have a mini vacation and at the same time continue their professional development.”
Galveston is also a good fit in terms of size. “The destination is perfect for a mid-sized convention,” Unberhagen adds. “The hotel package and walkability are powerful solutions for planners and offer convenience for attendees. From a scenic standpoint, the view from the hotels and the convention center is hard to beat.”
In terms of the business elements of the convention, the convention center works well. “Because of the size of our event, we use the Galveston Island Convention Center at The San Luis Resort,” Unberhagen says. “The convention center has enough breakout rooms to accommodate our program and a large-sized pre-function space that works perfectly for our registration area. Our general assembly is held in the exhibit hall. The only downside is there is not an in-house solution for carpeting, which can be a large expense for smaller groups.”
Budget and technology are among the group’s primary concerns and Galveston is a good choice in that regard as well. “The inclusive package with catering was a great price point and exceptional quality,” Unberhagen notes. “And the convention center’s recent technology upgrades puts it in an elite category of venues that can accommodate groups like ours, which utilize technology and rely on a robust infrastructure.”
Planners, Unberhagen says, should know that their groups will be well fed and well attended to. “Staff at the convention center are friendly, helpful and personally invested in the success of your event. Customer service extends also into their in-house providers.”
Although attendance has increased since the group’s first meeting here, Galveston’s hotels and CVB have worked hard to accommodate the conference. “In our first year, we expected to have a small conference with 200 people. The destination was more popular than we anticipated and we quickly outgrew the hotel space,” Unberhagen says. “The San Luis Resort worked with us to expand to the convention center with a seamless transition.”
Unberhagen’s best advice to planners considering Galveston is to utilize the Galveston Island CVB staff. “They are a great resource for everything Galveston-related.”
Of interest to attendees who are drawn to the island’s sandy shores, the beaches were replenished and widened this summer in a $20.9 million project.
Nearly 200 miles west of Houston, the city of San Antonio offers deep history, rich and diverse culture and a vibrant urban riverfront among its long list of attributes. “San Antonio has a rich history and provided numerous opportunities for our group to enjoy that history through a variety of tours. The ease of access and airlift were other factors that made the location ideal,” says Dana Barton, director, national events, for Ducks Unlimited, a national organization dedicated to the conservation of wetlands and associated upland habitats for waterfowl, other wildlife and people. It has some 700,000 members and has been around since 1937.
The group of 1,075 attendees was based at the San Antonio Marriott Rivercenter for its 2017 meeting, but it was the city’s selection of compelling venues that made San Antonio a great place for the group to convene. “San Antonio offered a variety of unique meeting and event options,” Barton says. “Our group loved Tejas Rodeo.”
Tejas Rodeo Company, just north of San Antonio, is a complex with a live rodeo, steakhouse, saloon and venues offering an authentic sense of Texas heritage as a backdrop for meetings and events. “We wanted a venue that would ‘wow’ our group. Tejas Rodeo provided that venue,” Barton says. “We held our themed banquet, which was a plated dinner, in the rodeo arena. The Tejas team packed the ground to a solid surface. While enjoying fabulous desserts outside the arena as we listened and danced to a great band, the Tejas team turned the solid arena floor back into an arena fit for a rodeo in under 45 minutes.”
The group did a full buyout of the venue for its event and it was a total success. “Our goal was to hold our event at Tejas Rodeo because of the ‘wow’ factor and uniqueness the venue provided. The food was equally outstanding,” Barton adds. “No one on the Tejas Rodeo team knew the word ‘no’ and were confident they could back up their commitment to provide the event we discussed and planned. They didn’t just meet the challenge, they exceeded it.”
Barton says that event is still being talked about today. “Not many venues can provide a unique venue like Tejas Rodeo. Where else could you have a plated dinner in a rodeo arena and in less than 45 minutes be entertained at a rodeo in the same location? The venue, rodeo and food all get five stars!”
It goes without saying that Barton highly recommends San Antonio and especially Tejas Rodeo Company to any planner looking for a compelling function venue. “This venue knows how to create an exceptional event,” she says. “Bring your appetite to your tasting and get ready to be entertained at the rodeo. As with any venue, let your contacts know what your goals are so they are able to exceed your expectations.”
San Antonio has had several newsworthy updates in the past year. Mokara Hotel & Spa wrapped up its renovation of the lobby and meeting spaces late last year. Set in what was formerly the L. Frank Saddlery Building, the hotel melds compelling history with contemporary design, including a focus on indigenous materials throughout. There’s also a new 222-sf meeting space, the Tejas Boardroom. Also of interest to planners and attendees, the city’s international airport received the top award for customer service from the Airports Council International-World in March.
An hour and a half northeast of San Antonio, Austin, the Lone Star state’s capital, is proud of its offbeat nature, but also a superb choice for business conferences. On the news front, six hotels have opened this year, adding more than 18,000 sf of meeting space.
Austin, the music capital of Texas, offers attendees a seemingly endless number of live music venues centered around country, blues and rock. 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.
About 577 miles west of Austin sits El Paso, home of the venerable Hotel Paso del Norte, built in 1912 and famous for its iconic stained glass ceiling. In the downtown business district near the Judson F. Williams Convention Center (JFWCC), the hotel offers 36,000 sf of function space, a rooftop pool and a fitness center. For dining, there are three eateries, including 1700° Restaurant, and to unwind, visit Dome Bar, which offers a selection of domestic and imported beers.
Marriott El Paso, just minutes from the El Paso Airport, offers 13,000 sf of meeting space, two restaurants, Red Rim Bistro and The Great Room, and a connected indoor and outdoor pool.
Even closer to the airport, the Wyndham El Paso Airport Hotel and Waterpark offers 17,000 sf of meeting space. Its on-site, seasonal waterpark is a big draw, and its also near the Robert E. Lee gate at Fort Bliss.
The JFWCC, also known as the El Paso Convention Center, offers 80,000 sf of exhibit space and can seat up to 8,000 people. Other special event venues include: the Abraham Chavez Theater, Plaza Theater, McKelligon Canyon Amphitheater, Philanthropy Theatre, the McKelligon Canyon Pavilion and Alcantar Sky Garden. The Arts Festival Plaza hosts all manner of events, including live music and festivals.
Just north of and about midway between both Dallas and Fort Worth, Grapevine is known for its historic 19th- and 20th-century buildings. Its convention hotels include Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center, which offers 490,000 sf of event space, 10 restaurants, a seasonal water park and two pools. Hyatt Regency DFW International Airport offers 92,000 sf of event space, two restaurants and more.
Just a few miles due north of Dallas, Plano also pays homage to its history. The Heritage Farmstead Museum is a restored 19th-century farm with original tools and furniture, plus a replica 1895 schoolroom. There, the Hilton Dallas/Plano Granite Park offers 30,000 sf of flexible indoor and outdoor meeting and event space.
Texas has an embarrassment of riches in terms of destinations that attract planners and attendees. And one thing is always true: Wherever in the state you meet, renowned Texas hospitality will be front and center.| AC&F |