Texas is a big state with big options for planners. While its cities share similarities, even embracing a few Texas stereotypes — cowboy hats and boots come to mind — each has a distinct personality.
North, east, south or west, there’s a city that will welcome your group with Texas-sized warmth and hospitality.
When it comes to cattle, Fort Worth is a natural choice, so it’s no surprise the American Angus Association had its 2017 annual convention there. Jaclyn Upperman, director
of events and education for the association, says it’s all about location.
“Location is the best description of why our 2017 National Angus Convention was so successful. The American Angus Association’s membership is very strong in the Midwest and southern United States. Fort Worth’s unique cattlemen theme draws to our membership and allowed us to have 2,400 participants at our convention.”
The group’s primary base was the Omni Fort Worth Hotel, ideal, in part, because of its location near the convention center.
“Proximity to the convention center was a plus with all three of the headquarter hotels,” Upperman says, adding that design was a consideration, as well. “The overall look and feel of the Omni western décor and design fit our audience and made our attendees feel at home.”
“There are a lot of different areas that can be used for meeting spaces, and the extra-nice piece is that the downtown area [of Fort Worth] is safe and very close in proximity to all different types of venues and hotels.” — Jaclyn Upperman
In general, Upperman notes, Fort Worth has plenty to offer for planners. “There are a lot of different areas that can be used for meeting spaces,” she says, “and the extra-nice piece is that the downtown area is safe and very close in proximity to all different types of venues and hotels.”
She calls the convention center and its staff “outstanding to work with.” Her praise for the hotel facilities and staff is similar.
“The hotel staff was very accommodating, even allowing us to use their bell carts to move a few boxes from the hotel to the center,” she says. “We used the ballroom and Angus Board Room, as well as the second-floor prefunction space. The events held in these areas went off without any issues. The staff was accommodating and helpful through the setup and teardown of the events.”
Best of all, the hotel has represented Fort Worth well. “This hotel definitely fits in with the Fort Worth culture and Texas hospitality,” Upperman says.
Although there were no organized offsite functions, many attendees did dine out in the downtown area. “We got great comments on the quality and hospitality of the restaurants,” Upperman notes.
“The only downfall is the distance from an airport” she adds. “However, once you get to the hotel, you are within walking distance from downtown and minutes away from the historic Fort Worth Stockyards!”
Fort Worth has two new hotels opening in 2020: AC Hotel by Marriott with 246 rooms and the 200-room Hotel Drover, another Autograph Collection property.
In addition, the $540 million, 14,000-seat Dickies Arena is set to open later this year. It’s located just 10 minutes from downtown.
The National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) chose Houston for its 2018 training conference with 5,000 attendees. Jennifer Lubold, CMP, director of conferences, and Mike Soussi-Tanani, associate director of conferences, were impressed.
“Houston is a perfect fit for our group of 5,000 judges, lawyers, coordinators and treatment providers helping to serve over 3,000 drug treatment courts,” Lubold says. “The convention center is also the right fit for a group our size, with over 40 breakout rooms, over 50,000 square feet for general sessions and a large exhibit hall. The convention center sits in front of beautiful Discovery Green and between Hilton Americas and Marriott Marquis (our two headquarter hotels), making it easy for attendees to get around.”
Lubold says the city’s hotel package and ease of access into the city were elements that boosted the conference’s growth.
“The Houston CVB helped secure many more hotel room nights than we originally contracted due to the increase in attendance, which helped us capture the largest room block we’ve ever seen. We were fortunate to work with CVB housing manager Rose Moreno during this time. She went above and beyond what any housing manager had ever done for us. We truly felt like she was an extension of our staff — always there any time we called or emailed.”
Soussi-Tanani notes that Houston made sense for the budget, too. “Houston was very cost-effective for a small association’s annual conference with a limited budget,” he says. “This was the first time we met in Houston, and we had such an overall fantastic conference, our leadership is thinking about re-booking for a future year. The staff at the CVB, the center and the hotels were stellar, and the package was a great value for us.”
In addition to using space at the convention center, the group had a private function and concert at Discovery Green.
“We had food trucks on the green for attendees to enjoy before the concert,” Soussi-Tanani says. “We were worried about the heat, but it wasn’t bad at all. Our attendees sat on the grass with NADCP blankets we passed out, and they enjoyed the concert. It was such a nice event — the venue was beautiful, and the staff at Discovery Green was easy to work with.”
Houston offers a couple of programs that worked well for this group, including a “green link” to transport attendees between the convention center and hotels, and “Six in the City,” which lets attendees take a cab anywhere in downtown for $6.
In addition, Lubold says, “There’s an art district, baseball, football, basketball, rugby, NASA and children’s museums. We organized a baseball outing for our attendees, which many took advantage of since it was just a block from the convention center.”
While value and the right hotels were important, Lubold points to the Houston First staff as an incredible asset.
“They went over and above to make sure our conference was a huge success,” she says. “Natalie Young helped schedule our site visits, worked with us to make sure the appropriate conference signage was in the airport and hotels and continued to help during the conference. She was onsite every day. Nathan Tollett helped us work out contractual issues and was very supportive when we really needed him. We’ve just started working with Amra Elmore, and she is outstanding — we love her.”
To planners thinking about Houston, Soussi-Tanani says, “This is a fantastic middle-of-the-country destination with all the hotel amenities you could want, including a Texas-shaped rooftop pool at the new Marriott Marquis. If you haven’t been to Houston in a while, you need to go. It’s been upgraded.”
Lizzy Seymour, CMP, manager, conference services, with the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), also found Houston to be ideal for her group of more than 2,000, which held its annual conference in the city last June.
“Our conference is space-heavy, and the amount of meeting space and the layout of space at the Hilton Americas-Houston was perfect for us,” she says. “We also used a portion of meeting rooms at the George R. Brown Convention Center (GRB), near where the Hilton connects to the center. This was incredibly convenient for our attendees.”
Seymour also used Discovery Green. “ASHRAE held a Welcome Party for 550 people at The Grove at Discovery Green, right across the street from the Hilton. The Grove was a wonderful location for our welcome party,” she says. “We did a buy-out of the space. The restaurant was spacious, and the cuisine was top-notch.”
In addition, there was a Women in ASHRAE function in one of the rooms at House of Blues Houston. “This was short walk for our attendees and a fun venue with great space,” Seymour notes.
The group also held events at the Hilton and the convention center. “The space we used at the convention center was on the same level that connected to the Hilton Americas,” she says, “so it was very easy for our attendees.”
Seymour calls the layout at Hilton Americas-Houston well-thought-out. “The meeting space is three floors stacked on top of one another, and two of the floors connect directly with the GRB. Walkways between the Hilton Americas and the GRB are inside and air-conditioned, so our attendees didn’t even have to go outside (in June in Houston). The Hilton also has more than 1,000 guest rooms; however, there are many overflow options within walking distance for a convenient experience for attendees,” she says.
In addition, Seymour adds, “We held a small ICW at the JW Marriott by the Galleria, about a half-mile away from the Hilton Americas. The JW is a great property with some unique space (hardwood floors in meeting rooms!) and excellent guest accommodations.”
Hilton Americas-Houston hosted the majority of the convention, with good reason. “We chose Hilton Americas because of the number of guest rooms available, the amount of meeting space available, the layout of space between the Hilton and GRB, and because the room rate and other meeting-related expenses were reasonable,” Seymour says. “The downtown location was also great so that our attendees and staff could access dining, attractions and more, all within walking distance.”
She says the hotel’s convention services staff was excellent. “Our planning team had a great experience with the entire Hilton Americas team. The reservations team was also on top of our room block. The entire team was very responsive in the pre-planning stage, as well as onsite during the conference. We even received some great feedback from our attendees about the Hilton Americas staff and how responsive and helpful they were.”
Additionally, Seymour notes, the Hilton banquet staff was superb, and Encore Event Technologies, the in-house AV company, was “excellent, responsive and detail-oriented.”
And, that extended to every department. “We worked with most of them,” she adds, “and they were professional, responsive and easy to work with.”
In terms of challenges, Seymour says they were initially worried that the weather in June would be a problem. “We are an association of HVAC engineers, so air-conditioning is something we are well-versed in. The Hilton worked with us to make sure our attendees were comfortable. We did have a few challenges with temperature control in the meeting rooms, but again, the hotel staff was on top of it and worked with us closely almost every day to keep our attendees comfortable.”
For groups meeting in Houston in the summer months, she says, “Work with your convention services and engineering teams at the property in advance of your meeting. Come up with a temperature that your attendees will be comfortable with, and make a plan to keep the temperature in check and in control throughout your conference.”
Beyond that, she says, “Make sure to eat a meal at The Grove — the shrimp and grits are great!”
Kristy Breaux, associate director, Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA), considers Galveston a good choice for a conference. “Our attendees are educators, and Galveston works well for them to pair professional development with leisure travel.”
The association held its TCEA Elementary Technology Conference at the San Luis Resort last June, drawing 800 attendees. Breaux points to convenience, flexibility and pricing options as the positives of the destination.
“The convention center and San Luis Resort packages offer a great option for various price points, and it’s all within walking distance. And, for those who prefer not to walk, there’s the convenience of a shuttle and plenty of onsite parking,” she says. “The flexibility of the convention center is great for our group because we like to utilize a lot of public space for networking. The layout and helpfulness of the staff combine to allow us to transform the space and maximize our offerings.”
San Luis Resort exceeded Breaux’s expectation in multiple ways. “The food and beverage package is unbeatable when it comes to pricing and offerings. This is not what you expect from a convention center catering team. The infrastructure is truly up to par, and the team is dedicated to making sure your event runs flawlessly,” she says.
But there are some things that aren’t quantifiable that also make a destination feel exactly right for planners and attendees.
“Our group feels valued in Galveston. From every aspect, we are treated as if we are a top priority,” Breaux says. “That’s a great feeling as a planner — to have a commitment from the destination, the venue and everyone in between.”
To groups considering booking Galveston, Breaux advises, “Make sure to take advantage of your destination services team so they can create a discount program for your attendees that includes discounts on attractions, dining options and shopping.”
El Paso is a city on the move, and it ticks off all the necessary boxes for groups, from affordability to an enviable collection of venues and restaurants and a walkable downtown. Mike Sullivan, future festival site coordinator for the International Jugglers’ Association, had the group meet there a couple of years ago with about 600 in attendance.
“El Paso has what we need, at very reasonable prices, in a clean, compact downtown area with excellent airlift to the world through ELP. The magnificent Plaza Theatre, the beautiful El Paso Convention Center, a choice of several first-class hotels all within a short walk of our other venues and plenty of places to eat and drink made for a great fit for our group,” Sullivan says. “Visit El Paso / Destination El Paso / El Paso Live all worked hard to get us a great deal on the venues, and then helped us with outreach to the community for our public events. We never thought we’d be able to bring our week of carefree fun to such a large city, but El Paso was custom-made for our group and provided a hassle-free week of fun. Our attendees were also delighted with the incredible hospitality and support we got from everyone we worked with and met before, during and after our week.”
The group used one of the city’s historic venues for competitions and shows. “We held four nights of world-championship competitions and public shows in the Plaza Theatre, as well as a large nighttime show with fire juggling and more in Convention Center Plaza. We received excellent support from the local community for all our events,” Sullivan says.
The group’s main event space was in the convention center. “We used the exhibit hall, meeting rooms and the huge atrium area all weeklong,” he says. “We loved the convenience of having all our juggling venues within a very short walk of each other, the hotels, convention center and theater, and even our late-night show venue was just steps away from the other sites.”
About the city, Sullivan says, “El Paso was a great find for our group. The facilities and people are first-rate, and we’re excited to be returning in 2020, when downtown will have even more to offer. New hotels, a new streetcar, more restaurants and shopping are now in place or on the way, and we can’t wait to get back to El Paso.”
The group’s primary hotel is historic and currently undergoing a massive renovation and rebranding. It was the Camino Real at the time the jugglers were in town but will reopen this year as Hotel Paso del Norte.
“We’re thrilled to be coming back to this historic property, which will be part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection when we return,” Sullivan says. “We were also glad to have a choice of several other name-brand properties in downtown before, and we understand there will be even more downtown properties online by the time we return.”
The only real challenge, according to Sullivan, was convincing the organization’s members to give El Paso a try. “Many had preconceptions about the July climate and getting to the city from their hometowns. We worked hard to show them that El Paso had so much to offer us, and all who came to the festival were very glad they did. Our week was one of the smoothest and most hassle-free festivals we’ve had in a long time,” he says.
To planners considering the city, Sullivan says, “Come and see what El Paso has, like we did, and you will probably be as impressed as we were. In downtown El Paso, our group found everything we wanted in a festival home for our week, and at a great value.
Hundreds of jugglers, variety performers and competitors from every corner of the world came to our festival week in El Paso, and they all had an unforgettable time in a friendly and safe downtown with world-class venues at their feet.”
Association planners are familiar with Big D, a top meeting destination for conventions of all sizes — but there’s always something new to love.
Last October, VisitDallas, the city’s CVB, celebrated a year of record visitation, booking and economic-impact figures and announced a new VisitDallas Experience Center as part of the Klyde Warren Park expansion. The $76 million project will add more than an acre of land to the park and a 20,000-square-foot pavilion to serve as the new home of the VisitDallas Experience. VisitDallas President and CEO Phillip J. Jones says of the project, “We couldn’t have imagined a better location for clients, visitors and locals to learn about all the great things happening in Dallas.”
Among the city’s top meeting hotels are Sheraton Dallas Hotel by the Galleria, Hyatt Regency Dallas, Omni Dallas Hotel and Hilton Anatole. This year, the ever-hip Virgin group will open a 200-room Virgin Hotel in the city’s equally hip Design District. The $80 million lifestyle hotel, with all the amenities and social components one expects, will be the fourth hotel in the U.S. for the brand.
Also opening this year is The Drever, formerly the historic First National Bank Tower, currently undergoing a $380 million mixed-use redevelopment that will include a 218-room luxury hotel. And, The Pittman Hotel will open as part of The Epic, another mixed-use redevelopment project. The 164-room Pittman will be located in the city’s landmark Knights of Pythias Temple.
On the F&B front, VisitDallas recently introduced the Margarita Mile, highlighting 18 of the city’s best places to have a margarita, from traditional to such southwest-inspired concoctions as the Summertime Sadness Margarita, infused with jalapeno and mint.
Planners can tell attendees to download the app, or they can incorporate some of the Margarita Mile restaurants into conference functions.
There’s never been a better time to meet in San Antonio, the third-fastest growing city in the country. Last year, San Antonio celebrated its 300th anniversary with a slew of openings and renovations. The city’s top industries include healthcare/bioscience, manufacturing, IT and aerospace, making it a perfect fit for any associations in those fields, as well as others.
The first Thompson hotel in the city, Thompson San Antonio Hotel and The Arts Residences, is scheduled to open this year. The design-forward, mixed-use hotel and condominium tower sits along the River Walk and will feature 167 rooms.
Also scheduled to open later this year is the 22-story Canopy by Hilton San Antonio River Walk. The hotel will integrate the historic Alamo Fish Market building into its design. In addition to 195 guest rooms and a restaurant overlooking River Walk, the hotel will feature 3,000 square feet of meeting space.
Last November, Makara Hotel & Spa unveiled renovations to its lobby and meeting space, blending the hotel’s rich history with contemporary design elements. The refresh included the opening of the Tejas Boardroom, a 222-square-foot space for board meetings, executive conferences and other small meetings. The room features tall-back, Spanish-inspired, carved leather chairs around a handsome conference table, upgraded technology and a large-screen television.
Last year, Grand Hyatt San Antonio, located on the city’s famed River Walk, announced completion of a $19 million renovation, which included guest rooms, meeting spaces, bar, corridors and lobby. In its 10-year history, the hotel has hosted more than 5,000 meetings.
In October, American Airlines announced new nonstop service from JFK to San Antonio, making it easier than ever for international delegates flying into JFK to attend meetings in San Antonio. AC&F