Is bigger better? In Texas, the answer is typically a Stetson-size ‘yes,’ with a meetings scene that is no exception. But it’s not just big groups to which this larger-than-life destination caters, as smaller gatherings are as warmly welcomed and perfectly executed as their oversized counterparts.
So welcome to this Lone Star-style state, its collection of venues that gives bragging rights to visiting planners and a wholesome hospitality that envelopes guests like surround-sound.
Beginning at its heart, “Austin is a very popular, high-demand city. Something is always happening in this town,” says Jill M. Gately, CMP, director of meetings for NASPA-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education in Washington, DC. As the leading association for the advancement, health and sustainability of the student affairs profession (15,000 members in 50 states, 25 countries and eight U.S. territories), NASPA selected the capital city for the association’s March 2020 conference.
“Most of our attendees prefer the local nightlife that Rainey Street has to offer. Where else can you find a street of old bungalows that have been…turned into bars and cocktail lounges with cool backyards and porches? There is always a new restaurant opening up…to be excited about.”
— Jill M. Gately, CMP
“Our 7,000-person citywide is a great fit for Austin,” says the planner. “We will take over the entire convention center and will hold a block of rooms in almost every hotel within walking distance. We will host more than 600 educational sessions and more than 300 meetings and receptions between the convention center and the two headquarter hotels, JW Marriott Austin and Hilton Austin.”
The meeting planning appeal of the 34-story, 1,012-room JW Marriott is found in its 120,000-plus sf of meeting and event space (including its outdoor venues, 6,000-sf Congress Avenue Terrace and 4,200-sf Capitol View Terrace) and a location two blocks from the convention center and within walking distance of the state capitol. The Hilton Austin is equally appealing: 801 newly renovated guest rooms, 80,000 sf of flexible meeting space (including The Reverbery, an indoor/outdoor venue described as “part cozy, part funky” and reflective of Austin’s recording studio vibe) and situated adjacent to the Austin Convention Center.
The city of Austin has received a lot of hype in the last few years, believes Gately. The February 2015 opening of the JW Marriott created buzz among planners seeking a fresh new option for a conference hotel. Regarding the city’s entertainment scene: “There is more than just Sixth Street in Austin. Most of our attendees prefer the local nightlife that Rainey Street has to offer. Where else can you find a street of old bungalows that have been fixed up and turned into bars and cocktail lounges with cool backyards and porches? There is always a new restaurant opening up or a new development to be excited about,” elaborates NASPA’s planner, who cites the Austin City Music Tour (a guided visit to four live music spots, complete with reserved seating) as one of the best she’s experienced.
Describing a pre-conference event, The Placement Exchange (a partnership with an organization called ACUHO-i), Gately says: “Imagine 140,000 sf of exhibit space converted into an interview hall where more than 12,000 interviews take place in three days. This isn’t a job fair, but actual interviews that are pre-scheduled online to take place face-to-face at one of 700 interview tables.”
A word of caution from the seasoned planner (18-plus years in the industry) about numbers. She advises that whether a meeting is for 100 or 5,000, it’s important to be accurate (i.e., less conservative than normal) with respect to the amount of peak nights. “Between all the other meetings and festivals taking place in this city, when the city runs out of rooms, it runs out!”
Described as the perfect location for the Arlington, Virginia-based USA Rice Federation, Jeanette Davis, CMP, senior director, meetings and member services, explains her association’s selection of the Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas for its yearly July meeting of approximately 120. “I have people coming from Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Texas and California. Dallas is a non-stop flight for most and some can drive,” says the planner of the centrally situated hotel only 20 minutes from the city’s two airports.
Having held approximately 25 annual committee and board meetings at this Irving, Texas, property for the past 18 years, Davis has seen changes — most recently the redesign and renovation of level one of the 34,000-sf conference center. A significant inclusion is the 4,400-sf Lantana Room, which features a floor-to-ceiling window wall of natural light that can be divided into two equal sections and accommodates up to 400. Of personal appeal is its cuisine: “Because we are a rice industry meeting, the chef provides an assortment of U.S. rice dishes.” Redesign, renovation and rice recipes — all elements of this property’s attention to detail — explain the federation’s repeat business, as well as the consistent ranking of Four Seasons Las Colinas as a top meetings resort by Cvent.
Out of the many properties with which Davis has worked during her 29-year meeting-planning career, she cites Four Seasons Las Colinas a favorite. “There is something special about this property. It has a lot of long-time employees and for me, it is like seeing family when I go every July.”
As executive director with the Irving Convention & Visitors Bureau, Maura Allen Gast, FCDME, summates her city: “When you count names like ExxonMobil, Kimberly-Clark, Fluor and Flowserve as your neighbors, Irving is much more than just a suburb.”
What brought the world’s largest helicopter trade show and convention HAI Heli-Expo 2017’s group of 17,778 attendees to Dallas in March? “The helicopter market is big in the Texas area, the Dallas Convention Center fits our show, and the convention center allows our helicopters to land there,” explains Karen Gebhart, vice president business development, Helicopter Association International in Alexandria, Virginia.
Going “big” in Texas translates to flying and trucking in more than 50 helicopters for display on the convention center’s show floor — one of the show’s magnets responsible for attendees spending 80 percent of their time at the convention center.
Primarily using the Omni Dallas Hotel, Hilton Anatole and Hyatt Regency Dallas, group activities showcased many of the city’s premier offerings. Four of the largest exhibitors held events with more than 1,000 guests each at the Perot Museum, the Texas Horse Park, Union Station’s top floor and at the Rustic (a downhome eatery located in the city’s Uptown). More one-of-a-kind area attractions include the Neiman Marcus flagship store, Dealey Plaza, the Sixth Floor Museum (located within the former Texas School Book Depository, it chronicles the assassination of President John F. Kennedy), the George W. Bush Presidential Library and the historic West End.
Centered in revitalized downtown Dallas and connected by a skybridge to the 2.1-million-sf Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center is Omni Dallas Hotel — the city’s only LEED Gold-certified hotel and the country’s largest outside of Las Vegas. Offering 110,000 sf of meeting space, the 1,001-room hotel additionally serves up seven dining options (many available as venues) — from a casual farm-to-table Texas cuisine eatery, Texas Spice, which can accommodate 265 indoors and 100 on the patio, to a nationally celebrated steak restaurant Bob’s Steak & Chop House, seating 170.
Renowned as the city’s most recognizable landmark by its 50-story tower topped by a shimmering dome, Hyatt Regency Dallas offers the meeting planner 1,120 guest rooms, 160,000 sf of function space, 60 meeting rooms, Five Sixty by Wolfgang Puck (a restaurant that sits atop Reunion Tower), which is connected by an underground concourse to Dallas’ historic Union Station.
Known for its cavernous center atrium, Hilton Anatole is a Dallas icon that beckons the meetings world with such incentives as 1,600 guest rooms, 79 meeting rooms, 600,000 sf of event space (more than any other Dallas hotel) and a seven-acre Sculpture Park available for private events — all situated on the resort’s 45 acres.
Also in the Dallas area is Plano, home of the largest building project in the DFW area, Legacy West, which includes corporate offices for Toyota’s North American Headquarters, Liberty Mutual Insurance, J.P. Morgan, FedEx, JCPenney and a new 300-room Renaissance Hotel (offering 30,000 sf of meeting space). The recently renovated Plano Centre is an 86,400-sf facility that provides flexible function space and accommodates as many as 5,000.
Mark Thompson, CDME, CMP, executive director of Visit Plano assesses his city’s future. “The outlook for Plano is a great one…there is nothing but growth and prosperity on the horizon for the city and its meetings and events market. With the addition of the new Legacy West development, Plano has now become a destination in its own right. We are no longer North Dallas, we are Plano.”
Scattered throughout the massive state are a variety of venues for large and small meetings, with major and minor enhancements. This is Texas.
The Dallas area’s welcoming theme continues. “Grapevine is a slice of hometown Americana where every conventioneer and conference attendee is the focus of our homespun hospitality and recognized for their substantial contributions to the success of our city as a convention and meetings destination,” says Paul W. McCallum, executive director, Grapevine Convention & Visitors Bureau. Home to the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (offers 2,000-plus flights daily), 5,445 hotel rooms, nearly 1 million sf of meeting space and the unique charm of downtown Grapevine (listed on the National Register of Historic Places), the destination’s appeal to the meetings market is that even at first glance, it ticks numerous items off a planner’s wish list.
Home to such luminary assets as the Dallas Cowboys and AT&T Stadium, Texas Rangers and Globe Life Park and Six Flags Over Texas and Hurricane Harbor, Arlington’s meetings world is further energized by its coming attractions. Texas Live!, a 200,000-sf retail and entertainment center slated for business on Texas Rangers’ Opening Day 2018, will be complemented by the 300-room Live! by Loews hotel when it opens in 2019. Additional news is the recent approval of a new, retractable roof baseball park for the Texas Rangers — slated to open for the 2020 MLB regular season. “Arlington is a big city — America’s 50th — with a small-town feel. What that means to our meeting and convention clients is that they always feel important,” says Jon Hixon, CMP, vice president of sales and services, Arlington Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Galveston is an unusual meetings city. Meg Winchester, CMP, director, Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau explains: “There is nowhere else in the U.S. that offers a tropical island setting that you can drive to in less than an hour from one of the nation’s four largest cities (Houston) and also has beachfront meeting facilities, one of the country’s largest collections of well-preserved Victorian architecture and attendee attractions from the historic sites of Bishop’s Palace, Moody Mansion and 1877 Tall Ship Elissa to an amusement park stretching over the Gulf of Mexico.” Features of the 140,000-sf Galveston Island Convention Center at the San Luis Resort are a 43,100-sf column-free exhibition hall, 12,000 sf of breakout meeting space and 700 guest rooms adjacent to the center.
Situated in the state’s most picturesque terrain, the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa tempts planners with found-only-in-Texas adventures. Working in conjunction with a local astronomy club is the opportunity to stargaze through high-powered telescopes and follow up the evening by roasting marshmallows around an old-fashioned campfire. Cibolo Moon, the resort’s main restaurant, is home to one of the state’s only bars with the Tequila Regulatory Commission’s “T” certification (a designation awarded to establishments showcasing and educating about tequila). The nearby Guadalupe River (beginning in the Hill Country and weaving for 250 miles to the Gulf of Mexico) is one of the nation’s top 100 streams for rainbow and brown trout fishing.
Reflective of the surrounding Texas Hill Country is the 26,000-sf Lantana Spa (one of the state’s largest). Known for its menu of indigenous treatments — several of which showcase the area’s rich Mexican-American heritage with the incorporation of such native herbs as wild lavender and sarsaparilla — this pamper palace was recognized as one of the “Top Five Favorite New U.S. Spas” by American Spa magazine.
Located in Houston’s perennially popular and populated Galleria area, yet adjacent to Memorial Park and the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center, The Houstonian Hotel, Club & Spa (a four-star, 18-acre retreat) has the vibe of a secluded wooded resort. The hotel’s 33,000 sf of meeting space includes a variety of options for the planner — all with floor-to-ceiling wooded views — including the Hearth Room at Olivette and The Manor House Estate (a 30-year-old restaurant and former home to George H.W. Bush).
“We know what Texas parties feel like,” says Steve Fronterhouse, Houstonian general manager. “We string outdoor lights, hire a country guitar duo and set fresh sage linens. Our chefs set up their grills for the finest ribeye steaks and redfish on the half shell and a spit roaster for a whole suckling pig. Everything from the food presentation to the friendly service gives a unique nod to Texas and guests love it.”
Bottom line: On the lengthy list that describes Texas, adjectives seem to represent just about everything to everyone — though “ordinary” isn’t one of them.
JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa’s $16 million expansion of the River Bluff Water Experience increases its presence from six to nine acres and creates new event and meeting space, including the multiuse River Bend Pavilion and an 18,000-sf outdoor event lawn.
The Irving Music Factory — described as a walkable urban lifestyle center with an 8,000-capacity Live Nation indoor/outdoor concert venue, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and numerous restaurants and bars — is scheduled to debut fall 2017. Slated to open late 2018 and situated between the Irving Convention Center and the Music Factory and is a $110-million convention headquarter hotel, which will be under the Westin brand and have 12 stories, 350 guest rooms and 16,000 sf of meeting space (including a 10,000-sf ballroom).
The campus surrounding Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center is now welcoming convention attendees to Avenida Houston — two headquarter hotels, a 12-acre park and dozens of restaurants and entertainment options. Mike Waterman, president of Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau, says it is this campus environment that most distinguishes his city from other meeting destinations. “Attendees and meeting planners want ease of access. They want to be able to host a great event that also allows them to explore the culture and flavor of a city. I believe we’re providing them that.” Consequently, Houston’s numbers concur as the city has recently realized an upward movement in bookings (24 percent for 2017; 48 percent for 2018).
The Frisco Convention & Visitors Bureau rolled out its “365 Day Site Tour” program, which invites qualified planners to select any day of the year to visit the city for a site inspection.
The Texas town of Grapevine is on the move with the $120 million expansion of the Gaylord Texan Resort (includes an additional 300 guest rooms and 86,000 sf of meeting space); the building of a 1,000-room, water-park-themed resort by Stand Rock Hospitality; a $13 million restoration of the Embassy Suites by Hilton Dallas DFW Airport North; approval for a 300-room Renaissance-brand hotel; and TEXRail (light rail) train service from DFW International Airport’s terminal B to Grapevine’s Historic Main Street with continuation to Fort Worth (scheduled for operation December 2018).
Plano’s newest teambuilding activity, Go Ape, is an exhilarating treetop experience comprised of five zip lines, 39 crossings and numerous rope ladders.
Though the Galveston-located Moody Gardens’ Aquarium Pyramid, a popular site for groups and known for such exhibits as its Humboldt Penguin Habitat and Jellyfish Gallery, is currently closed, the grand reveal of its $37 million renovation is scheduled for Memorial Day weekend.
Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa, located right outside of Austin, provides a one-stop shop for a group experience. The property features expansive meeting options with more than 300,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting space, as well as a wide variety of specialized activities to provide a custom experience for virtually every type of group.
“Groups can experience the very best of the Lone Star State at Hyatt Regency Lost Pines,” says Ryan Galvin, director of sales and marketing at Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa. “Our property provides expansive and versatile meeting areas to fit the needs and size requirements of any event. The property also features a wide array of teambuilding options. From zip lining through the McKinney Roughs Nature Park and kayaking down the Colorado River to ‘meet and greet’ opportunities with real-life longhorns or relaxing at the award-winning Spa Django, Hyatt Regency Lost Pines is sure to be the perfect backdrop for a memorable meeting experience.”
Located on more than 440 acres, the property is home to the Renegade Trailhead which offers trap shooting classes as well as guided horseback rides through McKinney Roughs Nature Park. With direct access to the Colorado River, the property also features several water activities including kayaking and rafting trips, river floats, air boat rides and even fly fishing excursions. The property also features the “Hooves & Horns” mascot program, where groups get to interact with Texas longhorns, an American mustang, miniature horses and alpacas, all of which live at the resort. AC&F