In Texas the unofficial motto, “Don’t mess with Texas,” illustrates its can-do spirit, not a warning to stay clear. Especially pertinent in the meetings world, the state’s promises — “we can do it bigger” and “we can make it better” — are what planners seek and their attendees strive toward. So, along the lines of a realtor’s allegiance to location, location, location, the destination of Texas as a meetings venue appears prime property.
In concurrence, ASAE President and CEO John H. Graham, IV, FASAE, CAE, states: “The latest Decision to Attend Study research confirms that content and meeting location are the top two drivers for people in deciding whether to attend a meeting, but it also highlights how attendees have higher expectations and desire new experiences.”
One made-in-Texas experience is Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort & Spa’s “Hooves & Horns” mascot program, which allows groups to interact with Texas Longhorns, an American mustang, miniature horses and alpacas — all resort residents. Located just outside Austin and serving up 60,000 sf of indoor and 240,000 sf of outdoor event space, the area’s McKinney Roughs Nature Park (1,100 acres of pine forest and box canyons) offers teambuilding with a capital “T.” In conjunction with the Hyatt, these possibilities include zip-lining, trap shooting, archery, kayaking and rafting excursions on the lower Colorado River, on the banks of which the AAA Four Diamond, 491-room resort sits. And after a day of any of the above, what better way to network and bond than around an outdoor firepit while enjoying the resort’s nightly s’mores roast?
Along the lines of food, the cuisine of the Hilton Austin is guided by the philosophy of General Manager Robert Watson. With respect to planners and their attendees, he feels they should be able to “taste our city on their plate.” Reflective of this viewpoint is the menu of the hotel’s Cannon + Belle, with such selections as black-eyed pea hummus, shrimp tamales and marinated Texas Wagyu rib eye. And The Reverbery is a flexible indoor/outdoor space with specially designed food and drink menus that reflect the culinary culture of the Live Music Capital.
As the setting of the February 16-19, 2017, annual convention of the Texas Optometric Association for 1,138 attendees (not including exhibitors), Sherry Ballance, CAE, associate director, touts this hotel’s food fare. “The chef at the Hilton Austin was truly a pleasure to work with and planned creative, off-the-menu meals within our budget.”
Having hosted this convention in Austin for more than 25 years, in no small part due to its central Texas location, the city’s appeal is two-fold. “The destination is great for those who enjoy live music and great food,” says Ballance.
Of equal importance is the hotel’s logistical match to her association — two ballrooms and several breakout rooms on both the fourth and sixth floors. The layout allows the group to have its continuing education on one level and the exhibit hall on the other — making it easy for attendees and exhibitors when it comes to arrival, easy access to the continuing education courses and trade show set up and tear down. She elaborates: “Our trade show consisting of 138 exhibitors is one of our main highlights. We provide a non-compete exhibit hall where no other activities are held in opposition to this event.”
The location of the 801-room, AAA Four Diamond hotel provides additional appeal — adjacent to the convention center in downtown Austin; one block from Sixth Street Entertainment District; one mile from the University of Texas at Austin, Lady Bird Lake Hike and Bike Trail and the Texas State Capitol; and seven miles from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Another plus for this property with 80,000 sf of flexible meeting space is its recognition as one of Cvent’s Top 100 U.S. Meeting Hotels.
In conclusion, Ballance offers advice to professionals considering this property. “If planners are looking for a hotel to hold a larger event that isn’t quite big enough for a convention center, or they just prefer a hotel over a convention center, the (Hilton Austin) works very nicely — especially as there are several restaurants, bars and entertainment venues within walking distance.” Proof of her pleasure: Texas Optometric Association Annual Convention is returning in 2018 and 2019.
Another group under contract to return to Austin through 2019 (with additional future years under consideration) is the Texas Medical Association, states Liz Sansom, its conference logistics manager. “We have been holding our conference at the Hyatt Regency Austin on and off for the last 12 years,” she says of the two-day winter event that hosts between 400 and 500 annually. One of several explanations for her group’s fidelity: “Our attendees appreciate being able to return to the same location and see familiar faces among the staff.”
With 448 non-smoking rooms and 45,000 sf of customizable function space (including the 2014 addition of the 14,138-sf Zilker Ballroom), additional appeals of the AAA Four Diamond hotel to the meeting planner are its past two-year renovation and its central location. “Recent refurbishments in the meeting space have given the hotel a much brighter and more open feeling,” she says. And though situated in the middle of eclectic Austin’s action, its setting on Lady Bird Lake projects resort-like tranquility. Nearby nature options include a 10-mile hike and bike trail adjacent to the hotel, Barton Springs Pool and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
Having opened 35 years ago, Hyatt Regency Austin has made a bit of history as the birthplace of the fajita, created in 1982 by Chef George Wiedmann, and for the discovery of actor Matthew McConaughey by the casting director of “Dazed and Confused” in the hotel bar. Sansom says that while her association typically minimizes the impact of food and beverage at their meetings, she scores the hotel’s creativity second to none and mentions its ballroom transformation into a park setting with food trucks and picnic tables, which she attended for another event.
But though the ingenuity of the Texas Medical Association’s meetings isn’t typically focused on its food offerings, the selection of a 2017 general session speaker was exceptional — a presentation by the on-call physician at the Dallas hospital that treated most of the victims of the July 2016 mass police shooting.
Informative presentations, tailor-made space and prime location are key ingredients for a successful meeting and the longevity of an organization/hotel relationship. The planner’s summation: “I would recommend the Hyatt Regency Austin to anyone looking for a venue in central Austin. Its accessibility to downtown, its parking capacity and its staff’s warm welcome are always appreciated.”
Of the American Academy of Otolaryngic Allergy (AAOA) and the Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas, Jami Lucas, AAOA executive director/CEO, says: “Over a decade ago, we chose this venue due to is location. Flights to Dallas are readily available and affordable. We have continued to select this venue because of the value of the conference package and excellent service.” Having celebrated its 16th year with the association’s February 2017 AAOA Interactive Allergy & Rhinology Course, the continuing medical education meeting was attended by 125.
“In addition to the exceptional service, we really like the availability of the conference package that includes meeting space, food and beverage, internet access and more,” states Lucas. “It allows for easy budgeting and saves us time on selecting menus.”
Accolades extend to the AV team that assisted in the 2017 meeting’s utilization of an audience participation routine using a mobile app that turned attendees’ cellphones into microphones. AV guidance during the planning process and when onsite translated to a seamless sequence during the event.
The association professional’s advice to other planners is instructive. Touting the hotel’s extensive experience, she urges trust in their recommendations, compliments their flexibility and says to not be afraid to ask for something that may not be standard. “The staff worked with us this year to fit into our food-and-beverage budget by being creative with offerings during meal functions,” details Lucas. “The entire team is really there to help make your meeting successful. They do their jobs so well, that as a meeting planner, you can eliminate worries about the onsite logistics.”
Beyond an educational course for a group of 125, the refreshed facilities of this Four Seasons Resort can accommodate larger groups with greater requisites. Recent updates include a redesign and renovation of the first level of the 34,000-sf conference center, the expansion of the Pecos Room (more than 600 sf of new breakout space) and the addition of the 4,400-sf Lantana Room, which can be divided into two equal sections to accommodate 400 guests. The hotel’s signature restaurant, LAW (Land, Air and Water), touts a menu indicative of its name with game, meats, poultry and fish — all prepared with a Texas twist. Of its several outdoor event spaces, the Event Lawn can accommodate up to 750 people. The best part for all venues is that the hotel’s culinary team is committed to locally sourced ingredients and offers diverse farm-to-table menus.
With 1,001 rooms, 110,000 sf of meeting space, a skybridge connection to the 2.1 million-sf Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center and recognized as the largest LEED Gold-certified hotel outside of Las Vegas, Omni Dallas Hotel is a prime-time Texas meetings location. New to the scene is the outdoor event space, Pegasus Lawn, and its open-air pavilion. Add to the mix such food choices as Bob’s Steak & Chop House (Bon Appétit’s shout-out: “the kind of cuisine you’ll want to go back for again and again”) seats 170; Texas Spice (described as “Texas cuisine in a casual setting”) seats 265 indoors, 100 on the patio; and Biergarten, whose ivy-covered outside patio and beckoning interior reflect a today-twist of an old-style German beer garden — the result is an irresistible Dallas option.
Smack dab in the middle of downtown Fort Worth and mere steps from Sundance Square is a four-star luxury retreat, The Worthington Renaissance Fort Worth Hotel. Appeals of this 12-story, 504-room, non-smoking luxury hotel — 53,000 sf of venue space, a signature Southwestern restaurant Vidalias and proximity to just about “everything of note” in the city — have put this property on the radar of Texas-interested meeting planners. Centrally located, it is within walking distance of the Bass Performance Center, less than three miles from the Kimbell Art Museum and the Fort Worth Stockyards Historic District, a 20-minute drive from AT&T Stadium (formerly Cowboys Stadium) and Six Flags Over Texas, and 24 miles from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
Midway between Dallas and Fort Worth and a 10-minute drive from the airport is Grapevine and its 1,511-guest room Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center. News for this mega hotel, known for its 179,520-sf Longhorn Exhibit Hall, is the addition of the “rustic and refined” Vineyard Tower (slated to debut July 2018). Details of the $120 million expansion: 303 luxury guest rooms, 86,000 sf of meeting space (30,000-sf ballroom, 30,000 sf of breakout space and 26,000 sf of prefunction space). Upon completion, the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center will offer 1,814 rooms and nearly 500,000 sf of meeting space — becoming one of the nation’s top three largest non-gaming convention resorts.
Coming soon to nearby Arlington is Texas Live! — a $250 million world-class dining, entertainment and hospitality destination being developed by a trio of partners including The Cordish Companies, Texas Rangers and the City of Arlington. It is a part of the $4 billion vision for the Arlington Entertainment District that includes the Texas Rangers new $1 billion ballpark and preservation of Globe Life Park. Complementing the concept will be the 302-room, $150 million flagship hotel, Live! By Loews – Arlington, TX, slated to open in 2019. Described as the first of its kind in the country, it promises “an unprecedented upscale experience that blends sports and entertainment with first-class hospitality and superior amenities.”
Moving south and coastal, the Moody Gardens Hotel, Spa and Convention Center is located on Galveston Island — a back-in-the-day-like getaway less than a one-hour drive from Houston and its big city vibe. Situated in a botanical setting upon 242 acres of natural Gulf scenery, on-property assets are the 418-room luxury hotel, 103,000 sf of event space and such impressive attractions as the Discovery pyramid, an aquarium pyramid, a rainforest pyramid, a ropes course and zip line.
The Houstonian Hotel, Club & Spa is the rare combo of an 18-acre wooded oasis amid an energetic metropolis. It’s said the hotel “offers a rare opportunity to escape into the city — not from it.” Of special appeal to planners are 32,000 sf of meeting space, an award-winning aquatics department (recognized as the state’s top aquatics program), a state-of-the-art jogging path (which connects to the almost three-mile Memorial Park trail), the 17,000-sf Trellis Spa and the on-property Manor House. Built in 1955, this historic home is now The Houstonian’s elite dining venue. Also available for groups, The Manor House offers such catered cuisine possibilities as pimento cheese deviled eggs, Texas caviar salad and Dr. Pepper glazed pork tenderloin.
Within the city’s downtown district is its newest kid on the block, Avenida Houston. Named after Avenida de las Americas, the boulevard adjacent to the nearby George R. Brown Convention Center and running from Minute Maid Park to the Hilton Americas-Houston hotel, this complex is the latest in dining, entertainment and the arts. Here you’ll find festivals, live music, public art installations and an assortment of bars and restaurants — all surrounded by Houston’s downtown skyline. The Rustic, a Texas restaurant, bar and live music concept offering 25,000 sf, is slated to open in Avenida Houston in 2018. Connected to the George R. Brown Convention Center via a climate-controlled skybridge is the new Marriott Marquis Houston, which opened in late 2016 and features 52 meeting rooms that boast more than 100,000 sf of flexible meeting space, including a 39,000-sf ballroom — the largest in Houston; a Texas-shaped lazy river; and a special events pavilion overlooking the 12-acre Discovery Green Park.
Having already made significant progress in its recovery from this summer’s devastating hurricane and bringing home a World Series win for the first time ever in the fall, Houston best embodies the state’s “can do” spirit — with a future that is positive.
Mike Waterman, president of Visit Houston, agrees: “While Houston was certainly impacted by Hurricane Harvey, and many are still working to rebuild, much of the affected areas were residential — with 98 percent of the hotels, and the majority of restaurants and major attractions back in operation shortly after the storm. Bottom line: Houston is open for business and back to hosting meetings, with its reputation for hospitality untouched.” AC&F