Well-known for its passion and its pride, the vast state of Texas is no stranger to visitors, who are always shown a good time, made to feel at home and are forever welcome by a Texas-size hospitality that envelops all. It’s this and more that warmly beckons meeting planners and explains their repeated returns to this bigger-than-life destination.
One such planner is Martha C. Barton, CEM, exhibitor services director, Turbomachinery Laboratory with Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES), who has taken the annual Turbomachinery & Pump Symposia to Houston each September for more than 15 years. “The Turbomachinery Laboratory conducts basic and applied research into important problems of reliability and performance of turbomachinery — rotating machinery that extracts or adds energy to fluids,” she says about the association. “That’s everything from classic Dutch windmills to the space shuttle’s main engine turbo pumps and compressors that move natural gas through the distribution system.”
Barton explains that though the meetings’ objectives are measured in multiple ways, of particular importance are the responses of its participants (from delegates and exhibitors to speakers and authors) and its continued growth, having expanded from 3,000 to 5,500 attendees over the years. The planner says, “Even when the economy was down, we continued to have record-breaking years, which we did again during this year’s symposia.”
Explaining her destination pick, Barton says, “Houston has a very strong base for oil and gas, energy and technology companies — our target groups. The city ranks in the top five of the nation’s Fortune 500 companies — companies from which we have many participants, so it makes good business sense to go where the bulk of your attendees are employed,” she says. “Another reason is that we, our event and our attendees are so appreciated. The Houston team is the best; it’s a vital part of our success.”
Having selected the Hilton Americas-Houston and Hyatt Regency Houston for her group, Barton expounds on this duo. “The Hyatt Regency was the headquarter hotel for more than 15 years, although we moved it to the Hilton Americas when this property was built due to its proximity to the convention center and to the team whose dedication makes my life as a meeting planner easy,” she says. “To this day, we maintain a block of rooms at the Hyatt for their long-term quality customer service and loyalty to us for many years.”
Among Symposia attendees’ faves are its food and attractions — from Texas barbecue to attending sporting events (perhaps enjoying a Houston Astros game and other events at the Toyota Center).
With 1,200 rooms, a location within walking distance of the convention center, Discovery Green park and a complimentary shuttle for attractions within a three-mile radius, the AAA Four Diamond Hilton Americas-Houston offers 24 stories of appeal to meeting planners. Hyatt Regency Houston is an iconic hotel with more than 71,000 square feet of meeting space and a signature restaurant, Spindletop, that towers 34 floors above the city and offers American seafood with a local Southwest flair and a 360-degree view from this revolving dining room.
“New private development and significant public projects are … leading to incredible new venues and amenities for visiting groups. Pair all of this with San Antonio’s unique sense of place, culture and history, and you have an unbeatable meetings destination.” — Casandra Matej
Another option, Marriott Marquis, has claim to the city’s largest ballroom (almost 40,000 square feet), 100,000 square feet of meeting and event space, Xochi (a restaurant operated by four-time James Beard Award runner-up Chef Hugo Ortego), an infinity pool and whirlpool overlooking Discovery Green and an assortment of outdoor seating areas with fire pits.
The Texas A&M planner gives accolades to the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau (GHCVB), the George R. Brown Convention Center (GRBCC) and to the city itself.
“Working with the GHCVB, as well as the GRBCC, is an absolute pleasure. The staffs are professional, reliable and kind. You are received as an important part of their lives and leave feeling you are part of a warm and caring team,” Barton says.
An appealing bonus is that the downtown Houston area has thrived since the addition of hotels, restaurants, Discovery Green and an improved transportation system. Among Texas’ largest city’s most distinctive group opportunities are its food and beverage offerings; unique entertainment venues such as Goodnight Charlie’s, described as “a honky-tonk with a modern twist;” and events incorporating its three sporting venues and six professional sports teams: Houston Astros (MLB), Houston Rockets (NBA), Houston Texans (NFL), Houston Dynamo (MLS), Houston SaberCats (MLR) and Houston Dash (NWSL).
Its hotel scene is equally impressive. Magnolia Hotel Houston is known for its complimentary milk and cookies every evening. The virtual Topgolf swing simulator at Four Seasons Hotel Houston gives guests the opportunity to play such notable courses as St. Andrew’s and Pebble Beach. Pillow fights can be arranged at Hotel Derek, and the best place to cool off from the state’s notorious summer heat can be found in the world’s only Texas-shaped lazy river at the Marriott Marquis Houston (at 6,500 square feet, it takes 15 minutes to circumnavigate). Lastly, The St. Regis Houston promises: “No request is too small or unattainable no matter what the hour of the day.”
Midway between the east and west coasts, Irving, Texas, is perfectly positioned for the nation’s planners. A new headquarter hotel and a vibrant visitors’ district are complemented by a top-of-the-line convention center, situated within walking distance of the two.
“Since its opening in 2017, the Toyota Music Factory has become a high-energy site, full of activity — people, music, entertainment, restaurants and retail,” says Maura Allen Gast, executive director of the Irving Convention and Visitors Bureau. “For planners, the new complex in the heart of Las Colinas provides a wide range of entertainment and dining options to fill free nights on the convention schedule, and it’s an excellent venue for opening or closing night events.”
The Live Nation Pavilion amphitheater anchors the new $173 million Toyota Music Factory complex, which serves up the Alamo Drafthouse movie theater and more than 20 bars and restaurants.
“The final piece of Irving’s visitor district, the Westin Irving Convention Center at Las Colinas hotel, will open in January 2019,” says Gast. Offering 350 rooms and 16,000 square feet of meeting place, including a 10,000-square-foot ballroom, the 12-story hotel is a welcome addition to the Texas city’s more than 12,000 guest rooms.
Gast concludes, “Irving’s vision for a distinctive visitor’s district in the Las Colinas Urban Center will become not only a spectacular reality but a real game-changer for us.”
“Eighteen years ago, we chose Irving’s Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas as the site for our resident program,” says Jami Lucas, executive director and CEO of the American Academy of Otolaryngic Allergy Association (AAOA) — a Virginia-based national medical specialty society of ENTs and related health care providers who focus on allergy, sinus, asthma, rhinology and related ear, nose and throat diseases, which supports its physician members through advocacy, education and research.
She explains that while this program has evolved over the years, the AAOA’s choice in sites has stayed constant for the group which conducts four annual meetings. These include the Interactive Allergy & Rhinology Course (February), the Basic Course in Allergy & Immunology (July), the Advanced Course in Allergy & Immunology (December) and the Annual Meeting (Fall).
It’s all about geography. “The location in the middle of the country and resort’s 15-minute proximity to the two local airports, Dallas Love Field and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), makes getting to our meetings easy and affordable for attendees,” says Lucas. And the climate is ideal for the February meeting. With respect to affordability, the AAOA exec says, “The Four Seasons in Las Colinas offers great value for the money as the ROI, so to speak, is there and continues to be there. Above all, the hotel consistently delivers excellent service.”
Situated upon 400 acres between Dallas and Fort Worth, this 405-room, AAA Five Diamond Four Seasons property has such meeting stats as 31 multipurpose rooms, 40,871 square feet of meeting space, including a 7,992-square-foot ballroom and 10,473 square feet of outdoor meeting space — earning the luxury resort such honors as “Best Recently Renovated Venue,” by the Best of Texas Meetings + Events 2016 Awards and “Best Golf Resort” by the Best of Texas Meetings + Events 2016 and 2018 Awards.
Regarding specifics, Lucas describes an Interactive Allergy & Rhinology Course meeting’s welcome reception last year. Held in Byron’s, one of the hotel’s eateries, it offered expansive views from its floor-to-ceiling windows of the TPC Four Seasons Las Colinas golf course and showcased local foods and beverages with the inclusion of margaritas, a taqueria and an assortment of Hill Country buffet stations.
For larger groups, Big D has a Texas-size option, the 2 million-square-foot Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center Dallas — 1,000,000 square feet of exhibit space, 65,000 square feet of ballrooms (divisible into four separate rooms), 88 meeting rooms and 4,000 hotel rooms within walking distance — all within 30 minutes of DFW airport.
As manager of membership and operations for the Texas Association of Freestanding Emergency Centers (TAFEC), Lisa Keltner explains that her trade association comprises freestanding emergency center owners, both independently owned and hospital-based. She says, “This is a fairly new market, so it’s a hotbed in politics and the health care industry, in general.”
Thus, what better city to conduct an event of an association with political elements than in Texas’ capital city, Austin? Keltner explains, “Austin is a thriving community that is very diverse. We are a high-tech, creative, political and entrepreneurial city with excellent colleges and universities. People are drawn to Austin’s ‘weirdness;’ thus, the theme ‘Keep Austin Weird.’ I’m a native Austinite, so I get this.”
Having conducted her organization’s membership meeting at Hyatt Regency Austin, located on Lady Bird Lake, this homegrown Texas planner details why the hotel was a match for her meeting of approximately 100 members and sponsors.
“I love the Hyatt Regency Austin because of the space, the staff and the location. Who wouldn’t love the Hyatt on Austin’s Lady Bird Lake? The fact that they’ve expanded their meeting space and added a nice and reasonable parking garage also makes it attractive to attendees because parking in downtown Austin is a nightmare and very costly. But we loved every minute of our membership meeting, which offered the best service ever, as well.”
With 448 rooms and 45,000 square feet of customizable function space (new Zilker Ballroom’s 14,138 square feet of space and an open-air 3,700-square-foot terrace), the hotel’s location offers additional nearby perks for the planner — from the South Congress (SOCO) shops and dining district, the Warehouse Restaurant District, 2nd Street Shopping District and 6th Street Entertainment District to the State Capitol building, LBJ Presidential Library and The University of Texas at Austin campus. Nature enthusiasts will enjoy the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and a bat colony visible at the Congress Avenue Bridge.
The planner illuminates the leisure endeavors of the association, which typically spends 90 percent of its time on property. “Generally, we have a reception with live music or some other fun activity such as a sporting event. We’ve done riverboat cruises, gone to trendy restaurants and learned how to roll cigars, among other activities.”
Activities which the planner considers “exclusively Austin” are its riverboat cruise featuring live music and a full bar and the YETI flagship store (an Austin-based company of outdoor products which opened next to the Hyatt Regency), described as “equal parts bar, showroom and a live music venue located on South Congress.”
Omni Barton Creek Resort is seeing the results of a $150 million project — a newly added resort tower with 180 guest rooms, conference center and ballroom, 5,556-square-foot pavilion, six dining outlets, Mokora Spa, lobby experience, expanded poolscape, golf clubhouse, golf course renovations and tennis complex — all set to open in 2019. Also on the horizon is Hotel ZaZa Austin, with 8,500 square feet of meeting and event space.
Keltner gives colleagues insight regarding Austin and its selection as a meeting destination: “I highly recommend Austin for its natural beauty, choices in bars and restaurants, live music and a general laid-back vibe. Most of our members across the state prefer events in Austin to other events we have across the state because everyone just loves coming here!”
Moving a bit south, meet San Antonio. A cultural combo representing Mexico, Germany and Old West roots, it’s the notable home to Texas’ most visited site — the Alamo. Offering planners the state’s most historic legacies, including the nation’s oldest operating cathedral (San Fernando Cathedral near the Alamo) and Texas’ first UNESCO World Heritage Site (the city’s collection of five missions), even San Antonio’s culinary landscape is one-of-a-kind — from white tablecloth European restaurants and genuine steakhouses to Tex-Mex eateries, BBQ joints and savory food trucks. Last year, the city was recognized as a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy for its unique culinary heritage.
“San Antonio is investing in itself in every direction,” says Casandra Matej, president and CEO, Visit San Antonio. “In 2016, we saw the game-changing renovation and expansion of the now-1.6 million-square-foot Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center (including Texas’ largest ballroom at 54,000 square feet). This was followed by major improvements to the Alamodome, completed in advance of the 2018 NCAA Men’s Final Four.”
Among the town’s biggest news is the all-new electric fleet of its iconic River Walk barges. Boat operator Go Rio Cruises offers group opportunities such as brunch and cocktail cruises, even out-of-the-box activities like yoga and spinning can be accommodated — all while enjoying the city from its through-the-town river.
San Antonio offers nearly 45,000 guest rooms, with close to 14,000 located downtown and 6,500 within walking distance of the convention center.
“We’ve seen multiple new hotels open around the city and another 500 rooms are in the early planning and construction phases downtown,” says Matej. “New private development and significant public projects, such as San Pedro Creek, Confluence Park and the redevelopment of Hemisfair, are transforming San Antonio’s urban core and leading to incredible new venues and amenities for visiting groups. Pair all of this with San Antonio’s unique sense of place, culture and history, and you have an unbeatable meetings destination.” AC&F