Texas is so big and its destinations are so diverse that the state could be its own country. The Lone Star State boasts distinct cultures and a history shaped by influences from bordering neighbors Mexico, Louisiana, New Mexico and Arkansas. There’s also a stunning array of entertainment options, regional culinary choices and premier meeting hotels, resorts and extraordinary venues.
No wonder Forbes ranks Austin as the No. 1 boom town for 2016 and also places Texas’ three largest metro areas: Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and San Antonio among the top 10 boom towns. “The most vital parts of urban America can be encapsulated largely in one five-letter word: Texas,” says Forbes.
To keep pace, the number and variety of meeting properties and resorts are multiplying rapidly. Texas is busily upgrading and expanding existing properties while building new ones. A range of unique venues are available, many of which are steeped in the state’s cowboy and Hispanic cultures.
Austin continues to rack up accolades. Most recently, Travel + Leisure designated Austin No. 9 among the 2016 best cities in the United States.
Austin continues to grow in popularity as a meeting destination because of its attractions, array of hotel properties and, of course, music. As the self-proclaimed “Live Music Capital of the World,” Austin boasts more than 250 live music venues.
Meeting space is headlined by the LEED Gold-certified Austin Convention Center (ACC) with 881,400 sf of meeting space and scenic downtown views.
“It was great to be in a new-looking ballroom. The space was set off in a separate, private section of the hotel. We had a nice view of Austin. Then we left and got on a yacht next door for a reception ride on Lady Bird Lake with a band and great view of downtown.”
— Lisa Keltner
Proximity to the ACC is a main reason why the Texas Food & Fuel Association (TFFA) selected the Hilton Austin, which has been undergoing a renovation, for its annual three-day meeting. Annette Hicks, CMP, vice president of meetings and expositions, TFFA, wanted to be close to the ACC for a very practical reason. “Parking is one of our biggest issues,” she says. “I have exhibitors delivering products and materials to the convention center, and they have to figure out if they will park there and how far it is from the hotel. It’s a big deal for us.”
The configuration of the Hilton Austin’s meeting space was a good match for the TFFA. “There were six concurrent breakout sessions, and people didn’t have to spend a lot of time getting from one session to another,” says Hicks. “The six breakouts were located a floor below the ballroom space where the general session took place. Folks could flow easily from the general session to the breakouts.”
The Hilton’s ballroom also was the site of a welcome reception and casino night. “We brought in a vendor who did the setup for a three-hour casino party,” says Hicks. “We had about 15 different gaming tables, including roulette and card games — everything you see at a real casino. We also had several food stations and recorded music. “
Attendees also enjoyed a golf tournament at Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa. “The foursomes were prearranged to have a nice mix of members and suppliers,” says Hicks. “It was a good opportunity for supplier members and marketing members to get to know each other. We awarded cash prizes.”
Hicks also was impressed by the early notice she received from the Hilton Austin about its renovation. The hotel notified Hicks about four weeks before the meeting date that the lobby bar and fine dining restaurant would be closed. “They provided great communication about it,” she says. “There was no chance for me to arrive, be surprised and say, ‘what the heck is going on here?’ ”
Hicks informed TFAA members about the renovation and told them they would have a new bar and dining restaurant that would remain open late. “They didn’t do renovations during our meeting, but had the area cordoned off with a sign explaining the inconvenience,” says Hicks.
In addition, the Austin-based Texas Association of Freestanding Emergency Centers (TAFEC) used the Hyatt Regency Austin for one of their meetings. According to Lisa Keltner, manager of membership operations, they were attracted to the property partly because it recently completed a $15 million renovation of its 448 guest rooms and meeting space. The project included the brand new Zilker Ballroom, which is divisible into four separate meeting spaces. The AAA Four Diamond property offers more than 45,000 sf of flexible meeting space, including four additional ballrooms that include the Foothills Ballroom located on the 17th floor with views of the skyline.
The Foothills Ballroom was the site of a TAFEC reception. “It was great to be in a new-looking ballroom,” says Keltner. “The space was set off in a separate, private section of the hotel. We had a nice view of Austin. Then we left and got on a yacht next door for a reception ride on Lady Bird Lake with a band and great view of downtown. We had dinner along with chocolate shakes and cookies with our logo on them.”
In May 2017, White Lodging will break ground on a new Marriott downtown hotel near the Austin Convention Center (ACC). The 615-room full-service Marriott will offer 65,000 sf of meeting, exhibit and entertainment space, three bars and a street-level restaurant. The hotel is scheduled to open in summer 2019.
Hilton Austin is undergoing a multimillion-dollar renovation of its 80,000-sf meeting space that includes The Reverby, a cozy banquet hall with flexible indoor-outdoor meeting space. A redesigned lobby will include intimate social zones, designated work space and a new digital media wall. Cannon + Belle, a multistation open kitchen, will offer a Texas-fresh menu. In addition, Austin Taco Project, a street-front fusion taco bar, will serve tacos and custom cocktails. The project will continue through the end of this year.
The brand new 37-story Fairmont Austin downtown plans to build a $6 million pedestrian bridge to connect the hotel to the ACC. The Fairmont Austin features 1,048 guest rooms and 42 suites, including the exclusive Fairmont Gold rooms and lounge, with views of Lady Bird Lake and the city. Guests also can enjoy two heated pools, a full-service salon and spa and 106,000 sf of meeting space.
Also downtown, the 1,012-room JW Marriott Convention Center Hotel is one of the largest properties in Austin. The hotel provides 120,000 sf of meeting space, including four dining options highlighted by the Osteria Pronto restaurant.
Dallas is the No. 1 destination in Texas with more than 24 million visitors annually, including small and large groups attracted by the city’s 30,000 hotel rooms, more than 200 golf courses and cosmopolitan feel.
Loyal groups return year after year. In November, The American Association of Knee & Hip Surgeons (AAKHS) will hold its annual meeting at the Hilton Anatole for the 25th time in 26 years. They also will return in 2017.
This year’s three-day AAKHS annual meeting is expected to attract approximately 2,500 attendees who come for primarily one purpose — career education. “Our members are surgeons who are all business,” says Michael Zarski, executive director, AAKHS. “They are not looking for gaming, golf or tennis, and many things people typically do at conferences. They go out for a nice dinner at the most, so that focuses us on the practicalities of the property and destination.”
Geographic location played a big role in originally choosing Dallas. “It is convenient for groups like us with nationwide attendees because the city is located in the central time zone within a four-hour flight from most major North American destinations,” says Zarski.
Another major factor was the size and configuration of the Hilton Anatole’s meeting spaces. “We want to keep everything as close together as possible,” says Zarski. “We love the size and proximity of the exhibition area to a large ballroom where we have our meetings. The fact that everything is all on the same floor is very important to us so that people aren’t running all over the place.”
This year, Zarski will put the Hilton Anatole’s ballroom and other meetings spaces to good use. The group will hold two receptions, a board meeting and a dinner for past presidents highlighted by a harpist performance.
The group also will use a ballroom for a charity event. “It’s called “Docs Night Out,” says Zarski. “It will be fun and games. We will have tables set up to play poker, a golf simulator and golf pro to teach people shots. We will have a giant version of the board game Operation, as well as games such as foosball and a pool table.”
The AAKHS plans to return to the Hilton Anatole in 2018. The group’s long-term relationship with the property pays dividends in several areas, including scheduling. “This year, they shuffled around some other smaller events that would have made our meeting more challenging,” says Zarski. “They had something scheduled in one of the ballrooms that was going to be near our registration area. But they arranged things so that we had exclusive use of the hotel in our area.”
Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas redesigned its 34,000-sf conference center. The redesign includes new stone flooring in the common areas, custom carpet and pendant. The project also added the new 4,400-sf Lantana Room and deck that is divisible into two equal sections that accommodate up to 400 guests. In addition, the Pecos Rooms will offer about 600 sf of new breakout space. Another downtown property, the Sheraton Dallas Hotel, has 1,840 rooms and 230,000 sf of meeting space. Guests can enjoy three restaurants and bars; a fitness center; and an outdoor patio with fire pits.
The Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center recently invested $26.5 million in infrastructure improvements. The 2-million-sf facility plans to invest in an additional $6.6 million upgrade of its meeting space and three ballrooms.
As the self-described gateway to the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, Irving offers several advantages for meeting planners.
For example, Irving can handily accommodate meetings from 10 people to several thousand. Home to a large arts district and several top-rated golf courses, it is adjacent to the DFW International Airport. Irving boasts more than 12,000 rooms and 200,000 sf of total meeting space, including the LEED-certified Irving Convention Center at Las Colinas (ICC), which hosted 300 events last year and offers 100,000 sf of event space, including a column-free exhibit hall, breakout rooms, ballrooms and prefunction areas.
The ICC is part of a mixed-use urban center that will include a hotel, an entertainment venue and 100,000 sf of meeting space. The city of Irving has chosen the Westin Hotels & Resorts brand for a 350-room convention center headquarters hotel that will showcase a dining/entertainment destination called The Music Factory with an 8,000-seat indoor-outdoor amphitheater. The hotel is expected to be completed by summer 2017.
As part of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, Arlington is an attractive destination in its own right while offering convenient access to all that its larger neighbors offer.
Meeting facilities are anchored by the Arlington Convention Center, which offers 85,000 sf of meeting space, free Wi-Fi and an award-winning chef. The center is adjacent to the 311-room Sheraton Arlington Hotel, which provides 26,000 sf of meeting space.
More meeting space is on the way. The city of Arlington has approved a $200 million public-private economic development project that will include a 100,000-sf complex near Globe Life Park that will offer entertainment venues, retail and meeting space, and multiple restaurants. The project also will include a hotel with a least 300 rooms and 35,000 sf of meeting space. The facility is expected to open by the end of 2017.
According to Ronnie Price, president and CEO of the Arlington Convention & Visitors Bureau, the new facility “gives our city the ability to host larger events and more visitors. This development enhances our destination by providing the type of entertainment and facilities that attendees look for.”
The Sheraton Arlington Hotel has completed the first phase of a multimillion-dollar renovation that includes all 311 guest rooms and suites. Phase two of the project will include all 26,000 sf of meeting space, most of which is on the second floor. Phase three, which begins in 2017, will include remodeling of the lobby, bar and restaurants.
Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city and soon-to-be host of Super Bowl LI on February 5, 2017, is more popular than ever. According to the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, its destination sales team booked 732,967 room nights in 2015, a 29 percent increase over 2014. Houston hosted 17.5 million visitors in 2015, up from 14.8 million in 2014.
This year’s visitors included a three-day annual meeting of 350 physicians, health administrators and managers with the Austin-based TAFEC, which was held at the Omni Houston Hotel.
The association chose the Omni Houston after working closely with the brand’s national sales office following a meeting at the Omni Dallas last year. “There were a lot of compliments from members after the meeting in Dallas,” explains meeting planner Keltner. “I had established a good relationship with the national sales director who works out of Dallas. When I need to turn in an RFP, I go to her, and she makes the connection for me. They give us good deals on meeting packages.”
Keltner lauds the Omni Houston’s service. “The food and beverage staff was very attentive and made sure that everything stayed full,” she says. “The guy in charge was always checking on me and my staff to make sure everything was okay.”
Service excelled even after Keltner discovered that she underestimated how many people would attend a luncheon. “We had a lot of walk-ups,” she says. “But they made sure there was plenty of food. Some places might have said they didn’t have enough to feed the extra people, but they were very accommodating. I have been at hotels where that wasn’t the case.”
The layout of the meeting spaces perfectly fit the group’s needs. “All of the spaces we needed were close together, says Keltner. “A big ballroom was on the second level. A smaller ballroom was just to the left, and a big prefunction space was nearby. We had a reception at the nightclub on the lower level that was just remodeled, and we used the entire space. We had an open bar, DJ, food and cigar-rolling stations.”
Another group, the Southwest Louisiana Bar Association (SLBA), also has a favorite hotel in Houston — the Houstonian Hotel Club & Spa. The SLBA first met at the Houstonian in 2006 and has returned each year since. This year, the two-day meeting attracted 55 attendees and their guests.
The SLBA also will hold its two-day meeting at the Houstonian in 2017. “We do surveys every year at the end of the event,” says Shayna Sonnier, president, SLBA. “We always ask if they enjoyed the Houstonian and if they would like us to look elsewhere. Overwhelmingly they say no.”
Value and service are the main reasons for the SLBA’s repeat visits. “The Houstonian has worked well with us on the rates to keep it where we haven’t really felt the need to go anywhere else,” says Sonnier. “We have been going there so long that they are great at anticipating our needs and making changes as our needs change. Leading up to the event, they work very closely with us.”
Once the conference starts, the Houstonian goes above and beyond. Sonnier cites an example: “Last year, a few days before our meeting, there was flooding in East Texas and Western Louisiana,” says Sonnier. “Portions of the main highway to Houston were closed, and it took people longer to drive there. Some didn’t go at all. The Houstonian was very quick to say they wouldn’t penalize us for the people who didn’t show up.”
Service excels in other areas as well. “They anticipate our technology needs,” she says. “If a speaker shows up with technology requirements that we didn’t anticipate, they handle it quickly. They also work with our floor plans. If they suggest something, and we don’t like it, they are very quick to accommodate us another way.”
In other Houston news, the Marriott Houston Airport finished a multimillion-dollar renovation that added new furnishings, carpet and wall coverings for its 573 guest rooms, 34 meeting rooms and 30,000 sf of meeting space. The project added a new all-day restaurant, Flights Lounge & Grill, as well as a full-service lounge bar. Upgrades included the business center, new pool decking and high-speed wireless internet.
Westin in the Woodlands opened about 30 miles from downtown Houston. The 13-story luxury hotel sits along The Woodlands Waterway, a tree-lined canal that runs through downtown. The 302-room hotel will anchor Waterway Square, a mixed-use district. Westin in the Woodlands offers 15,000 sf of waterfront meeting and event space, including the 6,000-sf Edgewater Ballroom and outdoor terrace.
The Marriott Marquis Houston is scheduled to open in December 2016 on the north side of the George R. Brown Convention Center (GRBCC) opposite the 1,200-room Hilton Americas-Houston on the south side. The 1,000-room Marriott Marquis, which along with the Hilton Americas-Houston will be connected by skywalk to the GRBCC, will offer 100,000 sf of meeting space that includes 52 meeting rooms and ballrooms of 39,000 sf and 21,729 sf. In addition, the hotel will provide six dining concepts, several event lawns, an outdoor infinity-edge pool and Texas-shaped lazy river.
The GRBCC will increase its 1.2 million sf of meeting space in 2017 after completing a $250 million modernization project that includes skybridges, art, new restaurants and other additions. Improvements in the convention district, newly dubbed Avenida Houston, will include The Wharf, a special event area; and Avenida Plaza, a pedestrian-friendly outdoor space featuring restaurants.
Groups seeking a laidback and affordable getaway with a tropical vibe need look no further than Galveston Island, located about 50 minutes from Houston.
The island offers a variety of spaces to meet the needs of large and small meetings.
South Shore Harbour Resort and Conference Center, the largest full-service waterfront resort hotel and conference center in Southeast Texas, recently completed a multimillion-dollar renovation that includes all 1,438 guest rooms and suites; 25,000 sf of conference space; and public spaces including hotel, restaurant, pool area, lobby and lobby bar.
The Woodlands, a small city with entertainment, retail and recreational facilities, is a growing meetings center. The area features 14 hotels, 200 restaurants and the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion with 21,000 sf of meeting space.
Meetings flock to the 406-room, IACC-certified Woodlands Resort & Conference Center, which sits on 28,000 acres of scenic woodland and features a 60,000 sf of meeting space. The property recently underwent a $60 million expansion and renovation that included conference center upgrades. The property boasts two championship golf courses, four top restaurants and The Spa.
Attractions include Space Center Houston as well as Moody Gardens, featuring educational and family-friendly attractions. Exhibitions that accommodate groups include the Rainforest Pyramid’s endangered animals, the Discovery Museum and the MG 3-D and 4-D theaters. The Aquarium Pyramid is currently undergoing a renovation to be completed in May 2017.
Grapevine, located midway between Dallas and Fort Worth, offers about 20 hotels within a 10-minute drive of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
The star of Grapevine properties is the 1,511-guest room Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center with its 407,489 sf of event space. The Gaylord is undertaking a $120 million expansion that will add 300 guest rooms and an additional 86,000 sf of meeting space.
Upon completion of the project in 2018, the Gaylord will offer 1,811 rooms and 490,000 sf of meeting space, including a new 30,000-sf ballroom, 30,000 sf of breakout space and 26,000 sf of prefunction space.
The nation’s seventh-largest city, which is steeped in Spanish colonial history, welcomes more than 31 million visitors annually, including a growing number of meeting attendees.
Looking to attract larger meetings, San Antonio is aggressively increasing meeting space, starting with the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, located on the River Walk downtown within walking distance of thousands of hotel rooms.
The convention center completed a $325 expansion that increased total meeting space to 1.6 million sf. The center now provides 514,000 sf of contiguous exhibit space, 86,500 sf of multipurpose space and 70 meeting spaces, including a 54,000-sf ballroom.
The convention center is adjacent to the upcoming Hemisfair site, which will be an 18-acre multipurpose park with visitor amenities when the project is completed in 2018. Another facility, the 65,000-seat Alamodome, is undergoing a $43 million upgrade prior to hosting the NCAA Final Four in 2018.
One of the San Antonio area’s top meeting properties, the 1,002-room JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa, introduced its $16 million expansion of the property’s River Bluff Water Experience, which includes new meeting and convention space. The project added the new River Bend pavilion, which offers 13,000 sf of indoor and outdoor customizable venues, including a 5,000-sf pavilion and 4,200-sf covered deck.
Other notable properties include the 500-room Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa, located a 20-minute drive from downtown. The scenic Hill Country property offers 54,000 sf of modern meeting space, 27 holes of golf, a five-acre water park and eight restaurants.
The popular La Cantera Resort & Spa recently opened its 25,000-sf Loma de Vida Spa and Wellness, which boasts 15 treatment rooms. The resort offers more than 115,000 sf of flexible indoor-outdoor event space including the 17,000-sf San Antonio Grand Ballroom, divisible into nine individual meeting rooms. Additionally, the ballroom offers a 6,500-sf prefunction foyer and terrace, with panoramic views of the resort’s two golf courses. Also available are eight separate meeting rooms and three executive boardrooms. The 3,100-sf Palo Duro, adjacent to the Resort Clubhouse, offers stunning views of the city lights and the breathtaking Texas Hill Country.
Texas is the ultimate destination because of its central location, immense destination variety and abundance of top meeting properties. Planners also will find a growing number of sophisticated culinary options and endless entertainment choices, all delivered with unique Texas hospitality. AC&F