Texas is big. Texas is bold. Texas is beautiful. It’s this trio of attractions and more that make the Lone Star state a magnet for meetings. This bigger-than-life destination offers an impressive range of options tailor-made for corporate meeting planners seeking a Southwestern flair.
Recent years are akin to a sonic boom for Houston, beginning with the December 2016 unveiling of the $175 million Avenida Houston (the pedestrian-oriented campus that connects visitors to the George R. Brown Convention Center, Minute Maid Park, Toyota Center, BBVA Compass Stadium and Discovery Green) and having continued with around-the-globe attention focused on 2017’s Super Bowl LI. The city is also home to MSN’s named Best Hotel in Texas — Hilton Americas-Houston, a AAA Four Diamond-rated property with 1,200 guest rooms and 91,500 sf of flexible meeting space over three levels. All contributed to the city booking a record number of room nights in 2016 tied to future conventions for the second year straight. “The world is waking up to a new Houston,” says Mike Waterman, president of Visit Houston. 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.
Maddy Bilder, creative department manager with Encore Live — a self-described one-stop shop for planning, managing and executing corporate and private events from start to finish — selected Texas for BEDTalks, Mattress Firm’s annual national leadership conference. A high-energy event that combines a week of celebration, education and service for approximately 1,200 attendees, the 2017 BEDTalks was held at the 1,000-room Marriott Marquis Houston.
What factors led Bilder and Mattress Firm to this property? Encore Live’s event specialist cites several components necessary to pull off an event of this magnitude — big ballrooms (including Houston’s largest at 40,000 sf), ample space for breakout sessions (100,000 sf of meeting/event space), branding opportunities, competitive food and beverage choices, good hotel rates, nearby city attractions and loading dock accessibility. Bilder elaborates: “The Marriott Marquis met all of our needs and offered a uniquely designed meeting place that embodied Houston’s charm — providing stunning views of local artwork and the world’s only Texas-shaped lazy river. It was the perfect location for our Houston-inspired BEDTalks.”
The meeting’s objective is to promote a strong and positive relationship between Mattress Firm and its employees — giving attendees renewed inspiration, rejuvenation and a commitment to take the company’s mission home to their local districts and stores. As BEDTalks is not a typical corporate conference, achieving these goals in the span of three days is accomplished in a multi-prong approach and with the incorporation of several offsite events.
The week kicked off with Art in the Park at Discovery Green and included a variety of local food trucks, well-known Houston artists (The Suffers, a Gulf Coast soul band and Houston graffiti artist GONZO247), custom art installations and outdoor games. With the goal to motivate through topics — from industry trends to personal stories — this year’s keynote speakers included Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, former Southwest Airlines CMO Dave Ridley and Pastor Dan Hall (whose ongoing rehabilitation from a recent injury is exceptionally inspirational).
Guests were transported to the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts for the formal awards gala, with the after-awards ceremony celebration back in the hotel at “Studio 8” nightclub (a custom-created entertainment venue for the evening).
Day three was about giving back to the Houston community and raising funds for the company’s charitable foundation, Foster Kids. Attendees were bused to Mattress Firm’s BEDQuarters where they participated in a Foster Fitness Fair, which included a fitness duffle bag assembly, an obstacle course, a fun-run and the introduction to Houston Texans’ renowned defensive end, J.J. Watt.
Of all the events, however, Bilder deems the closing night’s Gulf Coast Pool Party the one which most engaged the guests. “It truly reflected Houston’s personality. The view from the pool deck is breathtaking and overlooks Discovery Green, the George R. Brown Convention Center and the skyline. It was an effortless evening with backyard games, pool floats, jazz music, a crawfish boil and Gulf Coast-inspired buffets. Guests felt like we were paying tribute to the city and a wonderful week at BEDTalks.”
Bilder’s bottom line: “BEDTalks is one of the events that attendees look forward to year long, and they respond very well to the activities and stories that are shared with them year after year. 2017 was no different. If anything, guest excitement and reactions were amplified because Mattress Firm was founded in Houston 30 years ago, so the pride for the city and for Mattress Firm was intensified.”
In agreement with Bilder and Mattress Firm, Kara MacDonald, director of marketing operations for HCSS (an industry pioneer and leader in construction company software), also selected Marriott Marquis Houston — in no small part due to its large size.
“We selected this property because it gives us the ability to really grow our event, but keep it in one venue as long as possible,” says the planner of its two upcoming January and February 2018 Users Group Meetings (an expected combined attendance of approximately 1,500). “The past few years we had to spread our meals, breakouts and hotel rooms across multiple (Houston) hotels.” A first-timer to Marriott Marquis Houston, MacDonald is committed to this property through 2022 and adds: “We will be able to keep it all in one location for the next several years.”
Advice the planner would give others considering this property: “Explain fully any challenges you have had in the past and be open to new ideas.” She cites this example: HCSS’s meetings require significant pre-event AV setup, and over the years attendees have questioned the Wednesday through Saturday timing. Marriott’s suggestion was to shift the days to Monday through Thursday, allowing the group time for AV setup on Sunday (a typically slower day for the hotel) and making it possible for attendees to return home Thursday night, enabling a visit to the office on Friday.
With the main objective of the meetings to educate HCSS’s customers on the software, significant time is devoted to breakout sessions (155 sessions in January; 195 sessions in February). “Since this is the bulk of the schedule, we spend months planning course tracks, content and making final preparations (room setup, AV required, etc.) for the sessions,” says MacDonald. She likens the process to an analogy: “The rest of the event I consider to be decorations on the cake…people might think it looks beautiful, but if it doesn’t taste good, time is wasted decorating it.”
The icing on the cake: “Most of our attendees come from the Midwest and the Northwest, so they love Houston’s weather, even from late January to mid-February,” concludes the planner.
Moving to the heart of the state is its capital, Austin, the center of government and the home base of The University of Texas. Additionally revered as the “Live Music Capital of the World” (host to more than 250 live music venues) and named “The Next Great Food Town” by Travel + Leisure, it is becoming a significant player in the meetings arena.
Sitting on the UT campus the recently renovated 297-room AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center features 50,000 sf in 37 different meeting spaces. The property will be further enhanced with its expansion in the works — a 15,000-sf ballroom, 5,000 sf of prefunction space and a 5,500-sf banquet kitchen (slated for completion in January 2018).
Scheduled to open in early 2018 is the $370 million Fairmont Austin, which will connect to the Austin Convention Center via an elevated bridge called the Red River Street Canopy Walk. The hotel will offer 1,048 guest rooms (including 131 luxury rooms on four private floors); 138,815 sf of state-of-the-art meeting, convention and outdoor space, and birds-eye views of Lady Bird Lake, the Capitol and the cityscape.
The latest trend in the meetings industry is embraced by Hilton Austin with its top-of-the-line onsite dining options conceived with attendees in mind. Its newest eateries include Cannon+Belle, which serves up Tex fresh fare and local spirits; Austin Taco Project, known for fusion tacos and custom cocktails — it’s described as “the endless pursuit of the world’s perfect tap and tacos”— and The Reverbery, an events venue designed to replicate Austin’s recording studio vibe. At 31 stories, additional meeting planner perks include 801 newly renovated guest rooms, 80,000 sf of flexible meeting space and an adjacent-to-the-convention-center location.
Hyatt Regency Austin is fine-tuning its $70 million renovation with the redecoration of its welcoming lobby and the refreshing of its meeting spaces. The renovation began in 2014 with the addition of the 14,136-sf Zilker Ballroom and 2,700-sf open-air Zilker Terrace (putting the hotel in the league with the city’s largest meeting venues) and continued in 2015 with the full renovation of all 448 guest rooms showcasing a music-inspired décor that is reflective of Austin’s melodious roots.
New on the scene last year was the luxury 171-room Archer Hotel Austin located in Domain Northside (an upscale 300-acre mixed-use north Austin destination/development). The boutique hotel describes its Texas chic décor in fashion-attire terms: “Think designer dress worn with the perfect cowboy boots.” Among its rustic luxe touches are wall coverings comprised of reclaimed leather belts, leather trunks in many guest rooms (most of which have floor-to-ceiling windows) and a native Texas limestone grand staircase with floating glass handrails. Of particular appeal to planners is more than 16,500 sf of indoor/outdoor event space and a 100 percent smoke-free environment.
Showcasing its typically one-step-ahead-of-the-game mentality, Visit Austin recently launched a new digital meeting planning tool that provides information on the city’s meeting facilities, accommodations, convention services, etc., in a format created after researching those of most value to planners.
Austin’s corporate commitment captured the attention of Lisa Frodge — senior administrative assistant, global accounts sales, Dell account, Intel — when selecting Archer Hotel Austin for the 2017 Intel/Dell Worldwide Team F2F meeting of 90 people.
“We chose this property primarily due to JaiSauna Thompson, director of group sales, Archer Hotel Austin. Someone mentioned the hotel and we stopped by to view the property. JaiSauna gave us a personal tour, showing the meeting rooms, conference rooms and individual hotel rooms. We were won over not just by the beautiful, unique space, but by JaiSauna’s hospitality, as well as that of the rest of the staff.” She continues to name names. “Aaron Wagner was wonderful with the AV setup and always a text away from any issues.”
The meeting objective is to get the worldwide team together to network and share ideas. The Archer setup provided the perfect setting — with the terrace off the conference area serving as a prime impromptu meeting area that encouraged significant teambuilding.
Frodge cites the hotel’s Texas-inspired F&B a real hit, from the “Lone Star State of Mind” breakfast (featuring jalapeno cornbread with honey butter) to a lunch of Texas chili; but also gives kudos to the Domain Northside’s many eateries visited the first night (Culinary Dropout, NoRTH, CRÚ, Maggiano’s and Gloria’s Latin Cuisine). However, its most popular event with attendees began with drinks and heavy appetizers at downtown’s Easy Tiger, followed by a visit to Cedar Street Courtyard to see the Spazmatics, described as the “ultimate new wave ‘80s show.”
Planning to return in May 2018 — same time, same place — Frodge summates: “It worked perfectly! Employees were very impressed. Management was happy that it was reasonably priced and employees assumed we were paying too much.”
A bit farther south is San Antonio, named in 2016 as the state’s No. 1 choice for meetings and conventions, and known for its meandering River Walk, Mexican flair and the famed Alamo. Only steps from these historic enticements is Hotel Contessa. Noted as the only AAA Four Diamond all-suite hotel situated on the River Walk, it recently announced a partnership with The Briscoe Western Art Museum, which gives groups the flexibility to take advantage of the hotel-to-museum proximity and combine their one-of-a-kind offerings and meeting space.
Located in San Antonio’s famed surrounding hills is the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa, the brand’s largest in the world. Serving up more than 265,000 sf of customizable convention, meeting and event space, one of the hotel’s most unique venues is located at its center — a 30,000-sf lawn enhanced by limestone waterfalls and fireplaces, along with surround-sound-like views of the environs and the first hole of its AT&T Canyons Course.
Responsible for the core events of Experian Information Solutions Inc. — the Vision Conference, Sales Summit and Elite Award Trip (incentive trip) — Melanie Haywood, senior manager corporate events, selected JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa for the company’s April Sales Summit of approximately 800 attendees for a variety of reasons.
“Texas is always an ideal location since it is a central destination in the U.S. This property offers an upscale resort feel with large meeting space custom-made for big conferences; but it also offers the feeling of exclusivity, unlike many convention-sized hotels.
Details are an important component of Haywood’s decision: a large and flexible main ballroom with great ceiling height, impeccable grounds and numerous outdoor options large enough for evening parties. However, of greatest importance to this planner is the availability of work space located next to the registration desk. Haywood explains: “I always struggle to find hotels with office space large enough to accommodate my team and all of our boxes comfortably — which is also in a location that makes it easy to manage the conference floor throughout our long days.”
With the theme “Make it Happen,” content of this internal sales conference focuses on four pillars: educate, celebrate, collaborate and inspire. Survey results indicate that its objectives to motivate and educate the salesforce, as well as provide them with the necessary training and tools to achieve the coming year’s revenue goals, were met. Results specific to the hotel received high remarks: Attendees appreciated the variety of hotel restaurants/bars, the quality of overall service and the attributes of guest rooms. With respect to rating the meeting facilities and technology, Haywood’s score for JW Marriott San Antonio: “A++ — some of the best in the industry!”
The best part is that though the hotel is a bit removed from the downtown action (though easily accessed by taxi), the property has a resort feel. It also kept the attendees engaged and enabled them to focus on the content versus possible distractions. In the end, with the resort ambience, as well as the hotel’s multiple food outlets, attendees did not miss the city vibe.
One particularly memorable night was the networking dinner event on the hotel’s lawn. “We opted for a Texas feel with Southern-style food, regional décor and such fun elements as a photo booth in an Airstream trailer, ice-carved beer mugs and lawn games. The attendees loved being outside, enjoyed the casual environment and the lawn setting was perfect,” says the planner.
Final result: Though Experian Information Solutions Inc. does not return to the same destination year after year, it is bringing its Vision Conference to JW Marriott San Antonio in 2019.
With a pride that is exceeded only by its homespun amenities and genuine hospitality, Texas is becoming a top destination in the world of meetings. C&IT