One of the country’s meetings destination gems is Texas, where everything can be found on a larger scale — bigger venues, bigger menus and immense hospitality. All of these attributes make Texas-based meetings memorable experiences for association attendees.
As one of the more dynamic, diverse cities in the country, San Antonio is an attractive landscape for any kind of meeting. It has expansive and versatile infrastructure, an expanding culinary and attractions scene, and the recently renovated Henry B. González Convention Center (HBGCC) is in a highly walkable downtown core. It is also an evolving city, with new and reimagined venues and districts, such as the Alamodome and the Pearl District, the historical area and cultural hub in the center of the city that is home to shops, restaurants and businesses. There is also Hemisfair, a park area with businesses and restaurants being developed in phases that is fantastic for meetings and events, especially given that it is adjacent to the Convention Center; and Southtown, another area with specialty shops, trendy cafes and bars. These venues keep the destination fresh for repeat groups and visitors, while San Antonio is also a big draw for meetings professionals thanks to its accessibility of location, price and variety of options.
Sport Clips Inc. hosted its 2021 National Huddle Conference in San Antonio early last fall. Saronna Maldonado, CMP, director of events, says, “Our attendees loved the restaurant selections and nightlife. I often hear how friendly everyone in San Antonio is.”
Indeed, San Antonio has always been known as one of the most easily walkable convention center districts in the country, in large part thanks to the River Walk, which connects the convention center to hotels, restaurants, museums, attractions and outdoor areas. San Antonio’s walkability eliminates the need for mass transportation, and provides more options for outdoor events.
“Full of culture, art, history and attractions, there is built-in entertainment and no shortage of things for attendees to do in San Antonio,” says Marc Anderson, president and CEO at Visit San Antonio.
Historically, after times of disaster or stress, the travel industry has been a major factor in helping the American economy rebound. That is significant in San Antonio, where the tourism sector is a leading industry in comparison to many destinations. San Antonio is extremely pro-business and pro-tourism. “Visit San Antonio, our partners and our entire community are here to welcome back groups and support meeting planning professionals in whatever way possible in order to provide an exceptional meeting experience,” Anderson says.
In spring 2021, San Antonio proved that the destination was ready for events with the success of hosting the NCAA 2021 Division I Women’s Basketball Championship. Accommodating 64 participating teams within a bubble environment required meticulous planning and coordination on the part of not only the NCAA, Visit San Antonio and San Antonio Sports, but several local venues, hotels, restaurants and other San Antonio partners, and thousands of volunteers. “From there, San Antonio area hotels, venues, restaurants and attractions have taken the ‘Greater, Safer San Antonio’ pledge, and remained committed to health and safety as our No.1 priority,” Anderson says.
Last year, Visit San Antonio offered the Sí San Antonio Meetings Incentive Promotion to help welcome back groups. As Anderson explains, it was a huge success with meetings planners, and they relaunched the promotion for 2022. Planners can take advantage of some great savings, which include discounted rental at the HBGCC, “Fly-In on Us” customized site visits and up to a $5 room rebate per actualized room nights — depending on how many actualized room nights — impacting 2022 or specific future years.
Adding to San Antonio’s repertoire of great hotels, Canopy by Hilton San Antonio Riverwalk made its River Walk debut about a year ago. The hotel integrates the Civil War-era Alamo Fish Market building into its 20-story design. Incorporating the building into the hotel is not only an integral element of the authenticity of the Canopy brand, but also maintains an important historic element to the corridor. “Another highly anticipated hotel opened in February 2021 … The Thompson San Antonio Hotel and The Arts Residences is a $116 million, mixed-use hotel/condominium tower on the San Antonio River Walk,” Anderson says. The 20-story 337,000-sf mixed-use development is across the River Walk from the esteemed Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. The 162-room Thompson San Antonio – Riverwalk is one of a collection of design-forward, boutique lifestyle hotels and resorts. It features amenities such as a high-end restaurant, 20th-floor rooftop bar with panoramic views of downtown, a 5,000-sf pool deck with a pool bar on the fourth floor, a fitness center, spa, valet parking and 24-hour concierge and in-room dining services.
Anderson and his team eagerly await the addition of several new hotels on the horizon. The dual-concept AC Hotel by Marriott San Antonio Riverwalk & Element Hotel by Westin will be debuting at the Riverview Towers later this spring, the luxury InterContinental Hotel will be checking into the River Walk in early 2023, the new-build Artista San Antonio hotel is coming to the River Walk in summer of 2023, and The Otis Hotel San Antonio, Autograph Collection will be complete in downtown in 2024. “As for venues, the Education and Event Center at the San Antonio Botanical Garden made its debut in the Spring of 2020, and is the gateway to a 38-acre urban oasis of nature just minutes from downtown,” Anderson says. This 3,500-sf, state-of-the-art indoor venue is surrounded on three sides with floor-to-ceiling windows, and the interior and exterior ceiling is adorned by Sinker Cypress wood. This modern building is ideal for events of all sizes, from lectures and symposiums of up to 350 guests, or receptions and banquets with up to 200 seated guests. The new Grand Lawn, adjacent to the Education and Event Center, can accommodate a sit-down dinner up to 720 guests or a festival for 2,300. This is the final piece of the Botanical Garden’s multiyear, $20 million expansion and renovation.
Houston is the country’s fourth-largest and fastest-growing city. It offers many diverse activities — beyond just meetings and conventions — including a fantastic culinary scene; a world-renowned theater and performing arts district; thousands of acres of outdoor space and nature; professional and semi-pro sports teams; iconic attractions, such as the country’s largest Texas-shaped lazy river, Altitude Rooftop & Pool; and Space Center Houston. “Houston also is not only culturally diverse, but is a leader in various industries, such as aerospace, energy, logistics and health care, which showcase the city’s versatility to any and all audiences,” says John Solis, senior vice president of sales and client services at Visit Houston. “Houston offers some great Southern hospitality that makes visitors feel welcome and included.”
In addition to Houston’s diversity and great hospitality, the city is home to two international airports and more than 90,000 hotel rooms that can accommodate attendees of everything from small meetings to large-scale events. Houston also boasts two premiere convention centers — the George R. Brown Convention Center (GRBCC) and the NRG Center — that also can successfully accommodate both small and large-scale events. Located downtown, the GRBCC is connected to two hotels, the Hilton Americas-Houston and the Marriott Marquis Houston, via skybridges. The site also features Avenida Houston, the state’s largest convention and entertainment campus, which is available for outdoor programming and events, and steps away from a 12-acre urban park.
As Solis explains, Visit Houston is focused on working exclusively with the many scheduled groups set to convene in Houston. “The team is prepared to provide customized communication and marketing support to groups, including addressing health protocols and information on things to see and do while in town,” Solis says. The city has experienced the development of several hotels and venues that are ideal for meetings and events, including the aforementioned Hilton Americas-Houston; Four Seasons Hotel Houston; The Laura Hotel, Houston Downtown, Autograph Collection; Blossom Houston Hotel; The Ion hotel and Hyatt Regency Houston West.
Plano offers modern, state-of-the-art meeting facilities for groups of every size and budget. Whether it is a convention, conference, trade show or board meeting, there are multiple options, including many that have free parking and wireless connectivity, as well as on-site trade show support. Plano is conveniently located near Dallas/Fort Worth International airport, and is within a 30-minute drive to most major attractions, and sporting, adventure and entertainment venues in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Steven Simmons, association sales manager at Visit Plano, says the city is deploying a team dedicated to going beyond the usual, and is expected to assist potential clients with all of their needs. “We understand the challenges of having to do more with fewer resources, and we are prepared to do everything it takes to help them have a successful and profitable meeting,” Simmons says. “Whether that means creating unique experiences for groups to make them feel safe, tailoring special site visits for planners who are not able to travel, or providing extra hands on-site during their event. All of our groups have been extremely appreciative of the registration assistance we provide during their event.”
The feedback Simmons receives from association clients is that the services Visit Plano provides are perfect during COVID. “A lot of the organizations had to drastically reduce their staff, so Visit Plano providing volunteers is a huge stress reducer for them,” Simmons says. “Planners appreciate it because it gives them a chance to walk away from the registration table to handle other situations.” Visit Plano also provides restaurant discounts to groups. Planners say it makes their attendees excited to be in the city, plus it helps their guest explore Plano more.
The city is also celebrating new and upcoming advancements. The Plano Event Center, the city’s convention center, will be undergoing a $1.85 million courtyard renovation starting later this year. According to Simmons, this will be a complete renovation of the outdoor courtyard space, which will include hardscape paving, site lighting, site furniture, shade structures, a fireplace, A/V equipment and connections, utility adjustments, new fencing and entry gates, landscape planting beds, tree plantings and reconfiguration of the irrigation system. “The renovation project will also significantly expand upon programmable and rentable spaces for outdoor events by providing extensive shaded areas and expanded hardscape to accommodate receptions, impromptu meeting spaces and live entertainment,” Simmons says.
The fireplace area will draw patrons out to enjoy cocktails and tapas while listening to live music or recorded music from the wireless sound system located throughout the courtyard area. A games section will capitalize on the large outdoor game trend for lawn chess or outdoor tic-tac-toe. There will be a stage area for performance artists or musical groups, and plenty of outdoor seating with tables for al fresco dining provided courtesy of the Plano Event Center culinary team. “Meeting planners today are always searching for unique settings for breakout sessions, receptions, weddings and other special events. The renovated courtyard will provide those amenities in a manner never offered before at the Plano Event Center, and will give a competitive edge over other comparable facilities,” Simmons says.
Austin, which hails itself as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” also presents an appealing Texas city for meetings and events. There is an amazing array of things to do and see, including rodeos, festivals, one-of-a-kind shopping and beautiful outdoor spaces.
As of last year, there were an estimated 13,251 rooms downtown, and 46,708 rooms citywide, enabling Austin to cement its reputation as a leading meetings and convention destination.
Many of the convention hotels are within walking distance of the Austin Convention Center, including the Hilton Austin, which offers more than 95,000 sf of flexible meetings and events space; Austin Marriott Downtown, which offers more than 60,000 sf of meetings space; Fairmont Austin, which offers more than 140,000 sf of events space; and Four Seasons Hotel Austin, which offers more than 18,000 sf of meetings space.
Craig Davis, president & CEO of Visit Dallas, says the pandemic has posed its challenges for meetings and events, but as a hub for innovation with extensive meetings facilities and offerings, Dallas is more than prepared to welcome back the industry. “The safety of meeting professionals and attendees is our top priority, which we demonstrate with the most Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC) STAR accredited hotels and venues in the nation,” Davis says. “Dallas already boasts 20 vibrant entertainment districts, and exciting new hotel openings will add to Dallas’ already impressive hospitality portfolio, showing our commitment to offering diversified meeting experiences before, during and after events.”
Indeed, Dallas is home to Dallas Love Field Airport, located just 7 miles from downtown Dallas, and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, making it a central and easily accessible destination for organizations to gather as they return to in-person meetings. Once on the ground, visitors are able to hop on Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), the nation’s longest light-rail network, or take advantage of the city’s free and historic downtown McKinney Avenue Trolley. “Thanks to its strong economy and low labor rates, Dallas offers modest event costs without compromising quality and experience,” Davis says. “In fact, the cost of doing business in Dallas is 7% lower than the national average. Texas is a ‘right-to-work’ state, which lowers event production costs so teams can focus more budget on attendee engagement and experience.” Dallas is also a hub for innovation as home to the third-most Fortune 500 companies and most Fortune 10 companies in the nation.
Keeping visitors safe during the pandemic is paramount in Dallas. As such, the city’s GBAC STAR accredited hotels and venues include the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center (KBHCC), both airports, stadiums and more than 30 hotels. GBAC STAR accreditation means a facility is implementing the industry’s highest standards for cleaning and disinfection of infectious agents like the novel coronavirus.
Development within the meetings and events industry has been strong during the pandemic. For example, last year welcomed new hotels such as the new Thompson Dallas hotel, with 14,000 sf of ballroom space, four restaurants and 2-acres of outdoor terrace space in downtown Dallas. Also in downtown Dallas, the brand-new Marriott Dallas Uptown offers 17,555 sf of meetings space, seven events rooms and a unique 14th-floor rooftop events space with 360-degree views of the city.
Also, Dallas was named one of the top cities for new hotel projects in 2021 by Lodging Econometrics, because it is welcoming more than 2,000 new hotel rooms over the next two years.
Properties opening this year include the luxury hotel InterContinental Dallas, which will feature high-end rooms and amenities, including a rooftop infinity pool and lounge with panoramic views of the Dallas skyline, a state-of-the-art fitness experience, and more than 21,000 sf of meetings and events space. Additionally, the JW Marriott is undergoing a $125 million renovation of the Trammell Crow Center Tower in the renowned Dallas Arts District. The new luxury hotel will include a rooftop pool, lobby bar, restaurant, club lounge, grand ballroom and a variety of meetings spaces. “With Dallas’ varied cultural offerings, meeting professionals will find no shortage of entertainment,” Davis says. “Texas blues music was born in [the] Deep Ellum [entertainment district], and Dallas is the official home of the frozen margarita, which is honored with the seasonal Margarita Mile. The Dallas Arts District is the nation’s largest urban arts district, and the city is home to six professional sports teams. Rather than figure out what to do, meeting professionals will be asking themselves how they can do it all.”
Finally, one big piece of news is that the Dallas City Council recently approved a $4.2 billion plan that earmarks $2 billion to demolish the KBHCC — which opened in 1973 — and build a new convention center, and $2.2 billion for redevelopment of the area around the center.
In addition to its walkable downtown, Fort Worth is an urban oasis, teeming with entertainment districts that will surprise and delight attendees. According to the Fort Worth CVB, the growth of Fort Worth’s downtown area, which includes the 35-block Sundance Square shopping and entertainment center, is boosting the demand for meetings and conventions. In fact, the growth of Fort Worth’s downtown means the addition of more than 1,000 hotel rooms.
The recently completed Dickies Arena, located in the city’s cultural district, features high-quality entertainment options such as sporting events, concerts and various family events. And with 91,315 sf of meetings space, Dickies Arena accommodates conventions, exhibit events, business meetings and private events.
Like Fort Worth, El Paso is also expanding the number of hotel rooms in its newly revitalized downtown. In fact, El Paso has announced that it’s doubling the hotel room offerings. Known for its multiculturalism, authentic Mexican food and overt friendliness, El Paso is a favorite second-tier city among meetings and events professionals. Among the city’s big draws is its El Paso Convention And Performing Art Center, the Mexican American Cultural Center and public art projects — all within walking distance of the convention center. | AC&F |