Everything, as the cliché goes, is bigger in Texas. But while “big” might capture one element of a successful conference or incentive program, there’s another route to success that can get overlooked during the selection process: Location.
And, as the state slowly reopens from a strict COVID-19 shutdown, that’s what could lead many meeting planners back to Texas. With four major airports serving all four corners of the U.S., there is perhaps no other state with solid convention facilities that are as convenient to the East Coast, West Coast and everywhere in between.
Such accessibility was key for Tracy Tomson, CAE, executive director and CEO of the Restaurant Facility Management Association (RFMA), in planning an event last year. “We’re a national association, so Texas is a great central meeting location for our members, who come from across the country,” Tomson says. “We are also a restaurant association, and Texas is one of the top three states where restaurant brands have their headquarters.”
Stefanie Brown, vice president, Education and Conferences for the American Wind Energy Association, cites another reason Texas fits into the agenda for association meetings: The size and population of Texas guarantees a number of attendees will be coming from within the state. “For our particular industry, Texas ranks at the top in terms of installed wind energy projects, so we have a large number of members working in the state,” Brown says. And for some association meeting planners, there is simply a local connection or history that makes the state’s convention cities a good fit.
Such was the case for an event that gathered together all Minor League Baseball (MiLB) teams for education, collaboration and community engagement. The event was originally known as the El Paso Promotional Seminar, based on a 1976 meeting in the city to discuss challenges individual teams were facing. As the event moved locations around the country and grew in prominence, last year, it was formally rebranded as the Minor League Baseball Innovators Summit. “With the renaming and rebranding of the event, it only made sense to go back to El Paso and pay homage to the city where it all started,” says Stefanie Loncarich, director, Special Events for Minor League Baseball.
Brooke Underwood, TDM, the assistant general manager of Destination El Paso, says her organization has successfully positioned the city as the cure for destination burnout. “Many times planners will tell me that they’ve ‘done Texas’ because they visited Dallas or San Antonio,” Underwood says. “But El Paso is quite the unique destination, and offers excursions and experiences — not just boxed commercial attractions.”
Over the last five years, El Paso has seen major emphasis and investment in the downtown core and, in the past two years, the city’s convention hotel inventory has doubled. “With more options and brands represented, our hotel rates are quite competitive, making El Paso an affordable option that won’t sacrifice comfort,” Underwood adds.
Loncarich says MiLB originally contracted with the Hotel Paso del Norte, Autograph Collection, to host the majority of the group for the gathering last year. Located across the street from the El Paso Convention and Performing Art Center, the Paso del Norte, a historic property dating to 1912, has been undergoing a $70 million renovation that will firmly establish it as the lead convention hotel for the city. Originally set to debut last year, construction has been delayed several times, but the hotel reopened in October. “The Paso del Norte is going to be a game-changer for us,” Underwood says.
With hundreds of attendees, MiLB needed more than one hotel, and chose two conveniently located across the street from each other, and five minutes away from the convention center on foot. While the Courtyard by Marriott El Paso Downtown/Convention Center offers scant meeting facilities, the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel El Paso Downtown has a 3,551-sf ballroom, along with several breakout rooms. “If you have a handful of small meetings that you are looking to host, the Doubletree will work for you,” Loncarich says. “There are a number of meeting spaces that have views of downtown, and the Doubletree was extremely convenient for what we were looking for, for our Board and Committee meetings.”
Loncarich says MiLB used the local convention center for a majority of the meetings. “The space had been renovated and looked great,” she adds. “It had a large exhibit hall to host our Innovators Summit Trade Show, as well as many meeting spaces to host various breakout sessions. Everything was close in proximity, so it made it easy for attendees to move to and from sessions.”
For the MiLB Mixer, the group used the Arts Festival Plaza and Sky Garden. “This is a social event that we like to venture out to showcase an off-site venue,” Loncarich says. “The Arts Festival Plaza was a great location for us because it was walking distance from the convention center and the hotels. We featured a local cover band, Fungi Mungle, and the event was 70s-themed to pay tribute to the original El Paso Seminar. The space was great to feature the band along the back feature wall and was the perfect space for what we were looking for.”
Brown, of the American Wind Energy Association, says Houston’s dominance in traditional energy sources made the city a natural for her conference. “Our conference theme was WIND+, and we focused on how wind energy can work well with other clean energy industries such as solar and storage, as well as traditional sources like oil and gas, which are a big presence within Houston,” Brown explains. But access also played a part in choosing the city. “Houston’s central location in the country, two airports with a good amount of airlift and a redeveloped downtown in recent years were all positives of meeting here,” she adds. “The Discovery Green area surrounding the convention center, bookended by two large hotels, made for a nice environment for our attendees. There has also been a lot of development on the restaurant and nightlife front since our last show in Houston over 10 years ago.”
The conference last year drew 7,000 attendees, with a majority of the events held at the George R. Brown Convention Center. Brown explains, “The center has undergone renovations in recent years, and the new lobby area and adjoining restaurants were all positive improvements. Large, uniquely shaped columns in the exhibit hall were interesting to work around, but there was plenty of exhibit space for us to accomplish all that we needed in the hall. Overall, the convention center and its internal partners were easy to work with on the show.”
The opening reception was held at Discovery Green, and Brown notes that the location of the venue was convenient to allow attendees to pick up their badges at the center, and then walk across to the reception without the need for satellite registration or bus shuttling. “It was a bit of a gamble being outside in late spring in Houston,” Brown adds. “But with the addition of a tent for shade, we had a great experience and the attendees enjoyed starting the show outside.”
American Wind Energy Association maintains a robust event sustainability program, with a goal to exceed the average diversion rate at convention centers by 10%, among other goals. But Brown says the association found more effort was needed in Houston than in other cities, due to venue and local policies and programs. “For example, the city of Houston doesn’t recycle glass, which was a challenge when you have receptions and other catered functions that produce glass waste,” Brown explains. “Due to these hurdles, we, unfortunately, did not accomplish all of our sustainability goals, which was disappointing, although we appreciate the involvement of venue staff throughout the process.” But, otherwise, Brown says there were no unexpected challenges, and she found the planning process with the convention center and 14 hotels to be fairly smooth and easy. “Be sure to work closely with your Visit Houston contacts,” she adds. “They are very knowledgeable and can advise you on venues, suppliers and other local resources. Plus, they are a friendly group that takes great care of their clients.”
Tomson says for a large percentage of members, the RFMA Annual Conference is the only event they attend all year. As such, the association looks for host cities that will be fun and interesting, and that will drive attendance. For last year’s conference, Austin rose to the top of the list, a setting that helped draw 1,700 attendees. “They love to travel to cities that have great dining and entertainment options, and Austin certainly met that criteria,” Tomson adds. “And, while we are a Texas-based association and Austin feels familiar to us, it’s one of those hot U.S. cities that people hear so much about but may never have had the opportunity to visit.”
RFMA also brands the annual conference around the host city, so they look for cities that have a unique personality on which to capitalize. “We played off of the themes of music, graffiti art and Texas to add personality to our marketing, which was a great deal of fun to work with,” Tomson says. The headquarters hotel for the conference was the Fairmont Austin, a hotel that features nearly 140,000 sf of total meeting space. The hotel rocketed to No. 4 on Cvent’s list of the top meeting hotels in the country last year. RFMA was able to secure a large room block at the Fairmont, which was paired with smaller blocks at four overflow properties within walking distance.
Tomson says service was outstanding — from the convention services team who worked with show management, to the hotel staff who took care of attendees. “Everyone was treated like a valued guest and we received extremely positive feedback about the Fairmont from our post-conference surveys,” adds Tomson, who notes that the hotel had to accommodate the group during unusually chilly and wet weather conditions. “We planned to host our opening party on the pool deck, in combination with the ballrooms on that same level. We had to move the whole evening, but the Fairmont responded quickly to re-create the event inside.”
RFMA also utilized the Austin Convention Center, which offers 881,400 sf of meeting space and is easily accessed using the canopy walk that connects to the Fairmont. “We require a large exhibit space to accommodate our 400 exhibitors,” Tomson says, and the center offered five contiguous, column-free exhibit halls spreading 247,052 sf. “It’s a great space with lots of natural light, excellent catering that is not standard convention center fare, and there is free Wi-Fi throughout, which is rare.”
Tomson says the greatest challenge she sees is a need for more meeting space at the Austin Convention Center, and more off-site venues catering to groups of more than 1,000 attendees. “You need to book as far out as possible,” she explains. “It took us many years to find open dates within our window, due to the high demand of this destination. The great news is that the meeting space issue will be addressed if the convention center expansion is approved. I hope with the proposed expansion, the other venues will follow.” Tomson concludes, “Our attendees loved their experience in Austin, and for us as meeting planners, we had a town with a great vibe and personality to work with, and it was very budget friendly.” The Austin City Council in September voted to approve the expansion of the Austin Convention Center.
For the Society of American Military Engineers (SAME), location again played a large part in selecting Dallas for the association’s fall event last year, which drew 3,700 attendees. “Dallas is centrally located, it has great airlift, and we have a large number of members in Texas,” says Ann McLeod, CEM, CAE, and director of Meetings, Membership and Business Development. “It’s convenient for both East and West Coast travel, and there are lots of hotel options.” The military engineers used the Omni Dallas Hotel as its headquarters property, and McLeod calls out the hotel for its “amazing” customer service. “They were super easy to work with, very accommodating; always there to support,” McLeod says. “The hotel couldn’t be more convenient to the convention center. The skybridge connecting the hotel leads to the exhibit hall level of the center, which is what you want. I’d go back in a heartbeat for an event that was all in-house — I wouldn’t even bother to go out with an RFP.”
Although the Omni Dallas has 142,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting and event space, the society’s meeting was primarily based at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, which offers 1 million sf of exhibit space, three ballrooms, 88 meeting rooms, a 1,750-seat theater and a 9,816-seat arena. “There’s lots of flexibility with the space, and their exhibit halls are large, giving us room to grow if needed,” notes McLeod, citing pros and cons. “We assigned meeting space, so groups of like-sessions were all located together, which worked out really well for attendees.” McLeod points out that “the convention center does not do floor plans, but they require one for every single room,” adding, “So, if you want to add another table, you have to do a new floor plan. My understanding is this comes from the fire marshal, and they are very strict about it. I’ve never had this at another center.”
McLeod continues, “Actually everyone was very, very receptive to our feedback and have asked us to meet with them to discuss things more in-depth. I see this as a sign that they are aware of the challenges and want to fix them. I appreciate their genuine desire to listen to everything we had to say and continue to ask what they can do to be better.” In addition to the Omni Dallas, McLeod found working with the city a positive experience. “They are very easy to work with and really care about your event being a success,” she concludes.
“Texas is always a great destination for our meetings,” says Chris Cherkis, CMP, director, Meetings Experience for the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA). “And San Antonio offers a fantastic complete package. Its central location is accessible to so many with non-stop or direct flights. Plus, the diverse cultural and entertainment attractions make it an exciting destination for our members to enjoy.”
For a Schedulers and Dispatchers Conference held last winter, the NBAA brought 2,900 members to San Antonio. The experience was favorable enough that the association is returning in 2022. “People love the scenic River Walk, and the vast selection of cuisine and entertainment,” Cherkis continues. “The Pearl District is also very popular, and being just a short ride from downtown, it was enjoyed by many of our attendees.” Cherkis adds that the city’s range of hotel brands allows brand-loyal attendees to stay in their preferred hotel. NBAA used a total of nine hotels for core and overflow bookings. “This broad selection also allows for a variety of price points and accommodation, from value to luxury.”
For the conference, the group utilized the Henry B. González Convention Center, which features 514,000 sf of contiguous space, plus the 54,000-sf Stars at Night Ballroom, the largest ballroom in Texas. “The center had recently opened their new expanded addition,” Cherkis says. “Our meeting took place in the original side of the venue, and we were pleased with a space that allowed our attendees to easily navigate between the trade show floor, central registration and our education sessions.”
Cherkis says pricing was reasonable for catering, the staff attentive, and the menus allowed for incorporation of traditional Texas food. Cherkis adds: “One challenge at the convention center was access — navigating to the ‘correct’ main entrance. We needed to consider the first-time attendee, who would likely navigate to the main address, which is at the new side of the building. The convention center’s helpful staff and strategic signage helped direct our attendees to our contracted space.”
One memorable off-site event was held at Sunset Station, recently renamed The Espee, located within walking distance or a short ride from the convention center. The historic, Southern Pacific Railroad depot terminal has been pristinely restored to honor its architectural legacy, which showcases intricate, handcrafted ceilings, exposed wood trusses, brick walls and hardwood floors. “NBAA has worked with Sunset Station on previous occasions and has always had success,” Cherkis says. “The staff is fantastic to work with — creative, flexible and accommodating, and the unique spaces lend to creating a variety of themed environments.”
One of the nine hotels the NBAA used for its members was San Antonio Marriott Rivercenter, one of the city’s largest hotels, with more than 68,000 sf of meeting space. When the NBAA comes back to San Antonio in 2022, the group will enjoy a river-to-rooftop remodel that captures more of the city’s artistic character. Indigenous architectural elements, such as white limestone and local art glassmakers, lend an upscale feel while still being traditional, and all rooms have been redesigned.
Another Texas city that is seeing expansions and renovations is Fort Worth. New hotels from Aloft, Courtyard Marriott, Hampton Inn, Springhill Suites and Fairfield Inn debuted last year, plus the Sinclair Hotel. The Marriott-Intel partnership designed an all internet-based system to power every light fixture, charging station and more. A new AC Hotel Fort Worth Downtown recently opened, and a $175 million renovation of the Fort Worth Stockyards is taking shape. The Stockyard project will include the Hotel Drover, one more signature for the Marriott Autograph Collection portfolio, which will feature 15,000 sf of meeting space.
Dickie’s Arena, a new $450 million multipurpose and sports venue, opened last year and will host NCAA tournaments beginning in 2022. The 14,000-seat venue will also host the annual Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo, concerts, sporting events and more. Also now open is Tex Rail, a 27-mile, $1 billion commuter rail project linking downtown Fort Worth with DFW International Airport.
Last fall, the Westin Dallas Fort Worth Airport hotel also completed a nearly $5 million refresh of its 506 guest rooms, and added a new, 2,955-sf Westin Club and other improvements to the hotel’s public spaces. The hotel features 34,701 sf of event space, including 30 meeting rooms and the 10,541-sf Trinity Ballroom.
Nearby, Irving’s identity is gradually evolving from that of a Dallas/Fort Worth suburb into a true destination. It’s located within a 15-minute drive of the DFW Airport, and Irving’s dining, entertainment, attractions and major hotel brands are first-tier. Last year, the Dallas Marriott Las Colinas completed a multimillion-dollar renovation of guest rooms, many of them overlooking scenic Lake Carolyn. Noted for its proximity to the area’s convention center and the new Live Nation Toyota Music Factory, the Marriott offers 27,000 sf of indoor-outdoor meeting spaces. | AC&F |