Despite the ongoing challenges of meeting planning during COVID-19 for the past two years, several Texas convention properties rose to the occasion, as evidenced by the high praise of attendees. And now, as the meetings industry looks forward to a more robust future, it’s easy to see why the “Lone Star State” remains a top destination among event organizers.
As the second-largest U.S. state by area, Texas offers plenty of wide-open spaces with diverse meeting sites, together with bountiful attractions and the chance to enjoy a true western experience in spectacular settings year-round.
When considering properties for one of her organization’s recent fall meetings, Melinda L. Burdette , CMP, CMM, HMCC, senior director, events for Meeting Professionals International (MPI), explains: “We wanted to hold our largest domestic event, a hybrid conference of 600+ in-person and 1,100+ virtual attendees, in our backyard,” she says. After evaluating bids from areas around the Dallas metroplex, the Gaylord Texan in Grapevine was chosen.”
A mere 10-minute drive from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, the luxury Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center boasts a stunning lakeside retreat covering 125 acres. The property offers 1,814 guest rooms that feature unique atrium views, and 127 luxury suites and private balconies. The venue also offers more than 490,000 sf of flexible meeting space, including three boardrooms, four ballrooms and 67 conference and breakout rooms to meet group needs of any size and technology requirements. The 4.5 acres of indoor gardens create a lush environment under a glass atrium, while a 10-acre outdoor pool complex, full-service 25,000-sf spa, and 4,000-sf, state-of-the-art fitness center provide a welcome respite from in-person and digital meetings.
“Planning an in-person meeting/event during a pandemic made every part of the hotel/resort experience unique,” Burdette says. Yet, with the resort’s implementation of more than 300 new protocols through participation in Marriott’s “Commitment to Clean” program, she adds: “The Gaylord found safe ways to welcome our guests with that typical Texas hospitality — where Southern hospitality meets the wild west — that you expect.” In one example, “We provided safe-door drops daily to our attendees, as well as utilizing their VIP transportation services. Safe-door drops to us were our daily on-site newspapers that we tracked from the printer to the hotel, to delivery for safety and sanitation. We did the same for our VIP transportation services, ensuring that our attendees’ experienced a safer mode of transportation.”
In addition to enhancing cleanliness and sanitation protocols, the resort also revamped its food and beverage practices with safety and sustainability in mind. The result? “Can you say ‘wow?’” Burdette asks. “[The executive chef] and his team created fabulous and unexpected menus for us. So, one day, we had a lunch featuring paella, sushi and other yummy items delivered to our attendees in a safe, buffet-style manner. On another day, we provided hot boxed lunches, so we were always thinking and looking for ways to do the same thing, but show how they could be done safely. His entire team were great partners in the F&B journey, and boy did they deliver.”
The Gaylord Texan offers attendees 10 on-site dining options, ranging from the Texan Station Sports Bar & Grill and Glass Cactus, to Italian-American cuisine at the newly renovated Zeppole Restaurant, to the Old Hickory Steakhouse, among the selections. Other recent renovations at the Gaylord Texan include the outdoor pool, plus an expansion of the pool deck itself to provide additional space for attendees. Additional improvements feature a redesigned pool bar, lounge seating and an updated overall atmosphere to enhance the attendee experience.
The overall attendee reaction for Burdette’s event was “very positive,” she says. “Working with the Gaylord team every step of the way, we created a safer event that attendees appreciated and learned from in order to execute their own in-person events. From the owners to the service staff, a huge shoutout to the entire team at the Gaylord for working with us as we navigated new waters during the pandemic. It was a true partnership in all aspects, and I would not hesitate to bring another meeting/event to this facility.”
Offering elegant design, expansive spaces and exceptional service, the 37-story Forbes Four-Star, AAA Four-Diamond Fairmont Austin offers “luxury with Austin flair” and the largest event space in the heart of downtown Austin. Newly opened in 2018, the hotel offers 1,048 guest rooms and more than 140,000 sf of flexible indoor and outdoor meeting space. For added convenience, meeting attendees can connect directly to the nearby Austin Convention Center (ACC) via the The Red River Canopy Walk, while the eclectic energy of the city’s vibrant music scene, restaurants, art galleries and shopping are also all within easy reach.
After the pandemic spurred her client’s need for a change of venue, Kowana Ragland, CMP, vice president of meeting operations at Meeting Expectations Inc., found the Fairmont Austin able to accommodate the physically distanced meeting room setup requirements even with a smaller guest room block, she says. In keeping with local Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization recommendations, Fairmont Austin early in the pandemic expanded its health and safety protocols as a function of its AllStayWell program for the protection of guests, planners, staff and colleagues. Through training and technology, guests continue to receive personalized service with minimal contact. To further ensure group safety, Ragland’s client elected to “create a ‘bubble’ within the hotel” to limit outside contact for the duration of their stay, she says.
Property highlights at Fairmont Austin include the seventh-floor terrace complete with heated pool, hot tub, 13 private cabanas and the Rules & Regs eatery, with a Latin-inspired bar and bites menu. The hotel’s award-winning, full-service pampering spa features nine treatment rooms, including two VIP couple’s suites, and stunning floor-to-ceiling views of Palm Park and surrounding cityscape. Each solarium is equipped with a saline soaking pool, dry-heat sauna and eucalyptus steam room.
Locally sourced, organic and sustainable defines the food fare at Fairmont Austin’s five distinct venues and in-room dining — whether enjoying craft cocktails, small plates and live music on weekends at Fulton’s in the main lobby, fine dining at Garrison’s, or grab-and-go pastry and sandwich items from Good Things. Inspired by global culinary diversity, Revue provides four unique dining menus in a communal setting: Italian, Asian, sea delicacies and artisanal pastries and treats. Ragland praised the Fairmont culinary team for “very creative and customized menus [breakfast, lunch, breaks and dinner].” She adds, “All meals were buffet-style, and the hotel had Plexiglas shields to separate servers from the attendees. They went above and beyond to create very detailed floor plans to indicate where all buffets and tables would be placed to ensure physical distancing.”
Ragland says she appreciates the true partnership she developed with the Fairmont Austin. “We were all learning how to navigate through the pandemic, and the hotel was open to our suggestions and made every attempt to accommodate our requests.” For the attendees, plus staff and crew, Ragland says, “Things went so well, that the client decided to use the same property for [next year’s] event. This decision was made while we were still on-site. I’m looking forward to working with them again.”
Lana Branscum, CMP, HMCC, CIS, manager, event design, for Galderma S.A., felt very fortunate for her previously established relationship with Hilton Anatole when the pandemic initially roiled the meetings industry. “We are a repeat client of the Anatole, having held three of our past national sales meetings at this property,” Branscum says. “We had already contracted this property in 2019 for our 2021 National Sales Meeting, so we had to pivot in October/November of 2020 to provide a completely virtual experience for our sales team due to COVID-19.” Branscum was understandably relieved “that we were embarking on this event not only with our previous partner of three years, but also having the Hilton team behind us to ensure the safety of our staff and crew.”
With the launch of Hilton CleanStay developed in collaboration with Lysol maker RB and the Mayo Clinic, the hotel brand initiated “an industry-defining standard of cleanliness and disinfection built upon the already high standards of housekeeping and hygiene at Hilton’s more than 6,300 properties worldwide,” says Kimberly Zoulek, director of sales & marketing at Hilton Anatole, “with the aim to provide all of guests with added level of assurance and peace of mind with a focus on cleanliness that is visible to guests throughout their entire space from our guest rooms to our restaurants and more.”
Early last year, the hotel extended the program to include Hilton EventReady Hybrid Solutions to help address safe group travel practices as they continue to evolve the event experience, Zoulek says. “For those customers looking for a hybrid solution, [our powerful] network has allowed for livestreaming speakers into guest rooms, satellite ballrooms and remote attendees across the world. Beyond planning guides and solutions, we’ve taken it a step further and have partnered with Encore and have built a Presentation Stage, a professional streaming and video-recording studio for organizations looking to communicate to a remote audience.”
For Branscum, this meant setting up three virtual recording studios with green screens and all necessary equipment to broadcast and record from studios at the Hilton Anatole. “Within the Hilton and local guidelines, Galderma, and our production partner Tilt, ensured we established and maintained guidelines of our own,” Branscum says. “We had approximately 75 staff and crew at this event. Speakers/presenters had the ability to come into the hotel on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and record in assigned rooms, with the option to pivot where they could do presentations at their homes without coming into the studio environment.”
Located in the design district just 6 miles from Dallas Love Field Airport and 14 miles from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, Hilton Anatole attracts organizations for “our campus-like facility, adorned with one of the largest collections of art ever assembled for an American hotel,” says Zoulek, who adds that it offers, “a colorful backdrop for organizations looking to motivate, elevate and celebrate their event attendees.”
The hotel features 600,000 sf of flexible meeting space, nine ballrooms, eight bars and restaurants, and more than 1,600 spacious guest rooms and suites — updated with 65-inch HDTVs and refreshed corridors in 2019. Together, with the property’s 3-acre JadeWaters Resort Pool Complex and 80,000-sf Verandah Club & Spa, “Hilton Anatole has the ability to dedicate guest rooms and meeting space to a single group as if they are the only guests at the hotel,” Zoulek says.
Branscum credits the regular contact she had with the hotel’s director of events from the onset of the pandemic through the ensuing lockdowns for the ultimate success of her meeting. “She kept us updated with all of the Hilton EventReady policies and preparations that Hilton and specifically the Anatole were doing in response to COVID.”
For celebrating star achievers with a health and wellness retreat, Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas offers an unforgettable experience at “a sprawling urban resort where Texans come to play.” An 18-hole, par-70, eco-friendly championship golf course? Check. Well & Being full-service spa? Check. Imaginative culinary experiences at an award-winning restaurant with private dining space and wine room? Check and check again.
To ensure guest health and safety within the ever-evolving COVID-19 climate, “Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas has re-engineered the meeting experience with unwavering dedication to health and safety, innovative meeting design and virtual technology, allowing your event to be enriched by human connection from participants around the globe,” says Brent Duncan, director of catering. For example, in partnership with world-renowned health care experts at Johns Hopkins Medicine International, the hotel has developed Lead With Care to “focus on providing care, confidence and comfort to all Four Seasons guests, event attendees and employees. Our goal is to instill the same level of trust and confidence in Four Seasons as ever before,” Duncan says.
Health and safety protocols include a daily temperature scan for anyone entering the property upon arrival, Lead with Care kit with masks, hand sanitizer and sanitation wipes provided for each guest, physical distancing measures throughout the property, small-size gatherings, contactless check in and checkout, housekeeping and in-room dining services. As a result, the hotel was able to “safely and successfully host 35 meetings, 17 weddings and several sports teams, including the Major League Baseball postseason and World Series Secure Zone last year,” says Lisa Garland, director of public relations and communications.
Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas also has partnered with A/V expert Encore “to provide turnkey event solutions with state-of-the-art technology,” Duncan says. With “the new fully customizable, 10-foot high, 20-foot long LED presentation wall, guests may gather in-person while physically distanced, broadcast simultaneous messages to multiple venues or cities, attend a hybrid meeting by incorporating virtual meeting components to accommodate remote audiences or host VIP social events, award ceremonies, galas-to-go and weddings. The capabilities are endless and can be tailored to fit every client’s needs.”
To enhance the client experience, a dedicated event specialist creates unique, customized experiences for all events on the 400-acre property, whether at the two-level Conference Centre — featuring 31 multipurpose function rooms with a total event space of 84,688 sf — or outside venues, such as the Terrace Event Lawn, and family and resort pools. Event space is also available in the 4,500-sf Pavilion. The culinary team creates inspired dishes highlighting “bold Texan fare” at the urban resort’s signature restaurant LAW (Land, Air, Water), that includes two private dining rooms and a show kitchen for cooking classes and receptions. The resort’s 431 keys include Villa and Tower guest rooms and suites.
Of special note: Surrounded by nature and wildlife, the hotel’s TPC Four Seasons Las Colinas is a certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary and Environmental Leader in Golf award-winner and includes a pro shop, private instruction and custom club fittings. Also on property, an expansive 175,000-sf sports and recreation club features indoor/outdoor jogging tracks, as well as racquetball, squash and basketball courts. To cap off an invigorating day on the course, the jogging track or the sports courts, head to the Well & Being Spa for the popular Arnica Deep Tissue Massage or indulge in a special salon service. C&IT