Meet Small in the Big “T”

Destinations

Nevertheless, small meetings also play a significant role in the Texas hospitality industry—they’re valued as much as the mega conventions that consistently use the state as their convening place. In fact, “there’s no such thing as a ‘small’ meeting in Texas,” according to Bridgette Snyder, CPWI, executive director of the Texas Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus. And given that Texas is, actually, large (like a “whole other country,” she says), the state’s CVBs would like these meeting groups to keep coming back and enjoy the rest of the attractions Texas has to offer.

Some CVBs and hotels have added personnel to accommodate the growing sector of small-to-midsize meetings. In 2011, the Austin CVB, which regards small meetings as groups booking 10 to 200 hotel rooms, added its third small-meetings account manager. Austin’s sales team is divided by geographical regions, with each small-meetings manager working with a sales manager who books larger meetings in the same region. The small- and large-meeting sales managers often team up to serve clients and to make sales calls. And throughout the state, many more hotel, restaurant, activity and entertainment options have been popping up to meet the needs of small-meeting groups.

For this year’s story on the Lone Star State, Smart Meetings takes a look at Texas from a “small” perspective. Every city defines what that means a little differently. Here we spotlight properties and activities particularly appealing to small groups, but in many cases appropriate for larger groups as well. No matter what the size of your group, in the Big T, you’re sure to find the right option.

Cowboys Stadium, Arlington

Dallas

Why we love it: Dallas has the culture and bling that Texas is noted for, including the Dallas Museum of Art, the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House and the downtown Dallas Arts District. The bling? Dallas is also home to the Neiman Marcus flagship store and uberluxe shopping centers such as Highland Park Village.

Why small groups love it: At the new Perot Museum of Nature and Science, small groups can experience 11 hands-on exhibit halls, programs and 3-D films, and enjoy retail shopping and lunch options. The museum offers a discount to groups of 15 or more guests, with a reservation required at least 14 days before the visit.

Philip J. Jones, president and CEO of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau, emphasizes the importance of small groups to the city. “Booking small meetings is a lifeline to the city’s business. Seventyseven percent of Dallas’ business comes from small meetings that have 1,000 or fewer rooms on a peak night, which drives significant economic impact to the city,” he says.

Meet/stay here: NYLO Dallas South Side. Popular among small groups, this ultra-modern hotel features a rooftop garden, 76 rooms and 2,150 sq. ft. of meeting space. Other options include The Hotel Joule, newly expanded and now offering 161 guest rooms and 14,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, plus an outdoor event space; W Dallas–Victory, with 252 guest rooms and 11,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including the 4,300-square-foot Great Room; and Hyatt Regency Dallas, with 1,120 guest rooms and 160,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space.

Dine here: Fearing’s Restaurant at The Ritz- Carlton, Dallas. Offering the distinctive, lively, bold flavors of executive chef Dean Fearing, this restaurant shows why Dallas is renowned for its dining. Additionally, at the newly opened FT33 in the city’s Design District, executive chef Matt McCallister’s visual-arts background inspires the presentation of his modern, seasonal menu. The Pecan Lodge, a down-home barbecue joint located in the Dallas Farmer’s Market, was featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives.

Offsite here: Places where you wear your boots. One popular spot is Wildcatter Ranch in Graham, 121 miles northwest of Dallas. Team building couldn’t get more Texas than this ranch, which offers 1,500 acres, nine venues and 16 guest suites. And of course, there’s Southfork Ranch in Parker, 26 miles northeast of Dallas. It’s the legendary home of television’s Ewing family, where your guests can soak up the atmosphere during a special event. For a free night up, “steer” your group to Gilley’s Dallas, which offers live music and, yes, the infamous mechanical bull from the classic movie Urban Cowboy, in the Jack Daniel’s Saloon.

Fort Worth

Entree at Lonesome Dove Western BIstro, Fort Worth

Why we love it: Affectionately called “Cowtown,” Fort Worth, located approximately 30 miles west of Dallas, pays homage to its western roots with a small-town vibe and a twice-daily cattle drive in the stockyards district. It’s the polar opposite of Dallas, and happy to be so.

Why small groups love it: One of the top destinations for small groups is the Kimbell Art Museum, which contains international collections ranging from antiquities to 20th-century contemporary art. Groups of 10 or more can arrange tours focusing on the permanent collection and special exhibitions.

Meet/stay here: The Ashton Hotel. Mixing luxury with timeless style, the hotel is in the heart of Sundance Square, near the airport and within walking distance of Bass Performance Hall, and attracts small groups with 39 guest rooms and 4,853 sq. ft. of meeting space, including a private wine cellar. If you’re looking for a retreat base, try another option: the Stockyards Hotel, which captures the old-time Fort Worth western feel and provides meeting space for up to 72 attendees for a reception.

Dine here: The Lonesome Dove Western Bistro and new Woodshed Smokehouse. Fort Worth is the birthplace of cowboy cuisine (hearty, rustic), and you’ll find modern takes on it at chef Tim Love’s restaurants, which celebrate all things grilled, roasted and slow-cooked.

Offsite here: The Ashton Depot. Tied into the city’s stockyards in history, this beautifully restored Beaux Arts-style railroad depot has a grand ballroom that can accommodate up to 800 people. Want music? The city has a vibrant, highly diverse music scene, ideal for offsites, with up-and-comers appearing at venues such as Lola’s Saloon and the Thirsty Armadillo; national acts at the 2,056-seat Bass Performance Hall in the Sundance Square district; and everybody who is anybody at Billy Bob’s Texas, the “largest honky-tonk in the world.” 

Dallas/Fort Worth Suburbs

Cattle-baron's-porch theme, Circle R Ranch, Flower Mound

Why we love it: Three cities that conjoin with Dallas and Fort Worth serve business and leisure travelers— Arlington, Grapevine and Irving. Sports stadiums, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) and theme parks are within their boundaries.

Why small groups love it: Grapevine Wine Tours provides small groups with an unforgettable winetasting experience. Attendees sample vintages from three of Grapevine’s most-acclaimed wineries, each with its own unique history and charm.

Meet/stay here: The Sanford House. Located in Arlington, this luxury property offers 12 rooms and nearly 5,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Other options: The Hilton Arlington is a 308-room property that recently completed a renovation of its meeting rooms, which total 11,000 sq. ft. Your small group also can nestle in at the Great Wolf Lodge, with 605 guest rooms and 20,000 sq. ft. The Circle R Ranch, a private-event ranch in Flower Mound, 40 miles from Dallas, boasts indoor and outdoor venues.

Dine here: Restaurant 506 (at The Sanford House) and Texas Land & Cattle Steak House. These Arlington restaurants serve contemporary American cuisine and steaks cooked right, respectively, and both can accommodate groups. In Grapevine, the Grapevine Epicentre has two restaurants with private dining rooms: Bob’s Steak & Chop House (the name defines the menu) and Winewood, with new American cuisine.

Offsite here: Cowboys Stadium and Rangers Ballpark. Sure, these Arlington offsite venues are large, but they offer tours ideal for small groups. There’s also the International Bowling Museum & Hall of Fame, where groups of 20–400 can meet or gather, and the Cool River Cafe in Irving, a steakhouse and Southwestern grill that features live music.

Austin

Hotel San Jose, Austin

Why we love it: “Live Music Capital of the World” is almost enough to say about this growing city, which is also the capital of Texas. There’s a chilled-out vibe, with a microbrewery and food scene that are catching up with the music.

Why small groups love it: Austin has lots of outstanding intimate live-music venues ideal for small groups. They include Emo’s, which originated in the punk-rock trenches of the Red River Music District in the early ’90s and helped shape Austin’s thriving live music scene. Now located downtown on East Riverside Drive, Emo’s boasts a state-of-the-art sound system, complete with quality lighting and staging.

Small groups are a growing, integral part of the meetings pie in Austin. In fact, says Steve Genovesi, senior vice president of sales for the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau, “just this year, we’ve seen an approximate 25 percent increase in small-meetings bookings for Austin—especially in the medical, insurance, financial, educational and energy sectors.” 

Meet/stay here: Hotel San Jose. For a targeted small group, try staying at this hotel, with 40 minimalist, bungalow-style rooms. Other choices: the unique, midcentury-style Kimber Modern, which offers seven guest rooms and meeting space for up to 60, and the W Austin, a modern property with 251 guest rooms and 10,500 sq. ft. of meeting space. Also available for meetings are the Austin Convention Center, with 900,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including two ballrooms with 43,000 sq. ft. and 23,000 sq. ft. of space, respectively, and the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center at The University of Texas at Austin, with 37 meeting rooms and 40,000 sq. ft. of space.

Dine here: Lambert’s Downtown Barbecue. This fun option is located in a restored, brick-walled general store, with live music upstairs (available for private events). On the “downstairs” end of the spectrum, there’s Max’s Wine Dive, in the basement of An old refurbished warehouse, where they say “fried chicken and champagne, why not?” It also has three private event rooms for 40–540 guests.

Offsite here: A live-music venue. If you’re in Austin, your offsite naturally involves music. There’s Austin City Limits, of course, but also Antone’s, a laidback club featuring blues, country and rock, and the old-timer Continental Club, offering a wide array of music including swing, rockabilly and country.

Houston

Why we love it: Houston offers all the amenities— and more—that you’d expect from its size. It has 18 (count ’em) museums, a dynamic dining scene (more than 11,000 restaurants) and attractions such as the Space Center Houston.

Why small groups love it: One major attraction for small groups is The Houston Museum of Natural Science. Besides the appeal of exhibits, the museum offers a great team-building opportunity at its Challenger Center, where groups work together on a “space mission.” Also, small groups often travel 31 miles from Houston to board Woodlands Waterway Cruisers, which travel along a scenic 1.4-mile corridor. The boats accommodate a maximum of 35 people, and private catering charters can be arranged.

Small meetings are vital to Houston, says Greg Ortale, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau. “More than a third of our annual room night bookings are attributed to small meetings,” he says. “This market is extremely important to us, and we have several dedicated salespeople focused on meetings held in one hotel. It’s definitely a priority.” 

Meet/stay here: The Sam Houston Hotel. Small groups often opt for this downtown luxury-boutique hotel with 100 rooms and more than 3,000 sq. ft. of space. A more unusual option is Hotel ZaZa, a hip and elegant property with a dash of the theatrical. It offers 315 guest rooms and 11,000 sq. ft. of meeting space on the newly renovated 11th floor. The Woodlands Resort & Conference Center, 32 miles north of Houston, provides 60,000 sq. ft. of meeting space in 32 rooms, many with views of lakes and woods.

Dine here: Tony’s. The name sounds like a pizza Parlor, but this Houston stalwart is instead an elegant Italian restaurant with several private-dining options. Another standby, Vic & Anthony’s, is noted for steaks and seafood, and offers three private dining rooms. On the celebrity circuit, chef Chris Shepherd of Underbelly was recently named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs; he and chef Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s were both James Beard Award finalists for Best Chef: Southwest.

Offsite here: The Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden. Enjoy a night in this tranquil garden at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, one of the city’s stellar museums. The garden is ideal for cocktails or dinner (up to 450 people). Or hold your event at the little-known Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, which can accommodate up to 350.

Galveston Island

The Grand 1894 Opera House, Galveston Island, courtesy of Mark Britian

Why we love it: A long, narrow barrier island, Galveston entices both meetings and leisure travelers with 32 miles of white-sand beaches. Furthering the beach atmosphere is the new Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier, where 15 rides and a 100-foottall Ferris wheel add to the fun.

Why small groups love it: Popular among small groups is Dash Beardsley’s Ghost Tours of Galveston, which can accommodate groups of all sizes. One of the company’s offerings, the Original Ghost Tour on the Strand, is Galveston’s most popular spooky tour.

Small groups also like the island’s hotel options. “With the variety of hotels available on Galveston Island, we find that small- to medium-size meetings are a great fit. Most meetings are held in our hotels, and because they are not competing with a multitude of other meetings, we can distinguish their individuality and importance to our island,” says Meg Winchester, CMP, director of the Galveston Island CVB.

Meet/stay here: Hilton Galveston Island Resort (at the San Luis Resort). Newly renovated, this resort offers 239 guest rooms and 5,800 sq. ft. of meeting space. Other options often used by small groups are The Tremont House, offering 119 elegant rooms and 15,776 sq. ft. of meetings space, and the Hotel Galvez & Spa, A Wyndham Grand Hotel, with 224 rooms that provide stunning island or ocean views and more than 13,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Dine here: Rudy & Paco’s Restaurant & Bar, next to The Grand 1894 Opera House. Get your group’s Latin mojo going at this restaurant, which serves grilled seafood and steak with a Central and South American flavor.

Offsite here: The Grand 1894 Opera House. Officially designated as Texas’ Opera House, this venue—one of many historical options in Galveston— can accommodate 50–1,000 in its restored gilt-and-glamour splendor. Got a military group? The Lone Star Flight Museum displays more than 30 aircraft, and while it can accommodate up to 1,500 people for an event, it also offers small-group opportunities (including rides in its warbirds).

San Antonio & Hill Country

Why we love it: San Antonio is a mix of revered history and vibrant culture, all the better to inspire and entertain your group. Its famed, cypress-lined River Walk continues to expand and meander along the San Antonio River, while the vast, rolling Hill Country to the north has its own rustic western charm.

Why small groups love it: More than 2.5 million people a year visit The Alamo, located on a 4.2-acre property. Small groups can arrange for private tours. 

And San Antonio loves small groups. According to Casandra Matej, executive director of the San Antonio CVB, “Smaller meetings (below 200 rooms on peak night) are very important to San Antonio, making up about 75 percent of bookings through the San Antonio CVB. This business sector is key to filling need-dates for hotels and helping to support our thriving travel and tourism industry.” .

Meet/stay here: Mokara Hotel & Spa. A top spot for small groups, it has 99 guest rooms, a renowned spa and 3,726 sq. ft. of meeting space, including a rooftop room with city views. Another possibility is the Hotel Valencia Riverwalk, with 213 guest rooms and 7,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, plus a wine room and an open-air courtyard. JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa provides 1,002 guest rooms and 265,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Dine here: Mi Tierra Cafe & Panderia. If your group hasn’t experienced this exuberant Mexican dining landmark, it may be time to check it out (it’s open 24 hours). Fine-dining options also abound, including Citrus Restaurant, located in the Hotel Valencia, with an eclectic, local-centric menu.

Offsite here: Cowboys Dancehall. This venue offers small groups the chance to listen and dance to local and touring country-western acts. Other music options include Tejano Latin rhythms at Graham Central Station and the Jim Cullum Jazz Band at Bohanan’s Prime Steaks & Seafood. Or check out Sam’s Burger Joint, across from Pearl Brewery, which showcases a wide variety of musical artists.

The Panhandle & West Texas

Overton Hotel & Conference Center, Lubbock

Why we love it: Three cities dominate the meetings arena here: Amarillo, in the Panhandle (which American Cowboy magazine recently named one of the 20 best places to live in the West); Lubbock, south of Amarillo, with a small-town vibe and rich music history (think Buddy Holly and Natalie Maines); and El Paso, bordered by New Mexico and Juarez, Mexico.

Why small groups love it: The Wyler Aerial Tramway at Franklin Mountains State Park features a four-minute ride that soars above a vast canyon that is 240 feet deep in some places. Groups of five to seven per tram can be accommodated. 

Meet/stay here: Courtyard by Amarillo Downtown. This hotel is in a restored historic building, with 107 rooms and 1,660 sq. ft. of meeting space. Amarillo has an eclectic mix of other small, budget-friendly properties, including Adaberry Inn, a nine-room B&B that’s also business-friendly.

The rest of the region also offers excellent options for small groups, such as the AAA Four Diamond Overton Hotel & Casino (303 rooms and 20,000 sq. ft.) in Lubbock, which also boasts the AAA Four Diamond Overton Hotel & Conference Center, with 303 rooms and 20,000 sq. ft. in El Paso, choices include the new 200-guest-room DoubleTree by Hilton El Paso Downtown, with meeting space for 10-200.

Dine here: OHMS Cafe & Bar. This lively, casual restaurant with an eclectic menu is located in Amarillo’s historic downtown area. Some local favorites in Lubbock for groups include Cagle Steaks, a Southwestern- style steak house that’s also big on barbecue, and Triple J Chophouse & Brew Co., located in the Depot Entertainment District.

Offsite here: Amarillo’s American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame & Museum. This unusual venue includes a grand hall that’s ideal for a reception. There are also Chamber Music Amarillo, a restored building with a classic nightclub feel (for 100), and the very popular Golden Light Cantina on historic Route 66, which offers live music. Offsites in Lubbock can include the Silent Wings Museum, a hangar space with a fully restored World War II glider, and the CapRock Winery, with event options on the grounds and in the barrel room. In El Paso, don’t miss Franklin Mountains State Park, with excellent hiking and mountain biking.

Main image: The Hotel Joule, Dallas

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Hotel Chart

Click here for detailed information on the hotels in this story.


Meeting Spotlight

Hotel Contessa, San Antonio

  • Who: The Meadows Foundation; 40 attendees 
  • What: Director and director emeriti site visits, briefings and board meeting 
  • When: April 18–20, 2013 
  • Where: Hotel Contessa, San Antonio 
  • Why: “The Meadows Foundation is a grant-making entity providing assistance for Texas nonprofit agencies. Our visit to San Antonio allowed us to hear from experts and researchers in the field of critical water issues facing Texas, to network with fellow funders and to visit other local organizations that we have partnered with on other issues. We selected the Hotel Contessa because it is a unique property providing the River Walk experience, enhanced with functional top-notch meeting space and caring professional staff who say ‘Yes I can help with that,’ no matter what our small group requested. It offers very competitive pricing. The property worked well and the staff gave us plenty of personal attention; they were professionals who have been empowered by their GM, Les Utley. The final billing presentation was easy to follow and questions I had were quickly and thoroughly responded to…The Contessa team is very responsive at every level.”  —Elizabeth Chandler, meeting manager

Fun Facts

  • Size: 268,820 square miles
  • Number of counties: 254, more than any other state in the nation
  • Number of flags: Texas is the only state in the nation to have the flags of six different nations—Spain, France, Mexico, Republic of Texas, Confederate States and the United States—fly over it.
  • Official music: Western swing music
  • Official folk dance: Square dance
  • Official sport: Rodeo
  • Official shell: Lightning whelk
  • Cattle population: Nearly 16 million
  • Odd but useful information: It’s illegal to put graffiti on another person’s cow in Texas.
  • Official vehicle: Chuckwagon
  • Official dish: Chili
  • Art world claim to fame: The Dallas Arts District is the largest urban arts district in the United States.
  • Tech claim to fame: Texas is home to Dell and Compaq computers and central Texas is often referred to as the Silicon Valley of the South. Also, the integrated-circuit computer chip (which became the microchip) was invented in Dallas in 1958.

Resources


New Happenings

Perot Museum of Nature and Science, Dallas

  • Opening this summer in Austin is the Lone Star Court, in The Domain. This upscale, retro-inspired motor court concept will have 123 guest rooms, 2,000 sq. ft. of interior meeting space and more than 3,000 sq. ft. of outdoor space.
  • Construction is under way on the JW Marriott Austin, a 1,012-room convention-style hotel with 112,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Completion of the hotel—which will be the largest in Austin—is scheduled for early 2015.
  • The Perot Museum of Nature and Science opened last December in Dallas, with interactive learning experiences in the fields of nature and science in 11 exhibit halls. The museum hosts meetings and events with up to 1,500 attendees.
  • Groundbreaking took place in May on the brand new El Paso Triple-A Baseball Park, anticipated for completion in time for play to begin in April 2014.
  • Opening this fall in Fort Worth is the $135 million expansion of the Kimbell Art Museum, designed by noted architect Renzo Piano.
  • A combined Courtyard/TownePlace Suites by Marriott, with 301 guest rooms, is expected to open this fall in Grapevine.
  • Construction of a new 1,000-room Marriott Marquis in Houston begins in 2014, with completion set for 2016. The hotel will join the Hilton Americas–Houston as the city’s only convention-center hotels, located next to the George R. Brown Convention Center.
  • Opening next month is The Westin Houston Downtown, across the street from Minute Maid Park; it is rebranded from the former Inn at the Ballpark. Renovations include updated furnishings and a completely new lobby, reception area and lobby bar. 
  • Two years after the opening of the 275,000-square-foot Irving Convention Center at Las Colinas, the center is on track to open a connecting, 350-room, upscale headquarters hotel (the hotel brand will be named this summer). Groundbreaking is scheduled later this year, with a grand opening slated for third quarter 2015.