That’s because in-the-know locals recognize that a city is the sum of its parts, and in the most dynamic metropolises, each individual neighborhood is proudly distinct. One may be the place to go for thrift-store shopping and trendy new restaurants, another to explore cultural attractions, and another for the well-heeled to run up their bill at ritzy boutiques.
In the Texas duo of Austin and San Antonio, local neighborhoods are particularly abundant in character and nuance, offering dining, attractions and hotels at turns upscale, funky, new and historic.
Don’t just meet in the city; meet in SoCo, Second Street, The Domain, Hill Country, the Riverwalk or any number of other communities. If they’re good enough for the locals to know and love, they’re good enough to bring your group to.
Austin commonly conjures two catchy slogans in people’s minds: “Keep Austin Weird” and “Live Music Capital of the World.” These taglines are on point—but only tell part of the story. Unabashedly offbeat and packed with live music venues, the city is defined by myriad other facets, too, including artsy enclaves, farm-to-table cuisine, a sophisticated side and warm Texas hospitality.
"Whether it’s about the friendly vibe, creative culture or health-conscious community, there’s a buzz about the Texas capital," says Steve Genovesi, senior vice president of sales for the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau. Seemingly in a perpetual state of growth, the city is set to expand even more in the coming years; a new JW Marriott and property operated by the Manchester Financial Group will add more than 2,000 guest rooms to the city inventory.
Want to understand why Austin is generating such industry chatter and development interest? Taking the pulse of its neighborhoods is a good place to start.
Downtown, Warehouse District & Sixth Street
Austin’s compact downtown is anchored by the practical proximity of the convention center and big-box hotels. Nearby, the Warehouse District and Sixth Street add the color, with lively cafes, bars, restaurants and, of course, a whole host of live music venues to enjoy.
The LEED Gold-certified Austin Convention Center, a six-block-long events mecca with 370,967 sq. ft. Of space, is the main meeting draw here. Across the street, Hilton Austin includes 800 rooms and 60,000 sq. ft. Of space.
Sixth Street houses the iconic 189-room Driskill hotel and its 18,000 sq. ft. Of space. The property was built in 1886, a historic aspect felt immediately in the columned lobby with an inverted stainedglass dome and marble floors.
The Driskill, Austin
What most people currently associate with Austin— live music, progressive, young, hip—defines the Second Street neighborhood, an area within walking distance of downtown that’s jam-packed with wine bars, brewpubs, restaurants, entertainment venues and trendy new residential units. The area is home to the stunning City Hall and Moody Theater, new host of the iconic Austin City Limits Live PBS show, the longest-running music series in television history and a favored showcase for indie and big-name stars.
When not hosting the hottest names in music, Moody Theater can accommodate up to 2,700 attendees. Planners can take advantage of not only its hip setting, but of high-tech A/V, including a stateof- the-art system of optics and digital control consoles. The theater is housed inside the 251-room W Austin, which welcomes guests to its chic environment via an inviting living room with a floating ceiling and vinyl music collection. Awash in minimalistic gray tones and streaming natural light, the property’s 10,050 sq. ft. Of event space is every inch as contemporary-chic as the rest of the hotel.
South Congress (aka SoCo)
This is the spot for retail therapy, but don’t expect the standard big-box merchants. Instead, SoCo is rife with thrift, boutique and quirky shops that encapsulate Austin’s off-the-beaten-path vibe. Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds and Electric Ladyland (yes, that’s its full name) is filled with retro duds that are reputedly loved by Bob Dylan. Blackmail Boutique and Atelier sells items in black—exclusively. And Uncommon Objects easily lives up to its name; you may find, on any given day, a duck decoy, train transformer or antique baby spoon. Bring your group the first thursday of the month, when the stores stay open late and live music adds essential Austin avor.
The Four-Diamond Hyatt Regency Austin is a classy locale for meetings in between SoCo revelry. The property offers 448 guest rooms, a seasonal pool with a sundeck and 23,000 sq. ft. Of space, including a 17th-foor ballroom overlooking the skyline.
Other neighborhoods of note
Development of the Domain, a 1.3 million-squarefoot multiuse complex, began a few years ago, and with its collection of stores such as Dillard’s, Macy’s and Neiman Marcus has added upscale fl avor to the quirky Austin landscape. Still to come this fall are a Whole Foods and Saks Fifth Avenue, as well as a nine-acre park.
Two hot new hotels help anchor the complex. The Westin Austin at the Domain offers 341 rooms and 17,000 sq. ft. Of space, including a wine room thanked with cookbooks and wine display cases. Hip and colorful, much like its brand brethren, Aloft Austin at the Domain features 140 rooms and three meeting rooms totaling 1,634 sq. ft.
Austin’s northwest nexus is anchored by the Arboretum at Great Hills, an open-air collection of upscale shops that entice the shopaholic throngs. There are a few hotels in the vicinity; the largest for groups is the Renaissance Austin Hotel, set on 95 acres with 492 rooms and 65,000 sq. ft. Of space.
Options also abound in the University of Texas at Austin neighborhood, where a student-body presence lends youthful vigor to shops, restaurants and bookstores. The campus itself is home to the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center, an IACC-certi ed facility with 45,000 sq. ft. Of meeting space and an onsite 297-room hotel.
Downtown San Antonio, courtesy of San Antonio CVB
Every city is a combination of old and new, but few mix the two to such captivating effect as San Antonio. The city is one part oldfangled Texas culture, marked by ranches, Spanish architecture and proud monuments to state history, and one part contemporary charm in the form of the bustling Riverwalk, funky boutiques and a culinary scene on the rise.
Notes Casandra Matej, executive director of the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau: "There are very unique meeting venues that tie in beautifully to the history and culture of our great city. There is a sense of place here that you don’t experience in every meeting destination."
That sense of place can be found and felt in every neighborhood of the city.
The Riverwalk & Pearl District
Undoubtedly the most well-known of San Antonio’s districts, the Riverwalk is a stone-path channel linking hotels, shops, restaurants and meeting venues along the glistening San Antonio River. Punctuated with towering green trees, colorful roof lights and neatly lined patio umbrellas in an array of bold hues, the Riverwalk is a visual spectacle and city hub eliciting ever-greater interest. Just how intense is visitor and group demand? The area is currently in the midst of a $358.3 million expansion project to lengthen it from three to 15 miles.
Not surprisingly, the area offers myriad things to see and do. As attendees dine or shop, they can watch boats glide across the water—or take a ride on one themselves. For a touch of culture, they can step into the extensive San Antonio Museum of Art to peruse an art collection that includes work from Asia, Europe and Latin America. Or they may admire an assortment of thoughtfully crafted knickknacks at La Villita Historic Arts Village, where handcrafted pieces of copper and stainedglass sculptures are among the souvenir-ready finds.
The Riverwalk contains the city’s meeting Nucleus: the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, which offers 440,000 sq. ft. Of exhibit space, three ballrooms, a 2,300-seat theater and 67 meeting rooms, with local artwork—in portrait, mural and installation form—adding color throughout. Last fall marked the debut of Plaza Acequia, 20,000 sq. ft. Of outdoor space with cultural gravitas; design features reference acequias, Spanish limestone waterways that were once located on the site of the plaza. The addition was part of a recent $40 million enhancement that also included refurbishment of the 2,400-seat Lila Cockrell Theatre.
History distinguishes The St. Anthony Riverwalk Wyndham Hotel. Completed in 1909, the property evokes elegance from another era; details include a domed ceiling brushed with gold leaf. The hotel has 352 rooms and more than 30,000 sq. ft. Of meeting space.
With its Tuscan architecture and sleek design elements, the 213-room Hotel Valencia Riverwalk is the area’s aesthetic darling. Attendees can dine at Citrus, minimalistically adorned and serving such regional fare as pan-roasted south Texas antelope; unwind with specialty cocktails and small-plate tapas at Vbar overlooking the river; and meet in the hotel’s 7,000 sq. ft. Of space. Planners for smaller groups may choose another high-style option: Mokara Hotel & Spa (formerly Watermark Hotel & Spa) with 99 guest rooms, Four-Diamond riverfront dining, a 17,000-square-foot spa and 3,726 sq. ft. Of meeting space.
The Westin Riverwalk, San Antonio offers 473 elegant guest rooms, 26,000 sq. ft. Of versatile event space, a rooftop pool bar and local flair, including Mexican high tea service with pan dulce pastries, south-of-the-border coffee and agua frescas.
Right next to the Riverwalk, development of the historic Pearl district is currently under way. The birthplace of Pearl Beer, the area is being converted into an art-filled, eco-friendly urban village. When completed, it will be home to new restaurants, a 1,000-seat theater and the Culinary Institute of America’s newest campus.
Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center skywalk, San Antonio
While just blocks from the Riverwalk and technically part of its inventory, The Alamo has a presence formidable enough to warrant status as a stand-alone area. The city impeccably maintains its historic jewel, a 4.2-acre complex with exhibits that explore the Texas revolution and state history.
Adjacent to the Alamo, the 177-room Emily Morgan Hotel, with 4,000 sq. ft. Of space, is a boutique property that opened in the 1920s. Gothic revival architectural nuances and a cozy library are among the scene-setting details.
Opposite of the Alamo, Menger Hotel is the city’s oldest hotel, having opened in 1859 on the site of the state’s first brewery. Today, the property welcomes groups with its boutique spa, specialty shops, 316 guest rooms, 11,618 sq. ft. Of meeting space and preserved historic ambience replete with antique Victorian furnishings.
San Antonio’s counterpart to Riverwalk bustle is scenic, tranquil Hill Country, where rolling landscapes contain world-class golf courses, wineries, ranches and boutiques. The area encompasses not only the south suburbs of San Antonio, but nearby outlying areas ideal for off-sites. Head to Fredericksburg to sip coveted local varietals; at Becker Vineyards, make sure to integrate a tour of the aromatic three-acre lavender farm located onsite. There’s also a bounty of natural attractions in the greater area, from the 425-foot dome of Enchanted Rock to a collection of subterranean caverns.
Three major resorts in San Antonio Hill Country, each offering extensive amenities and a boundless natural setting, entice groups. At the Westin La Cantera Resort, this mix is underscored with Texas history. The property sits on a former homestead and was developed in the style of King Ranch, a South Texas icon and one of the largest ranches in the world. Inspired details include the same greenslate tile found at the ranch and a lobby modeled after its Great Room. While there’s an exhaustive list of amenities on hand—including 508 guest rooms, an extensive spa and 44,000 sq. ft. Of indoor and outdoor meeting space—it’s this historic element that resonates most. Ronnie Collins, the resort’s director of sales and marketing, calls the property an “iconic salute to the heritage of Texas” And notes “there are stories everywhere you turn.”
Among the myriad features at the 1,002-room JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa is an astounding inventory of meeting space: 265,000 sq. ft. This includes the ranch-style Sunday House surrounded by oak groves and rolling hills. To refresh and reboot pre- or post-meeting, the six-acre River Bluff Water Experience appeals with pools, fountains, waterfalls, poolside lounges, a waterslide and a lazy river. Cooling o in style is also an option at Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa, which offers a four-acre water park as part of its roster of amenities. Also available are a spa, 27 holes of championship golf, 500 rooms and 43,000 sq. ft. Of space.
For an off-site interspersed with high-adrenaline team building, carve out time for Joshua Creek Ranch. The setting is rugged Texas terrain at its most alluring, encompassing river bottomland, prairie grass, limestone bluffs and rolling pastures shaded by oak and elm trees. There’s enough meeting space for up to 120 and a host of outdoor pursuits available, from trap shooting and fly fishing to kayaking and tubing.
Main image: Loop 360 bridge, Austin, courtesy of Austin CVB/Dan Herron
–Group: Giant Screen Cinema Association; 400 attendees
–Where: The AT&T Conference Center and Hotel (main venue); DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel Austin (overflow); Imax Theater inside the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum (off-site)
–When: Sept. 18–20, 2011
–Planner Perspective: “Austin was sophisticated but laid-back. Our delegates are from all over the world and are very well-rounded, and they would be happy to even move to Austin. The CVB was also fantastic—I can’t say enough good about them and all their support.” –Tammy Thurmon, MBA, CMP, executive director