A visit to San Antonio is an important step in understanding Texas. At the core of the city stands the state’s most important shrine, the Alamo. What it means for Texans may be hard for outsiders to comprehend, but for 13 days in 1836, Texans held out against Mexican forces led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna in the most celebrated battle in Texas history. Today, it is the state’s most-visited site and forms the heart of San Antonio as its emotional and physical center.
Most people start with the Alamo, but that is certainly not where San Antonio ends. In fact, the city’s River Walk—its banks lined with restaurants and shops—meanders two miles through the downtown area and is a prime attraction. Visitors walk in droves along the paths on both sides of the river—or for a more leisurely experience ride in river barges and river taxis. And the River Walk is getting even better. A new Museum Reach opened two years ago and is accessible by water taxis that navigate the locks to the upper reaches, where the San Antonio Museum of Art and the old Pearl Brewery are located. They cruise under overpasses hung with installations created by local artists.
And the $279 million River Walk Project, which will extend the walk to 13 miles and will be completed in 2014, is said to be the nation’s largest urban ecosystem restoration project. It is major attractions such as these that draw hundreds of meetings, both large and small, to San Antonio every year. One of them, the annual Chick-fil-A Operators Seminar, brought 3,900 people to the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in February. The company divided attendees by their region of origin into four hotels—The Westin Riverwalk, San Antonio Marriott Rivercenter, San Antonio Marriott Riverwalk and Grand Hyatt San Antonio. Breakfast was served in groups at hotels, and some meals were at the convention center.
“We blended the dining and expo together, with tables set up throughout the expo where people could go eat. The RK Group is the center’s exclusive caterer, and you never know how it’s going to be when it’s an exclusive caterer, but the partnership and food were amazing,” says Bonnie Martin, Chick-fil-A’s senior supervisor, strategic events. On two days, the company provided cash to attendees so they could have dinner on their own at a River Walk restaurant or elsewhere. “Many of the people who attended know each other and only get to see each other once a year, so this gave them an opportunity [to catch up],” Martin adds.
A Monday afternoon was for recreation, and options included barge rides, a history tour of San Antonio, golf, a trip to Knibbe Ranch for a rodeo and Western experience, shopping, and a visit to the historical town of Gruene.
Chick-fil-A is not the only company to find San Antonio an ideal place to meet. Its attractions are many, according to Steve Clanton, vice president of sales and services for the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“We’re a unique destination. The city has historical charm. The river runs right through it. Attendance is really good. People like to meet here because it’s a place they want to visit,” he says. “We can put together as many as 10,000 rooms per night if necessary. It’s all within walking distance, and it’s a cost savings for transportation. We have fun restaurants. We have a warm, friendly environment that’s very authentic. This is what San Antonio’s all about.”
In 2010, the San Antonio CVB booked 580 meetings, an increase of 6% over the previous year, and that doesn’t include the many meetings booked directly through the hotels. About 85% of the meetings held in San Antonio are small meetings of fewer than 250 attendees, according to Clanton.
“That breaks down into 60% associations, 20% corporate and 20% SMERF. We do a tremendous amount of military meetings here [thanks to the three military bases located in the area],” he says.
Although the bulk of the business is small groups, 15% of the meetings drives 90% of the attendees. “The biggest group we ever hosted in the city was
Alcoholics Anonymous with 65,000 attendees in July 2010. The Texas Music Education’s association brings in 28,000 people every February. And the annual San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium in December attracts 8,000 delegates. It is the largest breast cancer symposium in the world, and 65% of its attendees are international,” Clanton says.
MAJOR MEETING VENUES
The Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, the city’s largest meeting facility, is located on the banks of the river and within walking distance of many major hotels. It was originally built as part of the city’s 1968 Hemisfaire. The surrounding park and the 750-foot-tall Tower of the Americas that soars above it are remnants of that event, but the center has been expanded over the years and now encompasses 1.3 million sq. ft. of meeting space that includes 67 meeting rooms, three ballrooms and four exhibit halls with 440,000 sq. ft. of contiguous space. The complex also includes the 2,307-seat Lila Cockrell Theatre.
San Antonio's River Walk.
Hotels of all sizes play host to meetings, with most of them stating that 75% or more of their business is groups.
The building housing the 177-room Emily Morgan Hotel, located adjacent to the Alamo, opened in 1929 as the Medical Arts Building, which served as a hospital and home to doctors’ offices. The hotel, with 5,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, is ideal for meetings ranging in size from 50–70 attendees and gets a lot of pharmaceutical, corporate and military business, says Chris Johnson, the hotel’s general manager. The property just launched a $2 million renovation of the guest rooms, as part of a project scheduled to be completed by mid-October.
What sets the Emily Morgan apart, according to Johnson, is that it is the official hotel for the Alamo. The hotel has established an arrangement with the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, the nonprofit organization that operates the Alamo and raises funds for its upkeep. “We can do lunches, dinners or meetings at the Alamo,” Johnson says. “There’s a 4,500-square-foot room inside, and it’s possible to do an event for 5,000 outside. We can also do private tours.”
The 316-room Menger Hotel, located on the opposite side of the Alamo, is the city’s oldest hotel and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Originally built in 1859 and expanded over the years, the hotel has hosted such public figures as Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt. The decor includes antiques and paintings in the public area that were purchased by the hotel’s founder, W.A. Menger, on trips to New York and Europe in the 1870s. The property’s 9,636 sq. ft. of meeting space includes a 4,500-square-foot ballroom.
Larger groups may want to consider the 473-room Westin Riverwalk, San Antonio. Built in 1999, it contains $7.5 million worth of art that includes antique tapestries from the 16th and 17th centuries that are part of the owner’s personal collection. The property finished a $2 million renovation in December in a project that featureed guest room floors, and installing new art and soft goods. “Between 55% and 75% of the hotel’s business is groups, depending on the season,” says Yuliya Zholu, The Westin’s sales manager. With more than 26,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including a 5,900-square-foot ballroom, the hotel can host groups of between 10–500 attendees, although 300 is the ideal size for corporate groups, she adds.
Hyatt manages two downtown hotels—the Grand Hyatt San Antonio and Hyatt Regency San Antonio—both on the banks of the San Antonio River. The 1,003-room Grand Hyatt adjoins the convention center and offers an additional 115,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including the 31,000-square-foot Texas Ballroom, the 21,000-square-foot Lone Star Ballroom and 29 breakout rooms. It also has two private dining rooms seating 50 people each.
The 632-room, Four-Diamond Hyatt Regency San Antonio, located just two blocks from the convention center, includes 40,000 sq. ft. of function space and an 18,000-square-foot conference center. Among its F&B outlets is the popular Q Restaurant, which specializes in global barbecue.
McNay Art Museum, San Antonio.
Marriott also operates two San Antonio hotels, the San Antonio Marriott Rivercenter and the San Antonio Marriott Riverwalk, and groups play a major role at both hotels. “About 80% of our overall business, maybe a bit more, is groups,” says Michael Nash, the hotel’s director of association sales.
“Associations make up 60% of this and corporate 40%. Spring and fall are the busy times for us.”
The 1,000-room, Four-Diamond San Antonio Marriott Rivercenter, located within a short walking distance of the convention center, completed a $55 million total renovation in March. The rooms and public areas have a Southwestern feel and are decorated with local artifacts. The hotel has 65,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including a 41,000-square-foot ballroom.
The neighboring 507-room San Antonio Marriott Riverwalk has also just completed a major renovation, spending $22 million on an upgrade. The hotel’s 12,000 sq. ft. of meeting space includes the 9,800-square-foot Alamo Ballroom.
Among other hotels for groups is the 482-room Four-Diamond Hilton Palacio del Rio San Antonio hotel, which is located on the River Walk across the street from the convention center and has 27,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Another choice, the 308-room El Tropicano Riverwalk Holiday Inn, is located on a quiet corner of the River Walk’s north channel and is decorated in the style of a Mexican beach resort with its own toucan aviary. Its meeting space totals 37,000 sq. ft. The 410-room Crowne Plaza Hotel Riverwalk, also on a quieter stretch of the River Walk, has 37,000 sq. ft. of space.
With a culture rich in historic architecture, art and Tex-Mex cuisine, San Antonio offers a colorful variety of venues that range from museums and restaurants to a brewery barn and a flour mill.
One of the most interesting venues is aboard one of the Rio San Antonio River Cruises’ open-air barges that gently motor up and down the San Antonio River. Cocktail cruises can be done for up to 30 people. Dinner cruises are another option for up to 20 passengers seated on either side of a long table down the middle of the barge. A variety of River Walk restaurants provide catering services.
Several San Antonio museums offer venues for events. The Witte Museum, located in Brackenridge Park, specializes in natural history, science and culture, and incorporates historic buildings, a tree house and 4,225 sq. ft. of event space. The McNay Art Museum, housed in a Spanish Colonial revival-style home that dates to the 1920s, includes a collection of works by artists such as Paul Gauguin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso. It also includes a $33 million glass pavilion known as the Stieren Center for Exhibitions and can accommodate 100–500 people outside and 500–1,000 inside. Located in the historic Lone Star Brewery along the Museum Reach extension of the River Walk, the San Antonio Museum of Art specializes in art representing more than 5,000 years of history and the cultures of the world. There’s inside space for groups of up to 200 banquet-style or 300 for receptions, or 500 for both outside banquets and receptions.
Groups of up to 200 people can rent the Guenther House, an 1860s-era house located adjacent to the Pioneer Flour Mill, which has been producing flour and food products for 150 years. Its museum includes mill memorabilia, antique baking accessories and Dresden china plates.
The Texas Hill Country, which stretches north of San Antonio, is punctuated by limestone and granite karst formations that march into the distance, riddled with caves and flowing rivers. Settled by Germans and Eastern Europeans, the area is distinguished by historic towns with such names as Fredericksburg, Boerne and New Braunfels. In more recent years, it has become a wine region, with wineries producing an array of red, white and dessert varietals. Closer to San Antonio are several resorts that serve as alternatives for those groups who want a self-contained meeting in a quiet setting and whose members might be interested in bringing their families along.
The newest of these, the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa, opened last year. With 1,002 rooms and 265,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, the hotel is targeting groups, which make up to 72% of the resort’s business, according to Mike Kass, the hotel’s director of marketing. The resort can handle groups of 10–1,000 attendees, with 450–700 being the ideal size, he says. Meeting facilities include two 40,000-square-foot ballrooms and a 23,000-square-foot lawn for outdoor events. The Sunday House, a unique venue for board meetings or small dinners, pays homage to the German settlers who farmed in the Hill Country and built stone houses in town to use for the weekend. The resort includes the six-acre River Bluff Water Experience with a lazy river, several water slides and multiple swimming pools, a spa and 36 holes of golf at the TPC San Antonio Golf Club. The resort borders a 700-acre bird sanctuary, a waypoint on the migration path of the golden-cheeked warbler and other birds.
Pearl Stable foyer in San Antonio.
Built on the grounds of a former working ranch and inspired by Texas Hill Country ranch architecture, local history and legends, the 500-room, Four-Diamond Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa is another area option. It has 43,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor meeting space and event venues including Charlie’s Long Bar, a western saloon that seats 190 people and contains the longest copper bar in Texas, as well as a private room in the Antlers Dining room that seats 75. For fun, there’s a four-acre water park and a team-building and leadership development program with a full menu of activities that include a build-your-own cardboard boat regatta challenge and a glow-in-the-dark nighttime putt-putt golfing.