What captures the attention of meeting planners, however, is what the state’s sheer size has to offer. Texas is home to three of the nation’s top 10 cities: Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, all with major meeting venues and premier museums, performing arts and cultural attractions. And because of its central location and airport hubs, traveling to Texas can often mean a direct flight from many U.S. cities. Add abundant sunshine and a wide range of venues to choose from, and it’s no surprise meeting planners are eyeing Texas in a big way.
HOUSTON & THE GULF COAST
With its port cities and scenic beaches, Texas’ Gulf Coast is one of the state’s most vibrant regions, stretching 624 miles from the lush forested areas and bayous along the Louisiana border to where the Rio Grande touches the Gulf of Mexico.
With the most Fortune 500 companies headquartered outside of New York City, it’s no wonder that Houston is a magnet for huge conventions and meetings. The Bayou City has, in fact, taken on the challenge with two of the country’s top convention centers. The downtown George R. Brown Convention Center handles some of the city’s biggest events with 1.2-million sq. ft. of event space.
Colossal Reliant Park, spanning 350 acres, is comprised of four separate venues and is ideal for sporting events and oversized trade shows. Among the facilities is Reliant Center, with 706,213 sq. ft. of space and an exhibit hall that can be divided into 11 sections.
Houston tops its 60,000 total guest rooms with the city’s foremost convention hotel, the 1,200-room Hilton Americas-Houston. The Hilton connects to the GRB via skywalks. Other prominent downtown meeting hotels include the 30-story, atrium-style Hyatt Regency Houston, with 947 guest rooms and 72,600 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space; the 404-room Four Seasons Hotel Houston, with 18,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; and the 259-room Crowne Plaza Houston Downtown, which has 12,000 sq. ft.
Houston’s renowned performing arts can entertain delegates between meetings, and their venues are also available for functions. Houston’s downtown Theater District includes the Wortham Center, home to the Houston Ballet and Grand Opera, and the 2,911-seat Jones Hall, where the Houston Symphony performs.
“Houston is one of the largest cities in the U.S., offering world-class performing arts, a remarkable museum district, thousands of restaurants and great shopping,” says Jackie Spencer, convention director with the Texas Association of School Administrators and Texas Association of School Boards, which holds many of its annual joint conventions at the GRB. “What’s surprising is that I still get a small-town feel when I visit. Houstonians are friendly people and they come together to enhance the city, especially in the downtown area.”
Galveston & Bay Area Houston
One of the Gulf Coast’s most popular destinations, Galveston’s sunny beaches are only an hour’s drive from downtown Houston. Situated on a barrier island, this port city has sizable meeting venues along bustling Seawall Boulevard flanking the island’s sandy shoreline. It is also close to or within the quaint, gaslight-style Strand Historic District, which features boutiques, galleries and restaurants.
Along the Seawall sits one of the island’s two convention centers, the Galveston Island Convention Center at the San Luis Resort. This event center offers 140,000 sq. ft. of total meeting space, including 43,100 sq. ft. in a column-free exhibition hall. Next to the convention center is the 246-room San Luis Resort, Spa & Conference Center, which offers 23,540 sq. ft. of function space.
Across the island is Galveston’s other large meeting facility, the 428-room Moody Gardens Hotel, Spa & Convention Center, featuring 100,000 sq. ft. of combined meeting space. Between or after meetings, delegates can visit adjacent Moody Gardens, with its unique pyramid-shaped, combined aquarium/rainforest and Imax theater attractions.
Hotels offering sizable meeting space include the 119-room Tremont House, a Wyndham historical hotel, located in the Strand Historic District. The Tremont House and its sister property, the 224-room Hotel Galvez, features 13,473 and 14,025 sq. ft. of meeting space, respectively.
Skirting Galveston Bay and in the Clear Lake area—about a half hour north of the island—is Bay Area Houston. With its scenic waterfront location, the area’s key meeting venue is the 240-room South Shore Harbour Resort & Conference Center, which houses 25,000 sq. ft. of space within 25 meeting rooms. Another facility, the 242-room Houston Hilton NASA Clear Lake, has 15,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including a 5,000-square-foot ballroom.
“Many visitors do not realize how close Houston is to the coast, providing convenient opportunities for pre or post trips to Kemah and Galveston cruises,” says Nathan Tollett, director of sales for the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau.
What’s interesting about this coastal city is that its star attraction, the USS Lexington Museum, is also a unique meeting venue. Moored along the shoreline of Corpus Christi Bay, this gargantuan WWII naval aircraft carrier features 40,000 sq. ft. of space on the ship’s hangar deck for meetings, banquets and other functions.
Meeting planners looking for more traditional facilities might opt to book their next event at the city’s convention center, the American Bank Center. This complex of more than 500,000 sq. ft. includes the American Bank Convention Center, with 76,500 sq. ft. in the main exhibit hall, a 20,000-square-foot ballroom and the 2,526-seat Selena Auditorium.
USS Lexington, Corpus Christi.
Two prominent hotel towers dominate the skyline and provide sizable meeting space: the Omni Corpus Christi Bayfront Tower and Omni Corpus Christi Marina Tower, with 474 and 346 guest rooms, respectively. The Bayfront Tower has eight meeting rooms amounting to about 24,000 sq. ft., while the Marina Tower offers more than 10,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space.
Rio Grande Valley
At the southernmost tip of Texas, the Rio Grande Valley area is perhaps best known for pulsing South Padre Island, a hot spot for college students on spring break, vacationing Texans and, in winter, snowbirds from the Midwest and Canada. The area, bordering Mexico along the Rio Grande River, stretches from South Padre on the Gulf of Mexico and includes the larger cities of Brownsville, Harlingen and McAllen to the west.
Although three airports service the area, The Valley is often overlooked by meeting planners. “One reason perhaps is that we’re so spread out. It’s really quite a large area, but it doesn’t feel like that,” says Nancy Millar, director of the McAllen Convention and Visitors Bureau. “McAllen has a population of 130,000, but within a 60-mile radius, there are more than 3-million people. We have lots of restaurants and excellent shopping, but we still have a small-town appeal.”
The region’s largest meeting facilities are in McAllen and on South Padre Island. The McAllen Convention Center is an 18.5-acre complex with 174,000 sq. ft. of multifunctional space. Another option is the South Padre Island Convention Centre, which provides 45,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Smaller venues include the Brownsville Events Center with 13,530 sq. ft. in its main ballroom, while the Jacob Brown Memorial Center has close to 14,000 sq. ft. in its auditorium and stage area.
DALLAS/FORT WORTH METROPLEX
The Metroplex is a vibrant potpourri of Texas communities making up the largest metropolitan area in Texas and the fourth largest in the U.S. Dallas and Fort Worth are separated by 30 miles of thriving suburban towns and bedroom communities, intertwined with ranchlands and pasturelands. The two cities complement each other with a unique Texas twist—Dallas’ uptown urban feel compared with Fort Worth’s “Cowtown” heritage, defined by 19th-century cattle drives through the city.
Meeting planners wanting an urban center with a true 21st-century skyline will be pleased with Dallas. And with great shopping, world-class museums, vibrant entertainment districts and trendy restaurants, delegates will surely have plenty to do after meetings. The “Big D,” as it’s called, tops the list of the Metroplex’s best meeting venues.
Within its more than 1-million sq. ft., the Dallas Convention Center features the largest column-free exhibit hall in the U.S., with 203,000 sq. ft. and another 726,700 of contiguous exhibit space. Enhancing the convention center’s modern look is I.M. Pei’s adjacent architectural masterpiece, Dallas City Hall.
For stadium-sized events, American Airlines Center is home to the Dallas Mavericks basketball team and has 840,000 sq. ft., with 20,000 seats for center stage events. One of the Southwest’s most legendary facilities, the Cotton Bowl at Fair Park seats 68,000, with more than 500,000 sq. ft. of outdoor malls, plazas and festival areas for special events. The region’s other large stadiums, Dallas Cowboys Stadium and Rangers Ballpark are in Arlington.
Meeting hotels include the colossal 1,606-room Hilton Anatole with 346,275 sq. ft. of meeting and banquet space, 77 meeting rooms and 128,000 sq. ft. of dedicated exhibit space. The Westin City Center, with 407 guest rooms, is just minutes away from the Dallas Convention Center and adjacent to the DART light-rail line. The hotel offers 25,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including the 8,000-square-foot Plaza Ballroom. The 342-room Hyatt Regency North Dallas in suburban Richardson has 15,000 sq. ft., with 18 meeting rooms and a 7,800-square-foot ballroom.
For smaller functions, the prestigious, 143-room Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek—upcoming host to one of Smart Meetings’ live events—offers 10,534 sq. ft. of event space.
The city’s recently opened, multivenue Dallas Center for the Performing Arts features an opera house, theater and outdoor entertainment. Other new developments include the grand 1,000-room Omni Dallas, the city’s official convention center hotel, scheduled to open in 2012.
Fort Worth is where the visitor can feel like a cowboy or cowgirl while embracing a panorama of glass and steel towers, particularly within the Stockyards National Historic District. This popular commercial area has retained its turn-of-the-20th-century look, and it’s where the world’s only daily cattle drive takes place.
Guest room at The Westin Galleria Dallas.
Known for its unique blend of “cowboys and culture,” the city has excellent museums, cultural attractions and many first-class meeting venues. They include downtown’s Bass Performance Hall, which hosts the ballet, opera and symphony, and the Kimbell Art Museum in the Cultural District. The recently renovated Fort Worth Convention Center has more than 253,000 sq. ft. of flexible exhibition space.
Hotels near the convention center include the 614-room Omni Fort Worth, with nearly 68,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, and 22,000 sq. ft. in the 431-room Sheraton Fort Worth Hotel and Spa. For sightseeing and entertainment, museums and cultural attractions include the Cowboy Hall of Fame, the Cattle Raiser’s Museum and the lively, 35-block Sundance Square entertainment district.
Central Metroplex: Grapevine and Arlington/Irving
Centrally located and near DFW International Airport, one of the nation’s largest centrally located hubs, these communities are ideal for groups seeking to step off an airplane and travel only a short distance to their meetings. Grapevine is the closest to the hub and home to the colossal Gaylord Texan Resort. With its spacious glass atriums, the 1,511-room Gaylord overlooks scenic Lake Grapevine and offers more than 400,000 sq. ft. of meeting, prefunction and exhibition space.
Other options include the 811-room Hyatt Regency DFW, with 92,000 sq. ft. of function space, including 21,000 in the ballroom, an 18,000-square-foot exhibit hall and 70 meeting rooms. Only five minutes from the airport, the Grapevine Convention Center offers 23,500 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space. (Visit the Grapevine CVB, for more information.)
Arlington is anticipating a rush of football fans this coming February to the recently opened Dallas Cowboys Stadium for Super Bowl XLV in February 2011. The stadium seats 80,000 but can be expanded to 100,000. Arlington is also home to Rangers Ballpark, where its Diamond Club and Cuervo Club have 17,000 and 7,500 sq. ft., respectively.
The Arlington Convention Center offers 50,000 sq. ft. of column-free space with 30,000 sq. ft. in its Grand Hall. Hotel meeting space includes 26,000 sq. ft. at the Sheraton Arlington, 11,000 at the Hilton and 5,300 at the Crowne Plaza.
Just southeast of DFW Airport, Irving is looking forward to the upcoming opening of the new Irving Convention Center at Las Colinas. The 275,000-square-foot facility will feature a 50,000-square-foot, column-free exhibition hall, a 20,000-square-foot ballroom and 20 breakout/meeting rooms within 20,000 sq. ft.
HILL COUNTRY: SAN ANTONIO, AUSTIN AND BEYOND
The Texas Hill Country is one of the most scenic areas of Texas, with spring-fed streams and rivers that run through grassy pastures. The region stretches roughly 10,000 square miles through 15 Central Texas counties, west of the I-35 Corridor and west of Austin, and north and northwest of San Antonio. Although a mostly rural area, there are plenty of venue choices, from upscale resorts with golf courses to small hotels.
Topping the list for luxury may be the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa, which opened earlier this year. Twenty miles north of downtown San Antonio, this 1,002-room property sits on 600 acres of rolling hills and offers 140,000 sq. ft. of customizable exhibit and meeting space. Other highlights include a 26,000-square-foot spa and two PGA Tour, 18-hole TPC golf courses.
Another large luxury resort on the Hill Country’s northern edges is the Horseshoe Bay Resort, located an hour’s drive northwest of Austin’s airport. Next to scenic Lake LBJ, this 7,000-acre property encompasses the 385-room Horseshoe Bay Resort Marriott Hotel and three championship golf courses. The property offers 30,000 sq. ft. of meeting space including a 12,000-square-foot ballroom.
The 173-room Lakeway Resort and Spa overlooking scenic Lake Travis is closer to Austin. The resort has 24,000 sq. ft. of IACC-approved conference space, including four large ballrooms.
Home of the Oktoberfest every fall, quaint Fredericksburg lures visitors with its antique shops and galleries. Meeting planners take note of its smaller unique venues. The 90-room Inn on Baron’s Creek Spa & Conference Center has 6,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, and the one-of-a-kind Hangar Hotel & Airport Conference Center (hangarhotel.com), which resembles a 1940s-style aircraft hangar, features 50 guest rooms and 20,000 sq. ft. of function space.
Activities around Fredericksburg can include visits to wineries along the Highway 290 Wine Road, and tours of the Lyndon Baines Johnson National Historical Park.
Anyone visiting this breezy city will likely always remember its two most popular attractions: The Alamo shrine, where the historic 1836 battleground set Texas independence in motion, and the winding River Walk, with its stone bridges and river boat tours. Snaking through the downtown, this three-mile, soon-to-be-expanded pedestrian pathway connects a Texas-sized sampling of restaurants, shops, museums, historic landmarks and hotels offering more than 5,400 guest rooms.
At one end sits the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, conveniently near 12,500 downtown guest rooms (9,700 of them within six blocks). It’s also within walking distance to some of the city’s main attractions and museums. The convention center has 630,000 sq. ft. of total meeting space, with 440,000 as a contiguous exhibition area.
Near the convention center are the city’s largest hotels, the 1,003-room Grand Hyatt San Antonio and the 1,001-room San Antonio Marriott Rivercenter. The Hyatt has upward of 115,000 sq. ft. of its own meeting space, while the Marriott Rivercenter, located on the River Walk, has 60,000 sq. ft.
Across from Alamo Square is the Historic Menger Hotel, housing 316 guest rooms and 12,500 sq. ft. of meeting space. River Walk hotels include chain properties such as the 410-room Crowne Plaza River Walk and the 483-room Hilton Palacio del Rio, which offer, respectively, more than 41,000 and 27,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
For venues offering more of a Hispanic and Mexican-American flavor, La Villita Historic Arts Village—one of the city’s original settlements of Spanish soldiers—is now a quaint complex with arts and crafts shops. Groups can lease a variety of La Villita’s venues, including Arneson River Theatre along the River Walk.
With its environmental and grassroots character, youth-driven Austin is one of the nation’s most refreshing and spontaneous cities—so much so, that it boasts the slogan, “Keep Austin Weird.” Its other nickname, Live Music Capital of the World, puts it on the list with music meccas like Nashville because of the city’s signature Austin City Limits performance show and downtown’s Sixth Street, where several blocks of bars and clubs with live bands attract young crowds nightly.
For large conventions and events, the downtown Austin Convention Center offers 374,255 sq. ft. of total meeting space. Five exhibit halls have 246,097 sq. ft., including a 43,000-square-foot grand ballroom. The convention center sits just a block or two from the shaded jogging and biking trails along Lady Bird Lake, and is within walking distance to many of downtown’s 5,500 hotel rooms. Across Lady Bird Lake, the 131,000-square-foot, two-level Palmer Events Center features excellent views of downtown.
Popular hotels include the 362-room Sheraton Austin at the Capitol with 17,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. North of downtown and nestled around the upscale Arboretum area, the 463-room Renaissance Austin Hotel features 65,000 sq. ft. of event space. (Contact the Austin CVB, for more information.)
BIG BEND COUNTRY & THE PERMIAN BASIN
This arid region along Texas’ southwestern border conjures up images of a Clint Eastwood western: rugged cowboys traversing mountainous and steep rocky paths in the Wild West. Stretching along the Rio Grande on the southern edge to El Paso and the New Mexico border, the area’s panorama includes the jagged peaks of Big Bend National Park and Fort Davis, one of the best preserved old western frontier posts. To the north, the Midland-Odessa Metroplex sits within the Permian Basin Oil Field, one of the world’s largest.
The nation’s 22nd-largest city, El Paso is the Big Bend area’s gateway and business center, and is promoted by the El Paso CVB. Big events are booked in the downtown Judson F. Williams Convention Center with its 80,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space. Two adjacent theaters offer facilities for presentations and entertainment: the 2,500-seat Abraham Chavez Theater and the 2,000-seat Plaza Theater. In addition, the McKelligon Canyon Amphitheater holds 1,503.
Post-meeting sightseeing should include visits to the area’s three historic missions along the Mission Trail. The Wyler Aerial Tramway ascends up the 5,632-foot-high Ranger Peak in the Franklin Mountains, from where dramatic views stretch into bordering Mexico and New Mexico.
The Midland-Odessa Metroplex is one of the state’s largest oil hubs. Both Presidents Bush lived in the cities, and George H.W. developed his oil business here. Odessa has the Presidential Museum and Bush Home, while George W.’s Childhood Home is in Midland, a modern and vibrant sky-lined city, as is the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum, where the story of West Texas oil is told.
For exhibitions and meetings, the Midland Center features the 12,500-square-foot Exhibit Hall, accommodating up to 900 people for banquets and 1,200 for seminars or concerts. The Clarion Hotel & Conference Center is situated between the downtown and the airport with 25,330 total sq. ft. within ballrooms, boardrooms and the 15,000-square-foot Villa Convention Center.
Odessa’s meeting venues include the Ector County Coliseum with 145,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and an 8,000-seat coliseum. The West Texas Convention Center & MCM Grande Hotel FunDome has 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting and exhibit space, and 243 guest rooms. Aside from its oil community and rigs, Odessa has an extraordinary natural wonder, the 550-foot-wide Odessa Meteor Crater, the second-largest meteor crater in the country.
Richard Varr is a Houston-based freelance writer and has traveled extensively throughout the state of Texas.