Houston: The Bayou City

Destinations

Shining skyscrapers stand in almost every corner—from Uptown’s panorama of hotels and office buildings to Downtown’s sparkling towers; from the eclectic Montrose neighborhood to the West End’s Energy Corridor; from The Woodlands with its “downtown in the forest” appeal on the northern edge, to Galveston Island’s central district. The Greater Houston area is home to world-class museums and performing arts, and to a host of innovative restaurants, including cutting-edge fusion, fine-food dishes, Texas barbecue and spicy Cajun cooking.

Houston also shouts “progressive”: big business lures daily visitors from across the globe. Ranked second in the country for the number of Fortune 500 companies headquartered in town, Greater Houston is an oil and gas industry leader, and home to NASA and the world’s largest medical center. With 91 consulates, the so-called Bayou City has a diverse population—an assembly of different skin tones, religions and customs, all living within neighborhoods abounding with their own cultural flair.

“Houston is an absolutely freewheeling business city. It has a reputation where you can start a business and become a multimillionaire,” says Greg Ortale, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s not hung up on pretense because it seems almost everyone who lives here comes from somewhere else. We’re a microcosm melting pot of the way the United States is going to be. We’re the experiment, and right now it’s working.”

Houston’s unique blend of culture and history comes alive through its attractions. One example is the historic site where General Sam Houston defeated Santa Anna’s Mexican army in 1836 for Texas Independence, now memorialized with the towering San Jacinto Monument.

Museums range from fine arts and science centers to some of the area’s quirkiest, including the Beer Can House and the Art Car Museum. Houston may be home to the largest livestock show and rodeo in the world, but don’t come here to see cowboys. You’ll have better luck in Fort Worth or Amarillo, so leave your cowboy hat behind.
Those who call Houston home will also tell you their city—despite being the nation’s fourth largest—is surprisingly friendly. As for booking your meeting there, the CVB’s Ortale has this advice: “You need to come and take a look, because you’re going to be surprised.”
 

HOUSTON: Downtown and Around the Texas Medical Center

It’s perhaps a bit ironic that this Texas town was founded by two “Yankees,” New York real estate entrepreneurs and brothers John Kirby Allen and Augustus Chapman Allen, who bought land along Buffalo Bayou. When it comes to layout, however, Houston is more Los Angeles than New York, sprawling and pulsing with 12-lane highways and two beltways that encircle and crisscross the city proper and beyond. In fact, it’s Houston’s flat sprawl that helps make it a meeting planner’s dream, with wide-ranging choices of convention centers, colossal stadiums, convention-capacity hotels and even unique smaller venues. Houston’s central U.S. location and affordability make it even more appealing.

“I looked back at my review of several different cities, and it comes out to performance. Houston is an accessible city with two major airports, and it’s in the central region,” says Sandy Webb, meeting coordinator for the International Association of Assembly Managers. The Dallas area-based organization is holding its convention this summer in the downtown George R. Brown Convention Center, one of the city’s largest venues. “Houston is also economical. It’s a big city with modest city pricing, but still a big city,” she adds.

The GRB has 1.2-million sq. ft. of leasing space, including 639,000 sq. ft. of contiguous exhibit space on the ground level and an additional 223,000 of upper level exhibit space. There’s also 185,000 sq. ft. within 100 meeting rooms, and 100,000 sq. ft. of registration space. The city’s premier convention hotel, the 1,200-room Hilton Americas-Houston, sits adjacent to the GRB and is connected by skywalks. The hotel has 91,500 sq. ft. of its own meeting space with a 40,000-square-foot pillarless ballroom, the 26,000-square-foot Ballroom of the Americas and 30 additional meeting rooms. Nestled between both facilities is the 12-acre Discovery Green, a downtown tree-filled park with a stage, fountains and a shallow lake for remote-controlled watercraft. “The decision to book was practical,” Webb says. “The Hilton Americas is attached with 1,200 rooms. Easy access for the attendees, but it’s also easy for the planner to maneuver between buildings.”


   Guest room at the Hyatt Regency Houston.

Downtown Houston and surrounding neighborhoods have more than 5,000 hotel rooms, some of which are in properties with significant meeting space. The 30-story atrium-designed Hyatt Regency Houston has 947 guest rooms and 21 luxury suites, with 72,600 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space, which includes a 28,000-square-foot exhibition hall and the 16,000-square-foot Imperial Ballroom. The 404-room Four Seasons Hotel Houston offers 18,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; the 259-room Crowne Plaza Houston Downtown has 12,000 sq. ft.; and the 350-room Doubletree Hotel Houston Downtown has a 5,580-square-foot ballroom and 11 meeting rooms. The 7,000-square-foot Crystal Ballroom at the historic Rice Hotel accommodates 800 seated guests and 400 reception-style.

Theater venues in Houston’s downtown Theater District, while showcasing world-class performing arts, are also available for functions. They include the Wortham Center, home to the Houston Ballet and Grand Opera, with more than 3,500 seats in two theaters; and the 2,911-seat Jones Hall, where the Houston Symphony performs.

The Houston Astros baseball club plays at Minute Maid Park, just a few blocks from the GRB and Hilton Americas-Houston. The stadium leases its 42,000 seats and the 16-room conference center in its historic Union Station building for private events. Home of the Houston Rockets basketball team, the Toyota Center has a 17,000-square-foot arena floor as well as smaller banquet and meeting rooms. The nearby House of Blues music hall provides an intimate setting for concerts, speeches or presentations with a full stage and reception capacity of 1,500.

Houston is home to two of the country’s top 10 convention centers: the George R. Brown and the Reliant Center in Reliant Park, a colossal complex southwest of downtown along the I-610 Loop and near the Houston Medical Center. Reliant Park spans 350 acres and is ideal for sporting events and oversized trade shows. Reliant Center and three other venues—Reliant Astrodome (aka Houston Astrodome), Reliant Arena and Reliant Stadium, which is home to the Houston Texans football team and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo—offer an astounding 1.6-million sq. ft. of exhibit space. Reliant Center features 706,213 sq. ft. with an exhibit hall that can be divided into 11 sections ranging from 40,000 to 168,000 sq. ft., and it has more than 61 meeting rooms. Reliant Arena has 350,000 sq. ft.; Reliant Stadium, 97,200 sq. ft. and 71,500 seats; and there’s also 700,000 sq. ft. of outdoor exhibit space within Reliant Park.

More than 3,000 hotel rooms are available around the Medical Center and Reliant Park. The Crowne Plaza Medical Center, with 655 rooms, has 17,500 sq. ft. of exhibition space, while the 315-room Hotel ZaZa Houston, as the name suggests, is an upscale and luxury boutique hotel on the edges of the Museum District, Rice University and the Texas Medical Center. It has 18,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including its 6,800-square-foot Phantom Ballroom and adjacent 1,200-square-foot foyer.

The Hotel ZaZa sits directly across from Houston’s landmark Mecom Fountain, within a traffic circle that serves as an entrance to the shaded walking trails of Hermann Park. The park has an 18-hole golf course, a reflection pool, the Miller Outdoor Theater and the Houston Zoo. Within walking distance is the Museum District, which encompasses 18 museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, The Menil Collection, Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Holocaust Museum Houston and others.
 

HOUSTON: Uptown and Beyond

Houston’s Uptown, with its cluster of office buildings, condominium towers and hotels, could stand alone as a large city skyline. Also known as the Galleria Area, Uptown is centered by the landmark Williams Tower and the Houston Galleria shopping complex, home to two Macy’s stores, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, among hundreds of other retail shops and boutiques.

While there are no convention centers in the immediate area, Uptown and nearby Greenway Plaza have close to 7,700 hotel rooms, with nine hotels offering more than 300 rooms and ample meeting and exhibition space. “You have a tremendous amount of diverse, high-quality properties in that area,” Ortale says. “If you have a meeting, we can give you a menu of choices that is unparalleled in the U.S., with all the name brands: Marriott, InterContinental, Westin and St. Regis, to name a few. The offerings to the planner are truly outstanding.”

Part of the Galleria complex, the combined Westin Galleria & Westin Oaks Hotels have 893 rooms and more than 90,000 sq. ft. of meeting/exhibition space. Across bustling Westheimer Road sits the 515-room JW Marriott Houston, with 40,000 sq. ft. of total meeting space. The nearby 485-room InterContinental Houston has 50,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space within 23 rooms, while the Houston Hilton Post Oak has 448 rooms and 30,000 sq. ft. of function space.

One of the nation’s top-rated health clubs, and the area’s only Four-Star spa, is at the 279-room Houstonian Hotel, Club & Spa. Located on an 18-acre wooded area along a city greenbelt, the Houstonian features 32,000 sq. ft. of meeting space within 26 rooms, ballrooms and boardrooms, many with wooded views and natural light. The 232-room St. Regis Houston is a luxury and Five-Diamond award-winning property with 10,000 sq. ft. of function space within an elegant setting for gatherings of up to 400 attendees.

Heading out west on I-10 leads to the so-called Energy Corridor. It’s an area with oil company headquarters, hotels and the new CityCentre, a 37-acre mixed-use urban development with offices, retail, dining, luxury residences and apartments. The new 244-room Hotel Sorella offers 18,000 sq. ft. of meeting space through the adjoining Norris Conference Center, connected by a skywalk, and with the 7,800-square-foot Red Oak Ballroom. Hotels in the area include the 600-room Marriott Houston Westchase Hotel, with 41,500 sq. ft. of flexible function space. 

Meeting planners looking for venues closer to Houston’s airports have some excellent options. The Humble Civic Center & Arena is only five minutes from Bush Intercontinental Airport and features an 18,000-square-foot carpeted ballroom, the 40,000-square-foot covered Expo Building, and an arena with 4,400 bleacher seats and 600 box seats. The arena floor accommodates an additional 3,500 seats. Airport area hotels include the 480-room Hilton Houston North, with 50,000-plus sq. ft. of space in 25 rooms including the Raphael Ballroom; the 334-room Crowne Plaza Houston North-Greenspoint; and the 313-room Doubletree Hotel Houston Intercontinental Airport, with 25,000 and 18,500 sq. ft. of meeting space, respectively.

Hobby Airport hotels include the 303-room Hilton Houston Hobby Airport, with an 8,147-square-foot ballroom, and the 287-room Marriott Houston Hobby Airport with 21,500 sq. ft. of meeting space within 17 rooms. The Pasadena Convention Center Complex & Municipal Fairgrounds is not far from Hobby and has more than 40,000 sq. ft. of indoor space, 63,000-plus of outdoor covered space and 100 acres of fairgrounds area.

While east of downtown, the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site, near the Houston Ship Channel, is ideal for an afternoon excursion. The Battle of the Alamo may have been a pivotal moment in Texas history, but it was the Texians’ cries of “Remember the Alamo” during the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto that gave birth to the Republic of Texas. The towering San Jacinto Monument and Museum immortalizes General Sam Houston defeating Santa Anna’s Mexican army. The World War II Battleship Texas is part of the complex.
 

GALVESTON

Flanked by warm Gulf of Mexico waters, Galveston is a historic port island city and a key weekend escape destination for Houstonians. Although an hour’s drive from downtown Houston, meeting planners have eyed Galveston’s scenic sandy beaches and cooling breezes as a refreshing backdrop to business-as-usual meetings and conventions. “Coming to a beach destination gives you a completely different feel,” explains Meg Winchester, director of the Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s what we call ‘crossing the causeway.’ Your stress level goes down, and you tend to relax a bit more. And Galveston has meeting facilities that are the same as you would find in any large city.


   Galveston Island Convention Center at the San Luis Resort.

“I think we’re sort of an undiscovered meeting destination outside of Texas for many meeting planners,” Winchester adds. “It’s a wonderful, affordable beach destination.” In fact, one of the city’s two main convention centers, The Galveston Island Convention Center at the San Luis Resort, is adjacent to the beach-skirting, bustling Seawall Boulevard. The center has 140,000 sq. ft. of total meeting space, including 43,100 sq. ft. in a column-free exhibition hall, 15,500 sq. ft. in the grand ballroom, 29,000 sq. ft. of prefunction space and 12,000 sq. ft. of breakout meeting space. There are more than 700 adjacent hotel rooms, 246 of which are in the San Luis Resort, Spa & Conference Center, which in itself has 23,540 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Across the island, the Moody Gardens Hotel, Spa & Convention Center offers 428 guest rooms and 100,000 sq. ft. of combined meeting space, including 60,000 within a barrier-free ballroom/exhibit hall as well as 15,180 sq. ft. in the Frances Moody Ballroom. The hotel and convention center are adjacent to the expansive Moody Gardens, with its unique pyramid-shaped attractions. Between meetings, delegates can wander through the Aquarium Pyramid, teeming with aquatic life, or the Rainforest Pyramid, with its tropical plants and exotic fish and birds. There are also three dynamic theaters, including the six-story screen at the I-MAX 3D theater.

Other hotels offer sizeable meeting facilities. The 119-room Tremont House is a Wyndham historical hotel located in the Strand District. The Tremont House and its sister property, the 224-room Hotel Galvez, have 13,473 and 14,025 sq. ft. of meeting space, respectively. The 240-room Hilton Galveston Island offers just over 7,500 sq. ft.

Meeting planners looking for a unique venue might consider booking a meeting at the Lone Star Flight Museum, which has 60,000 sq. ft. of function space among its 40-plus restored aircraft. The elegant 1894 Moody Mansion, with its stained-glass windows, has a ballroom capacity of 75, while the Grand 1894 Opera House can accommodate much larger groups, with 11,000 sq. ft. of space.

Other than the beach, Galveston has several other points of interest that will keep delegates occupied between meetings. The Strand Historic District is a quaint gaslight area  with boutiques, galleries, shops and restaurants, and is ideal for strolling or browsing. Museums include the Texas Seaport Museum, which offers tours of the Tall Ship Elissa berthed alongside the waterfront museum; the Railroad Museum housed in the old Galveston Union Depot; and the Mardi Gras Museum, all located within The Strand Historic District or nearby. The multimedia Great Storm attraction showcases the 1900 hurricane that gutted the city. Galveston also has many historic and Victorian homes (several available for private events), including the Menard Home, an 1838 Greek Revival mansion, and the 1839 Samuel May Williams Home.
 

BAY AREA HOUSTON

What lures visitors to Houston’s Bay Area—located south of Houston around Clear Lake and skirting Galveston Bay—are NASA’s Space Center Houston  and the Kemah Boardwalk. In fact, no trip to Houston would be complete without a stop at the Space Center, where the gripping words “Houston, we have a problem” echoed when the crippled Apollo 13th spacecraft drifted back to Earth. Located 25 minutes south of downtown, visitors can browse old spacecraft, spacesuits and moon rocks, and can tour training facilities and the old Mission Control inside the adjacent Johnson Space Center. The nearby Kemah Boardwalk is an entertainment spot that’s ideal for a visit after meetings with amusement games and rides including a roller coaster, Ferris wheel and speedboat rides, restaurants, souvenir shops, live music, shopping and more.


   NASA's Space Center, Houston.

For larger meetings in the area, the 240-room South Shore Harbour Resort & Conference Center offers a scenic waterfront location and 25,000 sq. ft. of space within 25 meeting rooms. The 242-room Houston Hilton NASA Clear Lake has 15,000 sq. ft. of total meeting space, with 5,000 of that comprising the Admiral Ballroom. The Marina Ballroom, which overlooks the adjacent lake, has 4,400 sq. ft.

Unique for the meeting planner, within this waterfront community are charter yacht services offered by FantaSea Yacht Cruises and Star Fleet Cruises, which can be booked for meetings or  team-building activities, or used as entertainment venues. Star Fleet also offers a murder mystery dinner cruise. For smaller functions or client entertaining in the heart of the Kemah, the 52-room Kemah Boardwalk Inn has a 1,007-square-foot ballroom and a 476-square-foot boardroom, while the Aquarium Restaurant and Landry’s Seafood House offer about 2,300 sq. ft. each.
 

THE WOODLANDS

Centered by a scenic waterway, this far northern Houston suburb of 92,000 residents certainly lives up to its name. “We’re in a natural environment. Sometimes we refer to it as a ‘downtown in the forest,’” explains Nick Wolda, vice president of marketing and public affairs for The Woodlands Township. “It’s all interconnected—the parks, the pathways, shopping, dining, entertainment, water taxis and trolleys.” Located 28 miles north of Houston along I-45, The Woodlands is nestled among 28,000 acres of forest preserves with 115 parks. “When you get up about 30 floors and look down,” Wolda adds, “you see a sea of green trees. And that’s why we refer to it as the ‘downtown in the forest.’”

The Township’s 11 hotels provide more than 1,500 guest rooms and a combined total of more than 130,000 sq. ft. of meeting and event space. Topping the list is the 343-room Woodlands Waterway Marriott Hotel & Convention Center, with 70,000 sq. ft. within 27 meeting rooms, including the 37,180-square-foot Town Center Exhibit Hall with a 4,900-person seating capacity.

As the name implies, the Waterway Marriott sits along the tranquil Woodlands Waterway, a 1.4-mile-long canal nestled within office towers, restaurants and businesses in the heart of the business and shopping district. Waterway taxi rides are available for a bit of relaxation and sightseeing in between meetings. More adventurous delegates might want to rent a kayak at the Riva Row Boat House and paddle to nearby Lake Woodlands. “Corporations will organize team-building exercises through the Riva Row Boat House,” Wolda says. “The Woodlands Waterway is something unique in all of Greater Houston. We have water taxis, The Woodlands Waterway Trolley, and it has a walking and cycling pathway as well.”

The Woodlands’ other major meetings property is the 440-room Woodlands Resort & Conference Center, which offers 60,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space within 32 rooms, many with views of lakes, forested areas and fairways. The property’s grand ballroom features 13,430 sq. ft., with a banquet and reception capacity of 980 and 1,400, respectively. A plus for golfers, the Woodlands Resort & Conference Center has 36 holes of on-property championship golf with the Panther Trail and The Oaks golf courses.

For small meetings, the Township’s newest property is the boutique hotel Avia The Woodlands. Opened last December, the 70-room, sleek and chic Avia offers flexible and elegant space for meetings and events, including the 2,240-square-foot State Room with its Veranda Patio, the Cabana Room and the outdoor Terrace. Adding to its ambience, Avia sits in the heart of the Market Street The Woodlands shopping district, a downtown-like twist of streets with upscale shopping and fine dining.

The Woodlands is also home to the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, an outdoor concert pavilion surrounded by a lush forest that accommodates up to 1,650 guests, with covered, reserved seating for 3,000 and an extensive lawn area for a concert-in-the-park type feel. The Pavilion is the summer home of the Houston Symphony and attracts national and international performing artists. It ranks fifth among the world’s top 100 amphitheaters, based on tickets sold. On the grounds is the newly renovated Woodforest Bank Club, with 1,600 sq. ft. for business meetings, receptions or parties. For larger functions, there’s the adjacent Event Tent, which accommodates up to 500 attendees.


   Avia Woodlands rooftop.

Although far north of Houston, The Woodlands is actually conveniently located to George Bush Intercontinental Airport; in fact, as Wolda puts it, “20 minutes from IAH without any stoplights.” Another dozen or so miles north of The Woodlands on I-45 is the Conroe area, with two large meeting facilities. The Lone Star Convention and Expo Center has 56,000 sq. ft. of indoor meeting space, including the 22,300-square-foot Bluebonnet Ball Room, and another 111,000 of outdoor space, making it ideal for anything from banquets to rodeos. The recently renovated La Torretta Lake Resort & Spa sits along the shores of scenic Lake Conroe. It offers 70,000 sq. ft. of meeting space complete with four ballrooms and 19 meeting and event rooms, many with lake views and outdoor terraces.
 


 

Richard Varr is a Houston-based freelance writer and has traveled extensively throughout the state of Texas. He is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers.