Pull up your boots - we're meetin' in Texas
Everything is bigger in Texas as the saying goes—big sky, big oil, big hats, big hair and big pickups, to name just a few. To meeting planners, however, this cliché has a deeper meaning: namely, big convention centers, meeting halls and a big Texas welcome.
U.S, stretching from the barren Chisos Mountains and legendary Rio Grande within Big Bend National Park, to the sturdy East Texas pine forests and to the white sands of South Padre Island. In fact, it’s bigger than many countries around the world, including all in Europe. Once an independent republic, the state is now home to three of the nation’s top 10 cities: Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. And because of the vast open space and predominantly flat prairies and wetlands, urban sprawl advances with almost no physical boundaries or distractions.
But, despite its rugged pioneering and ranching heritage, Texas’ main urban areas are replete with cultural attractions, offering visitors a lot to do in between meetings. For instance, with a bit of imagination, the cries of San Antonio’s Alamo come whispering through the warm breezes at night. Houston, home of the Johnson Space Center and world-class performing arts, is also where General Sam Houston and a band of brave Texians defeated Santa Ana to gain independence from Mexico at the San Jacinto battleground. Austin’s music scene—one of the country’s best—rocks seven nights a week. The Dallas area includes Fort Worth’s gas-lit Stockyards National Historic District and some of the state’s best museums and shopping. And smaller cities have unique attractions as well, such as Corpus Christi’s World War II aircraft carrier, the USS Lexington, where the hangar deck is available for events.
Why pick Texas for meetings? “The secret to a successful meeting is location,” says Julie Chase of the Texas Office of the Governor, Economic Development and Tourism Division. “From large cities with first-class convention facilities to smaller towns with bed-and-breakfasts, historic country inns and guest ranches that cater to meetings, Texas offers a destination to meet the needs of every type of meeting and convention.” Combined with its central U.S. location, excellent airlift and abundant sunshine, it’s no big surprise that meeting planners are eyeing Texas in a big way.
An international city with 89 consulates and a diverse restaurant scene, Houston has an extraordinary array of hotels and resorts with excellent meeting space, plus state-of-the-art convention and trade show space to lure planners its way. There are more than 5,000 hotel guest rooms downtown, 3,000 in the Reliant Park area and 6,000-plus rooms in Uptown, an area centered by the landmark Williams Tower and Houston Galleria shopping complex.
You’ll be pleased to know, also, that convention facilities in the nation’s fourth-largest city are some of the best. “We have two of the top 10 convention centers in the country with the George R. Brown and Reliant Center in Reliant Park,” says Greg Ortale, CEO of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau. “If you’re all about business, we have the product for business meetings.”
It starts right downtown with the George R. Brown Convention Center, which has 1.2 million sq. ft. of leasing space, 639,000 sq. ft. of contiguous exhibit space on the ground level and an additional 223,000 of upper level exhibit space. One hundred meeting rooms provide 185,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. The city’s premier convention hotel, the 1,203-room Hilton Americas-Houston, is adjacent to the GRB and connected by skywalks. And nestled between both facilities is Discovery Green, a downtown tree-filled park with a stage, fountains and a lake.
“One thing we like about Houston is there are a lot of hotels around the convention center, and the Discovery Green project has brought a lot of restaurants and entertainment to the convention area,” says Jonathan Erwin, a meeting planner with H&P Expo LLC of Ennis, Texas, who books the annual January Halloween and Party Expo trade show at the GRB. “Because of the timing of the show, we have to find a city with warm weather,” he adds. “And because our attendees come from all over the country, we want a central location in the U.S. and one with accessible airports.”
Houston’s downtown Theater District is only a short distance away from the convention center. Several theater venues have separate meeting rooms, including the Wortham Center, home to Houston’s Ballet and Grand Opera, with more than 3,500 seats in two theaters; and the 2,911-seat Jesse H. Jones Hall, where the Houston Symphony performs.
The city’s sports stadiums offer further options for large conventions and events. The Houston Astros’ Minute Maid Park, just a few blocks from the GRB and Hilton Americas-Houston, leases its 42,000 seats for private events, as well as a 16-room conference center in its historic Union Station building. Home court for the Houston Rockets, the Toyota Center has a 17,000-square-foot arena floor, plus smaller banquet and meeting rooms.
When it comes to stadiums, Reliant Park is ideal for trade shows and sporting events. The complex has a total of 1.6 million sq. ft. of exhibit space in four colossal facilities: Reliant Astrodome (Houston Astrodome), Reliant Stadium, Reliant Arena and Reliant Center, which, along with surrounding grounds and parking areas, span 350 acres.
DALLAS/FORT WORTH METROPLEX
Dallas and Fort Worth are separated by 30 miles of suburbia, making this sprawling urban area the largest metropolitan area in Texas and the fourth largest in the U.S. The two cities complement each other with a unique Texas twist: Dallas’ uptown urban feel compared with Fort Worth’s Wild West heritage. In fact, Fort Worth still sports the nickname “Cowtown,” defined by 19th-century cattle drives daily through the city.
Both cities, along with some of the growing suburban towns including Arlington, Irving and Plano, provide meeting planners with a wide choice of venues at a reasonable cost. “Meeting planners have been pleased with our affordability and value,” says Phillip Jones, president and CEO of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Texas has a lower cost of living than the East or West coasts, and the cost is significantly less than hosting your meeting in New York, Chicago, Florida or California.”
Amid its glittering skyscrapers, including the landmark Reunion Tower, Dallas is home to some of the Metroplex’s best meeting facilities. With more than one million square feet of space, the Dallas Convention Center has the largest column-free exhibit hall in the U.S., amounting to 203,000 sq. ft., and another 726,700 of contiguous exhibit space. There are 96 meeting rooms, a 9,800-seat arena and a theater for 1,750 guests.
Flanking one side of this modern facility is architect I.M. Pei’s Dallas City Hall, with a dramatic angled design; and on the other side is one of the world’s largest groupings of bronze statues—in true Texas style—in the adjacent Pioneer Plaza, where dozens of longhorns prance along a stream and re-created cattle trail. A longer walk or a short cab ride leads to other downtown sights, including the Dallas Museum of Art.
Home of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, American Airlines Center on the edge of downtown has 20,000 seats for center-stage events, and smaller meeting rooms holding 200, 100 and 50 seats. Market Hall in the Dallas Market Center is a consumer exhibit hall with more than 200,000 sq. ft.; it’s best known for hosting RV, car and boat shows.
Smaller venues for meetings, banquets and luncheons include Edison’s, located one mile south of the convention center, with 15,000 sq. ft. of special-events space. Cityplace’s 42nd-story atrium offers splendid downtown views to add a unique twist to meetings, conferences and other events.
Growth, meanwhile, continues to change the city’s skyline and image. “Dallas today is a lot different from the Dallas in the 1980s with J.R. Ewing,” says Jones, referencing Dallas, the popular CBS television show of the fictional oil-tycoon family. “Dallas is becoming one of the major urban centers in the country because people are moving downtown.”
New projects include the 1,000-room Dallas Convention Center Hotel, projected to open in 2011, and the multivenue Dallas Center for the Performing Arts, scheduled for a fall debut. With a new opera house, theater and outdoor entertainment, among other venues, it will be one of the largest such complexes in the country.
“Investments are also being made in green space,” Jones adds, “including the Katy Trail, the Victory Park area and the new Trinity River Corridor Project with shopping, restaurants and outdoor activities [such as] kayaking, white-water rafting, hiking, biking and equestrian trails.”
Meeting planners seeking a true Western feel for their delegates should take note: Fort Worth is the place to meet. North of downtown, for example, is the Stockyards National Historic District, with gas-lit cobblestone streets and looking very much like it did a century ago. It’s home to the 2,300-seat Cowtown Coliseum, where the world’s first indoor rodeo was held in 1918 and where weekly rodeos continue. Cowboy heritage comes alive even more with the Fort Worth Herd, the world’s only daily cattle drive down Exchange Avenue, and with the Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Not far from downtown’s Cattle Raisers Museum is the lively 35-block Sundance Square entertainment district with its crowded bars and sidewalk cafes—once a gathering spot for cowboys, outlaws and rustlers. Downtown is also home to the Fort Worth Convention Center with more than 253,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space. The facility, which recently underwent a $75-million expansion and renovation, has 41 breakout rooms, a 28,000-square-foot ballroom and a 10,500-seat arena. The adjacent Fort Worth Water Gardens connects to the convention center’s plaza for outdoor gatherings.
As you’d expect, the city has a wealth of meetings worthy properties. The convention center’s headquarters hotel is the recently opened Omni Fort Worth with 614 guest rooms and nearly 68,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. The Sheraton Fort Worth Hotel and Spa is less than a block from the Center and has 431 guest rooms and 22,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. The Embassy Suites Hotel Fort Worth-Downtown offers 156 two-room suites along with meeting space ideal for smaller events. Other hotels include the 294-room Hilton Fort Worth and 504-room The Worthington, a Renaissance Hotel, both recently renovated.
What many visitors may not know is that Fort Worth has some of the best museums and culture in the Southwest. Downtown’s Bass Performance Hall hosts the city’s ballet, opera and symphony. To the west is the Cultural District, home to the Kimbell Art Museum, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. Two others fitting the “Cowtown” theme are the National Cowgirl Museum & Hall of Fame and the Amon Carter Museum with its artwork of life on the cattle trails.
The Will Rogers Memorial Center, also in the Cultural District, includes 100,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space, a 5,652-seat coliseum and 2,856-seat theater, plus an equestrian center with a 1,946-seat arena.
Home to the Six Flags Over Texas amusement park and Rangers Ballpark, Arlington has been in the national spotlight of late with the announcement that its newly opened Dallas Cowboys Stadium will host Superbowl XLV in early 2011 (thus, meeting planners should book early for a meeting during that time!). The Arlington Convention Center has 48,600 sq. ft. of column-free space and seating for 5,000 theater-style or 2,800 in a banquet format. The center’s Grand Hall features 30,000 sq. ft. of divisible, column-free space with flexible stage capabilities. There are also more than 10,000 sq. ft. of indoor pre-function space and 12 smaller meeting rooms within an additional 8,500 sq. ft.
A sports-minded crowd might enjoy meeting in Cowboy Stadium’s two Main Concourse clubs or two Silver Level clubs, each accomodating up to 2,500 and 700 guests respectively. Rangers Ballpark’s Diamond Club has 17,000 sq. ft., while the Legends of the Game Museum has 24,000. Hotel meeting space, meanwhile, includes 26,000 sq. ft. at the recently renovated Sheraton; 11,000 at the Hilton; 5,300 at the Crowne Plaza; and 5,000 at the newly opened Holiday Inn.
Irving has its own set of meeting possibilities. With 12 full-service meeting hotels, it offers more than 200,000 sq. ft. of meeting space within a lineup that includes such brands as Omni, Four Seasons, Westin, Marriott, Hilton and Sheraton—all within a 15-minute drive of the airport. But come late 2010, that number will grow markedly with the opening of the new Irving Convention Center at Las Colinas. The new facility will offer groups close to 100,000 sq. ft. of exhibit, conference and event space.
For those seeking a unique meeting site, the National Scouting Museum, with its Norman Rockwell Art Gallery, has space for up to 175 seated, and the Irving Arts Center, which can accommodate 90 seated in its meeting rooms and 253 and 707 people respectively in two state-of-the-art theaters.
This vibrant North Texas city, located about 30 minutes from downtown Dallas and DFW Airport, is perhaps best known as being home to Southfork Ranch, made popular by the long-running television series Dallas. It so happens that Southfork and its sister property, the Southfork Hotel are both available for meetings and events. The ranch features more than 63,000 sq. ft. of indoor space, with 10 ballrooms and sprawling Texas ranchland for guided tours, private parties and other events. The 279-room Southfork Hotel has more than 17,000 sq. ft. of event and meeting space with a ballroom and 11 meeting rooms.
Other venues include the beautifully landscaped Plano Centre, accommodating up to 5,000 people. Within its more than 33,000 sq. ft. are a 21,600- square-foot carpeted, column-free exhibit hall and 17 breakout rooms. The Marriott Dallas/Plano at Legacy Town Center has a total of 30,000 sq. ft. of meeting space with 20 meeting rooms, a 96-seat amphitheater and a 14,000-square-foot ballroom that divides into five sections.
Don’t-miss attractions in Plano include downtown’s Interurban Railway Museum and the nearby Heritage Farmstead, a four-acre museum showcasing early 1920s prosperity.
San Antonio is perhaps the state’s most atmospheric city, with its strong Tejano culture and touch of German tradition from early settlers. It’s also well known for the historic Alamo and the fierce 1836 battle there that eventually put the city on the map. But for meeting planners, it’s the lure of the city’s River Walk promenade, dotted with towering hotels, a variety of restaurants and stores and boutiques, that makes the nation’s seventh-largest city such a hotspot.
“One of the most crucial things you look at in a destination is walkability,” says Ronnie Price, assistant executive director of sales and marketing of the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The downtown, with the River Walk, hotels and meeting space, the convention center, restaurants and shopping, is all in one small footprint.”
Adjacent to the 750-foot free-standing Tower of the Americas and the Institute of Texan Cultures museum, the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center sits at one end of the River Walk and conveniently near 12,500 downtown hotel rooms. “Delegates can take a river boat from their hotel to the convention center or walk along the River Walk,” Price adds. The center features more than 600,000 sq. ft. of meeting space (440,000 of that as a contiguous exhibition area), a 40,000-square-foot grand ballroom and the 2,521-seat Lila Cockrell Theatre for the Performing Arts.
With 1,003 guest rooms, the recently opened Grand Hyatt San Antonio is located next to the convention center and features more than 115,000 sq. ft. of its own meeting space, including two ballrooms and 29 breakout rooms. Overlooking the Rivercenter Mall, the San Antonio Marriott Rivercenter has 1,001 guest rooms and suites, and 60,000 sq. ft. of space within 36 meeting rooms. For smaller meetings, and along a quieter stretch of the River Walk, the 338-room Omni La Mansión Del Rio offers 18,780 sq. ft. of event space in more than a dozen rooms, including two ballrooms and an executive boardroom.
Another option for meeting planners is the nearby Texas Hill Country. “We have a wonderful downtown, but what a lot of people don’t know is that the Hill Country is the same distance from the airport,” Price says. The JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa, with 1,002 rooms, 140,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and two TPC golf courses, is scheduled to open in February 2010. “The Hill Country has wonderful resorts, wineries and vineyards, antiquing, incredible golf and soft adventures like canoeing and kayaking for delegates to enjoy at the end of their meetings,” Price adds.
The popular slogans, “Keep Austin Weird” and “The Live Music Capital of the World,” have helped foster the Texas capital’s image as one of the hippest cities in the nation. Home to the syndicated musical performance show Austin City Limits, bands rock clubs on downtown’s Sixth Street seven nights a week playing everything from blues and jazz to country and reggae. Austin is an environmentally and recreation-minded community, where residents flock on a daily basis to the popular Lady Bird Lake’s (formerly Town Lake) jogging paths, tree-lined Zilker Metropolitan Park and the spring-fed Barton Springs swimming pool.
“Austin is a come-as-you-are experience. We have a great reputation,” says Rob Hampton, vice president of sales with the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau. “People think of Austin as being a unique and fun city, but a lot of meeting planners don’t realize we have meeting infrastructure in place.”
That infrastructure includes the Austin Convention Center, encompassing 374,255 sq. ft. of meeting space. It’s within walking distance to many of the 5,500 rooms of downtown’s major chain hotels, most of which have excellent meeting and banquet rooms of their own. Convention center space includes five adjacent exhibit halls amounting to 246,097 sq. ft., a 43,000-square-foot grand ballroom and 55,000 sq. ft. of meeting rooms and offices. On the edge of downtown is the 131,000-square-foot, two-level Palmer Events Center with 70,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space and splendid views of downtown and Lady Bird Lake.
Just north of the State Capitol Building, and on the edge of the University of Texas campus, sits Austin’s newest meeting facility, the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center with 40,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and 297 guest rooms. Meeting participants may want to visit the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum and the Blanton Museum of Art during downtime, both just a block or two away.
To capture the feel of Austin’s renowned music scene, Maggie Mae’s is ideal for evening receptions and parties within its more than 14,000 sq. ft. of space. Located in one of Sixth Street’s renovated 19th-century buildings, this music venue features a gas-lit courtyard, downstairs pub and live-music club room, plus Sixth Street’s largest rooftop deck, with 4,500 sq. ft. of event space and views of the downtown.
Like San Antonio, Austin is also close to the Texas Hill Country. Forty-five minutes away is the Horseshoe Bay Resort, which encompasses 117 suites and villas, 50 luxury lakefront condominiums, the 385-room Horseshoe Bay Resort Marriott Hotel, three golf courses and even its own airport. The Marriott offers 50,000 sq. ft. of event space in 31 meeting rooms.
Two prominent sights stand out in the heart of this breezy city along the Gulf of Mexico: the Texas State Aquarium and the USS Lexington Museum, with some of the state’s most unique meeting facilities. Planners can schedule their events aboard the USS Lexington, a massive WWII aircraft carrier whose hangar deck has more than 40,000 sq. ft. of event space to accommodate groups of 10 to 2,600. With a backdrop of aquatic life, the State Aquarium hosts smaller meetings, as does the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History, featuring re-creations of the ships that Columbus sailed to the New World.
For large meetings and trade shows, the American Bank Center is the city’s convention center, with more than 500,000 sq. ft. for hosting up to 7,000 attendees. The facility includes a 76,500-square-foot exhibit hall, 22 meeting rooms, a 20,000-square-foot ballroom and the 2,526-seat Selena Auditorium. Located on the Port of Corpus Christi Ship Channel, the Ortiz International Center is adjacent to the American Bank Center and has a banquet hall with an outdoor plaza and meeting rooms ranging from 580 to 16,500 sq. ft.
A thin strip of an island and a one-time thriving port city, Galveston is now the beach getaway for residents of Houston 50 miles to the northwest. It’s also the embarkation point for major cruise lines, and with several large, high-end properties, is a popular setting for seaside meetings and events. Besides wide sandy beaches, Galveston’s history is what makes a meeting here stand out. Some of the oldest buildings in Texas—those that survived the Great Storm of 1900—can be viewed in a tour of the city’s historic Victorian homes. Or stroll along The Strand, where many of the shops and restaurants are housed in buildings from the 19th and early 20th century when it was known as the Wall Street of the South.
Galveston has several notable properties that also have historical significance. The Tremont House, a Wyndham historical hotel that reopened in June after a complete restoration from damages caused by 2008’s Hurricane Ike, features a hand-carved rosewood bar from 1872, period reproductions of furnishings, 11-foot windows in its 119 guest rooms and 12,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. The Hotel Galvez is another Wyndham historical hotel, built in the Spanish Colonial style in 1911, and offers a beach-front locale, 224 guest rooms and 14,025 sq. ft. of meeting space. Two of the largest meetings hotels on the island are The San Luis Resort, Spa & Conference Center, with 244 guest rooms and 40,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, and the Moody Gardens Hotel, Spa and Convention Center, which offers 428 guest rooms and more than 100,000 sq. ft. of meeting and event space.
Gateway to the dramatic mountains and parched desert of lower West Texas, El Paso is located along the legendary Rio Grande. The downtown and surrounding neighborhoods are nestled between the Mexican border and the Franklin Mountains, where the Wyler Aerial Tramway whisks visitors up the 5,632-foot Ranger Peak, with views stretching into bordering New Mexico and Juarez City.
Located downtown is the city’s main meeting facility, the Judson F. Williams Convention Center, with 80,000 sq. ft. of total exhibition space, 17 meeting rooms and banquet seating to accommodate up to 5,300 people. Adjacent to the convention center is the 2,500 seat Abraham Chavez Theater and the nearby Plaza Theatre, which seats 2,000. A unique venue, the McKelligon Canyon Amphitheater is five miles away and holds up to 1,500.
Within the Permian Basin Oil Field—the second largest in the world—the Midland-Odessa Metroplex remains one of the state’s largest oil hubs. Both Presidents Bush lived in both cities while George H.W. developed his oil business. The George W. Bush Childhood Home is in Midland, a modern and vibrant sky-lined city, as is The Petroleum Museum, where the story of West Texas oil comes alive.
Meeting venues include the Midland Center with 12,500 sq. ft. of column-free exhibit space in its Exhibit Hall, accommodating up to 900 people for banquets and 1,200 for seminars or concerts. Larger venues include the Ector County Coliseum with its 158,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, horse arena and 7,000-seat theater, and the West Texas Event Center, with a total of 20,000 sq. ft. within 9 meeting rooms. For a small gathering, the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum can accommodate up to 250 people in its Rotunda and 500 for total buyouts.
Located midway between the downtown and airport, the Clarion Hotel & Conference Center has 25,300 sq. ft. of meeting space within a combination of ballrooms and boardrooms, including an expansive convention center with 15,000 sq. ft.
This West Texas city’s most notable institution is colossal Texas Tech University, not surprisingly home to a few popular meeting venues. The United Spirit Arena has 15,000 seats and hosts Texas Tech basketball and volleyball, concerts and exhibitions as well as corporate meetings. The concourse spans 81,000 sq. ft., while the arena floor has 31,900 sq. ft. The arena’s meeting facilities include the City Bank Conference Center, which can be divided into four meeting rooms, and the Stadium Club and Suite Level I Lounge at Jones AT&T Stadium. The City Bank Auditorium and Coliseum seat 2,803 and 8,304 people respectively, both under the same roof.
For large meetings, conventions and trade shows, the downtown Lubbock Memorial Civic Center offers 300,000 sq. ft. of versatile meeting space. Its exhibit hall features 40,000 sq. ft. of column-free floor space; there’s also a 1,377-seat theater, a 28,000-square foot pedestrian mall, a 14,105-square-foot banquet hall and 12 meeting rooms. Lodging options include the newly opened Overton Hotel and Conference Center, which has 303 guest rooms and nearly 20,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space, including a 11,250-square-foot column-free ballroom.
The state’s northernmost larger city, Amarillo sits smack in the middle of the Texas Panhandle. One of its most unique attractions is the famed Cadillac Ranch art exhibit of half buried cars just outside the city. But the area’s true Western feel comes alive with the Big Texan Steak Ranch and the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame and Museum, for example, and with the many farming, ranching and equine events held at the Tri-State Expo Complex. The facility has a 160,000-square-foot event center that can seat up to 10,000 people and two large exhibit buildings, among other features.
For conventions, the 340,000-square-foot Civic Center includes a coliseum, two exhibit halls and an auditorium with 2,324 seats, and ballrooms for banquets and meetings. Among Amarillo’s accommodations are the Ambassador Hotel with 265 guest rooms and eight meeting rooms and the Holiday Inn Amarillo, which has 248 guest rooms and meeting rooms with nearly 4,900 sq. ft.
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.