Yoga class at Blanton Museum of Art , Austin
San Antonio and Austin boast a thriving, highly diverse arts scene
To many industry veterans, it seems like only yesterday that San Antonio and Austin were widely regarded as interesting alternative destinations, but somewhat limited in their appeal and a bit too remote for a major meeting.
My, how things have changed. The cities are now among the hottest meetings destinations in the United States, partly because they’ve been discovered and partly because they’ve greatly expanded and diversified their offerings.
“San Antonio is a cutting-edge, modern meetings destination that has evolved amid a city full of unforgettable attractions, history and culture,” says Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit San Antonio.
The two cities’ ever-increasing popularity as meetings destinations is due both to their appeal to visitors and their growing populations.
“Austin is a city where people not only want to visit, but live, making this a popular site for meetings and conventions,” says Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Since 2012, the number of meetings has doubled—from 429 in 2012 to 859 in 2017.”
The cities’ rise as meetings destinations is reflected in recent surveys. For instance, San Antonio topped the rankings and Austin placed fourth in The Best Cities for Conferences in the United States, a 2016 survey by SmartAsset, a personal finance technology company. Cities were evaluated on such factors as hotel room rates, meal costs, and concentration of dining and entertainment establishments.
Both cities offer outstanding lodging and meeting options. They also boast lively, culturally rich, multifaceted arts scenes. Here’s a look at some top artistic attractions in the cities and their appeal to groups.
The arts are a driving force in San Antonio, encompassing several cultural traditions and playing a major role in shaping its identity.
“Arts and culture have an unmistakable presence in San Antonio,” Matej says. “They are tightly woven into the fabric of our city. Drive anywhere in San Antonio, and you’ll find art and culture. From public art installations in parks and city libraries to colorful murals on the sides of buildings, poetry readings in coffee shops and music performance in local restaurants, the arts are embedded in our everyday lives.
“The vibrant arts scene offers residents and visitors opportunities to learn about, celebrate and preserve our rich history and diverse culture.”
The Alamo City features more than 25 museums, as well as art galleries, outdoor sculptures and other artwork.
The New Witte Museum, San Antonio
The Witte Museum, which opened in 1926, has been renamed The New Witte Museum after undergoing a major renovation and expansion that was unveiled in March. Located on the banks of the San Antonio River, the museum features plenty of exciting new exhibits, including Natural Beauty: Fiesta of Land, Water, and Sky, which celebrates the natural beauty of Texas, through Aug. 13.
Also, the museum houses more than 20,000 artifacts from ancient sites on The White Shaman Preserve, near Seminole Canyon State Park. Kittie West Nelson Ferguson People of the Pecos Gallery features images of rock art spanning nearly 4,000 years of artistic expression and visual narratives of ancient stories from the people of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands.
Meeting and event spaces are available for groups of up to 1,500 people. Several rental packages allow for both indoor and outdoor use, and the entire facility can be rented in the evenings for private events.
“It is a great place for people to immerse themselves in state history, from millions of years ago to the present,” Matej says.
Situated on the River Walk, San Antonio Museum of Modern Art houses the largest collection of ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman, and Asian art in the southern United States. It also has a significant collection of Latin American art, from Pre-Columbian times to the present, as well as notable Texas and regional art. Groups of 10 or more receive discounts on docent-led tours.
McNay Art Museum became the first modern art museum in Texas when it opened to the public in 1954. It now includes more than 20,000 works, including medieval and Renaissance art; 19th- through 21st-century European and American paintings, sculptures and photographs; Southwestern prints and drawings; the acclaimed Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts; Jeanne and Irving Mathews Collection of Art Glass; and New Mexico art.
Named for the late Texas Gov. Dolph Briscoe Jr. and his wife, Janey Slaughter Briscoe, the Briscoe Western Art Museum is located along the River Walk and features engaging exhibitions of art and artifacts, educational programs, and public events reflective of the region’s rich traditions and shared heritage. Special events, meetings and receptions can be arranged at Jack Guenther Pavilion, a visually striking indoor/outdoor area with a total of 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space on three floors.
Artpace was founded by the late Linda Pace—an artist, collector and businesswoman—who aspired for it to be a laboratory of dreams, providing artists from throughout the world with a stimulating environment that would encourage growth and experimentation. It’s widely known for its International Artist-in-Residence program, which each year invites nine artists to conceive and create pivotal art projects.
“Located in a converted 1920s automobile dealership, Artpace presents original works created by Texas, national and international artists during their residencies, along with contemporary art exhibits, lectures and other events,” Matej says.
Group tours are available in English and Spanish.
Tobin Center for the Performing Arts is a state-of-the-art, world-class facility that is home to San Antonio Symphony, Opera San Antonio and Ballet San Antonio. It features cutting-edge design, state-of-the-art acoustics, a flexible orchestra floor and excellent in-house catering. The center, located along the River Walk, offers unique spaces for private events for up to 3,000 guests.
Henry B. Gonzalez Convention
Center, San Antonio
The 2,319-seat Lila Cockrell Theatre is located in Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, which completed a major renovation last year. The center offers 514,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, more than 70 meeting rooms and two ballrooms, including the largest ballroom in Texas. The theater, named after a former San Antonio mayor, hosts symphonies, ballets, concerts and theatrical performances. It can be rented for meetings, presentations, concerts and lectures.
Arneson River Theater, San
Located along the River Walk, Arneson River Theater at La Villita is an ideal outdoor venue to watch dance and musical performances. It’s located in La Villita Historic Arts Village, consisting of art galleries, shops and fine-dining restaurants.
Jazz, TX, situated in the cellar of the Bottling House at historic Pearl Brewery, is one of San Antonio’s newest hot spots for live music. “It combines the class of an upscale jazz club with the grit of a traditional Texas dance hall,” Matej says, adding that it’s a popular spot for groups.
Stretched over a mile of midtown, North St. Mary’s Strip offers some 20 live music venues featuring a vast array of genres, including punk, EDM, hip-hop, soul, indie rock, swing and Southern rock.
Right in the heart of downtown at the corner of Commerce and St. Mary’s streets, Aztec Theatre is a cherished architectural and historical landmark as well as one of San Antonio’s main music venues. Considered by many as a Meso-American architectural work of art, the theater—which opened in 1926—features a dramatic combination of authentic columns, reliefs and artifacts. It can accommodate up to 3,000, and can be rented for private events.
Like Nashville, Austin is best known for its lively music scene, but it’s become a magnet for all types of imaginative, artistic people.
“Austin is known for its creativity, and for good reason,” says Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Not only are we home to some world-class museums like the Blanton Museum of Art, with the nation’s largest university-owned collection on exhibit, and the Harry Ransom Center, featuring the first photograph [on record] and Gutenberg Bible: We’re also home to plenty of artists.
“You can explore the work of designers, painters, sculptors, writers, photographers, filmmakers, dancers and musicians here—at any time of year, any day of the week, in a variety of venues.”
Blanton Museum of Art boasts a permanent collection of almost 18,000 works, and is known primarily for its European paintings, prints and drawings, as well as modern and contemporary American, and Latin American art. Group tours and several rental options are available, and a free yoga class is offered in the galleries on the third Thursday of every month.
Featuring extensive collections of literature, photography, film, art and the performing arts, Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin is an internationally renowned humanities research library and museum. Visitors can participate in a rich variety of program offerings, including exhibits, readings, talks, symposia and film screenings. Private group tours can be arranged.
George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center focuses on the collection, preservation, research and exhibition of African-American historical and cultural material. The museum is housed in a 36,000-square-foot facility that includes four galleries, a conference room, a dance studio, a theater and archival space. Group tours and facility rentals are available; seating for up to 134 is offered.
Bullock Texas State History Museum, Austin
Located downtown, Bullock Texas State History Museum is dedicated to telling “The Story of Texas.” This year, it is featuring special exhibitions about music icon and native Texan Stevie Ray Vaughan, and the phenomenon of music festivals. Customized group tours are available. The museum has several meeting spaces, including the Grand Lobby, which can accommodate up to 600 for receptions and 525 for seated events.
Mexic-Arte Museum, Austin
Mexic-Arte Museum focuses on the collection, preservation and presentation of traditional and contemporary Mexican, Latino, and Latin-American art and culture. The permanent collection consists of more than 1,500 works, and each year the museum acquires additional contemporary Latino art and integrates it with exhibition programming. The main and annex galleries on the first floor can accommodate 200 people standing and provide a visually stimulating environment for events.
The Contemporary Austin consists of two museums. At Laguna Gloria, a 14-acre site on Lake Austin, attendees can engage with art and the creative process at the Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park, Driscoll Villa, Gatehouse Gallery and the Art School.
The Jones Center, the museum’s downtown location on Congress Avenue, enables groups to engage with contemporary art in an urban environment. Interactive group tours are available, but should be booked at least two weeks in advance. Both sites also offer facility rentals.
Noonan notes that in addition to these and other museums, the works of Austin’s artists and others can be viewed in many other places.
“You can celebrate our eccentricity with the Cathedral of Junk, the Austin Car Parade and many more unusual displays around town,” he says. “Art isn’t just a tourist attraction here: It is part of Austin’s soul and creative spirit.”
Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Center, Austin
Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Center embraces local talent and art, with more than 80 percent of the performances featuring locals. It’s also an outstanding venue for group events, with Michael & Susan Dell Hall providing space for up to 2,442 people, and City Terrace featuring breathtaking views of downtown Austin and space for up to 2,000 guests.
The oldest continuously active theater company in Texas, Zach Theatre stages a wide variety of plays. One-hour tours of the theater proceed through lobby spaces, the auditorium, backstage area, dressing rooms and the actors’ green room. The theater complex includes several areas, among them a 6,400-square-foot plaza that can be rented for group events.
Austin City Limits Live at The Moody Theater, Austin
Austin City Limits Live at The Moody Theater (ACL Live) is a state-of-the-art music venue that hosts approximately 100 concerts a year. It serves as the permanent home for the taping of the acclaimed KLRU-TV produced PBS series Austin City Limits, the longest-running music series in American television history. It features several unique spaces that can be used for events, accommodating 2,030 reception-style, 740 banquet-style and 2,243 theater-style.
Since first opening on Sixth Street in 1975, Antone’s Nightclub has hosted B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and other blues legends. The legendary club has moved to the corner of Fifth and Lavaca streets, and remains Austin’s home of the blues. It has space for 650, and can be rented for private events.
In the 1970s, Stubb’s was a big player in the explosive Texas music scene. The Lubbock venue helped launch the careers of Joe Ely and Stevie Ray Vaughn, and featured such luminaries as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Robert Cray, George Thorogood, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Linda Ronstadt and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. The original venue is now closed, but the tradition continues at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q in Austin. Five spaces can be rented, providing room for 2,935 standing and 690 seated.
Owners James and Annetta White have been operating Broken Spoke since 1964, and it is world-renowned for great live country music and good Texas cooking. It has featured country stars including Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Tex Ritter and Willie Nelson, and continues to be Texas’ definitive dance hall. In fact, dance lessons are available Wednesday through Saturday nights. Broken Spoke can be rented for group events.
The Mohawk, a popular bar and music venue, opened in 2006 to host friends, musicians and staff representing all music tastes and walks of life. Touring up-and-coming and established musicians are featured nightly on stage—indoors, outdoors or both. The venue can be rented for special events.
The Continental Club, the self-proclaimed “granddaddy of all local music venues,” opened in 1955 as a swanky private supper club, but has become a mecca for roots, rockabilly, country, swing, rock and blues music every night of the week.
The Ultimate Fiesta
Cavaliers Parade at River Walk during Fiesta San Antonio
One of the most lively, colorful and unique festivals in the world, Fiesta San Antonio started in 1891, when local women decorated baby buggies, carriages and bicycles with flowers, met in front of the Alamo and threw the blossoms at each other.
It captured the public’s attention, and inspired an annual event, the Battle of the Flowers parade. Soon balls, private parties and a carnival were added, and the name of the event was successively changed to Carnival, Spring Carnival, Fiesta San Jacinto and Fiesta San Antonio.
It’s the city’s signature event, drawing more than 1 million people. San Antonio’s many rich, diverse cultures are celebrated through music, art, dance, food and drink. Activities are held throughout the city, but the focal point is the River Walk, where several boat and float parades take place.
Fiesta brings more than $284 million to San Antonio annually, and the funds raised by official Fiesta events provide services to local residents throughout the year.
Next year’s event, slated for April 19–29, should be particularly exciting because 2018 marks San Antonio’s tricentennial.
The Magic of SXSW
2016 SXSW Film Festival
Austin hosts major events year-round, including South by Southwest (SXSW), one of the largest global gatherings that celebrates the convergence of the music, film and interactive technology industries.
South by Southwest had humble beginnings, though. A small group of people in Austin began a series of discussions about the future of entertainment and media, and one of the main feelings they shared was that the local creative and musical communities were as talented as anywhere else on Earth, but were limited by a lack of exposure outside of Austin.
The group decided to create a global event that would focus primarily on music. The first SXSW, held in March 1987, attracted 700 people on the opening day. SXSW continued to steadily grow for the first seven years, and in 1994, it expanded to include film and interactive technologies.
The event has grown exponentially and changed in several ways over the years, but it remains a major entertainment attraction as well as a tool for creative people to develop their careers by meeting others, learning and sharing ideas.
More than 140,000 people attended the 2017 gathering, which brought more than $325 million to the city of Austin. The next SXSW will be held March 9–18, 2018.
Major Meeting Venues
AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center
Steps from the University of Texas at Austin and the Capitol building; LEED Gold-certified facility; The Carillon offers fine dining; 80,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, divided among 51 areas.
Austin Convention Center
Six-block facility in the heart of Austin; LEED Gold-certified building; 881,400 sq. ft. of space, including 246,000 sq. ft. of column-free exhibit space; seven ballrooms, 54 meeting rooms.
Four Seasons Hotel Austin
Near central business and entertainment districts; 291 guest rooms, including 28 suites, Trio restaurant features Texas grill favorites paired with wines; lounge; 18,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including 7,029-square-foot ballroom.
Hyatt Regency Austin
On the shores of Lady Bird Lake, overlooking Congress Bridge; AAA Four Diamond property; 448 guest rooms; boat tours and dinner cruises; 45,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort & Spa
Situated along the banks of the lower Colorado River, between Austin and Bastrop; adjacent to McKinley Roughs Nature Park; 491 guest rooms; outdoor activities include horseback riding and kayaking; 300,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor meeting space.
JW Marriott Austin
Luxury property located two blocks from Austin Convention Center; 1,012 guest rooms; three restaurants; rooftop pool and bar; 4,600-square-foot Spa by JW; more than 120,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including 30,000-square-foot JW Grand Ballroom.
Omni Austin Hotel Downtown
Near Austin Convention Center, Capitol Building and Sixth Street Entertainment District; 392 guest rooms; Ancho’s restaurant offers Southwestern cuisine; heated rooftop pool; fitness center; 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Omni Barton Creek Resort & Spa
Located in Texas Hill Country; 309 guest rooms; three restaurants; lounge; two expansive pool areas; 11,000-square-foot fitness center; four championship golf courses; 43,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Palmer Events Center
In 5-acre Butler Park; 131,000-square-foot facility; more than 100,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including 70,000-square-foot exhibit hall, five meeting rooms and two lobbies.
Renaissance Austin Hotel
Situated in picturesque Texas Hill Country; AAA Four Diamond luxury property; surrounded by nature trails; 463 guest rooms; dramatic nine-story atrium; fine dining at Knotty Deck & Bar; 65,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, divided among 24 rooms.
The Westin Austin at the Domain
AAA Four Diamond north Austin property located in the Domain, a shopping, dining and entertainment area; 341 guest rooms; spa; fitness studio; 17,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Grand Hyatt San Antonio
Steps from River Walk, Alamo and Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center; 1,003 guest rooms, with downtown views; heated rooftop pool; 115,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center
In the heart of downtown, on the banks of the River Walk; 514,000 sq. ft. of contiguous exhibit space; 86,500 sq. ft. of column-free multipurpose space; two ballrooms, with one offering 54,000 sq. ft., making it the largest in the state; 70 meeting rooms.
Hilton Palacio del Rio
Hacienda-style property on banks of the River Walk, steps away from convention center; 485 guest rooms; business center; four restaurants and bars; fitness center; pool; 27,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Hotel Valencia Riverwalk
Downtown boutique hotel; blends Spanish Colonial and Modern Mediterranean design with contemporary ideals; 213 elegant guest rooms; open-air courtyard; 7,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa
Nestled on 300 acres of the Rogers-Wiseman family ranch, 16 miles northwest of downtown; AAA Four Diamond property; 500 guest rooms; 5-acre water park; spa; luxury poolside cabanas; 27-hole golf course; more than 100,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Hyatt Regency San Antonio Riverwalk
Overlooks Alamo; 16-story atrium lobby; 629 guest rooms; Q Kitchen & Bar features slow-cooked favorites from around the world; poolside dining; 40,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space.
JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa
AAA Four Diamond property; 1,002 guest rooms; seven restaurants; Lantana spa; 9-acre water park with a lazy river ride; 36 holes of golf; 267,823 sq. ft. of meeting space, including 40,500-square-foot Grand Oaks Ballroom.
La Cantera Resort & Spa
Located at one of the highest points in San Antonio; 498 guest rooms; five pools; 36 holes of championship golf; 115,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including 17,088-square-foot San Antonio Grand Ballroom.
San Antonio Marriott Rivercenter
Downtown property, steps from River Walk; 1,001 guest rooms; Sazo’s Restaurant offers a blend of Southwestern and Mexican-Inspired fare; pool; 60,472 sq. ft. of meeting space.
San Antonio Marriott Riverwalk
Spacious property in the heart of downtown; 507 guest rooms; Cactus Flower Restaurant; fitness center; indoor/outdoor pool; 27,366 sq. ft. of meeting space, divided among 15 rooms.
The St. Anthony, a Luxury Collection Hotel, San Antonio
Luxury property located 1 1/2 blocks from the River Walk; National Historic Landmark; 277 guest rooms; six restaurants and bars; heated rooftop pool; 31,527 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor meeting space.
The Westin Riverwalk, San Antonio
473 guest rooms, including 65 suites; Zocca Cuisine d’Italia; business center; spa; fitness studio; outdoor heated pool; 26,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including 5,900-square-foot Navarro Ballroom and 3,100-square-foot Hidalgo Ballroom.