North Texas' cities offer a huge array of meeting venues
If you’ve only switched planes here, Dallas/Fort Worth is just an airport, a sprawling transfer point plopped down somewhere on the Texas plains.
But leave D/FW (which is bigger than the island of Manhattan, by the way), and you’ll find a diverse and welcoming metropolitan area. It’s a place with cutting-edge architecture, world-class museums, giant honky tonks, professional sports and plenty of shopping.
The region of six million residents has Texas bravado in bunches, but it’s also a friendly place. Each of its communities has its own identity. No one says they’re from Dallas-Fort Worth. But they’ll love to tell you about their hometown, be it Dallas, Fort Worth, Arlington, Frisco, Grapevine, Irving or Plano. The cities all cater to meetings large and small, and offer an array of hotels and venues—some of the best in the country, they’ll tell you. Modesty, you see, isn’t a Texas trait. But the enthusiasm’s contagious. You’ll quickly become the area’s biggest fan.
First-time Dallas visitors sense the city’s energy from the moment they catch sight of its gleaming skyline. And Big D continues to grow in big ways. The city just inaugurated a stunning performing arts center, and recently welcomed new luxury hotels, including The Ritz-Carlton Dallas.
There’s a reason the city ranks high for conventions. “Dallas is a respected business destination,” says Phillip Jones, president and CEO of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Meeting planners and their attendees don’t have to justify to their management why they should attend a convention here.”
Some of the nation’s largest gatherings are drawn to the Dallas Convention Center, with more than 1 million square feet of space, and the world’s largest column-free exhibit hall. A few minutes away, the American Airlines Center, home to the NBA Mavericks and the NHL Stars, can host groups of 12 to 20,000. The arena’s flexible space includes luxury suites and conference rooms. Also nearby, Dallas Market Center, the world’s largest wholesale marketplace, includes Dallas Market Hall, with 200,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space.
Lounge at The Westin Stonebriar Resort.
Guests have an array of lodging choices. The Hilton Anatole, with 1,606 rooms and 344,638 sq. ft. of exhibit space, is a city unto itself. Its Chantilly ballroom can host receptions for 3,264. The glittering 28-story Hyatt Regency Dallas at Reunion is within walking distance of the convention center, and offers 1,122 rooms and 160,000 sq. ft. for meetings. And the Sheraton Dallas, Texas’ largest hotel, clocks in at 1,840 rooms and 230,000 sq. ft. of space.
As you’d expect from the city that invented the frozen margarita machine, Dallas likes to party. Cheryl White, of the International Facility Management Association, says her 5,200 delegates still rave about the opening reception in 2008 at Gilley’s, a Western-themed nightclub with 65,000 sq. ft. of event space. “Our attendees loved, loved, loved it. It has kind of set the bar for other meetings.”
The Dallas World Aquarium’s another surprising downtown venue, where guests can sip cocktails and watch manatees and penguins at play. And for an only-in-Texas locale, nothing beats the landmark Hall of State in Fair Park. This is where the city once feted Queen Elizabeth—and if it’s appropriate for royalty, it’s sure to please everyone else.
Although Fort Worth says it’s where the West begins, you won’t find many empty vistas and lonely cowboys. Instead, the city’s urban core is buzzing, having recently doubled the number of downtown hotel rooms and added 1,500 new restaurant seats. Of course, you can still get a Wild West fix in the Stockyards National Historic District, and at places like the Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame.
It all makes an appealing package for meeting planners, says David DuBois, CMP, CAE, president and CEO of the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Our safe, walkable downtown, exciting entertainment, restaurants and attractions, and welcoming atmosphere continue to enhance Fort Worth’s reputation as one of the premier meeting destinations in the nation.”
The action centers on the Fort Worth Convention Center, which recently underwent a $75-million expansion. It includes 253,226 sq. ft. of exhibit space with 41 breakout rooms, a 28,160-square-foot ballroom, and a 13,500-seat arena. “The convention center was awesome,” says Beth Shipley of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which brought in about 1,500 members last spring. Adjacent hotels were extremely convenient, she says. And during downtime, attendees loved the city’s attractions. “They have tons of museums that cater to that Western motif.”
Other popular meeting sites include the Will Rogers Memorial Center with a 100,000-square-foot exhibit hall. For local flavor, try the Cowtown Coliseum, a 2,300-seat rodeo arena in the Stockyards district.
Most guests will want to base downtown near Sundance Square, a 35-block area with restaurants, shopping, theaters and the Bass Performance Hall, named one of the top 10 opera houses in the world. The most convenient hotel is the new Omni Fort Worth, a 614-room convention center headquarters hotel with 68,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Also new downtown, the 430-room Sheraton Fort Worth Hotel and Spa is just a block from the convention center, and offers 22,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
Terrace at the Sheraton Dallas.
But Fort Worth really shines after the last PowerPoint of the day. Billy Bob’s, which calls itself the world’s largest honky tonk, can handle groups up to 5,000. For an unexpected venue, consider the glittering Texas & Pacific Railroad Terminal. Visitors love the grand lobby with marble floors, intricate inlay ceilings and Zigzag Moderne designs.
Positioned like a referee separating two towering athletes, Arlington stands directly between Dallas and Fort Worth. But don’t overlook the city of 370,000. The entire metropolitan area comes to Arlington for entertainment, and so do many meetings.
The city recently made headlines with the opening of the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium, a billion-dollar, modern-day Roman coliseum, which will host Super Bowl XLV in 2011. It’s also home to the Ballpark in Arlington, a nostalgic brick baseball field that’s home to the Texas Rangers.
“Arlington is a destination with the perfect combination of value and exciting, new attractions,” says Jay Burress, president and CEO of the Arlington Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We can deliver a one-of-a-kind, memorable experience.”
Barry Bales, director of the Austin-based Governor’s Executive Development Program, agrees. “The city was great for a meeting with all the attractions they have.” He has twice hosted a group of 60 in Arlington. Last year, they took in a baseball game, and had a dinner event at the Old West-themed Trail Dust Steakhouse.
But the city’s not just fun and games. The Arlington Convention Center offers more than 78,000 sq. ft. of event space, including a 48,600-square-foot, column-free exhibit hall.
The city has 1,600 committable hotel rooms within three miles of the convention center. Options include the 311-room Sheraton Arlington with 21,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space, and the 308-room Hilton Arlington with nearly 11,000 sq. ft.
Not surprisingly, Arlington’s sports arenas make for memorable events. It’s hard to top a reception in the Cowboys locker room, where appearances by Cowboy players or cheerleaders can be arranged. In total, Cowboys Stadium can host groups of up to 2,500 in its concourse clubs. The Rangers Ballpark in Arlington can handle up to 1,000 guests, while the adjacent Legends of the Game Baseball Museum will hold 1,200.
Event set-up at the Grand Hyatt DFW.
Back in the 19th century, pioneers passed through Frisco as they followed the Shawnee Trail in search of buffalo. Now, visitors arrive on the Dallas North Tollway eager to shop. Not only do upscale malls lure travelers, but stores like mammoth Scandinavian furniture retailer Ikea and discount importer Sam Moon Trading Company pull in bargain hunters from across the metro area.
The city, located 25 miles north of downtown Dallas, also offers golf, spas, professional sports, resorts and ample meeting space. It’s a formula that works.
“Planners are looking for great rates and deals, without compromising on the quality,” explains Marla Roe, executive director of the Frisco Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Frisco provides upscale hotels, first-class meeting space and the second-largest ballroom in Texas.”
Indeed, many meetings come for the Frisco Conference Center, which has 90,000 sq. ft. of function space, including a ballroom that can hold 4,200 guests. It’s attached to a 330-room Embassy Suites hotel, one of only six Embassy Suites in the world to carry AAA’s Four-Diamond award. The adjacent Dr Pepper Arena serves as a practice site for the NHL Dallas Stars. It seats 5,100, and the ice can be covered to create 17,000 sq. ft. of meeting and event space.
Frisco’s other Four-Diamond hotel, the 301-room Westin Stonebriar Resort, offers 24,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. It has a Tom Fazio-designed golf course and in-room spa services.
When the last breakout session ends, the fun really starts in Frisco. Many gravitate to Dr Pepper Ballpark, home to a AA minor league baseball team. The park seats 8,800 and includes 27 luxury suites. If soccer’s more your style, nearby Pizza Hut Park hosts FC Dallas, a major league team. The 20,000-seat stadium has a 6,500-square-foot stadium club for private events or VIP seating.
All this keeps planners coming back. Matt Markins, director of the D6 Conference, a 1,400-delegate religious gathering, says the city easily won his group over. “It was love at first sight. The family-friendly community, shops, restaurants and plush surroundings make it an ideal location.”
No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. Those were vineyards you saw as your plane landed at D/FW. The town of Grapevine is home to more than a half-dozen wineries, including tasting rooms inside the airport’s A and D terminals. And that’s not all this surprising city has to offer.
There’s a large-as-life Alamo inside a hotel, an indoor waterpark and the 1.6-million-square-foot Grapevine Mills, a mall that’s a tourist destination itself. Some travelers switching planes at D/FW pop over to check out the markdowns at Neiman Marcus Last Call Clearance Center.
But the city’s clearly focused on business. “Grapevine is the premier meetings destination in the Dallas/Fort Worth area,” says Paul W. McCallum, executive director of the Grapevine Convention and Visitors Bureau.
It’s an ambitious claim for a city of 50,000, but consider the offerings. The Gaylord Texan with 400,000 sq. ft. of meeting space would stand out in any market. Its Longhorn exhibit hall covers 180,000 sq. ft., and it has 70 conference and meeting rooms. (Plus, don’t forget its Alamo replica.) Lydia Janow says the hotel was perfect for her 6,000-delegate Aviation Week MRO meeting last year. “It’s all one-stop shopping under one roof. It’s close by the airport. And the Europeans who come over are fascinated by it. There’s so much right there.”
There are even meeting options at the airport. The Hyatt Regency DFW and the Grand Hyatt DFW, offer 92,000 and 34,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, respectively.
But it would be a shame to miss Grapevine itself. Receptions at Delaney Vineyards showcase a French-style chateau overlooking a 10-acre vineyard. For an adventurous outing, there’s the Great Wolf Lodge. The hotel has 10,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, and nearly 100,000 sq. ft. of entertainment, with a dozen waterslides and indoor waterfalls.
Irving has a prime location, halfway between downtown Dallas and D/FW Airport. The convenience has fueled the growth of the Las Colinas area, home to corporate offices and upscale homes. The city also has more than 11,000 hotel rooms and more than 200,000 sq. ft. of hotel meeting space. And with a new convention center about to open, you’ll soon be hearing plenty more.
Maura Gast, executive director of the Irving Convention and Visitors Bureau, says her city’s strengths are access, convenience, efficiency and service. “Easy access to and through Dallas/Fort Worth [Airport],” she explains. “The convenience of everything you need being right here or very near. The efficiency of a city truly built for business, applied to groups large and small.”
Guest room at the Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas.
That’s why the USA Rice Federation meets in Irving. The airport’s convenient for its far-flung members, says Jeanette Davis, the federation’s director of meetings. “It works really well for us.”
Until the new $133-million convention center opens in late 2010, planners will focus on hotels. But what an array!
The Four Seasons Resort and Club, one of the country’s top-rated golf resorts, offers 30 meeting rooms and an 8,000-square-foot ballroom. Seven conference rooms have access to private balconies and a garden terrace. Between sessions, guests will be torn between the spa and a TPC golf course. Meanwhile, Irving’s biggest meetings head to the Omni Mandalay Hotel at Las Colinas, which can accommodate receptions of up to 2,000. It has 31,000 sq. ft. of space, including a 10,650-square-foot ballroom.
There’s no need to leave Irving for evening events. The Studios at Las Colinas offers a touch of Hollywood with tours and shows in its two massive sound stages, which were used for filming Silkwood and JFK, among others. Others do a good turn at the National Scouting Museum in the Boy Scouts of America headquarters. It has virtual-reality exhibits, the world’s largest collection of Norman Rockwell scouting paintings and banquet halls.
Once a little suburb north of Dallas, Plano has long since come into its own. The city of 265,000 is home to JC Penney, Frito-Lay and other corporate giants. A light rail line connects the city to Dallas, and has sparked redevelopment in a historic downtown.
All this makes the city a natural stop for meetings and conventions.
“We understand that the meetings industry is operating in challenging times,” says Mark Thompson, executive director of the Plano Convention & Visitors Bureau. He says his team helps planners with support staff and booking incentives for first-time clients. “Our goal is to make it easier to do business in Plano.”
Groups large and small are drawn to the 86,400-square-foot Plano Centre. The facility offers 21,600 sq. ft. of column-free exhibit space and 17 break-out rooms. For a taste of Texas and TV nostalgia, visitors love Southfork Ranch Event & Conference Center, home to the always-feuding Ewing family of the Dallas television show. Touted as a place “to mix boots with business,” it offers 64,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including a 26,500-square-foot ballroom.
Plano’s Hot-Air Balloon Festival.
On the west side of town, the 404-room Dallas/Plano Marriott at Legacy Town Center is adjacent to the high-end Shops at Legacy. It sports 20 meeting rooms, totaling 32,000 sq. ft. Guests leave impressed, says Kathy Bridwell, who held the recent Southwest Supply Management Conference there for 200 guests. “We chose the Plano location based on accessibility, the convenience of the shops and restaurants of Legacy Town Center, the nearby golf course, and the attractiveness of the hotel and surroundings.”
After hours, consider an event at the Angelika Film Center & Café. The stylish arts theater glows like a glass box, and features bamboo, marble and stainless steel décor set off by a crystal chandelier accented with blue neon. Even guests who don’t come for cutting-edge cinema will find it perfect for a reception.
Larry Bleiberg is former travel editor of The Dallas Morning News.
For more information on properties, venues and attractions in Dallas, visit smartmeetings.com/showcases/dallas.