It’s no secret that Texas is big. In fact, most of the Atlantic seaboard could fit inside its boundaries. But this is good news for meeting planners—it means more options. “Our hotel rates and food and beverage charges are competitive, and our central location is convenient for companies that fly in delegates from both coasts—or internationally,” says Dean Conwell of the Texas Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus
Among the state’s metro areas, the Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth regions consistently draw the bulk of convention business, as both have large international airports, venues of virtually all sizes and styles and more post-meeting entertainment and team-building options. But don’t overlook the state’s other population centers, as you’ll find equally enticing venues and a change of scenery. “San Antonio and Austin are both stunning cities—visually and culturally. Both have recently upgraded their convention centers and increased the number of hotel rooms within walking distance of them,” Conwell says.
Here’s a look at what to expect when considering the major regions of the Lone Star State for your next program.
Omni Dallas at Park West lobby
DALLAS/FORT WORTH METROPLEX
The Metroplex, an area comprised of Dallas, Fort Worth and a handful of suburbs, offers maximum variety in terms of location and flexibility. Dallas proper packs more southern glam than it does yee-haw, whereas Fort Worth holds tight to its Old West roots. Venture to the outlying communities for a little more of the wide-open space that Texas touts.
The Dallas Convention Center is one of the largest in the country, with more than 1 million sq. ft. of conference and meeting space, including a 203,000-square-foot exhibit hall. Plans are on track to complete the 23-story, 1,000-room Omni Dallas Convention Center Hotel in late 2011. It will be the first to link to the convention center (via skybridge), and the hotel itself will have 110,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space.
Other mega-venues in Dallas include the American Airlines Center, home of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team. The venue can seat more than 20,000 at concerts and other center-staged events. The Dallas Market Center is a multiple-building complex with 500,000 sq. ft. of temporary exhibit space. Its 214,000-square-foot Market Hall is a popular venue for large-item or high-volume exhibitions and trade shows.
In the fall, Fair Park hosts the State Fair of Texas. Visitors come from all over to taste entries in its famous fried-food competition. The complex also has nearly 750,000 total sq. ft. of rentable facilities, including a substantial collection of 1930s Art Deco buildings.
There’s no shortage of Dallas hotels with on-site meeting rooms. The major chains are well represented downtown, and myriad boutique properties offer trendy alternatives. Consider also unique venues in the Dallas Arts District downtown. Several museums and other cultural venues in this neighborhood are within walking distance of one another. Among the newest is the AT&T Performing Arts Center, opened in 2009. Its facilities include the stunning Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House, which can seat 2,200 in the performance hall. The lively Las Colinas Business District, 10 miles from the airport, includes the 337-room Omni Dallas at Park West. The property features a 300-seat amphitheater and 17,000 sq. ft. of function space and provides a custom event information and reservation webpage.
Although separated from Dallas by only about 30 miles, Fort Worth might as well be 300 miles away because the vibe in Cowtown is totally different. It’s more relaxed, but there is no shortage of facilities that cater to the requirements of professional meetings and group events.
The Fort Worth Convention Center, located downtown, has 253,226 total sq. ft. of event space, including a 182,613-square-foot exhibit hall. Meeting rooms total 58,849 sq. ft. (ranging from 483–6,670).
Several venues in the Cultural District can serve as unique meeting spaces, including the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, which unveiled its new $80 million facility in 2009. Small functions can be held in Noble Planetarium, or you can rent out the entire museum. The Fort Worth Botanic Garden complex is home to 23 specialty garden areas, including a stunning Japanese Garden. The center has a 17,000-square-foot meeting facility with theater-style seating, plus several other smaller rooms. The Will Rogers Memorial Center, also in the neighborhood, is composed of a 100,000-square-foot exhibition center, a 5,600-seat coliseum, a 2,856-seat auditorium and an equestrian center with a 1,934-seat arena.
Fort Worth showcases its cowboy heritage at the Stockyards National Historic District, where attractions include the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame and a twice-daily longhorn cattle drive down the district’s main drag. Multiple event facilities are available, including the 2,300-seat Cowtown Coliseum. Another district favorite is the popular restaurant/honky-tonk Billy Bob’s Texas, where the showroom can accommodate events with seating for up to 1,900 people.
The city of Grapevine is conveniently located adjacent to the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Furthering its appeal is a charming downtown area, where historic Main Street offers restaurants, boutique shopping and the Grapevine Vintage Railroad (which offers limited service to and from Fort Worth’s Stockyards District). Grapevine is home to two mega-resorts: the Gaylord Texan Hotel & Conference Center, whose facilities include a 180,000-square-foot exhibit hall, plus 70 breakout rooms and other function space; and Great Wolf Lodge, which draws groups with families in tow thanks to an 80,000-square-foot indoor water park, kid-friendly hotel rooms and interactive games. It also has a new 20,000-square-foot conference center opened in 2009, and its 10 function rooms and outdoor areas can accommodate events for 10–600 people.
Neighboring Irving, located halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth, just opened the Irving Convention Center at Las Colinas. The multifunctional space includes a 50,000-square-foot exhibit hall, a 20,000-square-foot ballroom and 20,000 sq. ft. of breakout space.
The introduction of Cowboys Stadium in 2009 isn’t all that’s new in Arlington. Later this year, the city plans to unveil the College Park Center at the University of Texas at Arlington, a 218,000-square-foot facility designed to house university basketball, concerts and conferences.
Many visitors to Dallas plan a side trip to the suburb of Plano, an hour’s drive north or a straight shot on the Dallas Area Rapid Transit rail line, to see Southfork Ranch. The site served as the home of oil tycoon J.R. Ewing on the television series Dallas. The ranch offers daily tours, and large groups can use the Southfork Ranch Event & Conference Center, which accommodates groups of 10–2,000 people. Plano’s other big draw is the high-end outdoor retail and restaurant development on the west side called The Shops at Legacy. The city’s most popular convention hotel, Dallas/Plano Marriott at Legacy Town Center, is within walking distance and has 32,000 total sq. ft. in 24 meeting rooms.
Sports franchises based in Frisco, about 18 miles further north, have facilities that can handle large meetings or provide post-meeting entertainment. Private events can be held at Pizza Hut Park’s 6,500-square-foot Stadium Club and other smaller suites. The renovated Dr Pepper Arena, a practice site for the NHL Dallas Stars, can seat 5,100, and the ice rink can be covered to accommodate an additional 1,000. A more traditional venue, the Frisco Conference Center has 90,000 sq. ft. of event space, plus the conveniently-attached 330-room Embassy Suites Hotel, which houses a 41,760-square-foot ballroom—the second largest in the state.
Bill Winspear Opera House, Dallas
HOUSTON & THE UPPER GULF COAST
The Greater Houston Area has long served as a premier convention destination. Two major airports, year-round mild weather and a variety of upgraded hotels and other meeting facilities offer planners the essentials that help make an event go smoothly. Houston proper has innumerable options for conventions and pre- or post-function activities, but note the outlying communities, too, where a slower pace might be a better fit.
The behemoth George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown has 1.2 million sq. ft. of leasable space spread over 117 meeting rooms. The ground level’s 639,000 sq. ft. is its largest contiguous exhibit area. Attendees also have easy access to the 1,200-room Hilton Americas-Houston by way of two skywalks. Additional venues for private events can be found a couple of blocks from the convention center at Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros baseball team. Spaces can accommodate groups from 150–42,000. Likewise, the nearby Toyota Center, where the Houston Rockets basketball team plays, has rental spaces ranging from game-viewing suites to the entire arena floor. At Reliant Park, a 350-acre complex with multiple high-capacity venues, Reliant Center offers an exhibit hall of 706,213 sq. ft. that can be divided into 11 sections ranging from 40,000–168,000 sq. ft.
The Museum/Theater District offers planners many cultural venues with rentable facilities. The Wortham Center has two theater spaces, the Brown’s 2,405-seat hall and the Cullen’s 1,100-seat hall, plus a large foyer available for private events. Jones Hall has a 2,911-seat theater; a retractable ceiling allows the theater to be reconfigured for special events.
This master-planned suburb, located about 40 minutes north of downtown Houston, offers nearly 150,000 total sq. ft. of meeting space at venues around town. The Woodlands Waterway Marriott Hotel & Convention Center’s 27 meeting rooms offer a combined total of 70,000 sq. ft. The exhibit hall alone is 37,180 sq. ft. and can accommodate a maximum seating capacity of 4,900. The Woodlands Resort & Conference Center has 60,000 sq. ft. in 32 rooms.
GALVESTON & THE BAY AREA
The beach community of Galveston Island offers most of the amenities of any large city. The Galveston Island Convention Center at The San Luis Resort has 140,000 sq. ft. of total meeting space, including a 43,100-square-foot column-free exhibition hall. There are more than 700 adjacent hotel rooms, 246 of which are in the beachfront San Luis Hotel, that has its own 40,000 sq. ft. of meeting space in 22 rooms. The Moody Gardens Hotel, Spa & Convention Center is a resort with 428 guest rooms and 100,000 sq. ft. of combined meeting space, including a 60,000-square-foot barrier-free exhibit hall.
Two popular hotels for special events, both owned by the Mitchell Historic Properties group, are the Tremont House, A Wyndham Grand Hotel and Hotel Galvez & Spa. The Tremont offers approximately 14,000 sq. ft. of space spread over eight meeting rooms. The beachfront Hotel Galvez offers roughly 13,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, plus recently renovated guest rooms.
South Shore Harbour Resort in League City offers one of the Bay Area’s largest conference facilities, with 25,000 sq. ft. spread over 25 rooms. The 243-room Hilton Houston NASA Clear Lake has 17,000 total sq. ft. of meeting space in 17 rooms.
Gaylord Texan Hotel & Conference Center
THE HILL COUNTRY: AUSTIN, SAN ANTONIO & BEYOND
This sprawling, scenic area of Central Texas is a favored destination in spring, when the landscape is awash in vibrant bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush and other wildflowers. In comparison to the Dallas area, Hill Country is spacious and residents like a little slower pace. But don’t expect complete countryside—the area includes the major cities of Austin and San Antonio. Look to the smaller communities for pastoral vineyards, farms and other unique venues to consider for event space.
Austin bills itself as the Live Music Capital of the World, and visitors can find out why in any one of the 200-plus music venues in the downtown area. Home to some 50,000 University of Texas at Austin students, the city has a young vibe, though the revelry plays out mostly in the pub-lined Sixth Street entertainment district. The rest of the buzz in downtown comes from harried legislators and lobbyists handling business at the Texas State Capitol.
Large groups might look to the updated Austin Convention Center for its 374,255 sq. ft. of total meeting space. Five contiguous exhibit halls have 246,097 sq. ft., including a 43,300-square-foot grand ballroom. There is no shortage of nearby accommodations, including the Hilton Austin, the Sheraton Austin Hotel at the Capitol, the Four Seasons Hotel Austin and the brand-new W Austin. Austin offers more than 90 meeting hotels: The downtown area alone has 6,000 hotel rooms, and there are 30,000 citywide.
The 131,000-square-foot Palmer Events Center has 70,000 sq. ft. that can be divided into two halls, plus an upper level, with balcony views and 5,000 combined sq. ft. of meeting and pre-function space. The Travis County Exposition Center’s four facilities situated on 128 acres include a 20,000-square-foot banquet hall and the 10,000- square-foot Skyline Club, which offers a panoramic view of downtown Austin.
Head to the city’s outskirts for pristine resort properties that offer a relaxing place for small multiday conferences. A few to check out include the brand-new 70-room Travaasa, which overlooks Lake Travis and the Balcones Canyonland Natural Preserve. Travaasa has 15,700 total sq. ft. of flexible meeting space, plus such activities as culinary classes and outdoor adventures that can serve as team-building opportunities. Barton Creek Resort & Spa is likewise set in a scenic atmosphere and offers 43,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and a championship golf course. Lake Austin Spa Resort is a wellness-focused retreat with 40 cottage-style guest rooms, a 25,000-square-foot spa and 20 different daily fitness classes and activities. The property can customize itineraries for groups, and reserve cozy lakeside living rooms and libraries for private functions.
Lake Austin Spa Resort
The Alamo City is a colorful, festive metropolis. Explore the touristy River Walk entertainment district by water taxi to take in the beautiful stone bridges and lively waterfront cafes. In 2009, the city unveiled a 1.3-mile extension dubbed the Museum Reach Urban Segment. In this new portion, visitors can check out the San Antonio Museum of Art and the historic Pearl Brewery complex, which is an evolving community center featuring restaurants, boutiques and a Culinary Institute of America campus. Look forward to another River Walk extension in the next few years—a southern stretch that will link to the historic Mission Trail, where four of the nation’s oldest Spanish missions still stand. The first section is already open, giving access to Mission Concepción.
The four-level Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center on the River Walk has more than 630,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including 440,000 sq. ft. of contiguous exhibit space, three ballrooms and a 2,300-seat theater. The nearby Alamodome offers 160,000 total column-free exhibit space, plus 30,000 sq. ft. of conference space. The Alamodome’s Sports Club/Top of the Dome offers 5,000 sq. ft. of space with panoramic views of downtown.
Nearly 13,000 hotel rooms are in the downtown area, and 6,500 are within walking distance of the convention center. The Crowne Plaza Riverwalk, Grand Hyatt San Antonio, Hotel Contessa, Omni La Mansión del Rio, San Antonio Marriott Rivercenter and The Westin Riverwalk San Antonio are a few of the popular convention hotels. In the surrounding area, choices include several resort properties. The JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort and Spa, opened in 2010, has 1,002 guest rooms and 265,000 sq. ft. of meeting facilities, including a 40,500-square-foot ballroom. The 508-room Westin La Cantera Resort has 39,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
South Texas is a general term that encompasses a few geographic areas, the most dominant being the lower Gulf Coast and the Rio Grande Valley. Summers can be quite muggy, but the mild, balmy weather in other seasons provides favorable conditions for people seeking respite from harsh northern winters. The same goes for migratory birds, which take refuge at area nature preserves. Two small airports serve the area, Brownsville/South Padre Island International and Valley International, which is located in Harlingen.
South Padre Island is perhaps the most popular South Texas city. Renowned as a collegiate spring break destination, SPI attracts travelers year-round with nature attractions, water sports and relaxing beaches. Large groups can look to the South Padre Island Convention Centre, which has 45,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space, including a 22,500-square-foot exhibit hall. The new Hilton Garden Inn South Padre Island opened in July and has 12,000 sq. ft. of meeting facilities. Isla Grand Beach Resort has 10,000 sq. ft., and the Pearl South Padre (a former Sheraton) has 8,500.
In the city of Harlingen, Casa de Amistad hosts trade shows in its 13,000-square-foot convention hall. Rancho Viejo Resort has eight rental rooms including a 6,000-square-foot ballroom for up to 500 or 900 guests seated theater-style. Valley Race Park can accommodate events in its 80,000-square-foot grandstand, which includes three private function rooms; the Director’s Suite seats 60 guests and comes with a betting booth and private teller.
The World Birding Center is a network of nine nature facilities in the RGV that have become premier bird-watching destinations. Some properties have small rentable facilities that can serve as unique meeting venues. For example, Resaca de la Palma in Brownsville has a meeting room that can accommodate 40 people. The property itself offers walking trails and nature observation areas. Brownsville also offers the Brownsville Events Center, which has a ballroom that can accommodate 1,200 people theater-style or split into five classrooms.
The McAllen Convention Center opened in 2007. The 18.5-acre complex includes a 60,000-square-foot exhibit hall and 25,000 sq. ft. of other meeting space in four ballrooms and 16 breakout rooms. McAllen is home to another World Birding Center property, Quinta Mazatlan. An on-site 1930s adobe house can accommodate groups of up to 300 guests. Select rooms are available for rent during business hours, but the entire mansion is available after hours.
THE PANHANDLE & WEST TEXAS
Expansive prairies, ranchlands and desert separate the busy metro areas along Interstate 35 from the state’s western reaches. But over on this side, you will find several cities that roll out just as big a welcome mat.
Much of the Panhandle Plains territory is raw and rugged, which in part explains why in Amarillo you’ll find real cowboys—not folks who only don the hat on weekends for fun. Embrace that theme at the Amarillo National Center located on the Tri-State Fairgrounds. It is the largest facility in Amarillo for equine and livestock events, with 5,000 permanent seats and a multipurpose dirt arena. The 340,000-square-foot Amarillo Civic Center complex includes a 4,870-fixed-seat coliseum and 2,324-seat auditorium. The Pioneer Amphitheater at Palo Duro Canyon State Park, about a 20 minute drive from Amarillo in the city of Canyon, stages a popular summer musical about the state’s frontier days; in the off-season, the 1,600-seat theater is available for private rentals. Amarillo also recently opened the 89-room Courtyard by Marriott Amarillo in a historic downtown building with a 660-square-foot meeting room, and Holiday Inn Amarillo West Medical Center, which has nearly 9,000 sq. ft. of meeting facilities. This July, Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport opened a long-awaited new passenger terminal.
Lubbock, south of Amarillo, has roughly 4,800 hotel rooms citywide. Preston Smith International Airport serves the area. Options in Lubbock, home of Texas Tech University, include the Lubbock Memorial Civic Center’s 40,000-square-foot exhibit hall and a 14,105-square-foot banquet room. City Bank Auditorium & Coliseum can seat up to 2,803 in the auditorium and 6,904 in the coliseum.
El Paso’s key facilities are the Judson F. Williams Convention Center, which has 130,000 sq. ft. of meeting space including an 80,000-square-foot column-free exhibit hall; the Abraham Chavez Theatre, which can seat up to 2,500; the historic Plaza Theatre that can seat 2,000 in the main venue and 200 in an adjacent space; and the McKelligon Canyon Amphitheatre and Pavilion, which seats 1,503. The 272-room Wyndham El Paso Airport Hotel & Water Park also has 17,000 sq. ft. of space.
- Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS) is served by nonstop flights from nearly 37 major North American airports by most major airlines and sits just 7.5 miles or about 15 minutes from downtown.
- Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) is one of the top 10 airports in passenger volume and is served by 11 domestic and 6 international lines.
- El Paso International Airport (ELP) is the gateway to West Texas and is 6 miles east of downtown.
- Houston Intercontinental Airport (IAH) is 23 miles north of downtown and easily accessible from all major hubs with a full range of ground transportation options.
- Houston William P. Hobby Airport (HOU) handles a mix of international and regional carriers and also serves Freeport, Galena Park, Galveston and Pasadena. It’s located about 7 miles from Houston.
- Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport (AMA) is approximately 2 miles north of East I-40, and approximately 7 miles east of downtown.
San Antonio International Airport (SAT) is located about 8 miles north of downtown. It’s served by most major airlines and offers nonstops to many major hubs within the United States and Mexico.