Gone to Texas
You’d be right if the usual suspects came to mind—cowboys, outlaws, Native Americans, oil barons, gridiron heroes—when someone mentions Texas. Their legacy lives on, but the state offers so much more. Diversity in heritage, culture, landscapes, lifestyles and business make the Lone Star State what it is today. While San Antonio and El Paso share Hispanic influence, they are separated by vast geography and different regional vibes. Beaumont and Galveston are located along the Gulf Coast, but the Cajun culture of the former is wholly unlike the mellowed grandeur of the latter. And the suburban sensibility of Plano is another world entirely. These disparate parts contribute equally to the hybrid glory of modern Texas.
Located on the Gulf Coast near the Louisiana border, Beaumont has a history linked to bayous and oil. In 1901 in nearby Spindletop, one of the world’s great oil discoveries transformed Beaumont from a small-but-significant timber and rice town into a boomtown that led the way for petroleum production in Texas. The legacy of that oil prosperity can be seen today in such grand structures as the Neoclassical McFaddin-Ward House or the historic structures that comprise the Crockett Street entertainment district.
A mid-sized city of about 100,000, Beaumont is experiencing a cultural boom again. Visitors come for its historic architecture, fine dining, lively nightlife and high concentration of quality museums—including the Texas Energy Museum, Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum, Fire Museum of Texas and the Art Museum of Southeast Texas. Cajun culture entices with spicy cuisine, high-energy Zydeco music and colorful festivals, while the great outdoors provides ample water-recreation adventures in gator country.
Beaumont’s largest conference facility is the Ford Park Event Center, which, on May 5, will be the site of the fourth annual LiveWell Women’s Conference sponsored by local Christus Hospital. The one-day conference attracts about 2,000 women, mostly from the region, though it now attracts people from Houston, Louisiana and beyond. That is sure to be the case this year with Hilary Swank as the keynote speaker and about 25 breakout sessions on topics ranging from leadership to health to financial management, spirituality and fashion. There will also be cooking demonstrations and a fitness arena with classes throughout the day.
Marketing and Events Coordinator Becky Howard has seen the conference grow from the start. The first year, the event was at the MCM Eleganté, which is still the host hotel. “Max attendance was going to be 500, but 600 attendees packed in,” Howard recalls. “The next year it was at the Beaumont Civic Center Complex and, again, we sold out in 10 days. We moved to Ford Park, and we’re excited this year that we should be able to stay at the same place for a while.”
The Ford Park Event Center has a 48,000-sq.-ft. exhibit hall, eight meeting rooms, a 9,500-seat arena and a VIP lounge. Combined with the arena, there’s 95,000 square feet of floor space. “We have plenty of parking and a Houston pedicab company that escorts people on bicycle rickshaws from their cars,” says Howard. “As it’s getting bigger, it became important to have nearby hotels, and the Ford Park is not even two miles from what we call hotel alley,” an area of town with a number of hotels.
In its early days, El Paso’s reputation was staked as a Wild West border town. People have always been drawn to the dusty outpost in the northern Chihuahuan Desert as a gateway to its Mexican sister city, Ciudad Juarez. But people don’t head south to Mexico anymore. El Paso has redefined itself as a growing destination with massive scale of construction projects throughout the city. Fueling the boom are the expansions of U.S. Army base Fort Bliss and the Texas Tech University medical school, as well as the new El Paso Children’s Hospital and the revitalization of the historic downtown. The population is rapidly approaching 800,000.
The buzz throughout the city is palpable. Residents are excited and hopeful about the upswing in business, while visitors continue to be drawn by long-time favorites like the Spanish Colonial architecture of the Mission Trail, sun-drenched recreation at Franklin Mountains and Hueco Tanks state parks and the city’s famed rendition of the Mexican dish, “chile relleno,” or stuffed chile pepper.
“Downtown El Paso has undergone a drastic change,” says Brooke Underwood, Director of Convention Development for the El Paso CVB. “A couple years ago, after 5 p.m. it would have turned into a ghost town, but now it really comes alive.” Some of the projects contributing to that makeover include the new El Paso Museum of History, new downtown public library, the historic restoration of a few 1930s–40s office buildings, the renovation of the 1930 Plaza Theatre and the new Doubletree Hotel, which has 200 guest rooms and seven meeting rooms.
Sister Kateri Mitchell, executive director of the National Tekakwitha Conference, visited El Paso in February in advance of her organization’s annual conference to be held in July 2013. She noticed a dramatic change in the city since the event was last held there in 2004: “It has grown tremendously. I found the downtown area to have changed so much because of development. The whole city is much, much larger.”
The National Tekakwitha Conference is an organization for Native American Catholics based upon the teachings of patroness Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th
century woman who was beatified in 1980. The organization is based around Kateri Circles, or local prayer and study groups comprised of Native Americans from various tribes. Each year, they hold an annual conference that rotates around the country with the goal of bringing members together to share their Catholic faith and study the diverse cultures from the 156 tribes represented.
“We’re going to El Paso in July 2013 because there is a Kateri Circle there,” Mitchell says, “and the process is to have a local group to work with to help plan this annual event with the national office.” As the national representative, she meets with the local membership, the Catholic Diocese of El Paso and the CVB to choose host hotels and the conference location.
As in 2004, the conference will be held at the Judson F. Williams Convention Center. Located downtown, the 133,000-sq.-ft. facility includes 80,000 square feet of exhibit space, 17 breakout meeting rooms, three halls and an additional 15,000 square feet of meeting space. Last year, a striking new outdoor shade canopy was constructed, which can be booked for outdoor receptions of a few hundred people.
Directly behind the convention center is the popular Union Plaza Entertainment District. Formerly an industrial warehouse park, the area has been reshaped as a hip dining and nightlife district, including notable restaurant, The Garden. And despite its thriving business climate, spicy culture and
year-round sunny weather, El Paso remains surprisingly affordable. “To combat the travel expenses of a delegate coming into El Paso, we can close that gap with much more affordable meeting accommodations,” Underwood says. “As far as parking, meals, lodging, accommodations and the actual meeting, it won’t break the bank.”
The other perception she wishes were commonplace regards safety. “Despite what people are hearing in the national media, El Paso is the safest city in America with a population of more than 500,000,” Underwood says. “The things that are happening on the other side of the border are not spilling over. If people want that international experience, they can still experience it by coming to El Paso. All that flavor, culture and cuisine is now on this side of the border.”
Few places embody the spirit of Texas tenacity like Galveston. It rose to national prominence in the 19th century, at one time becoming the largest city in Texas due to its port, where cotton shipped out and immigrants poured in. But all that changed with the Great Storm of 1900. The city was submerged and more than 6,000 people were killed by a hurricane, the worst natural disaster the U.S. had faced. In the aftermath, the Houston ship channel was constructed, and that inland city became the state’s major commercial center.
Galveston residents raised the entire city by eight feet and constructed a 17-foot seawall to protect against future storms. During Prohibition, Galveston experienced a comeback as a lawless hub for drinking, gambling and prostitution. That mini-boom lasted until the mid-1950s, when the Texas Rangers finally put an end to those activities. Since the 1980s, Galveston has focused on tourism, capitalizing on its colorful history, grand architecture and beaches.
In 2008, Hurricane Ike flooded Galveston again. More than two years later, it’s estimated that at least 20 percent of the population of 58,000 did not return. Some historic buildings were seriously damaged or destroyed, and saltwater killed about 40,000 trees. The city has mostly rebuilt and recovered, and its major attractions—including the Strand Historic District, the 1859 Ashton Villa, 1892 Bishop’s Palace, tall ship Elissa, Moody Gardens tourist complex and Schlitterbahn waterpark—are open for business.
As a former Floridian who lives in Plano, Phyllis McCully enjoys Galveston for its beach and seafood. But as a meeting planner, the associate director of the South-Central Region of the Association of Christian Schools International appreciates Moody Gardens as the yearly setting of ACSI’s regional educators’ convention. “I’ve been involved in planning at a lot of different venues, and Moody Gardens is my favorite venue to attend both because of their wonderful facilities and the people to work with,” she says.
Moody Gardens Convention Center has more than 100,000 square feet of meeting space, including a 60,000-sq.-ft. flexible space for a ballroom or expo hall. Most rooms can be divided into smaller rooms for breakout sessions, receptions or other events. The attached garage can accommodate 1,000 cars, and adjacent Moody Gardens Resort has 428 guest rooms. The resort and convention center are part of the 242-acre Moody Gardens tourist complex, one of Texas’ top attractions, which draws more than two million visitors a year and features three glass pyramids housing an aquarium, recreated rainforest and science exhibits.
ACSI uses the convention center for exhibits and general sessions, and has breakout sessions at both the hotel and convention center. “They have some rooms that can be divided into two spaces or opened up,” McCully says. “Depending upon what our needs are—whether we want them set classroom-style or whether we want them set theater-style—they are always very good about working with us.
McCully praises Moody Gardens’ staff for always exceeding expectations: “Even when the hurricane came through, they called us right away to let us know they had minimal damage and there wouldn’t be any problem with holding our convention…There is always a lot of communication back and forth about what our needs will be. The whole staff just seems to really go out of their way to work with us.”
In the late 1970s and ’80s, the popular television series “Dallas” reinforced the stereotypes of Texans the world over. Right or wrong, J.R. Ewing et al came to represent the popular notion of Texas excess—big oil and ranching money, brash attitudes and outsized personalities. The setting for this melodrama took place at Plano’s real-life Southfork Ranch.
The reality of Plano is much more ordinary. The Dallas suburb began as a rural agricultural community with origins dating back to the 1840s. In 1960, the population was less than 4,000, but it exploded in subsequent decades as the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex expanded. Plano’s population is currently estimated at around 300,000, making it the ninth-largest city in the state. It is now known for outstanding shopping and dining establishments, a hot air balloon festival and a penchant for ending up on best-places-to-live lists. But small-town agricultural roots are still evident in the historic downtown and the Heritage Farmstead Museum—a living history property that features an 1891 Victorian farmhouse.
In April 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America held its 22nd Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod Assembly at the Plano Centre. The annual meeting of the church rotates around the region, coming back to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex every few years. With more than 86,000 square feet of meeting space, 18 breakout rooms and more than 21,000 square feet of exhibit space, meeting planner Becky Brakke recalls the Plano Centre meeting the synod’s needs.
“It is just an absolutely lovely space,” she says. “It sits on a nice, expansive country lot. You have plenty of parking and even some hook-ups for campers.” Those are important assets for a planner whose delegates tend to drive and bring RVs. “We’ve used two hotels that are about a mile or two away, so there is some travel,” she says.
The synod used all the breakout rooms, as well as hallways for displays and the assembly space for worship. Church youth also attend, and Brakke says their own meetings were conducted in rooms set off specifically for them. “We found the staff to be very accommodating, and it has one of the best in-house caterers we have ever worked with,” she says. “I would rank the Centre at the top of the list.”
San Antonio is one of America’s cultural gems, world-renowned for its Spanish Colonial architecture, hallowed history, vibrant traditions and top-tier attractions like the Alamo and the River Walk. This year, Texans celebrate the 175th anniversary of independence from Mexico and the fight for freedom that took center stage at the Alamo on March 6, 1836. The tragic events of that day rallied the Texas revolutionaries and helped shape the state’s resolute destiny and character, commemorated this year in anniversary events across the state and city.
Another reason to visit San Antonio soon is to experience the new expansion of the River Walk. The Museum Reach section opened in 2009 and extends the walking trail about a mile and a half north of downtown to the San Antonio Museum of Art, Pearl Brewery complex, Brackenridge Park and the Witte Museum. This noncommercial stretch is beautifully landscaped with native plants and public art installations, offering visitors and residents alike a tranquil alternative to the bustling tourist restaurants and nightlife of the old River Walk. In late 2010, the first part of the Mission Reach section opened, which will eventually be a hike-and-bike trail connecting four historic Spanish missions south of downtown with the city center. The entire River Walk will stretch 15 miles by 2014.
In addition to attractions, meeting professionals love San Antonio for its unique combination of culture, convenience and compactness. From humble beginnings as a Spanish colony founded in 1718, San Antonio now has a population of about 1.4 million, making it the second-largest city in Texas and seventh-largest in the country. Downtown contains more than 12,700 guest rooms within walking distance of the Alamo, River Walk, Market Square, Main Plaza, Mexican restaurants and the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, which has 630,000 square feet of meeting space and almost 440,000 square feet of exhibit space. Three ballrooms are available, as well as the 2,400-seat Lila Cockrell Theatre and 63 breakout rooms.
One prestigious downtown property is The St. Anthony Hotel, a National Historic Landmark that was built in 1909 by cattle barons. Known for its grand history and opulence, The St. Anthony delivers for meeting planners with 352 guest rooms, more than 30,000 square feet of meeting space, 22 meeting rooms, two ballrooms and a rooftop reception area called the Starlight Terrace, providing stellar views of downtown.
For Kristen Cress, it was all about location. The coordinator of member services for United Methodist Association of Health and Welfare Ministries organized the 71st UMA National Convention at the St. Anthony March 2–4. The annual event rotates around the five jurisdictions of the United Methodist Church, and Cress says, “We were looking for something centrally located that would appeal to our members and hopefully encourage them to stay before and after for vacation.”
“We always look for a one-stop place,” she adds. “We’d be lost in a convention center, plus there’s added cost for meeting space. If we do it at a hotel large enough for us and we meet our room blocks, then they throw in meeting space for free.” It also helped that The St. Anthony is located right next to Travis Park United Methodist Church, which served as the only off-site event location by providing a space for worship. “Because Travis Park is right next door, and it actually has history to one of our homes [Methodist Mission Home] in the community we thought it was important to do worship there,” Cress says.
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