By Andrew Guy Jr. and Rob Hodges
The cliche is that everything is bigger in Texas. But is it? And what if small can have a big impact, too? Frisco, Irving, Laredo, Lewisville and Odessa don’t have the big footprints of a Dallas or San Antonio, but that hasn’t stopped them from creating thriving meeting and convention cultures on their own. These smaller towns complement big convention cities like Houston to create a state with vibrant, varied cultures. Take a look.
Deep in the heart of Texas, cowboys, musicians and state legislators all come together in strange harmony to “Keep Austin Weird,” an unofficial slogan promoted by the city’s small business alliance. It’s a town that hosts some of the coolest events in the country (SXSW music, film and tech conference; Austin City Limits music festival), but has remained under the radar as a major meetings city compared to some of its neighboring towns, says Steve Genovesi, the new senior vice president of sales for the Austin CVB. “Austin is a vibrant, cool, hip, livable city,” says Genovesi, but really sizeable events haven’t had the space they need, he adds. That’s about to change.
Construction begins this year on a Marriott hotel in Austin. It will be the largest hotel in the city, located just blocks from the convention center. The hotel will have more than 103,000 square feet of meeting space and 1,003 guest rooms. “The new Marriott is going to parlay us into a whole new level of convention planners that will be looking at us for the first time,” says Genovesi. The hotel is expected to be complete by late 2015.
The Austin Convention Center is a LEED Gold-certified facility that sits in a convenient location in the heart of downtown, right off I-35, near Lady Bird Lake and Sixth Street. The new Marriott will add to the already 6,000 hotel rooms near the center. Built from native Texas materials including limestone, the building is as close to sustainable as a building that stretches six city blocks can be. It has almost 881,400 square feet of space, including 246,097 square feet of exhibit space. In Austin, a town that’s proud of its local businesses, it’s no surprise that the convention center has an Austin original, Jo’s coffee, serving drinks, pastries and sandwiches to droopy-eyed convention goers. The funky little shop opened its first location on South Congress Avenue more than 10 years ago.
One of the best things about Austin as a meetings city is its safe nature and extremely walkable downtown. In some cities, the downtown area is a business center, but in Austin, downtown is where people work, live, shop, exercise, hear live music, go out to dinner and more. It’s also where meeting attendees feel safe and not overwhelmed. Downtown’s Warehouse District is filled with local eateries, and the burgeoning Second Street District has upscale shopping and al fresco, but comfortably approachable, cafes. Austin’s most famous downtown area, though, is Sixth Street, a historic district where restaurants, music venues, theaters and comedy clubs are open to visitors morning through night.
And among all that activity are a number of hotels that can accommodate groups, including the Hilton Austin, Four Seasons Hotel, Omni Hotel and Hyatt Regency. The Hyatt, a 448-room convention hotel that sits across the lake from downtown, between the Congress Avenue and First Street bridges, has impressive views of the downtown skyline from guest rooms and meeting rooms. In 2009, the hotel completed an $18 million renovation, updating its exterior, lobby, meeting space and restaurant. The AAA Four-Diamond hotel has 23,000 square feet of meeting space.
For something a little out of the ordinary, local hotelier Liz Lambert added two cool hotels to the fray. The small, boutique hotels are less large-scale and more VIP kinds of places. Hotel San Jose came first; located in the hip SoCo (South Congress) area near downtown, the once-seedy motor court was transformed into an uber-cool, bungalow-style hotel hidden behind ivy-covered stucco walls. The hotel’s courtyard could be an intimate setting for an evening event. Lambert’s other property, Hotel St. Cecilia, is just a few blocks away on a secluded estate. With rooms inspired by artists, poets and musicians, the property is an urban fantasia of style and originality.
Frisco was born as a tiny town along the St. Louis-San Francisco Railroad 25 minutes north of Dallas. It has emerged as a powerhouse in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex and is one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. It is a city loaded with activities for its 122,822 residents, as well as enough cultural and social activities to draw myriad conventions, sporting events and conferences.
Dr Pepper Arena is the home of the North American Hockey League’s Texas Tornadoes, Frisco’s minor league hockey franchise. The 6,000-seat arena is also the practice facility for the National Hockey League’s Dallas Stars. Dr Pepper Ballpark is home to the Frisco RoughRiders, the Texas Rangers’ minor league affiliate baseball team. The ballpark has seating for 10,000 fans, as well as an upscale restaurant that can host banquets or large parties. Both the ballpark and the arena can be rented in whole or in part for meetings and events.
The city also has the 117-acre FC Dallas Stadium (formerly Pizza Hut Park), which has housed national and international major league and youth soccer games, in addition to concerts, high school football games and other events. For meeting planners, the stadium includes video displays on both corners of the north side of the stadium, a private 6,000-sq.-ft. stadium club area and 18 luxury suites. Shopping is plentiful in Frisco. There is the Stonebriar Center, an upscale mall and shopping area; an IKEA store, one of only three in Texas; and dozens of restaurants, shops and boutique shopping opportunities. Then there are the museums. The Frisco Discovery Center is a hands-on museum showcasing visual and performing arts, science, math and technology.
The Heritage Museum is a two-story, 18,000-sq.-ft. tribute to Frisco’s Old West past. The Texas Sculpture Garden at Hall Office Park features 40 large-scale public art pieces, and an additional 100 smaller pieces of artwork are on display throughout the open-air office park.
Holding a meeting or convention in Frisco doesn’t mean giving up all of the amenities found in a larger city. “We have one of the highest concentrations of retail and cultural events for a city of our size,” says Marla Roe, executive director of the Frisco Convention and Visitors Bureau. “And everything is pretty close to everything else, so we’re slowly getting the resemblance of somewhat of a cultural center.”
Large groups use the Embassy Suites Hotel and Frisco Conference Center, which features 1,479 guest rooms and 90,000 square feet of exhibit space. Other popular meeting hotels include the Westin Stonebriar, Sheraton Stonebriar, Comfort Suites at Frisco Square, and Hampton Inn and Suites. Convention attendees wanting a break from business or looking to close a deal amid the greens can tee off at one of four top-ranked golf courses. The city has dozens of golf courses, many of them open to the public or guests at various hotels and resorts. Three courses stand out: The Trails of Frisco, The Tom Fazio course at The Westin Stonebriar and Plantation Golf Club. The courses can often accommodate tee time requests with reservations.
The fourth-largest city in the U.S. had rather humble beginnings as a settlement established along the banks of Buffalo Bayou in 1836, the year Texas gained independence from Mexico and became a republic. During the 1850s, Houston’s roots as a commercial center took hold as it grew into an important railroad hub.
This status was firmly implanted after the Galveston hurricane of 1900 necessitated the dredging of a deepwater inland shipping channel. With the fortuitous timing of the Spindletop oil discovery in Beaumont in 1901 and the already-established rail industry, the Port of Houston would quickly grow into its current ranking as the busiest port in the nation, and Houston would become an epicenter of the oil and gas industry.
The city’s reputation for its suburban sprawl and hot, humid climate precedes it, but there is an incredible upside that should not be overlooked by meeting planners. Houston has a rich cultural-arts scene and a racial diversity unmatched in Texas due to its large international community.
People from around the world come for the Texas Medical Center, the largest health-related district in the world, and NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where mission control is located. Throughout the city, but especially concentrated in the Museum District, are hundreds of art galleries and world-class museums such as the Menil Collection and Rothko Chapel. Fine dining abounds, reflecting the city’s multicultural makeup and placing Houston squarely upon the map as a serious foodie destination. Downtown embodies the city’s ever-changing, vibrant spirit.
Once considered a place to avoid except for work, the district has transformed over the last couple decades into an exciting core of restaurants, shops, lodgings and entertainment, in addition to business. Contributing to the work-play-live ethos are anchors such as the 12-acre Discovery Green park; the Toyota Center sports and entertainment facility, home of the NBA’s Rockets; Minute Maid Park, home of MLB’s Astros; and METRORail, which connects downtown with the Texas Medical Center and Reliant Park.
The latter complex contains Reliant Stadium, home of the NFL’s Texans, and the Reliant Center, an event facility with more than 706,000 square feet of exhibit space and 61 meeting rooms. Downtown also has one of the largest conference/hotel facilities in the country: The George R. Brown Convention Center and attached Hilton Americas-Houston combine for nearly 1.3 million square feet of meeting space and 1,200 guest rooms.
The Hilton recently completed an $11 million upgrade, adding high-definition TVs, Hilton Serenity beds, new artwork and furnishings to guest rooms. Bathrooms are now equipped with granite countertops and water-conserving showerheads. The 19th floor executive lounge was also upgraded with new computers and meeting spaces, and the hotel’s 91,500 square feet of meeting and function areas has new carpeting throughout.
The home page of the Irving Convention and Visitors Bureau is to-the-point: flight times from both Los Angeles and New York City to DFW are about three hours. The message is as clear as a blue sky: Irving is competing with the big boys.
Proof: The Irving Convention Center at Las Colinas, a state-of-the-art center that opened in 2011. The 275,000-sq.-ft. building has a 50,000-sq.-ft. column-free exhibit hall, a 20,000-sq.-ft. ballroom and 20,000 square feet of breakout meeting space.
“We’re chasing after the same business as Dallas,” says Mara Gast, executive director of the Irving CVB. “It’s mainly about educating decision makers about an area they may not have heard of before. They have all heard of Dallas, but we would like them to consider Irving.”
Even with the size of the new convention center, Irving is still able to accommodate smaller groups and meetings. “We can find something within everyone’s budget. If it’s a group of 100, we can help them and put them in one of our smaller spaces and they’re not going to feel that they’re lost in the galaxy. We will still give them that personal attention,” Gast says. Irving also has a variety of accommodations. Luxury, full-service hotels include the Four Seasons, Wyndham, Omni, Embassy Suites, Marriott, Hilton, Sheraton, Westin and Doubletree. Limited-service budget hotels include Best Western, Drury, LaQuinta, Hilton Garden Inn and Days Inn. Most of the hotels have meeting space. For example, the Four Seasons has 32,000 square feet of available meeting space.
Laredo was founded on the north bank of the Rio Grande River. The city is currently the largest inland port on the southern U.S. border, and the city’s rich Latin American heritage is on display throughout the town. In Laredo, seven flags fly over the city (the Flag of the Republic of the Rio Grande in addition to the six flags of Texas). They are symbolic of Laredo’s historic link to seven countries: France, Spain, Mexico, Republic of the Rio Grande, Texas, the Confederacy and the United States of America. Laredo was the capital of its own country for a short period of time (the Republic of the Rio Grande) from January 1840 to late fall of that same year. The capitol building still stands and serves as The Republic of the Rio Grande Museum.
The city has undergone a downtown revitalization of sorts over the last several years, with new parking, increased retail and more restaurants cropping up. With a population of 215,000, Laredo isn’t exactly big for Texas, but it’s not small either.
It’s easily accessible: The city is served by Interstate Highway 35, U.S. Highways 59 and 83, and Texas Highway 359. Laredo International Airport is anchored by American Airlines, Continental and Allegiant Air, with daily connecting flights to Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston and Las Vegas.
In addition to the Laredo Civic Center, meeting planners also have Laredo Energy Arena as an option for planning events. The arena seats up to 10,000 and can be custom-tailored for events. Laredo Energy Arena also has 14 suites, two conference rooms, and a bar on the concourse that can host private parties and events.
Lewisville is one of the oldest cities in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Incorporated in 1925, the city is anchored by Lewisville Lake, a man-made reservoir that is immensely popular for water sports and outdoor recreation in the area. Lewisville Lake Park, a 622-acre park on the south shore of the lake, offers picnic areas, RV and tent camping and other amenities. The lake features world-class fishing.
Lewisville CVB specializes in hosting smaller meetings and conventions of 300 to 500 people. The city is fine with operating on a small scale, and in fact considers its small-meeting focus a unique selling proposition. “A meeting that size might get lost in the big city,” says James Kunke, director of community relations and tourism. “We’re seeing a lot more planners and smaller companies that want to be catered to and want the personal touch. We can provide that. Also, we’re just outside of Dallas. They land at DFW, and not too long after that they can be at our convention center. So, they still have access to Dallas. Just because you’re choosing one of the outlying cities doesn’t mean you’re giving up the culture and environment of the big city.”
In 2007, the city opened the Lewisville Convention Center, featuring 17,000 square feet of meeting and banquet space able to host up to 840 people. The CVB upgraded audio and visual services at the center, and made the venue non-smoking. There are 865 hotel rooms within walking distance of the convention center, including Hilton Garden Inn, which is attached to the center, with 155 rooms and 10 suites.
Kunke says the new facility has definitely helped with increased business. “Our challenge used to be getting people to understand that they can have an event here. We didn’t have the meeting space before. Now there are people who understand they have options.” For meeting planners considering day trips, a federal preserve is located just outside of town. The Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area is a 2,000-acre preserve featuring abundant wildlife, including bobcats, white-tailed deer and mink, as well as birds, wild turkeys, painted buntings and dozens of waterfowl species. The area also features four hiking trails, camping and fishing areas, paddling and canoeing and picnic areas. Entrance fees are $5 per person; children 5 and under are admitted free.
Amid the pivoting oil derricks and beautiful sunsets, far west of the Texas Triangle and halfway between Fort Worth and El Paso, Odessa sits. The city is located in the Permian Basin, an oil and natural gas producing region that has become one of the key energy areas in the United States. The city offers a unique balance between the benefits of a small town, such as a moderate cost of living and a high quality of life and the benefits of a large community, including high-quality educational, cultural and health care facilities.
Today, Odessa is thriving. Although oil and gas still remain the city’s largest industry, other industries have relocated to the region, diversifying the economy. Odessa is quickly being recognized as a major health industry hub with three hospitals, a cancer center and several medical specialists in the area. Odessa is the 23rd largest city in Texas, and is home to three higher-education institutions, The University of Texas of the Permian Basin, Texas Tech Health Sciences Center and Odessa College. Odessa also has several former residents that have gone on to fame and fortune. Past residents include former United States Presidents George Bush and George W. Bush, country and western band The Gatlin Brothers, and Roy Williams, professional football player.
For fun, a visit to Odessa would not be complete without a visit to the rabbit. The city is home to what some have said is the “World’s Largest Jack Rabbit,” an eight-foot-tall rabbit sculpture that has become the symbol for the city. The rabbit was created in 1962 by former Attorney General John Ben Shepperd during his term as Odessa Chamber of Commerce president. In 1962, the statue was erected in the middle of town.
The Odessa CVB staff makes sure to reach out to meeting planners, enlisting local volunteers to help plan events as well as ensure that the city puts on the best face for visitors. According to the Odessa CVB, travel and tourism is a $206 million industry for the city, fueling 2,320 jobs and generating $4.4 million in local tax revenue.
Meeting planners will find plenty of options in Odessa. The city has nearly 2,000 guest rooms, and the main convention center is the Ector County Coliseum Complex, which has 150,000 square feet of space in six different buildings.
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Libby Hoppe contributed to this article.