by Barbara Beckley | June 01, 2016

Just as gushing oil wells thrust Texas onto the world stage in the early 20th century, a boom in meeting facilities is propelling Southeast Texas to the top of 21st-century convention charts. In Houston, meetings are up 104 percent. In San Antonio, the convention center has expanded to 1.6 million square feet.

For many planners, a meeting couldn’t come together without the help and expertise of the staff at local convention and visitors bureaus, convention centers and hotels. Accolades such as “the best staff I’ve ever experienced,” “easy to work with and very accommodating” and “if I could take the staff everywhere, I would” testify to the care and attention associations are given on a regular basis.

greater Houston: On the Rise

“You know you’re always in good hands when you meet in Houston,” said Michelle Parkins, senior events manager for the organization Points of Light, which held the world’s largest conference on volunteering and service in town last October. She praised the Greater Houston CVB for being “very helpful in hotel accommodations and recommendations for our attendees to have the best experience.”

Her group, created to reflect the vision of former President George H. W. Bush to promote volunteerism, used the newly enhanced George R. Brown Convention Center for workshops. “It fit our needs because of the availability of space for meetings, its central location and because it was attached to the Hilton Americas, where our pre-conference meetings were held,” Parkins said. Attendees also stayed at the Hyatt Regency/Houston, the Holiday Inn/Houston Downtown, the Magnolia/Houston and the DoubleTree by Hilton/Houston Downtown.

The nation’s fourth-largest city continues to reinvent itself with new hotels, improvements to the 1.8 million-square-foot convention center, additions to the Convention District, new international service at Hobby Airport (which finished a multimillion-dollar expansion and renovation last year) and an exploding restaurant and sports scene. It’s no wonder meetings have gone through the roof.

In 2015, educational meetings were up 104 percent, and medical meetings increased by 98 percent, according to the CVB. And in 2019, the International Congress & Convention Association will meet in Houston—the organization’s first meeting in the United States in 32 years. “Never has a bidding city received so much support from members in other countries,” said Nina Freysen-Pretorius, the ICCA’s president.

The new Marriott Marquis/Houston is set to open this fall with 1,000 guest rooms and 100,000 square feet of meeting space. It will be directly connected to the convention center and “dramatically increase our ability to host major conventions,” said Richard Campo, board chairman of Houston First, which manages the convention center (as well as several other city meeting facilities). Also going up downtown is Hotel Alessandra, expected to open early next year with 223 guest rooms and 10,000 square feet of function space. In March, the new, dual-branded Hampton Inn/Homewood Suites opened near the convention center with 300 guest rooms, some 5,200 square feet of function space and complimentary breakfasts and Wi-Fi.

Elsewhere, the new Hyatt Regency/Houston Galleria opened last fall with function space, a rooftop swimming pool and an event deck. Adjacent is the new, 157-room Hyatt Place/Houston Galleria, which opened earlier this year with three event spaces. Also close to the Galleria shopping center is a mixed-use development called Post Oak, which plans to open a 250-room luxury hotel in late 2017. Between Downtown and Midtown, the new Holiday Inn/Houston Downtown (formerly the Savoy Hotel) has 213 guest rooms and event space for up to 130, and the Houston Airport Marriott at George Bush Intercontinental recently refurbished its meeting space as part of a property-wide redo.

Meeting-goers are also applauding the expanded MetroRail lines connecting the convention center, the theater and museum districts, the 22,000-seat BBVA Compass Stadium and other attractions that double as event venues.

Speaking of creative venues, Parkins used three for the Points of Light gathering. She chose Discovery Green, the 12-acre park next to the convention center, for the opening party; the LEED-certified Grove restaurant, which overlooks Discovery Green, for private dinners and smaller receptions; and the Wortham Theater Center, which includes a 2,405-seat theater, a 1,100-seat theater and a grand foyer, for the closing tribute.

Several new cultural institutions are—or will soon be—available for group events. The new Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston opened last year with four performance spaces, the largest of which seats up to 329. Downtown, the historic Sunset Coffee Building at Buffalo Bayou Park is scheduled to wrap up renovations late this year and introduce a rooftop event terrace, outdoor plaza and a bike-rental facility. And the Lone Star Flight Museum, which is relocating from Galveston to Houston, is expected to open in February 2017 at a new 130,000-square-foot facility at Ellington Airport, southeast of downtown. The museum will house the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame, vintage airplanes, and an auditorium and a library for functions.

Sports-minded groups can take advantage of the city’s stadiums for a special event or a game, depending on the season. Among the largest is the NRG Park complex, home to four facilities: NRG Stadium, which will host the 2017 Super Bowl, NRG Center, NRG Arena and the NRG Astrodome.

Other sporting venues with function space include the silver LEED–certified Toyota Center, Minute Maid Park, Rice Stadium at Rice University and Sam Houston Race Park.

Thirty miles southeast of Houston, NASA’s 250,000-square-foot Space Center welcomes groups of up to 5,000. Its newest attraction is Independence Plaza, home to a space-shuttle replica and a massive shuttle-carrier aircraft.

Located 50 miles from Houston on the Gulf of Mexico, Galveston Island offers a warm setting and a rich history. The Texas Association for Home Care & Hospice has held events here three times in the last eight years, most recently at the Moody Gardens Hotel, Spa & Convention Center.

And for 20 consecutive years, the Texas Justice Court Training Center has held conferences at the San Luis Resort, Spa & Conference Center, home to the Galveston Island Convention Center, which benefited from a technology upgrade last year and can now provide simultaneous Internet service to up to 2,500 devices. Also at the resort are five new luxury villas.

New attractions and upgraded meeting space in and around the city of Galveston’s Strand Historic District will greet this year’s visiting attendees. The new Bryan Museum, home to the world’s largest collection of art, artifacts and documents relating to the Southwestern United States, is able to host events of up to 400; venues include a glass-and-iron conservatory and a research library. The nonprofit, 10-acre Sea Scout Base has overnight options for up to 208, a 3,600-square-foot banquet hall, four meeting rooms, a waterfront pavilion and an amphitheater. And the Moody Gardens Aquarium Pyramid is undergoing a multiphase renovation with a grand reopening scheduled for May 2017. Or attendees might want to check out the 15-block-long Babe’s Beach, a recent addition to the island’s 32 miles of sandy shores, or the world’s tallest water coaster, a new attraction at the Schlitterbahn Waterpark.

Birdwatching is big in Beaumont. The city, 85 miles east of Houston, is part of two migratory flyways frequented by some 350 species of birds, a fact which appealed to organizers of Victor Emanuel Nature Tours’ 40th anniversary celebration in April, an event that drew some 150 attendees and international bird experts, including the president of the American Bird Conservancy. “Our celebration was a complete success, and Beaumont was the ideal setting from which to operate,” said Greg Lopez, the group’s operations manager. “The Upper Texas Coast offers some of the world’s best birding, and we chose Beaumont because it provided easy accessibility to the prime birding locales.”

The group utilized the MCM Eleganté Hotel & Conference Center. “I would recommend the MCM Eleganté to host any convention or conference,” Lopez said. “The catering manager was super to work with and willing to help with any and all requests. This was the first time we’ve been based in Beaumont, but it will not be the last.”

The Texas Association of Convention & Visitor Bureaus was equally pleased with its mid-winter educational conference in Beaumont. Sarah Page, its executive director, said her attendees liked the city for its affordability and accessibility, as many drove or flew into the area, and her organizers appreciated all the local assistance they received. “The Beaumont CVB staff has a real commitment to being helpful,” she said. “I never had to worry a moment. They and the MCM Eleganté Hotel staff took incredible care of us and were instrumental in our meeting being as successful as it could be.”

In addition to taking in Beaumont’s “ample supply of incredible museums”—the Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum near the site of one of the state’s first oil wells was a favorite—the association enjoyed an outing to the Beaumont Botanical Gardens and Cattail Marsh, a 900-acre wetlands area.

A hub for conventions and meetings is the Event Centre, with a 16,000-square-foot hall, a 14,000-square-foot patio and a stage. A few blocks east and close to the Neches River is the Beaumont Civic Center. Also popular is the Ford Park Event Center southwest of downtown.

San Antonio: Riverside Delights

San Antonio is one of my favorite cities. It’s like a home for us. We’ve been there a lot,” said Jeanette Naiman, director of meetings for the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States (AMSUS). “It’s centrally located within the U.S., there are lots of direct flights, and it’s a military town.” As a military group, the proximity of Lackland and Kelly air force bases is important. “Plus, San Antonio is just a beautiful city, and it’s walkable,” she said, and its Show Us Your Badge program offers delegates discounts at numerous restaurants, shops and attractions. “It’s one of the few cities where I tell delegates, ‘Please wear your badge,’” Naiman said.

The organization utilized the newly transformed, 1.6 million-square-foot Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, and Naiman said, “The stacked layout really flows. With ballrooms on top, meeting spaces in the middle and exhibit space on the lower level, none of my 2,000 people ever got lost.”

In February, the Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA) held its convention at the convention center with 26,000 people, and the association is contracted to return through 2025. Robert Floyd, executive director of TMEA, said that there are many benefits to meeting in San Antonio, which is why the group’s annual event has returned for more than 30 years. Floyd said attendees appreciate the convention center’s prime location on the River Walk because from there they can walk to shops, restaurants and historic sites. “And the convenience of obtaining more than 5,500 hotel rooms within walking distance of the convention center, mostly along the river, is a real bonus,” he said.

Down the street from the convention center is the Alamodome, which is undergoing a multimillion-dollar renovation and expansion project scheduled for completion in November 2017. Plans include 24,000 square feet of a new multi-use/media space, technology upgrades, the transformation of its North Plaza into a more contiguous and larger area, and an expansion of its east and west concourses to include a new terrace club. The facility currently offers more than 160,000 square feet of flexible space.

Downtown attractions that welcome special events include the Institute of Texan Cultures and the Buckhorn Saloon & Museum. Just north of the central River Walk area is the burgeoning Pearl District, named after the old Pearl Brewery and home to 15 restaurants and cafes, shops and farmers’ market. The brewery has since been repurposed into two venues—the Pearl Stable, which can host up to 500, and the Pearl Studio & Breezeway, with space for up to 300. Also in the area is the Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus. West of the city, in Westover Hills, SeaWorld/San Antonio has several spaces available for special events or can be bought out in its entirety for up to 10,000 people.

In local hotel news, the historic, downtown St. Anthony, a Luxury Collection Hotel, has completed a $24 million renovation and now offers a rooftop pool and lounge. Hotel Emma, which opened in November, is the new face of the Pearl community. In the northern suburb of Live Oak, the 138-room Hilton Garden Inn/San Antonio-Live Oak Conference Center opened earlier this year with event space for up to 680. And farther north, the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa has benefited from a multimillion-dollar renovation and expansion that has increased the property’s total meeting space to 288,000 square feet; new additions include a 13,000-square-foot pavilion area, an 18,000-square-foot event lawn and a 700-square-foot covered outdoor stage. Close to the University of Texas/San Antonio and Six Flags Fiesta Texas, the hilltop La Cantera Resort & Spa was also recently renovated.

From Victoria to the Rio Grande Valley: BBQ, Beaches & Birding

In the city of Victoria, located 120 miles southeast of San Antonio, the new Great Coastal Texas Barbecue Trail is drawing crowds and rave reviews. The area is home to seven of the nation’s highest-rated barbecue joints, according to Explore Victoria. In addition, these eateries can cater local events.

For meetings, Victoria College offers a 42,000-square-foot Industrial Training Center and its IACC-certified Conference & Education Center opened last year with more than 18,000 square feet of space. Off-campus options include the Victoria Community Center, with more than 67,000 square feet of space and a dozen hotels with event space.

Down the coast in the beach destination of Corpus Christi, events can be held at the American Bank Center complex, home to a convention center with 76,500 square feet of exhibit space and 22 breakout rooms, a 10,500-seat arena and a 2,526-seat auditorium. Cultural venues include the Art Museum of South Texas, the Corpus Christi Museum of Science & History and the Texas State Aquarium.

Laredo, about 140 miles west of Corpus Christi, is also a hub for business. Groups can meet at the Laredo Energy Arena, the Civic Center and Texas A&M International University.

The Rio Grande Valley, at the southernmost tip of Texas, offers birdwatching, beaches and convention facilities. In McAllen, the McAllen Convention Center offers 60,000 square feet of column-free exhibit space, more than 25,000 square feet of meeting space and a 2.4-acre park with a bandshell. Eighty miles east, South Padre Island is home to 34 miles of sandy seafront as well as the South Padre Island Convention Centre, which offers 45,000 square feet of space.

Austin & the Hill Country: Not the Same Old Song

More than just Texas’ state capital, Austin prides itself on being the “Live Music Capital of the World.” Visiting groups may find themselves lobbying by day and two-stepping by night.

“Austin is a great choice for meetings,” said Naiman of AMSUS. She recommends convening downtown, where attendees can walk or catch a quick Uber ride to live music venues, restaurants, hotels and the Austin Convention Center, a gold LEED–certified facility that offers 370,957 square feet of space in five contiguous exhibit halls, seven ballrooms and 54 meeting rooms.

As the longtime home of the South by Southwest (SXSW) festivals, planners can count on a number of stellar theaters that cater to group functions. Downtown, just a few blocks from the convention center, is the Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater and Stubb’s. And between the Capitol Building and University of Texas campus, the Bullock Texas State History Museum offers special-event space. Across the Colorado River, the ZACH Theatre complex has eight event spaces. Also nearby is the Long Center for the Performing Arts.

At the University of Texas, the AT&T Executive Education & Conference Center has newly refreshed guest rooms and updated technology. Next summer, an adjacent facility called the Robert B. Rowling Hall is expected to open with a 15,000-square-foot ballroom and a 5,000-square-foot pre-function area.

South of downtown, the Circuit of The Americas welcomes private events of up to 120,000 when it’s not hosting the Formula 1 U.S. Grand Prix.

If new hotel openings are a testament to a city’s popularity, Austin is the belle of the ball. More than 2,000 new hotel rooms are expected to open within the next two years, for a total of 10,642 downtown and 37,028 citywide by 2018.

Late last year, two new hotels opened their doors: the Hotel Van Zandt, a Kimpton property in the Rainey Street Historic District that offers a rooftop pool overlooking Lady Bird Lake and a director of music and social programming to ensure guests connect with Austin’s music scene; and the Hotel Granduca Austin, in Westlake with a restaurant helmed by a James Beard Award-winning chef and European artwork.

The dual-branded Hotel Indigo and Holiday Inn Express & Suites opened downtown this spring. The Hotel Indigo offers 134 guest rooms, 10 suites and 2,560 square feet of meeting space, while the Holiday Inn Express has 171 guest rooms, six suites and 310 square feet of meeting space. Late this summer, the Archer Hotel is expected to open at The Domain fashion and culinary center; plans include 16,525 square feet of function space. The 130-room Aloft/Austin Northwest is scheduled to open in October with meeting space for up to 50. In 2017, look for the arrival of the 1,068-room Fairmont/Austin, with 178,800 square feet of event space; the Aloft/Austin Downtown, with 2,500 square feet of meeting space; the 144-room Element/Austin Downtown; the 160-room Hotel ZaZa; a 192-room, extended-stay Hyatt House; and a silver LEED–certified, 139-room Hyatt Place Hotel near Bergstrom International Airport.

And two major meeting hotels have benefited from significant improvements. The Hyatt Regency/Austin recently completed a multimillion-dollar renovation of its guest rooms. And the Hilton/Austin is undergoing a design transformation of its public and meeting spaces; plans include a new function area and two new restaurants. Completion is set for late 2016.

To the north, in the Texas Hill Country, Georgetown is getting its first full-service hotel. The Sheraton Georgetown Texas Hotel & Conference Center is set to open in late July with 222 guest rooms and 30,000 square feet of flexible function space in 14 meeting rooms, plus 7,000 square feet of outdoor space.

Northeast of Austin in the Brazos Valley, the Bryan–College Station area is the home to the George Bush Presidential Library, the Brazos Valley African American Museum and Texas A&M University, which offers a variety of space for groups and has plans to add new sports facilities. The largest hotel with conference facilities in the Brazos Valley is the Hilton College Station & Conference Center, with space for groups of up to 1,500.

The More Things Change

The meetings industry in Southeast Texas is bigger and better than ever. Wherever groups hold their gatherings—whether it’s the greater metro areas, the rolling hill country or along the Gulf Coast—an increasing number of new or renovated convention facilities are improving local offerings. Despite all of the changes, one thing that remains the same is the willingness of hospitality professionals to go the extra mile and provide the kind of welcome only this region of Texas can deliver.