by Linda Hayes | June 01, 2017

When questioned about the secret to their success, many notable Texans have acknowledged luck, business savvy and the power of relationships. The Lone Star State has also cultivated its share of successful events, similarly dependent upon professional know-how and networking.

Particularly attractive to planners is southeastern Texas, where several big metro markets, a variety of social settings and unique opportunities best serve the upward trajectory of attendees.

Greater Houston: Gathering Momentum

The nation's fourth-largest city is also the largest in Texas: Houston, the Energy Capital of the World, home to 25 companies on the Fortune 500 list and recent host to the Super Bowl.

One of the city's strengths is also its mastery of marketing. Visit Houston noted that more than 20 million visitors traveled to Houston in 2016, a new city record and a benchmark goal achieved two years ahead of schedule. The figure reflects an estimated 17.3 million domestic business and leisure travelers and 3.2 million international travelers. Mike Waterman, president of Visit Houston, attributed the uptick to the efforts of various city groups, which are investing billions of dollars to improve Houston's offerings and, as a result, the city's ability to compete globally.

In fact, Houston recently landed two major events. In 2019, it is scheduled to host the International Congress & Convention Association Congress, marking the first time the event has been held 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 association's president. And in 2020, Houston will host the 2020 World Petroleum Congress, a premier global oil and gas forum expected to draw more than 10,000 attendees.

Houston First operates meetings facilities that include the Hilton Americas-Houston and the adjacent George R. Brown Convention Center. (In 2014, it and the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau aligned to represent and promote the city under the brand Visit Houston.) It is also the driving force behind that area's new Avenida Houston entertainment district, expanded to include Discovery Green Park, new restaurants and shops, a vibrant local art scene and the Marriott Marquis/Houston, which is connected via skybridge to the convention center. The Marriott opened in December with Houston's largest ballroom and an open-air pavilion, and a Texas-shaped lazy river on the roof.

And thanks to expanded Metro light-rail service, it's now easier than ever for meeting-goers to get around. With all of the new developments in town, it's no wonder that annual room-nights booked for future conventions have increased 34 percent over the last two years to 765,401.

Other significant venues downtown include several sports sites: the BBVA Compass Stadium, Toyota Center and Minute Maid Park. Planners might also consider the historic Sunset Coffee Building at Buffalo Bayou Park, which has a new rooftop event terrace, an outdoor plaza and a bike-rental facility.

Near the Museum District, the year-old Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston (MATCH) offers four performance spaces, the largest of which seats up to 329, as well as studio and gallery space. Three miles away, Rice University welcomes events at more than a half-dozen athletic facilities including the 47,000-seat Rice Stadium. Farther south is the NRG Park complex, home to four facilities: NRG Stadium (which hosted the 2017 Super Bowl) NRG Center, NRG Arena and the NRG Astrodome.

Northwest of the city, Sam Houston Race Park can host events of up to 30,000 people. Or attendees can head southeast of downtown to the relocated Lone Star Flight Museum at Ellington Field; the new, 130,000-square-foot facility will house the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame as well as vintage airplanes.

Growing demand for hotel rooms has led to rising occupancy rates and a slew of new development in Houston, with the addition of more than 2,300 rooms planned for downtown in the next few years. New properties with space for gatherings include the 168-room Aloft/Houston Downtown, a redevelopment of the Stowers Building, now with two meeting rooms; Le Méridien/Downtown, scheduled to open in July with 255 guest rooms and event space for up to 450; and the 223-room Hotel Alessandra, scheduled to open this fall with 5,000 square feet of function space as part of the mixed-use GreenStreet development.

In 2018, the 353-room Intercontinental/Houston Medical Center property is expected to open adjacent to the Texas Medical Center with 11,800 square feet of meeting space. Also set to open next year is the Hotel RL/Houston Downtown, expected to offer 150 guest rooms, a restaurant and bar and meeting space.

West of downtown, the 159-room Hotel ZaZa/Houston-Memorial City is on track to open this winter with 11,250 square feet of meeting space, while the 132-room Courtyard/Houston I-10 West-Park Row already welcomes groups with meeting space for up to 60.

Galveston, on the Gulf of Mexico, is a popular respite just 50 miles from Houston. The island has 32 miles of beaches and as of last year, the world's tallest water coaster. This summer, free wheeled trolley service will be offered around downtown while the city's old-fashioned rail trolleys undergo a renovation. And visitors can now enjoy recently widened and replenished beaches along the seawall between 12th and 61st streets, the result of a $19.5 million nourishment project.

Groups that want to combine beachfront business with overnight accommodations can look to the San Luis Resort, Spa & Conference Center, home to the Galveston Island Convention Center, which can host events of up to 1,000 and provide simultaneous Internet service for up to 1,500 devices. Other options include the Hotel Galvez & Spa, which completed a $1.8 million guest-room upgrade in January, and the 10-acre Sea Scout Base, with a 3,600-square-foot banquet hall, four meeting rooms, a waterfront pavilion and an amphitheater.

For off-site events, the year-old, Victorian-style Conservatory at the Bryan Museum can host up to 250 people. The venue is one of a dozen event spaces at the museum, itself just two years old.

Beaumont, 85 miles east of Houston, is known for Cajun culture, zydeco blues and an abundance of nature. Attendees who love to birdwatch will want to head just north of town to explore Big Thicket National Preserve by canoe between March and May. South of downtown, Cattail Marsh features a new boardwalk and viewing platforms and coming in early 2018 is a wetlands education center.

Citywide, Beaumont offers 3,500 guest rooms and more than 186,000 square feet of meeting space. A hub for many conventions and meetings is the Event Centre, with a 16,000-square-foot hall, a 14,000-square-foot patio and a stage. Other venues nearby include the Beaumont Civic Center and Ford Park.

San Antonio: Popular & Full of Perks

A famous Riverwalk, singular entertainment and cultural opportunities and 300 days of sunshine a year are just a few reasons the multitudes meet in San Antonio each year. "There are so many great things that the city offers for meetings," said Devin Lindsey, who planned a meeting for the Society of Biblical Literature & American Academy of Religion that was held last year at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. "To start, the city offers very competitive room rates, plenty of unique food experiences and reasonable food-and-beverage prices. And the convention catering team is one of the best I've worked with in a long time."

Lindsey also appreciated all the nearby possibilities for off-site social gatherings. "Most of my attendees are coming to shows for networking opportunities, and San Antonio provides such a tight, walkable hotel and convention center package with a great entertainment district. The beautiful Riverwalk attracts attendees after a day of sessions. All these features create a great atmosphere for networking," he said.

The focal point of San Antonio's meeting revolution is the transformed Henry B. González Convention Center, situated on the Riverwalk downtown. A recent $325 million expansion increased the center's footprint to 1.6 million square feet; features include 514,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space and the largest ballroom in Texas.

Connected to the convention center is the 65,000-seat Alamodome, which is set to finish a $50 million improvement project in November. In addition to expanding its concourses and outdoor plaza, it will debut a new 24,000-square-foot multi-use space.

Two downtown luxury hotels recently completed top-to-bottom transformations: Hotel Valencia and The St. Anthony, both of which offer indoor and outdoor meeting space. A 195-room Canopy by Hilton hotel is scheduled to debut in late 2018 with 3,000 square feet of meeting space. On the northwest side of the city, the Marriott/San Antonio Northwest has benefited from a recent remodel, while La Cantera Resort & Spa has added a new spa, restaurant and event areas.

In other hospitality news, Hotel Contessa has created a partnership with the Briscoe Western Art Museum to offer groups meeting space between the two properties. The museum's Jack Guenther Pavilion can host up to 2,200 attendees, while the adjacent hotel offers 11 conference rooms, a 2,277 square-foot ballroom and private courtyard space.

Downtown attractions that welcome special events include the Institute of Texan Cultures and the Buckhorn Saloon & Museum/Texas Ranger Museum. The Witte Museum recently underwent a $100 million renovation and expansion, and groups can look forward to dynamic new exhibits and experiences that reflect Texan culture. It also welcomes special events of up to 1,500.

Just north of the central Riverwalk area is the burgeoning Pearl District, named after the Pearl Brewery (with gathering space for up to 500) and home to many restaurants, cafes, shops and the new music venue Jazz, TX, the combination of an upscale jazz club and traditional Texas dance hall in the cellar of the Bottling House. Rounding out the scene is the riverfront Hotel Emma, which now has meeting space for up to 200.

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. Just three miles away, the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort & Spa is set on 300 acres of the historic Rogers-Wiseman family ranch.

From Victoria to the Rio Grande Valley: Options Across the Board

The crossroads of south Texas is the small city of Victoria, located 120 miles southeast of San Antonio. Groups that meet here can engage attendees with its rich history, various festivals, world-class saltwater fishing and some of the best barbecue in the country.

At Victoria College, groups can take advantage of the Emerging Technology Complex's Conference & Education Center or the Industrial Training Center. Off-campus options include the Victoria Community Center and a dozen hotels with their own event space. Attractions include the Texas Zoo and nearly 100 antebellum and Victorian buildings.

Down the coast, Corpus Christi woos groups with sheltered beaches and the Padre Island National Seashore. Conventions, trade shows and other events can be held at the American Bank Center complex. It offers a convention center with 76,500 square feet of exhibit space, 22 breakout rooms, a banquet room and a ballroom; 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. And more than 11,000 hotel rooms and condos are within easy reach.

The charming and historic city of 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.

In the Rio Grande Valley, at the southernmost tip of Texas, many groups meet 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, on South Padre Island, the South Padre Island Convention Centre has 45,000 square feet of meeting space.

Austin & the Texas Hill Country: Vibes & Vision

Austin prides itself on being much more than simply the Texas state capital. The city is the "Live Music Capital of the World," home to more than 250 music venues and annual host to the popular South by Southwest (SXSW) festivals. Its calendar is packed with other cultural and sports options. And its dining scene ranges from taco trucks and tapas to brisket and gospel brunches.

Downtown, the city's main meeting venue is 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. Connected to the center via the elevated Red River Canopy Walk is the Fairmont/Austin, scheduled to open in September with 1,048 guest rooms, six dining options, a spa and nearly 140,000 square feet of function space for up to 3,000 people.

At the University of Texas, the AT&T Executive Education & Conference Center has renovated guest rooms, some 40,000 square feet of meeting space and updated technology. Just west of the center is the new Rowling Hall, scheduled to open this summer 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 events of up to 120,000.

Two hotels that opened last year in Austin have garnered rave reviews: the Archer/Austin and the Hotel Van Zandt. The 171-room Archer/Austin opened last year at Domain Northside shopping and dining area. Amenities include indoor and outdoor function space for up to 850 people, a bar and restaurant and a pool. Downtown, Kimpton's Hotel Van Zandt has 11 meeting rooms and a hip hangout with live music, Geraldine's.

The Hyatt Regency/Austin, on the shores of Lady Bird Lake downtown, completed a multimillion-dollar renovation last year. All guest rooms were updated and its new, 14,136-square-foot Zilker Ballroom means the hotel can now accommodate events of groups of up to 2,300 people.

And the landmark Driskill, considered the community's hotel, celebrated its 130th anniversary in December with great fanfare and publicity. The hotel's 18,000-plus square feet of meeting space lends a sense of place to events.

About 25 miles southeast of town, in Cedar Creek, the Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort & Spa features indoor and outdoor meeting space for groups as large as 3,000. Planners can also customize attendees' stay with a wide variety of specialized activities.

To the north of Austin, in Georgetown, the full-service Sheraton Georgetown Texas Hotel & Conference Center opened last July with 222 guest rooms and function space for upwards of 1,700. Groups can head out for team building on a ropes course in the adjacent Rivery Park or enjoy hiking and biking on the banks of the San Gabriel River.

About 90 miles east, in Bryan, the Stella Hotel opened in April. In addition to 176 guest rooms, the property offers indoor meeting space for up to 479 people, outdoor lawn space and activities such as paddle boarding, picnics and yoga.

And a new hotel and conference center near Texas A&M University in College Station is expected to open by fall 2018; plans include 250 guest rooms, indoor and outdoor event space, a restaurant and a bar.

Think Big

When it comes to planning events, the scope of southeast Texas translates to countless options for creative association gatherings. From retreats in the Hill Country to team-building outings along the Gulf Coast to convention venues in cities like Austin, Houston and San Antonio, it's easy to see how bigger can truly be better.