April 2017

Galveston Island offers history, amenities and the beach

Texas Treasure

by Judy Williams
 

Galveston scores big with groups.

Planners are ever in search of the perfect location; the one that combines affordability with first-class hotels and meeting facilities. On all those accounts, Galveston scores big, with the added allure of its location on a breathtaking barrier island, surrounded by a plethora of beaches. It also tempts with its rich, colorful history and endless charm.

“Galveston is an affordable beach destination that offers a beautiful, tropical environment, world-class facilities, historic charm and plenty of tourist attractions, allowing meeting attendees to truly mix business with pleasure,” said Meg Winchester, director of the Galveston Island CVB.  

Located on the Gulf of Mexico just 50 miles south of Houston, Galveston is a historic beach town offering 32 miles of replenished beaches, 5,000 guest rooms, the full-service Galveston Island Convention Center at The San Luis Resort, Texas’ premier cruise port and a variety of cultural and family attractions. It is also home to architectural treasures such as the Bishop’s Palace, a Victorian castle built from 1886 to 1892 and cited by the American Institute of Architects as one of the 100 most important buildings in America. Consistently mild temperatures also make Galveston a year-round destination.  

“We always hold our conference in early December and the weather during that time is warm, more often than not,” said Diana Everett, executive director for the Austin, Texas-based Texas Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (TAHPERD).

Everett’s group of 2,500 attendees has met in Galveston eight times, and while her attendees “love” that it accommodates activities like kayaking, outdoor “Dutch oven” cooking and zipline activities, it’s the history of Galveston that won Everett’s heart.

“It is so rich with tales from the early settlement by pirates, to the gambling days of the ’50s, to its survival of incredible hurricanes,” she said. “When I go back to visit on my own time, I enjoy the history tours.”

“Galveston is special for so many reasons,” said Bill Keese, executive director of the Association of Progressive Rental Organizations (APRO) in Austin.

Working closely with the CVB, Keese is bringing his group of 650 to Galveston this May, the first time the group has met in Texas in its 37-year history.  

“It’s laid-back, the convention center overlooks palm trees, the beach and the Gulf of Mexico, and there are plenty of great restaurants and other activities,” he said.

Keese also finds the destination’s CVB helpful when organizing a meeting.

“The CVB is phenomenal,” Keese said.

He felt confident booking Galveston because as immediate past chair of the Texas Society of Association Executives (TSAE), he knew from the TSAE event held there in 2013 that Galveston had everything APRO was looking for in a meeting. For TSAE in 2013, Keese rented out the entire Pleasure Pier for his group of 600, including all the rides, events and food and beverage stations for his group.  

“The Pleasure Pier is a marvelous venue on a pier, with a phenomenal view of both downtown and the Gulf of Mexico,” Keese said. “Frankly, the TSAE in Galveston was the most fun conference I ever attended.”

Historic Galveston

Keese stated that of all the islands off the coast of the U.S., Galveston Island, with its glorious, rich history, is the country’s hidden gem.  

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The history dates to the 1830s-’50s, when Galveston was still a republic and thumbed its nose at the law; prostitution and gambling were conducted in the open. Home to the legendary Balinese Room nightclub, by the mid-1950s stars such as Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee frequented this haven of sin and much of this history remains today for groups to enjoy.  

While the Balinese Room was destroyed by Hurricane Ike in 2008, the Strand Historic District, with 36 blocks on the port side of the island, features more than 100 shops, restaurants, attractions and art galleries; horse-drawn carriages still travel its streets. The Strand was the heart of Galveston in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the city was known as the “Wall Street of the Southwest.”  

“Spouses love shopping on the Strand,” said Heather Hidalgo, program administrator for the Texas Justice Court Training Center (TJCTC), in Austin. “There is so much to do all day long, which is perfect for many of my attendees who bring their families.”  

Hidalgo also noted that Galveston offers many great restaurants, especially seafood, and many venues for after-hours activities. Her attendees like to cut loose in the evenings, enjoying the endless options on the Boardwalk, Pleasure Pier and the Strand.  

Location, Location

Another benefit for groups in Galveston is the location of its facilities. Situated on Galveston’s famed Seawall Boulevard, The Galveston Island Convention Center at The San Luis Resort’s oceanside location features 140,000 square feet of flexible meeting space, including a 43,100-square-foot exhibition hall, 15,500-square-foot grand ballroom, 12,000 square feet of breakout meeting space and 29,000 square feet of prefunction space.

Beachside access aside, the convention center recently upgraded its network infrastructure, and planners like Lori Gracey, executive director of the Austin-based Texas Computer Education Association, appreciated the enhancement.  

“They have upgraded on par with, in fact way above—in terms of the Internet—most other convention centers,” she said. “Their Internet service is fast and reliable, and today with social media, having that access is a key difference for our attendees.”

The cost of doing business in Galveston is also appealing to planners.

“Pricing is incredibly reasonable,” Gracey said.

Dealing with educators with limited budgets can be incredibly challenging, she said, but added that the hotels in Galveston are always willing to work with her to meet her budget, many allowing three or four adults with the same group to share rooms without the usual added surcharges.  

Heather Hidalgo’s groups, comprised mostly of county employees, are also constrained by budget, but she has had great success negotiating packages with hotels such as The San Luis, especially for her F&B component (including continuous coffee and buffet lunches).  

“They work with our budget and provide fantastic F&B,” she said. “They’ll even change the buffet theme every day for lunches. And for breaks, instead of plain old cookies, they get creative and provide fun snacks such as ice-cream bars, popcorn or crudites.”