South (Destination)
Destination / September 05, 2017

Texas continues to expand in all directions

by Jeff Heilman

  • Discovery Green Park, Houston

    Discovery Green Park, Houston


    Discovery Green Park, Houston

    Discovery Green Park, Houston
  • AT&T Stadium, ARLINGTON

    AT&T Stadium, ARLINGTON


    AT&T Stadium, ARLINGTON | Photo by Arlington CVB

    AT&T Stadium, ARLINGTON
  • Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center

    Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center


    Cantilever Room, Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, San Antonio | Photo by Visit San Antonio

    Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center

In the last decade, direct economic impact from the Texas travel industry increased from around $56 billion to nearly $70 billion. From blockbuster convention center upgrades to citywide transformations, expansion has also been the operative word for Texas DMOs. As bureau leaders share here, these impactful times show few signs of slowing.

Metroplex Moves

Phillip Jones had work to do when becoming the Dallas CVB’s president and CEO in 2003.  

“I inherited an organization in debt and performing below potential,” Jones recalled. “Today, we are proudly on solid financial ground with several million in reserves.”

Rebranded in November 2016, VisitDallas’ numbers have soared.

“We have since grown group business from half-a-million room nights to more than 2.1 million room nights, and from 10 citywide events to 36,” Jones said. “And, Dallas is the only Texas city ranked in the Top 10 of Cvent’s meeting preference report.”

From game-changers like the Omni Dallas Hotel (see “Sites to Behold,” page 26) and the nation’s largest contiguous art district, the Dallas scene has also been wholly transformed.

“Thriving, growing and vibrant, the new Dallas is a destination where people want to visit and hold conventions,” Jones continued. “We’re excited for the future.”
New divisions, such as the Dallas Sports Commission, and organizational changes, including Jones’ creation last October of a unique C-level role and entire division devoted to customer experience, have energized the bureau as well.

Fort Worth is riding strong on continuing investment in new hotels and venues.

“Previously lacking first-class inventory available in similar markets, Fort Worth gained relevancy as a meeting, convention and tradeshow destination over the last decade through products such as the 2008 reopening of the Sheraton, 2009 opening of the Omni Hotel and 2013 arrival of Sundance Square Plaza,” said Fort Worth CVB Vice President of Sales John Cychol.

Behind massive AT&T Stadium (2009) and a new dedicated sports department (2013), it’s game-on in Arlington.

“Our brand has especially evolved as a sporting destination, from professional through youth levels,” said Arlington CVB Vice President of Sales Jon Hixon. “This helped propel annual bookings from under 80 a decade ago to 140-plus in fiscal 2016, with associated room nights tripling from 30,000 to 90,000-plus in the same period. And national anticipation is growing for major new projects like multiuse Texas Live! and a new Texas Rangers ballpark.”

Grapevine, offering 1 million square feet of meeting space, 11,000-plus rooms and full-bodied, authentic product diversity for up to 9,000-person meetings, has proven fertile ground for expansion.

“Over the last decade, Grapevine has added major hotel and resort brands, new business ventures, world-class restaurants, winery tasting rooms, attractions and amenities that enhance Grapevine’s global reputation as a top meetings destination,” said Brady Closson, the Grapevine CVB’s managing director of sales and marketing.

Adding pillars such as the Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center (2004), Great Wolf Lodge (2007) and LEGOLAND Discovery Center and SEA LIFE Grapevine Aquarium (2011), Grapevine supports everything from large-scale conferences to family-friendly off-agenda fun.

“We are always striving for face-to-face meetings and site visits to help maximize opportunities for our stakeholders,” Closson added.

Mesquite has strengthened its presence in the SMERF, association and sports markets over the last decade.

“Successes range from international church groups to expanded sports programming, including arena football, added last year,” said Mesquite CVB Director Judy Skowron. “Having a 5,500-seat indoor arena in our meetings complex has also allowed us to expand our hosting of unique groups with specialized needs, ranging from dog, cat and equine shows to auto racing events and fishing and boat shows.”

Hot for Houston

Named the 10th most joyous place on Earth in Conde Nast Traveler’s 2017 “Joy Index” for its art, architecture, dining and more, America’s fourth-largest city, welcoming and inclusive, has much to celebrate.

“Over the last 10 years, Houston has gained national recognition for its global appeal as the ‘Culinary and Cultural Capital of the South,’” said Visit Houston President Mike Waterman.

“Once known solely for its strength in aerospace, biomedical research, health care and energy, Houston is now an attractive destination for both business and leisure visitors alike.”

For groups, evolution meant “flipping the old model of convention centers as big empty boxes, often set apart from the vibrancy of a city,” as Waterman explained.

“Knowing that attendees seek more personality in meeting spaces today, we led the charge, transforming our convention campus into Avenida Houston,” he said.
Part of a recently completed $175 million initiative, the Avenida entertainment district fronts the renovated George R. Brown Convention Center with a 97,000-square-foot, amenity-rich pedestrian plaza.

Long anchored by the AAA Four Diamond, skywalk-connected Hilton Americas-Houston, offering 1,200 rooms and 91,500 square feet of flexible space, the convention campus—largest in Texas—includes the new Marriott Marquis Houston headquarter hotel and Discovery Green park.  

“Reimagining our meetings spaces and infusing them with local food, art and entertainment provides groups with a one-of-a-kind, authentically Houston experience,” Waterman said.

Long recognized as a superior place to live and work, The Woodlands, the landmark master-planned residential community north of Houston, also attracts millions of domestic and international visitors each year for shopping, dining, hospitality and entertainment. Now, behind new hotels, major corporate relocations—and a newly energized DMO—count meetings and conventions in the fold.

“Two years ago, The Woodlands CVB switched its focus to operate as a DMO,” explained Nick Wolda, bureau president. “Our board of directors directed us to participate in more state and national conferences and tradeshows to promote The Woodlands as a great destination for meetings and conventions.”

Rebranded as Visit The Woodlands in May 2017, the bureau has much to promote in this lush enclave, just 20 minutes from Bush Intercontinental Airport. Key assets include the world’s second-most popular outdoor concert facility, The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, while recent hotel additions have boosted total group capacity to 2,251 rooms and 160,000 square feet of space.

Super San Antonio  

Once three miles long, San Antonio’s iconic River Walk now meanders 15 miles around the city, including the eight-mile Mission Reach, extending to the Alamo’s four sibling UNESCO World Heritage Site Spanish colonial missions.

Preparing for its year-long tricentennial celebration in 2018, San Antonio itself has extended its reach to become a leading convention city.

“San Antonio has evolved into a forward-thinking, modern meeting destination amid a city of history and culture,” said Visit San Antonio President & CEO Casandra Matej. “The $325 million expansion of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, completed in March 2016, is a game-changer that allows us to meet current and future industry needs with innovative design, flexible space and advanced technology.”

Notably, the center, which increased to 1.6 million square feet, including 514,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space and the largest ballroom in Texas, is purpose-built for connections and interaction. This on-trend feature underscores San Antonio’s group market savvy.

“Meeting planners are now expected to create events that foster networking and environments that facilitate professional and personal learning experiences,” Matej said. “Visit San Antonio is adapting to this by bringing together a greater volume of local business and creative industries to provide a richer attendee experience.”

One prime example is the multiuse Pearl. Updating the 1800s-era Pearl Brewery complex, the event-programmable development features 20 chef-driven eateries, the Latin-focused third campus of the Culinary Institute of America and stunning Hotel Emma, located in the former brewhouse.

About 70 miles northwest of San Antonio, Fredericksburg rewards small association and corporate groups with wine, music and history.

“The significant growth of the Texas Hill Country wine industry, with Fredericksburg as the epicenter, has been a game-changer,” said Ernie Loeffler, who celebrates his 20th anniversary as Fredericksburg CVB president and CEO next year (see “Industry Insights,” page 18). “Since 1998, the area has grown from four to 40 wineries and winery-owned tasting rooms. Plus, 15 wine tour companies are now headquartered in Fredericksburg, providing meeting planners with the resources for memorable wine country and culinary experiences.”

Ascendant Austin

Ten years ago, Texas’ capital city grooved to its own laid-back beat. Since then, an influx of high-tech companies, the juggernaut expansion of the South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference and Festivals, and continuing runaway hotel growth have redefined Austin entirely.

“New high-rise luxury hotels, including Marriott, Fairmont and Kimpton, are attracting more national corporate and association business, particularly incentive, tech and medical groups, along with customers loyal to those brands,” said Steve Genovesi, Visit Austin’s senior vice president of sales.  

The high-tech Austin Convention Center also expanded (see “Sites to Behold”, page 26), along with Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, now offering nonstops to 50-plus destinations, including London, Frankfurt and Toronto, and with more gates planned.

The Gifted Gulf Coast

In September 2008, the month Meetings Texas launched, Galveston Island was devastated by Hurricane Ike. The rebound, however, was hidden gold.

“We had to literally rebuild and reinvent the island in many ways,” said Galveston Island CVB Director Meg Winchester. “Hundreds of millions of dollars were invested in new and improved attractions, hotels and venues. Opened in 2012, the $60 million Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier, for one, has become iconic for the island. National buzz around the rebirth also energized our meetings market, and today more planners are interested in Galveston than ever before.”

With major reinvestments that include key properties like Moody Gardens (see “Sites to Behold,” page 26), meetings booked by the bureau within the last decade have had major economic impact, up 456 percent from around $8.5 million to just shy of $48 million.  

In Beaumont, consistency is a brand hallmark.

“As our destination continues to evolve, Beaumont stays true to delivering unique experiences outside of traditional meeting formats,” said Stephanie Molina, director of marketing for the Beaumont CVB. “Our industry remains steady, while we stay on-trend with offerings including personalized FAMs, CSR programs, fitness breaks and green facility upgrades.”

Westward Expansion  

In El Paso, meetings have become big news—literally.

“Our community understands the importance of tourism and conventions, and their impact on our economy,” said Bryan Crowe, general manager for Destination El Paso. “While an association’s presence or impact may go unnoticed in other cities, El Paso groups frequently find themselves on the front page of the paper, garnering significant media attention and feeling like true VIPs.”

Attracting accolades from national outlets across categories such as business-friendliness, quality of life and cultural strength, Sun City is basking in continuing growth, principally behind diverse projects rolling out from the $500 million Quality of Life Bond.

“Currently undergoing a downtown renaissance, El Paso has changed dramatically, especially the last five years,” Crowe said. “This will continue due to public and private investment in hotels and other products.”

He added, “We have long touted that real adventure is alive and well—and living here in El Paso. We did not have to adapt to the industry shift away from canned meetings toward truly unique, authentic and memorable experiences—that has always been our story.”

While forever embracing its West Texas heritage, Midland has outgrown its small-town roots, as Stephanie Martin, director of newly rebranded VisitMidland, explained.

“Scheduled for 2019, the new Midland Convention Center moves us to the forefront as a meetings destination,” she said. “This represents one of several steps taken by our city and county leadership over the last decade to increase meeting space and accommodate for our growing visitor and resident populations.”

Opened in 2006, the versatile 100-acre Midland County Horseshoe complex includes 59,000 square feet of meeting space and a 4,500-capacity outdoor amphitheater, added in 2016.
Adding 20 properties since 2008, Midland’s 58 hotels today offer 4,800 total rooms, with 185,000 square feet of flexible space currently available citywide.

Significantly evolving its large-scale hosting capacity over the last decade, the “Hub City” of Lubbock is well positioned for yet more success.

“Behind key investments such as the 303-room Overton Hotel & Conference Center, offering 20,000 square feet of meeting space, and renovations to the Lubbock Memorial Civic Center, we are excited to welcome more people to West Texas,” said Amy Zientek, Visit Lubbock’s director of sales. “Anticipation is especially high since we broke ground this spring for the new $155 million Buddy Holly Hall of Performing Arts and Sciences, destined to be the crown jewel of our Cultural Arts District.”

In Amarillo, a new vision of the city as a regional hub for meetings, with strong support from local government, is energizing the destination’s multifaceted brand.

“While continuing to emphasize our Western heritage and value as a destination, we are sharing the news that downtown Amarillo is coming back strongly and that our Route 66 neighborhoods (see “Industry Insights,” page 18) are as vital to our story as anything,” said Dan Quandt, vice president of the Amarillo Convention & Visitor Council. “And with the Embassy Suites Downtown Amarillo headquarter hotel scheduled to open this fall, we will have well over 6,000 rooms, which places us in the 10 largest Texas cities as measured by available hotel rooms.”

Southern Shifts

Over the last decade, McAllen’s inventory has grown 15 percent to 4,000 rooms, including five new properties in the last year alone. With 7,500-plus rooms available area-wide, ADR has remained low, making affordability one of the many reasons to book this increasingly sophisticated city.  

“McAllen has been lucky in that, being a smaller city, it’s now being discovered by meeting planners seeking fresh, slightly offbeat alternatives to the same old routine,” said Nancy Millar, vice president and director of rebranded Visit McAllen. “An increased emphasis on quality of life developments has produced an active and varied nightlife scene, diverse culinary offerings, superior meeting and performance venues, and healthy arts and cultural scene”

Huge retail growth is another lure, along with McAllen’s bi-cultural charm.

“Plus, we have the lowest cost of living in the country,” Millar said.

In Laredo, the 10-year lookback is profound.

“As a community, we are an estuary of all things Texan, Mexican and American,” said Laredo CVB Executive Director Blasita Lopez. “Against political rhetoric and the potential volatility of our border location, we have focused on telling our ‘real’ story, and not the one in the news. That is, how we are a thriving, vibrant, business-progressive community with great meeting venues and hotels. In refining and polishing our brand to be less ‘two nations’ and much more Laredo-focused, meeting groups continue to discover that we are an authentic, welcoming part of Texas on the country’s edge.” 

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