Lone Star storylines infuse many meeting venues with a powerful spirit and sense of place. Take the Smithsonian-affiliated The Witte Museum in San Antonio, for example.
Opened in 1926, The Witte emerged as a gathering place for artists, researchers, scholars and the general community. In the 1930s, the museum commenced pioneering archaeological research in the prehistoric Lower Pecos Canyonlands of southwest Texas. About 150 miles west of San Antonio, this ancient landscape of river bends, plunging canyons and sheltered overhangs was inhabited by hunter-gatherers for some 9,000 years.
Their story is told today at The Witte’s People of the Pecos Gallery. Spanning the entire second floor, the expanded space is part of a sweeping $100 million renovation unveiled this March. Capping a 15-year transformation, the update incorporates an innovative, technology-driven concept called Texas Deep Time (see “Zoom In,” page 30), which immerses visitors in Texas history over successive eras, from millions to thousands to hundreds of years ago.
Along with detailed “lifeways” dioramas and rock art (The Witte offers guided rock art tours in the Lower Pecos region itself), the People of the Pecos Gallery presents a wide-screen narrated video powerfully depicting life in the region, imagined night skies included, from 4,200 years ago.
The video moved me to tears, and I was not alone. The little girl next to me asked her mother, “Can we see something happy now?” Speaking afterward with Marise McDermott, the museum’s president & CEO since 2004 and driving force behind its transformation, she affirmed The Witte’s focus on fostering “deeper engagement and milestone experiences” for visitors, meeting and event groups included.
Needless to say, it’s working. From haunting to inspiring to exhilarating, Texas is a whole other set of emotions, too. The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, overlooking the JFK assassination site. The Alamo and its sister missions. Space Center Houston. Defining coordinates abound across the state—alongside exceptional convention and hotel product.
From long-time anchors to recent game-changers, here is a diverse cross-category mix of leading Texas venues for moving the agenda to greater heights.
Featuring 900-plus exhibits over 55,000 square feet of space, this six-acre, three-museum complex in Fredericksburg’s historic downtown is the only such U.S. institution focused on the human story of the Pacific campaign in World War II. Following multimillion-dollar upgrades in 2009 and this year, the museum, driven to “inspire our youth by honoring our heroes,” is a must for Hill Country convention groups.
The flagship of the complex is the Admiral Nimitz Museum. Formerly the Nimitz Steamboat Hotel, this late 1800s landmark was the birthplace and childhood home of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, the heroic five-star commander of the Pacific Fleet in World War II.
Fitted with modern technology, the restored grand ballroom, once the heart of the Fredericksburg social scene, is an evocative choice for events. Other spaces include the second-floor Cailloux Education Center and intimate Hubbard Boardroom.
Gripping throughout, the George H.W. Bush Gallery presents the span of the Pacific War story through multimedia presentations, interactive displays and true artifacts including tanks, artillery, planes and boats. Outside, the Plaza of Presidents (10 American presidents who served during WWII), Japanese Garden of Peace and Memorial Courtyard invite quiet reflection.
Truly unforgettable for groups is the WWII Pacific Combat Program. On set weekends throughout the year, volunteers discuss Pacific War weaponry and equipment—before engaging in a full battle reenactment, complete with machine gun fire, grenade blasts and flamethrowers.
Austin Convention Center
Spanning six city blocks in the heart of downtown Austin, this nationally recognized facility has kept pace with the changing times, as surging hotel and high-tech industry growth continue to transform the Texas capital.
Winner of the Prime Site Award every year since 1995, the Center’s forefront credentials make it a leader in the convention and meetings industry. With 369,132 square feet of total space, the LEED Gold-certified building offers 247,052 contiguous square feet of column-free exhibit space; 54 meeting rooms totaling over 58,000 square feet; and seven ballrooms, the largest at 40,510 square feet. Plus, the adjacent 800-room Hilton Austin, and 1,700 spaces in two parking garages.
The gigabit-rated facility is also one of the nation’s most technologically advanced convention centers, transmitting voice, video and data at over 1 billion bits per second.
“We have evolved with the needs of meeting and event planners,” said Mark Tester, the center’s director since 2008. “The emergence of ‘open space learning’ for events is one source of new clients. Austin’s new identity is also attracting tech and medical groups, which typically look to larger first-tier cities for their events, but are bringing their trade and consumer shows here.”
As blockbuster events like SXSW and the Austin City Limits Music Festival amp up Austin’s destination appeal—weekend tourism especially—the center also helps fill the Monday to Thursday weekday gap.
“This results in over 80 percent downtown hotel occupancy, which is fantastic,” Tester said. “We work closely with Visit Austin to ensure a positive experience for every group in the city that uses our facility.”
As late collectors and philanthropists Dominique and John de Menil intended, viewing their peerless art and artifacts—assembled from the 1940s to the 1990s and gifted to Houston—is a spiritual experience beyond words.
Opened 30 years ago, the building, designed by preeminent museum architect Renzo Piano, anchors a 30-acre neighborhood of art. There is no admission fee; there are also no guided tours or event facilities. Yet, for groups seeking spiritual inspiration, the leafy grounds and museum’s interiors are truly a place to “lose your head.”