If there’s any American city that knows how to reach for the stars, it’s Houston. Like 1969, with Apollo 11’s famous liftoff and subsequent first manned moon landing, last year was another one for the history books.
In a poetic culmination to a year that started on a high note with the hosting of the Super Bowl yet took a turn for the worse after Hurricane Harvey’s massive floods, H-Town’s Astros knocked it out of the park, bringing home the city’s first World Series Championship last November.
“It was a storybook ending that obviously lifted our spirits and was another reason for Houstonians to come together,” said John Solis, senior vice president, destination sales for Visit Houston. “We’re a team that came out of nowhere and just stuck together. I think we won a lot of hearts.”
That spirit of camaraderie and community has definitely prevailed as Houston has made great strides to recover from one of the worst natural disasters in history, but thankfully, its convention center campus and surrounding area was left relatively unharmed after the flooding last August.
“We are fortunate that the central business district was not severely affected, including the convention campus, which was spared, and we were very fortunate to keep all 11 citywides that were scheduled last fall, some of which had record attendance,” Solis said.
So what does 2018 have in store for Houston? Plenty.
Just as sculptor Ed Wilson’s giant mobile artwork in the lobby of the George R. Brown Convention Center is “Soaring,” so, it seems, is Houston’s popularity among groups.
“We have more than 25 citywides on our books for this year, compared to 17 last year, so 2018 is really starting to blossom,” Solis said.
The main focus this year, he added, is continuing to build upon the momentum the city created with the debut before last year’s Super Bowl of Avenida Houston, the city’s completely reimagined convention center district that is being unveiled in phases. This summer, it will open The Rustic, a 25,000-square-foot, event-ready dining and entertainment venue featuring farm-to-table, home-style fare, daily concerts, a retractable roof and a large outdoor patio.
Aside from the upcoming Rustic, Avenida is already home to truly innovative, eye-catching and flavorful venues, as Meetings Today discovered on a visit last year.
It’s easy to see why this business- and leisure-traveler-friendly epicenter, also a locals’ hot spot, has significantly elevated Houston’s image as one of the most vibrant, culturally rich meetings cities around.
Exploring Avenida Houston's Group Offerings
Within a completely walkable setting, Avenida is anchored by the lush 12-acre Discovery Green park, where outdoor concerts and festivals take place, and flanked by two hotels: the new Marriott Marquis and Hilton-Americas Houston, both directly connected to the George R. Brown Convention Center.
Meanwhile, three sports venues, Minute Maid Park, Toyota Center and BBVA Compass Stadium, are next door, and all throughout Avenida are major public art installations and award-winning restaurants.
Overlooking the entire campus from an expansive, 30th-floor corner suite at the Marriott Marquis Houston was certainly a “high point” of the experience, not to mention the bird’s-eye views from several of the meeting venues at Hilton-Americas Houston.
The rise of resort-style amenities at convention headquarters hotels is not lost on the Marriott Marquis. This super sleek hotel, which opened in December 2016, boasts a rooftop “pool and play” deck with a lazy river in the shape of Texas, an infinity pool, the hip High Dive bar and grill, and a game-filled special events pavilion—all with a panoramic view of Discovery Green.
“The Marriott Marquis was built with two goals in mind,” said Jay Marsella, director of sales and marketing. “We wanted to be the best hotel for group and business travel as well as a top leisure destination.”
Other great features of the property, which has 1,000 rooms and 100,000 square feet of meeting space, including the largest ballroom in Texas, are a two-story sports bar, a full-service spa and fitness center and two specialty restaurants, one of which is Xochi, whose chef, Hugo Ortega, won the 2017 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest after being nominated for the title for six consecutive years.
And deservedly so. While the James Beard Award was for his sister Houston restaurant Hugo’s, his culinary finesse was on display during our entire group meal at Xochi, bringing the culinary and indigenous riches of Oaxaca, Mexico, to new heights.
Delicious dishes included house-made masas, a variety of moles, beans cooked with avocado leaves and endlessly creative items such as callo de hacha, featuring scallops in mole verde, white beans, green beans, chayote and masa dumplings.
Meanwhile, another downtown property with resort-style amenities that also double as interesting group programs is the Four Seasons Hotel Houston. The resort completed a major renovation in early 2017.
Its entire lobby is now bathed in natural light with its grand staircase as the dramatic centerpiece. High points include a resort-style pool deck that is available for group events, a new spa and fitness center, and the world’s first-ever Topgolf-branded simulator at two indoor Topgolf Swing Suites, which host small group events. And what’s a virtual game of golf without a classic Southern sweet tea mule? Our group couldn’t resist.
Back on the Discovery Green campus, the impressive Hilton-Americas Houston, with 1,200 rooms and more than 91,000 square feet of function space, has long been a meetings favorite, particularly for large groups.
Next door, the George R. Brown Convention Center’s new indoor and outdoor art installations, in addition to new Avenida project features such as the on-site Grotto Downtown restaurant, are out of this world.
The mod, industrial-chic space is a favorite for locals—including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who we bumped into while enjoying lunch. Specializing in Southern Italian cuisine, including unique small plates, Neopolitan pizzas, pastas and entrees such as a wonderful whole branzino drizzled with a warm pancetta vinaigrette and served with celery slaw.
Our experience of Houston couldn’t have ended in a more stellar fashion: at the OKRA (Organized Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs) Charity Saloon, a hip, event-ready, loft-like venue where patrons buy a libation, receive a ticket worth the price of the drink and throw it in a pot for their favorite charity of the night.
Since opening in 2013, 100 percent of profits—just over $1 million and counting—have been given to local organizations. Supporting a good cause while raising a glass to the innovative H-Town chefs and restaurateurs behind the concept had everyone in high spirits. Another Houston home run—indeed.