Texas is home to 90-plus convention centers, according to the Office of the Governor, Economic Development and Tourism. These facilities collectively offer some eight million square feet of group space—that’s equivalent to more than 138 football fields.
From big city giants to regional venues of varying sizes, Texas houses a wide range of convention center options for meeting planners.
In Houston, for example, NRG Park, comprised of four venues, offers over three million square feet of indoor and outdoor space; and the George R. Brown Convention Center offers 1.2 million square feet of usable space in the heart of downtown.
Dallas groups can access one million square feet of exhibit space, three ballrooms and 88 meeting rooms at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center. Skybridge-connected to the 1,001-room Omni Dallas, the award-winning downtown venue also offers a 1,750-seat theater and 9,816-seat arena.
And now, San Antonio has new trade show muscle following the recent $325 million expansion of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. Hosting some 750,000 global delegates each year, the venue has 514,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space and the Stars at Night Ballroom—the largest ballroom in the state.
But the venues in these three cities are only the beginning. The Texas convention center scene is a highly competitive market that only keeps growing with each year. With new developments stretching from the DFW Metroplex to West Texas, here is a look at the latest news in the ever-evolving Lone Star State convention scene.
Convention Center Developments in Hill Country
Austin Convention Center
Transmitting voice, video and data at one billion-plus bits per second, the gigabit-rated Austin Convention Center is the perfect match for signature citywide events like SXSW.
In March 2019, the 34th edition of the two-week blockbuster event attracted some 417,400 attendees from the U.S. and 106 countries around the globe.
Other competitive advantages include its convenient downtown location just eight miles from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. With skywalk connections to the 800-room Hilton Austin and 1,048-room Fairmont Austin, the venue is within walking distance of 11,000-plus downtown hotel rooms and the city’s vibrant entertainment and dining districts.
Sustainability-minded planners will appreciate its LEED Gold certification, along with the its meeting space:
- 247,052 square feet of column-free space in five contiguous exhibit halls.
- 60-plus meeting rooms totaling over 58,000 square feet.
- Seven ballrooms, the largest at 15,288 square feet.
Currently spanning six city blocks, the four-level center, built in 1992, was last expanded in 2002.
Despite its amenities, the venue is showing its age, according to a 2019 study prepared for the City of Austin by The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture’s Center for Sustainable Development.
The report’s Executive Summary states that “today the Austin Convention Center is undersized in comparison to comparable facilities in peer cities such as Denver and Nashville. Its limitations do not simply concern its size and age; the surrounding context of Downtown Austin has dramatically changed in the decade and a half since the last expansion.”
Unanimously supported by the Austin City Council, discussions are now underway on a proposed expansion project. In June 2019, the center’s director, Mark Tester, stated that “this is truly a long-range and transformative plan for both the Austin Convention Center and the surrounding area and will be completed in phases over time. The first phase…is to design, build, and open the expanded facility across the street from our current facility. After opening, the plan calls for a re-visioning of our current facility to better accommodate the needs of our customers and community.”
Continuing discussions this fall are expected to produce a more comprehensive timeline.
Kalahari Resorts & Conventions Round Rock
Wisconsin-based Kalahari Resorts & Conventions is making a major splash in the Hill Country region, which according to Texas Tourism, attracted nearly $9.9 billion in travel spending in 2018.
In May 2018, the company, which has hosted more than 22,000 groups at its three existing properties over the past 20-plus years, broke ground on its fourth U.S resort in Round Rock, 15 miles north of Austin.
“Kalahari Resorts combines the best in family-friendly resort amenities with massive, state-of-the-art convention space leading to an average 20% increase in meeting attendance,” informed a company spokesperson, adding that the 1.5 million-square-foot resort complex, set on 350 acres, is projected to be the largest and grandest Kalahari resort yet.
Rendering of new Kalahari resort and convention center in Round Rock, Credit: Kalahari Resorts & Conventions
Slated for November 2020, the $550 million investment is expected to open with 990 guest rooms, including residential suites, and 200,000 square feet of flexible convention space. Venue highlights include:
- Two ballrooms, at 40,000 and 22,000 square feet, respectively.
- 16 meeting rooms.
- Multiple hospitality suites with flexible space.
- 50,000 square feet of outdoor event space.
- America’s largest indoor waterpark, at 223,000 square feet.
- The 80,000-square-foot Tom Foolery’s Adventure Park, featuring thrill rides, ropes course, climbing walls and more.
- Conventioneers will also have five full-service restaurants, full-service spa and salon, and 10,000 square feet of retail space.
But why Round Rock?
“The Nelson family, owners and operators of Kalahari Resorts, felt a pull to Texas for their first location in the Southwest and initially eyed Austin for the development because of the state capital, international airport and steady influx of tourists and visitors to the region,” said company founder and owner Todd Nelson. “But Round Rock proved to be more business friendly than Austin, while still offering the proximity and tourism of Austin and Dell Diamond, with a community/family feel that was important to the Nelsons.”
In terms of competitive positioning within the local and regional Texas market, Nelson said that “everything’s bigger in Texas and that’s an important synergy with the Kalahari brand.” He also expects that in introducing the brand to the Southwest market, with the proximity to the Austin metropolitan area and an international airport, “will set the stage for Kalahari to greatly increase national planner awareness and attract national and international events.”
Northern Dallas Suburb Allen, Texas Opens New Convention Center
Located in Collin County, a northern suburb of Dallas, Allen heightened its profile in the North Texas group market with the January 2019 opening of the Delta Hotels by Marriott Dallas Allen & Watters Creek Convention Center.
Managed by Benchmark Resorts & Hotels, the $91 million project integrates a full-service 300-room Delta with 79,000 square feet of versatile space. Highlights include 40,000 square feet of column-free convention space with breakout rooms; 1,000-car parking garage; and upscale restaurant and destination bar.
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The venue is under 30 minutes from Downtown Dallas, Dallas Love Field and DFW International Airport. Across the street, the popular Watters Creek at Montgomery Farm development features 50 restaurants, bars and shops.
New Convention Centers Energize the West Texas Market
Midland’s newly named Barbara & George H.W. Bush Convention Center is scheduled to open in late September 2019. Owned by the City of Midland and operated by the Midland Chamber of Commerce, the $42.8 million venue in the heart of downtown offers 76,000-plus square feet of versatile space. Highlights include 20,000 square feet of exhibit space; 3,000 square feet of meeting space; and 6,000 square feet of ballroom space.
Interior rendering of Barbara & George H.W. Bush Convention Center in Midland, Credit: Barbara & George H.W. Bush Convention Center
Slated for spring 2020, the convention center-adjacent Centennial Park is a separate $12 million project introducing an outdoor stage, event lawn, pavilion and other amenities.
“More than doubling our capacity, the Bush Convention Center and outdoor space will transform our city,” said Abigail Davis, the center’s marketing and events specialist. “The new versatility includes hosting multiple events simultaneously in three distinct spaces, from private parties to multi-day conventions and trade shows. As of July 2019, we have some 80 bookings with 180-plus event days for the first year.”
In neighboring Odessa, the new $77 million Odessa Marriott Hotel and Conference Center was scheduled to open in late August 2019.
Designed to catalyze the renaissance of downtown Odessa, the integrated development features the city’s first AAA Four Diamond property, with 211 guestrooms, resort-style swimming pool and 46,000 square-foot, 2,000-capacity conference center.
Odessa Marriot Hotel and Conference Center, Credit: Odessa CVB
Creating the largest amount of meeting space in the Permian Basin, event venues at the property include:
- An 18,000-square-foot ballroom.
- Prefunction space.
- Outdoor garden space.
- An open-air plaza.
- Restoration of the connecting circa-1951 Ector Theatre, slated for November 2019.
The property’s “ruggedly refined” design pays homage to the rich oil and mineral history of West Texas, while incorporating renewable energy sources such as wind-powered sculptures and solar “Smart Flower” powering the onsite Starbucks.
“With 20 bookings and over 3,500 group room nights as of July 2019, this property gives Odessa the opportunity to draw an expanded variety of events such as conferences, tradeshows and weekly luncheons,” said Odessa CVB Director Monica Tschauner.
On the Horizon: Convention and Conference Center Developments to Watch
Discussions are underway for the proposed demolition and revamp of the Fort Worth Convention Center. Updating a 2014 market and financial feasibility study for updating the storied building—last renovated in 2004 and still retaining its iconic but outdated saucer-shaped arena from 1968—prospective plans call for an estimated $380 million in upgraded and expanded exhibit and ballroom space.
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This is all in addition to a potential new 1,000-room headquarter hotel and enhanced downtown connectivity.
Reported target dates include an initial design phase sometime between 2020 and 2022, and project completion between 2025 and 2027.
Slated to break ground in 2019, Seven Hills Resort and Conference Center will become Fredericksburg’s first full-service hotel, with 150 hotel rooms and 11 standalone units. The $74.5 million development will reportedly offer at least 17,500 square feet of conference space, including a 12,000-square-foot ballroom and six breakout rooms, and outdoor event space.
Targeting a 2021 opening, planning is reportedly “actively” underway for a $75 million hotel and conference center in the Cinnamon Shore multi-use development in Port Aransas on the Texas Gulf Coast.
3 Texas Convention Spaces Planners Can Always Count On
Across Texas, planners are never far from prime convention, expo and conference space. Here are three major operators on the scene that planners can count on as mainstays.
Comprising the 340,000-square-foot Amarillo Civic Center and acoustically superior Globe-News Center for the Performing Arts, the multi-purpose Amarillo Civic Center Complex is a leading destination for Panhandle conventions and events.
The facility contains two exhibit halls, two ballrooms and several meeting room spaces for business meetings, banquets, conventions and trade shows.
Opened in August 2018, Benchmark Resorts & Hotels’ 252,500-square-foot Doug Pitcock ’49 Texas A&M Hotel and Conference Center features 250 luxury guest rooms and suites and 35,000 square feet of IACC-certified space on the Texas A&M University campus in centrally located Bryan College Station.
Doug Pitcock '49 Texas A&M Hotel and Conference Center, Credit: Courtesy of Benchmark Hospitality
Hosting some 500 events and averaging 400,000 attendees annually, the McAllen Convention Center is a Rio Grande Valley anchor. Set on an 18.5-acre campus, highlights at this southern Texas meeting mecca include the 60,000-square-foot column-free exhibit hall, grand ballroom and 16 breakout rooms.
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