How Irving, Texas, has Transformed Into a Bleisure Magnet
Visit Irving Executive Director Maura Gast shares how this Dallas Metroplex convention magnet, often described as the "headquarters of headquarters" due to the proliferation of Fortune 500 HQs, has transformed into an entertainment mecca and Bleisure draw.
Gast also details the new Ritz-Carlton taking over for the Four Seasons as well as the most recent meeting facility news and the 50th anniversary of Las Colinas, one of the first master-planned communities of its kind.
Editors note: The following transcription was facilitated by AI program Otter.ai and proofed by our editors. Although it is very accurate, there inevitably will be some mistakes, so please consider that when reading. Thank you.
Hello, and welcome to this Meetings Today Podcast. I'm Tyler Davidson, vice president and chief content director for Meetings Today, and really pleased to welcome an old friend, of myself and to the industry, to this broadcast: Maura Gast, who is the executive director for the Irving Convention and Visitor's Bureau. Thanks for joining us...
Oh, it's a pleasure, Tyler.
And, wow, I mean, you have kind of been running the business there for like 20 years now, and at the bureau for 32 and a half. And lots of things happening in the destination during that time that we're going to talk about, but, you know, since it's a football season right now and the Dallas Cowboys at the moment are on a big giant run—they may be kind of colliding with my 49ers at some point—but you guys used to have the stadium there and the Cowboys headquarters. And when they departed, I mean, it could have been really rough for any destination, but all the stuff that is happening there, you've really done so much. And I'm always just kind of rooting for you and for your continued success.
Well, thank you, sir. You know, it was a little bit of a heartbreaker when it happened. Obviously, we'd been home for a while the only place where any Super Bowls have ever been won—and just want to go on the record with all five of them only happened when the team was here. I'm not saying there's a change, but you know, whatever.
Now, they're still such a part of our identity. So that when they left, it was really a little bit of, "Okay, you know, they were part of us." And it's kind of like they grew up and moved out of the house, right? They're not coming back. But we had the ability to be empty nesters and reimagine what our future would look like without the Cowboys in our immediate backyard.
Obviously, they're still in the region. Obviously, they're still called the Dallas Cowboys, you know, so they're still good for us, and they're still good for the region.
The way the new stadium was built, it's drawn much bigger and larger events to the area. And because of where Irving sits geographically, we're in a great position to continue to capitalize on their presence here. But we've also made sure that we built some things of our own to stand on literally and figuratively, and because they left, I think we had the impetus to do those things.
I mean, you've turned into a massive entertainment destination, like the Toyota Music Factory. Of course, Las Colinas is celebrating—just celebrated—its 50th anniversary and is home to this massive amount of Fortune 500 companies. I think the statistic is there's a lot more people working there than in downtown Dallas?
Yeah, it's huge. You know, it is a huge urban center in the middle of a huge urban market. And you know, Las Colinas is a real estate development within the city of Irving...Today you see masterplan developments everywhere, but 50 years ago, this was a first of its kind, and because of how it was structured from a legal and financial standpoint, there's been nothing like it ever done again.
They were able to create and put to use a wide range of, for the time, just unheard-of financing structures and flood mitigation. I mean, this is a floodplain. The canals in the lake that are here are utilitarian and purposed. When Mr. Carpenter built this area, he saw an opportunity to make something out of utility and to make something more than functional, right? And so, that's kind of what we've tried to live by with everything that we've done and tried to really honor that.
But because of how he approached things out here, we've been able to stand on those shoulders. Irving is the headquarter of headquarters. You know, we have so many headquarter regional or international headquarters here within minutes of our offices in the convention center, within minutes of DFW International Airport and Love Field. We're equidistant between both amazing airports. It is easy to get here from everywhere.
Even more businesses are coming to Texas, too, that's the trend.
That's exactly true. You know, the amount of people that have come, that continue to come, to Texas every day...and Dallas Fort Worth—something like 30% of the state's jobs are here in Dallas/Fort Worth. I mean, it's just a huge central area and part of that is the airport. Part of that is that central location, not just in the country, but especially from a business standpoint, a doing business standpoint.
If you're bringing people together, the easier it is to get everybody to a place and get down to business, the better it is for the bottom line and for the organization. So, the ability to fly out on a Monday morning for Monday meetings that start Monday afternoon and go Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and get people back home on Friday, that's a luxury we have, and we've always had, and we now have it with even better and more air service.
Getting back to Las Colinas, there's big news there with the Four Seasons, and I guess the Ritz-Carlton is taking that over. And normally one would really hate to see luxury property like the Four Seasons leave, but a Ritz Carlton. I mean...
Right, right. You know, it's so funny, because you started with the Cowboys—you know, the Cowboys leaving. And of course, you know, we're like, "Oh, okay, we'll get through that." And, "Oh, my God, what do you mean, the Four Seasons is leaving?!” Then you realize, okay, well, when you have a property of that caliber, you know—getting into the just the nuts and bolts of the money side of it—when you have a property of that caliber, it takes a property of that caliber to pay the bills.
You know, that was one of our conversation points in the community, as people were hearing that the Four Seasons was leaving, and not really having a frame of reference to say, "Well, what does that mean?" You know, there were a lot of people who thought, because we lost the Byron Nelson golf tournament 5, 6, 7 years ago, that that was going to cripple the hotel. Like, it's one week a year, folks, you know?! They have to make a living the other 51...It's a very emotional and visceral reaction, understandably, you know? It's a crown jewel, not just for Irving but in the Metroplex, but then you say, "Okay, but look what's coming." Okay, you have this beautiful, high-end, elegant property that has [unintelligible] that are the scale of a beautiful high end elegant property, right?
So, you need something of that caliber to come in—I mean, just from the pure business functionality of a deal. And once we could kind of get people off the ledge and kind of thinking through that practically, and then obviously seeing as how it's playing out, seeing how the new ownership is putting a lot of money into what was already a lovely property, right? Putting a lot of money into the property to scale it even further up to where it'll wear that Ritz-Carlton flag come January,
With a significant amount of property renovations…
Nearly $60 million worth of property improvements. All the guest rooms are being touched, all the villas, the food and beverage outlets, the meeting spaces, everything is being touched. You know, it's going to be new and beautiful in a place that was always new and beautiful.
And then how about some other different renovations or significant hotel properties?
Well, I've got a funny one for you. I guess it's funny; I'm entertained by it. So, we have an Embassy Suites opening—should be opening in January—which is maybe three miles from the convention center; great location right at 114 and MacArthur. But the first time that piece of property was originally zoned for an Embassy Suites was more than 20 years ago. It has changed hands. It has changed developers. I don't know that it's fair to say it ever really started; it got as far as zoning several times that this time when it all came together, this time it actually came to fruition.
So, they will be opening soon and it's a lovely property. You know, one of the great things that happened with the Westin Irving Convention Center opening is that it allowed some of the other hotels close by—which were still in great shape—but you know, competition drives investment. So, you know, with the Westin coming online…The Marriott Las Colinas, its owners reinvested in that property, the Omni Las Colinas; their ownership reinvested in that property. They made the absolute most of the downtime during COVID and really chose to close down for a couple months to do the things that they needed to do to advance reinvestment.
So, you know, there's a beautiful new look at the Omni and more coming still. We've got the Embassy, we've got the Hotel Indigo; it's probably about a mile and a half east of where the Omni is that will be opening summer of '24.
We have some properties that have changed hands; we have a new Element, I think that's probably open since the last time you were here, at 114 and Green Park/Hidden Ridge.
So, again, another couple of miles. None of our hotels in the city are more than seven or eight miles from the convention center. None is more than seven or eight miles from DFW airport. So, all of them are in an easy location. So, that Element's been open for a couple of years now.
We've got a property that's now branded as a Candlewood. We've got some Sonesta flags where they took over certain things. We have what was originally once upon a time a Holiday Inn Holidome—for those people who've been around a long time—that will be reopening probably right around the end of this calendar year. Two Wyndham brands; so, Wyndham and Ramada within the one hotel.
So, certainly this area has always been a hotbed for hotel activity. And as you know, the hotel industry continues to invent new brands; Irving continues to be a place where those new brands are going to pop up.
But then at the Music Factory, too, there's a lot of reinventing happening there as well. The first property there opened in September of 2017, which is kind of hard to imagine it was that long ago, and it feels like yesterday. But there's new ownership there that now owns the lease and the agreement with the city. And they have brought forth some really big, bold ideas to the city for consideration. The city is working through those right now.
But one of the assets that is getting ready to open is a project called the Rayleigh Underground; it's right at the base of the Live Nation Pavilion, which is another great event space; about 40,000 feet of private space for private events, smaller-scale concerts, all those kinds of things. Brookfield, which is the new ownership group for the lease at the Music Factory, is looking at a lot more activations of the plaza itself, a lot more scaling of the plaza. And then, some of the simple things—we'll call it weather conditioning of the plaza. And, you know, thinking about shade structures, thinking about some of the other things and really thinking about trying to bring to the outside.... So, I think over time, they're looking at some different kinds of tenant strategies. There are office tenants that are now in there.
So, that's going to help support the restaurant tenants. But really making sure that the mix of restaurants and the mix of entertainment tenants that are in that structure really are a lot more diverse in what they have to offer.
And yeah, sounds like all sorts of great stuff. Music Factory—it's a kind of surprise now that Irving is like a big entertainment destination. And you must have a lot of not only business travelers, which you always have had because of your Fortune 500 base, but also probably leisure travelers to come in there.
Absolutely. That is exactly right. And it's funny, when we first started down this convention center, and ultimately entertainment district, project, one of our goals was to try to help drive weekend demand. Because corporate travel is cyclical, when the market is high, it's great. And when the market isn't, it isn't. So, how do we build something that can help stabilize Irving over the long term?
And really, since we opened the convention center in January of 2011, opened the Music Factory in '17, opened the Westin in '19, we have been able to drive weekend occupancy and weekend rates accordingly by bringing new demand into the market. So, it's definitely doing that. But also, now when we survey customers post-event, "What did you like the most? What did you like the least…" One of the things that pushed us down the road to try to make something happen on the entertainment venue side, because it was the number-one reason why we lost business.
You know, we lost over lack of things to do in Irving proper. We used to have a line item in our budget to bus people out of Irving for their off nights. We don't have to do that anymore. But that was something that would come up; they would come up with hotels with groups they were trying to book on their own: "What's your number one reason for lost business, if you had availability?" So, that became a really important piece of the conversation.
But now, it's not an issue anymore. You know, now when we ask questions in our visitor data gathering about, "Would you consider extending your travel time..."'Yes, we'll think about it!" We didn't rate really highly on that before.
You know, we have to kind of acknowledge that we weren't that place before, and we're getting there but we can't rest on our laurels. "We can't say, ‘Okay, we're done,’" Because every day somebody else is building and improving and doing something else. I think what we've done really well—and it's hard to do especially In a marketplace like Dallas/Fort Worth, where it's so competitive, and there's so much—you know, there's 23, 25, 35, I don't know how many cities and CVBS there are in this area—but you know, everybody's always trying to do the next thing, because if you don't, somebody else is gonna get to it.
And, you know, we can't be all things to all people, but what we can be is a really good place for grownups. And, you know, who we are by day and during the week for business is not a bad role for who we can be on the weekends, too. It doesn't mean we're not attractive to families, but the activities and things that we have and that we've built are really complementary to the grownups who are here during the week, We don't have to reinvent ourselves for the weekend. Stay a day longer, stay two or three. It's not such a big deal if you need to come here on a weekend anymore. It's a good thing; there's going to be things to do. If you're a convention or a meeting, and you've got an opening night and a closing night end event and one or two empty days in between, there are places for your sponsors, your convention sponsors, to take their clients out or to host offsite venues without having to go through a lot of expense or a lot of shuttle expense.
So, we knew where our opportunities were, and I think we've been really smartly focused, but we also know we can't just sit still now.
Anything else on the horizon that you can think of?
I learn so much every week, whether it's the acts coming into the Live Nation Pavilion, where—you know, I'm officially old at this point, because almost everything that comes in, I have to Google and go, "Is that a person? Is that a group? What is that thing that this is the name of? So, I learned a lot.
You know, the conventions that happen in the convention center itself, there's all sorts of groups of all kinds. You know, we had 800 people playing cornhole here all weekend. You know, three years ago, there was no such thing as a cornhole tournament, now it's really big business—players with play-by-play guys and sponsors and you know, patches and all that crazy stuff, so it's nuts. It's nuts, but it's great.
Things like that are growing—like crazy things like anime and the Comic-Con—things are growing like crazy. So are things like quilting and knitting and some old school things that have found new fans in much younger generations. So, to me it's just fascinating, and I love it and I love that every day is different here. It's probably why so many of us are still here. I love when I come into the parking garage and I can't find a spot because we're full. I love when I try to park in the loading dock and forget that it's a loading day and there's, you know, 20 minutes of trailers stacked up waiting for the dock to open so they can move in. And the boneyard looks full, and it makes me happy, happy, happy.
This is endless fascination. There's always something every day in this industry. Absolutely. Well, thank you for joining us for this podcast today.
My pleasure. It's always good to see you, Tyler, and happy move.
Talk to me in about a week with all that, yeah...
When I see you next summer at the DI convention, let me know if your boxes are unpacked.
That was Maura Gast, the executive director for the Irving Convention and Visitors Bureau. I'm Tyler Davidson, vice president and chief content director for Meetings Today.
Thank you for joining us for this Meetings Today Podcast. If you're interested in any of our other podcasts with industry thought leaders, head on over to MeetingsToday.com and check out our podcast section for a wealth of material.
I hope you enjoyed it today, and no matter what you're up to with the rest of it, go out and make it a great one.
This podcast was produced in collaboration with Visit Irving Texas.