In the late 1800s, cowboys herded longhorn cattle up from southern Texas to the Kansas railroads along what was called the Chisholm Trail. Fort Worth was the busiest distribution point along the route, luring all types of wealth-seeking Westerners to the booming livestock capital widely referred to as “Cowtown.” Now you know where that term came from.
All that cowpoke history thrives today unabashedly in cosmopolitan Fort Worth. From the world’s largest honky tonk to the National Cowgirl Museum, a surprisingly wide and impressive array of meeting and cultural venues are close to Fort Worth Convention Center in the downtown core.
For example, the Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District sells itself as a place where, back in the day, “horse traders, hog dealers and harlots mixed with harness makers and mule dealers.” Over 100 years old, the preserved, working cattle facility is three miles north of downtown where cowboys herd cattle down Exchange Avenue into pens for public viewing, twice daily.
The Stockyards is also home to the aforementioned, world-famous holy grail of honky tonks, Billy Bob’s Texas—base camp for all stripes of Texas-style teambuilding. Just some of the activities designed for groups include line dancing lessons, calf roping lessons, poker tourneys, chili cooking classes, GPS scavenger hunts, horseback riding, guided cattle drives and the always popular introductory gunslinging.
Want to learn how to milk a cow and test your new skills against the northeast sales department? Yep, you’re covered.
How big is Billy Bob’s? It’s one of the few bars we know of with real bulls tossing around semi-pro rodeo cowboys in a covered arena that can be customized for private group events. Total capacity for the entire facility, including a booty of private saloons and function rooms, is 5,000 people.
There’s also outdoor professional rodeo action every weekend year-round at the Stockyard’s Cowtown Coliseum. Speaking from experience, rodeo is a lot cooler than you think if you’ve never witnessed a 1-ton bull with an attitude go airborne sideways.
“We always have groups visit the Stockyards to see live big horn cattle and cowboys on horseback,” says Beverly Brin, GM of Ultimate Ventures DMC. “Forth Worth is Texas. It’s what people think of when they envision the state.”
Bitsy Burns-Matthes, director of operations for the Southwest Veterinary Symposium, agrees. She has planned several trips to downtown Fort Worth over the last few years.
“I’ve taken groups as large as 5,000 and they love the atmosphere of Fort Worth,” she says. “It’s clean, it’s safe, they can walk out anytime and everything is within walking distance from the convention center…. During the day, you see business men in their suits wearing cowboy boots and cowboy hats. It’s the real deal, and there’s plenty to do.”
Those big hats and boots are part of Fort Worth’s lure, according to Madeleine Sellouk, CMP, senior events manager with the American Petroleum Institute, “You’d be surprised,” she says. “Holding doors open for women and the ‘yes ma’am’ routine goes a long way with some of our people.”
OMNI FORT WORTH HOTEL
Right across the street from the Convention Center, the 614-room Omni Fort Worth Hotel opened last March with 68,000 sf of function space. Both are located downtown next to Sundance Square—16 blocks filled with over 70 shops and restaurants like Reata’s Texas, with 22,000 sf of BBQ bliss housing nine private dining spaces. Outdoor parties are easy to arrange with sidewalk barbecues and country bands.
“Fort Worth is the #1 tourist destination in Texas,” says Larry Auth, director of sales for Omni Fort Worth, “because it’s not hokey, it’s all authentic.” He says Omni Hotels’ owners hail from Fort Worth, so there was a little extra love behind the design and conception of this property. The decor is warm and inviting with big leather couches and rich dark materials.
“The design is cowboy chic, if you will. We’re the Ralph Lauren of Fort Worth, elegant yet comfortable…. There’s a great blend here. Sure, we’re a convention hotel, but we also have a great collection of art by local artists, exceptional food and live music—so we’re a hot spot for locals too.”
Speaking of fine food, Omni Hotels brought in special custom ovens to sear meats at 2,400° at the award-winning Bob’s Steak & Chop House, with private seating for 75. And don’t expect 12 different sauces, either. You get one: green peppercorn. You don’t mess with a 22-oz, prime-age, bone-in Kansas City strip seared real hot, in these parts of Texas.
Auth says, “Conventioneers love us because they’re not just going to a convention center stuck out somewhere all by itself. They’re going to high-end restaurants and upscale bars, where locals and visitors bond together, which is what I love about Fort Worth.”
We like the community tables seating 14 each at the 166-seat, home-cookin’ Cast Iron restaurant. The Wine Thief wine bar serves artisanal apps and hand-selected labels for groups up to 55, while Whiskey & Rye was voted the best sports bar last year by Fort Worth, Texas, the city’s lifestyle mag.
“We have everything from fine dining to fiddle playing,” sums up Auth. “Did you know we have the third largest cultural district after New York and DC? The #1 thing I hear from guests is, ‘I had no idea how much art and culture there is in Fort Worth.’ When it comes to the city’s ‘Cowboys & Culture’ tagline, we really celebrate that idea.”
THE CULTURE DISTRICT
Just 10 minutes west of downtown, the Fort Worth Culture District is home to enough museums of national scope to keep groups busy until, well, the cows come home. And that doesn’t even include the boom in art space in nearby Dallas.
Kimball Art Museum, for example, which has been called America’s best small museum, houses a collection of only 350 works highlighted by Velázquez, Rembrandt, Goya, Monet, Cézanne, Picasso, Mondrian and Matisse. It just acquired Michelangelo’s first-known painting in December, and an expansion is under development designed by celeb museum architect Renzo Piano.
The National Cowgirl Museum & Hall of Fame celebrates the pioneering efforts of progressive American West women such as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, artist Georgia O’Keeffe, singer Patsy Cline and trouble girl Annie Oakley. Starting in February, a new exhibit includes a number of O’Keeffe masterpieces and sketches on loan in a 3,000-sf gallery, along with photographs that document her Western spirit, and memorabilia from her home studio in New Mexico.
Another one-of-a-kind venue, the Amon Carter Museum focus entirely on Western Art, highlighted by more O’Keeffe, plus Winslow Homer and cowboy art icons Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell. The 30,000-piece fine art photography holdings are a national treasure, and this year’s touring exhibitions focus on modern art in The Americas.
We agree with critics who say the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth is one of the world’s great venues for modern art after WWII. Japanese architect Tadao Ando’s glass, steel and concrete masterpiece seemingly floating on water offers brutally stark surroundings and operatic scale for the oversized, often conceptual works of such artists as Picasso, Warhol, Rothko and Pollock. To see a book on a podium with 13-ft wings rooted to the ground (Anselm Kiefer’s Book with Wings) is one thing; to see it placed in its own circular concrete room demands spiritual contemplation.
Café Modern shares the modernist lines of the prize-winning museum. Half of the walls are curved glass—massive panes that neatly abut the 2-acre reflecting pool outside. To enter the room is to move into a realm of simplicity, air and water; another opportunity for contemplation, this time of food. All tables have a view of the three pavilions that look like glass boxes that seem to float atop the water while being reflected in it. (Large white tablets dotting the shoreline are chlorine-infused to prevent algae from interrupting that mirror effect).
In contrast to the space, the fare at Café Modern is more PC than post-mod. As the menu reminds us, most dishes are locally sourced and sustainably served, and the wines adhere to a “Low Carbon Footprint Program.” Fort Worth native chef Dena Peterson does her roots proud with juicy, grilled US Kobe burgers from beef that’s vegetarian-fed and organic. Order with applewood-smoked bacon and you’ll agree with Gourmet’s appraisal that Café Modern is one of America’s best restaurants. Capacity for the cafe and grand lobby is 250 seated; 1,000 reception.