Standing inside the Alamo elicits awe when you imagine the young soldiers with sword blades rattling during the seminal moment in Wild West lore. The silence reverberates within, where there’s usually not too much frivolity among wide-eyed visitors. The Alamo is San Antonio’s cause célèbre, exciting a devout passion for the city’s place in US history.
Such pride is also exemplified in the 2-year old Museo Alameda, a Smithsonian affiliate that celebrates Latino artistic and cultural contributions to the United States since the Aztec Empire—the largest museum of its kind in the country. The $18 million Briscoe Western Art Museum is scheduled to open next year near the Henry Gonzalez Convention Center. And this summer, The San Antonio Museum of Art will finally have direct access to the city’s famed River Walk. The new River Landing connecting the river and museum will comprise a 3,500-sf pavilion and terrace for 300 seated.
But first, make time to mosey into McNay Art Museum, which reopened last year after a $50.8 million expansion. The first contemporary fine art museum in Texas has hosted traveling exhibits with American masterpieces created by Ansel Adams, O’Keefe, Pollock and Warhol, along with European luminaries such as Manet, van Gogh, Degas, Matisse and Cezanne. A variety of private event spaces can be booked that incorporate art lectures and tours, followed by elegant dinners or cocktail receptions.
This isn’t to say San Antonio is downplaying its cowpoke provenance. “We sometimes may think we couldn’t do another mariachi singer or cowboy poet, but people want that experience,” says Janet Holliday, president and CEO of Destination San Antonio DMC. “They love the rodeos. They love the armadillo races, the mariachis, the mini fiestas. They want a taste of Texas and a taste of Mexico.”
Holliday recently transformed San Antonio’s Alamodome sports arena into a private ranch for a 9,000-person group. She trucked in untold tons of dirt and steers for a combination rodeo, concert and cattle drive, shutting down a major city street so Palomino-riding cowboys could herd lumbering beeves onto the arena floor. “We love animals,” says Holliday. “But I won’t tell you all the details behind the scenes; let’s just say the pooper scooper gets a workout.”
For another event, Holliday created a Texas-Mexico border crossing with appropriate cuisine on each side and handed out mock passports to guests. That spicy blend of Tex-Mex is what drives groups to San Antonio, a city that’s 60% Hispanic and 100% taken with its lively South of the Border charm and culture.
“The civic pride engendered by centuries of cross-cultural synergy creates a friendliness that shrinks the scale of this major city,” says Ronnie Price, assistant executive director of sales/marketing for San Antonio CVB. “Even though San Antonio is the 7th largest city in the US, we’re actually the biggest small town in America.”
The heart of that small town is the well-known River Walk channel that connects the convention center to major hotels and other attractions. “You can get a water taxi from your hotel to the convention center, but a lot of people just want to walk the river because it’s so relaxing and refreshing,” says Price. “In fact, the River Walk area is 10 degrees cooler than the surrounding countryside, a big plus in summer.”
Holliday says she has organized riverborne scavenger hunts and cruising dine-arounds, and her River Rallies are legendary—corporate versions of the same events she puts on for the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs and visiting college teams. Basically, they’re raucous floating pep rallies “with the CEO as the rock star,” she laughs.
Then there’s the Alamo, the most famous US historical site west of the Mississippi. Connected DMCs like Destination San Antonio can put together elaborate costumed events on the grounds, but the Alamo’s status as a shrine adds some restrictions. “It’s one of the most sacred venues we have,” says Holliday, “so there’s no drinking on the grounds. We don’t treat it like a party venue, so we usually use that only for our very top leadership groups. We don’t ever want it to become just a casual thing.”
ON THE RIVERFRONT
The River Walk will grow from three miles to 13 by 2014. This year, a multi-mile northern segment will access new hotspots such as the newly renovated 125 year-old Pearl Brewery. Inside, the Culinary Institute of America is a popular spot for tequila-sippin’ and taco tastin’ teambuilding, reports Price.
Revitalizing such local landmarks is a San Antonio tradition. For smaller groups, The Watermark Hotel & Spa is a Mobil 4-star hotel and a riverfront redo of the 19th century L. Frank Saddlery Building. Built in the Renaissance Revival style, the property’s 99 suites have 12-foot ceilings, accented with marble baths and steel 4-poster beds. Meeting space runs 3,600 sf; the 4-star spa tops 17,000 sf.
We suggest sidling on in to see the varied collection of historic oil paintings and photographs, and artifacts like a spur collection dating from the 1920s. The tequila menu featuring 75 bottles at Pesca on the River restaurant is impressive too. Planners might recommend a company raffle to win the $150 signature margarita, served in a hand-blown glass.
Right across the river via stone footbridge, the 338-room Omni La Mansion del Rio occupies a Spanish colonial school built in 1852. Beamed ceilings and exposed brick walls ooze historical romance, but spring for the Riverview rooms if possible with the big French doors and lovely balconies. A 4-star spa and 4-diamond restaurant accompany 15,000 sf of event space. Attendees at Omni have full access to the amenities at The Watermark, including the 4-star spa.
Down a stretch, the 228-room Hotel Valencia is the fashionable fave on River Walk. The hip hacienda’s design motif is a tip of the hat to contemporary Tuscan farmhouse style, while guestrooms with plantation shutters overlook the water. Chef Jeffrey Balfour is known to dazzle groups with private cooking lessons at the onsite Citrus restaurant or inside the 7,000 sf of meeting space.
For drinks, Valencia’s Vbar is the city’s to-be-seen watering hole, with a fun creative streak. On Fridays, girls receive a dollar off per inch of their stiletto heels. And Playboy held their Texas test shoot here. Not that any of that means much to planners, but you get an idea of the va-va voom vibe.
Texas Hill Country is the rolling woodlands surrounding Austin and San Antonio, where a batch of tony golf/spa resorts were built with large group meetings and incentives in mind.
“There are some really great venues out there,” says Pat Teller, a professor at the University of Texas-El Paso who hosted a computing conference last November. At the Colbert Ranch, her group did “horseback riding, BB-rifle golf, and leadership lessons via horsemanship.” They later threw an 8,000-person blowout at Star Hill Ranch, with roaring campfires for cooking s’mores, plus trick ropers, mechanical bulls, cigar rollers, teepees and miniature burros hauling beer and margaritas. “We really made it into a little Western village,” says Teller.
Golf is big business in Hill Country. The 7,000-acre Horseshoe Bay Resort on Lake LBJ has three Trent Jones Sr. courses and the $7 million Whitewater Putting Course, an 18-hole, adult version of putt-putt with waterfalls, live flamingos, sand traps, rose gardens and water features.
“If you call it a miniature golf course it doesn’t do it justice,” says Gary Huddleston, who plans store manager get-togethers for the Kroger supermarket chain. “We’ve even had cocktails and wine tastings on a couple of the holes.” Tours to local wineries such as Becker Vineyards are a popular offsite activity too, says Huddleston.
“At the miniature golf course, there’s a very Polynesian, tropical ambience that’s fantastic at night for group cocktail receptions,” adds Jack Bickart, chief sales officer. “And the course is great for teambuilding events because non-golfing spouses have fun and feel included.” The 385-room resort offers 51,000 sf of meeting space.
For teambuilding, Bickart recommends Cypress Valley Canopy Tour. The first of its kind in the country, the facility is a series of sky bridges, trunk platforms and zip lines tucked into a dense wilderness of old growth cypress trees. Participants climb a tower to the tree tops 40 feet up in the air, where they’re hooked into a trapeze harness system for safety. Divided into teams of 5-7 people, the groups navigate shaky log and rope bridges, then fly down a ½ dozen zip lines up to 350 feet long. Another more advanced Canopy Challenge course is available for groups who want a more extreme workout, with faster zip lines and shakier bridges.
For some attendees, climbing trees might not top their must-do-in-Texas list. And that’s okay ‘cause there’s wine in them hills. Horseshoe Bay finds itself smack in the heart of the Texas Wine Trail, ranked second only to Napa’s elite lineup by Orbitz customers. Some 22 wineries offer group tours and tastings, and most can do special events involving wine and food pairings in the barrel rooms or outdoors on leafy terraces. Check out the piazza at the Torre di Pietra Winery seating up to 150 people in an alfresco “Med/Tex” setting.
“We get a lot of planners at Horseshoe Bay looking to keep their groups together, because you start losing people if you’re in Austin,” says Bickart. “Things like the canopy tour and wine trail make it simple for planners because they’re fun events and out of the ordinary.”
And how about that private 6,000-ft airstrip? Is that a big draw for groups?
Bickart chuckles. “Well, it’s not for everyone but we get quite a number of corporate jets flying in,” he says. “The senior leadership of AT&T comes here every year. They appreciate it.”
Take a look too at The Westin La Cantera, which just wrapped a $10 million renovation to the 508 rooms, replete with elegant Mexican design motifs throughout the grand “hacienda on the hill.” Lots of soft leather, dark wood and wrought iron for a look the resort calls “Texas Colonial.”
The six pools and hilltop terrace overlook two signature links. The Palmer Course is an Arnie Palmer layout, while The Resort Course hosts the PGA Valero Open. For group biz, 39,000 sf of space includes a 17,000-sf ballroom.
How’s this for a dream job—chilling with musicians and scoping out the hottest acts in town? That’s Rose Reyes’ gig as director of music marketing for the Austin CVB, the only such position in the country. It’s her mission to sift through nearly 200 live music venues and 1,900 recording artists in Austin in search of entertainment for visiting meeting groups.
“She booked over 500 acts for meetings alone last year,” says Rod Hampton, the CVB’s vp of sales. “And not just for main banquets—for registration areas as people are coming in and for morning sessions, too. Or she may get a background violinist for a small board meeting.”
Considering that music brings in a cool billion dollars a year to the city, it’s not hard to see why the Live Music Capital of the World takes its tunes so seriously.
“Everything we do is pretty much geared around our musicians and live music,” adds Hampton. Besides live music daily at the airport, each Austin City Council meeting starts with a serenade from a local group. It’s all part of the homegrown-first attitude typified by the semi-official slogan: “Keep Austin Weird,” a much ballyhooed campaign honoring the independent spirit of the city.
Austin’s beloved weirdness is due in part to its almost schizophrenic amalgamation of politics, business, academics and leisure all thriving together around downtown.
“The state capitol is in downtown Austin, so all the government offices are here,” says Hampton. “Then on one side of the capitol is where you find the convention center, our hotels, the four entertainment districts, and residential living. On the other side is the university. So there’s always something going on to keep downtown lively.”
The famous PBS show Austin City Limits is joining the action, moving to the new downtown W Austin scheduled to open next year, with a nightclub co-owned by Lone Star legend Willie Nelson.
And don’t even think of visiting Austin without a brisket party at the restaurant operated by national barbecue icon, Stubb’s. The backyard alone seats 1,000.
“You can walk almost everywhere,” says Catherine Sewell, executive director of the American Society for Health Human Resources Administration, who planned a 1,000+ person meeting last October. “Our group loved that.” They also enjoyed the chance to hook into the community, working with the Austin CVB to find a local organization in need of support. They raised more than $5,000 for Sammy’s House, and even had the charity’s founder speak at one of their events. “It meant a lot to us,” Sewell says.
“Groups today are really looking to give back,” adds Natalie Kennedy of Kennedy Creative. She recently designed a “build-a-bike” activity that challenged corporate teams to create their own cycles out of spare parts. “Then we surprised the corporate group by bringing in kids from the Boys & Girls Club of Austin,” says Kennedy. “The kids each got to take a bike home with them.”
NEW MEETING DIGS
Since 1886, the legendary Driskill Hotel has been the de facto power socializing spot in downtown Austin. You can’t miss it on Brazos St with its over-the-top, almost Baroque Renaissance Revival architecture. Inside, Driskill recently completed a $4.5 million uplift to the 189 rooms/18,000 sf of flex space. Worth a longneck at lunch, at the least.
The 448-room Hyatt Regency Austin Downtown On The Lake capped off a $10 million renovation to its public spaces including the 23,000 sf of meeting rooms. Hyatt is also bringing its peppy Andaz brand to the party next year, with a 20,000-sf roof deck.
Planners seeking bright shiny spaces are in luck around these parts. They seemingly can’t build new meeting and event spaces fast enough at University of Texas at Austin—the epicenter of Austin’s meteoric rise as the king of backyard barbecue bohemia. A decade ago, the sprawling campus had the largest enrollment in the country. Today it’s 5th and considered one of the nation’s “Public Ivy” schools for its wellspring of creative chutzpah and active alumnae.
The Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art just opened its Edgar A. Smith Building, making it the largest university-owned art museum in the country. The mix of art is as galactically eclectic as the city. Over 17,000 works of art run a groovy gamut from Rubens oils to Birth of the Cool—a look at California design and culture during the mid-1900s.
On the heels of that, the brand new AT&T Executive Education & Conference Center opened this year with a 300-seat amphitheater, 800-seat ballroom, myriad flat and tiered classrooms, and 40,000 sf of function space.
Finally, “The Intermission Is Over!” was the marketing blitz this January when the Bass Concert Hall at UT’s Performing Arts Center opened its doors after a 2-year, $14.7 million renovation. Either book the space or take in a show, such as the recent Legally Blond The Musical and George Lopez Live in Concert. The Arts Center is home to six halls, ranging from 200 seats to the 3,000-seat Bass. We’re going to try and make Mamma Mia! next month. See you at Stubb’s after the show.