Like a Phoenix rising from the shores of another time, Galveston Island is reclaiming the golden era it enjoyed more than a century ago.
Back in the late 1800s, the moniker “Playground of the South” applied because the area offered attractive beaches, a convenient location, a high-traffic port and many attractions. Then came a notorious hurricane in 1900 and nearby Houston’s roaring economic development throughout the 20th century.
Now it’s Galveston’s turn again. With the advent of new attractions and the arrival of major cruise ships, the glory days of Galveston are here again.
Meg Winchester, director of the Galveston Island CVB, says her Gulf coast destination’s new profile is particularly significant for meetings and conventions.
“Galveston Island’s main appeal is that it’s a beautiful beach destination that is affordable and easily accessible. We are just a 50-mile drive from Houston and have lots of direct flights from both Houston airports and Galveston’s Scholes International Airport,” Winchester says. “Besides the beach, Galveston offers so many opportunities for off-site events and entertaining, including historic Victorian mansions, unique museums and a variety of major attractions, including a waterpark and Moody Gardens.”
Headlining what’s new this year is the May opening of the Historic Pleasure Pier, where amusement rides, restaurants, games, shopping and live entertainment will occupy visitors. The 1,130-foot pier is located on the Gulf of Mexico at Seawall Boulevard and 25th Street, where a pleasure pier stood from the early 1940s to 1961. Nostalgically themed, the park is reminiscent of another historic landmark, Galveston’s Electric Park. Traditional rides will include a double-decker carousel and a 100-foot-tall Ferris Wheel. The more adventurous will enjoy the steel roller coaster with its 100-foot vertical climb and a 200-foot-tall swing recognized as the highest ride in Texas.
Pirates! Legends of the Gulf Coast is another new Galveston attraction that focuses on the 1817 settlement of the infamous pirate Jean Lafitte with interactive features that include the deck of a pirate ship, captain’s cabins and exhibits. Haunted Mayfield Manor is also new. It resides inside a historic building that served as a morgue after the 1900 storm, which remains the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.
More cruise ships will arrive this year in the Port of Galveston, including Disney Magic and Princess Cruises’ Crown Princess, augmenting the lineup of pleasure vessels that began arriving in the destination in 2011.
Business at the Beach
With all that’s new, business groups will find Sunday through Thursday midweek rates the most negotiable for the island’s 5,000-plus guest rooms at every price level, Winchester says. Planners who call on the CVB for assistance with meetings will enjoy complimentary convention services and help with identifying properties that fill their needs, she adds.
Major facilities include the dramatic 140,000-square-foot beachfront Galveston Island Convention Center at the San Luis Resort, with a 43,100-square-foot exhibition hall and a 15,500-square-foot grand ballroom and complimentary covered parking. The complex has 700 adjacent hotel rooms in a dramatic setting and the amenities of a waterside resort. There are 1,400 more hotel rooms within a three-mile radius.
Galveston hotels offer an additional 151,000 square feet of meeting space in everything from luxury to limited-service properties. Included are the Hilton Galveston Island, with 240 guest rooms; Hotel Galvez, a Wyndham Historic Hotel, with 224 rooms; Moody Gardens Hotel, with 428 guest rooms; and The Victorian Condo-Hotel Resort & Conference Center, with 230 guest rooms.
The array of off-site options for events and tours captures the interest of most any group. Attendees can experience the thrill of a lifetime with a simulated flight in an authentic World War II aircraft at the Lone Star Flight Museum and Aviation Hall of Fame, or learn about Texas’ rich oil history at the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig & Museum. Moody Gardens provides groups with the opportunity to navigate the world’s oceans at the Aquarium Pyramid, explore tropical plants and exotic fish and birds in the Rainforest Pyramid and regard mysteries of science in the Discovery Pyramid. Meanwhile, Galveston Railroad Museum has one of the largest restored railroad collections in the Southwest, with more than 20,000 railroad artifacts, including 40 engines and cars.
Galveston’s collection of well-preserved Victorian buildings in six historic districts offers groups yet another option for off-site events and tours. Many are on the National Register of Historic Places. There’s the Moody Mansion, filled with furnishings and heirlooms from one of Texas’ wealthiest families. The Ashton Villa was the first of Galveston’s Broadway “palaces,” and The Grand 1894 Opera House remains the city’s premier cultural venue, with no seat more than 70 feet from the stage. It’s a beauty that has withstood several hurricanes and was named the official opera house of Texas in 1993.
The island’s mild year-round weather persuades attendees to enjoy the outdoors before and after business is done. Relaxing on the beach, golfing, fishing, birding, horseback riding, biking and kayaking are some of the ways to relax and retreat at this South Texas destination.
Galveston’s 32 miles of beaches have had a recent $12 million infusion of 500,000 cubic yards of sand in a beach nourishment project. And four full-service beach parks beckon visitors to enjoy a day of surfing, sailing, pier or charter fishing, swimming or simple relaxing. Dolphin and harbor tours are popular as well, and participants see frolicking mammals, a World War II submarine and the tall ship Elissa.
Schlitterbahn Galveston Island Waterpark is both a great year-round attraction and off-site event venue. It features a surfing ride, uphill water coaster and tidal wave river. Groups receive discounted admission and meal options, free equipment such as inner tubes and the exclusive use of picnic pavilions.
Local golf options include The Galveston Country Club, which was founded in 1898, making it Texas’ oldest private country club. Its 18-hole course is situated on the island’s west end next to Lake Como. Moody Gardens Golf Course is the area’s municipal course and recently underwent a $14 million redesign, courtesy of PGA Tour pros. Its lush landscaping and location next to Sydnor Bayou makes it ideal for group outings.
feasts and fests
The dining scene in Galveston presents choices for upscale functions in steakhouses or seafood restaurants, as well as casual feasts at cafes and burger joints. Gulf seafood headlines many menus, along with Italian, Pan-Asian, Latin fusion, Tex-Mex and American fare. Many restaurants offer private dining facilities for small to large groups. Catering companies provide group services for a range of events, from beach parties to elegant affairs. After-hours clubs and lounges bring yet another dimension to the culinary and entertainment scene on the island.
Galveston is also home to exciting festivals that take place throughout the year.
One of the biggest is Mardi Gras! Galveston. Come spring and summer, there’s the Cinco de Mayo Celebration, the Historical Homes Tour, the AIA Sand Castle Competition and one of the original swimsuit competitions, the Pageant of Pulchritude, which began in 1920. In the fall, events include the Galveston Island Shrimp Festival, ARToberFEST and Dickens on The Strand. The Victorian Christmas Homes Tour and Moody Gardens Festival of Lights close out the year.
Winchester says with all that’s new and established for business groups in Galveston, Texas State Associations and SMERF meetings continue to be Galveston’s key meetings markets, and also picking up steam are the national association and corporate meetings markets.
“We are not at our pre-recession levels yet, but we continue to market and promote Galveston as an ideal meetings destination,” she says. “As we move through 2012, we are optimistic about both our leisure and group market business.”
Groups that book Galveston this year will enjoy the destination’s new golden age, punctuated by modern updates and amenities that combine nicely with the shades of a glorious past.
Freelancer Ruth A. Hill is a native of Texas.