Once the enclave of tumbleweeds, oil wells and cowboys, West Texas today is a wide region of sophisticated cities, authentic Lone Star hospitality and affordable meeting facilities.
Abilene’s early frontier spirit of friendliness and hospitality welcomes visitors to this city 150 miles west of Dallas-Fort Worth.
“We make the meeting planner’s job very easy,” says Nanci Liles, executive director of the Abilene CVB. “We offer them exceptional customer service provided by local people who know our city, along with an affordable and central Texas location.
“When business is done, groups find a lot to like in our historic downtown with all its arts stops, restaurants and clubs,” she adds. “They can do dine-arounds and include a visit to Frontier Texas! afterward. Or they can have a fun experience at Perini Ranch, where there are great outdoor facilities for chuckwagon dining.”
One of Abilene’s newest group facilities is the Hunter Welcome Center at Abilene Christian University. At 57,000 square feet, it accommodates up to 1,880 for receptions. Abilene Civic Center handles groups of up to 2,000 people, and Taylor County Expo Center, with its coliseum, exhibit buildings, multipurpose pavilion and livestock areas, accommodates up to 2,500 for a variety of events.
Wichita Falls is within shouting distance (15 miles) of the Oklahoma border, but because it’s just a half-hour plane flight from Dallas-Forth Worth International Airport, meetings visitors fly and drive from the metroplex, says Lindsay Greer, director of the Wichita Falls CVB.
Greer says Wichita Falls may not be on the Interstate 35 corridor, sometimes known as the “spine” of Texas, but the city has features that help bring association groups into the fold.
“We have an exceptional convention services staff, for one thing, one that many planners tell us is better than they find in larger cities,” she says.
One of the newest additions to the city’s services portfolio is a vintage trolley that begins service in June between hotels and the convention center.
Wichita Falls Multi-Purpose Events Center (MPEC) is the city’s largest group site, offering 58,000 square feet of space with two large exhibit halls and 10 breakout rooms. An adjacent coliseum can be used for general sessions. Two hotels, the Courtyard by Marriott Wichita Falls and the Holiday Inn Express, which is on the same property as the Wellington Banquet and Conference Center, are located within minutes of the convention center.
Meeting groups gathering in Amarillo not only have a good selection of group facilities, but also a location laced with cowboy culture, wide-open ranch lands and the jaw-dropping Palo Duro Canyon State Park, where outdoor activities such as hiking, fishing and summertime performances of Texas, a musical drama about the state’s history, delight visitors.
This Texas panhandle city is ramping up its meetings appeal with a major downtown development that’s scheduled for completion in 2015. The project includes a new 300-room, full-service convention center hotel located across the street from the Amarillo Civic Center, the city’s major meetings facility. The center has 410,000 square feet of space, including a coliseum, two auditoriums and several exhibit halls.
Also coming to town is a 4,000-seat multipurpose event stadium south of the civic center and Amarillo City Hall.
Rick Matchett, convention services manager for the Amarillo CVC, says the venue will enhance an already attractive meetings destination.
“We are a central U.S. location and easy to access, whether you are flying or driving in,” he says. “Also, planners find us very affordable, with an average hotel rate of $80 to $85 year-round among our more than 50 hotels. We have several new hotels, including a Courtyard by Marriott with 107 guest rooms and meeting space for about 150 downtown.”
In all, the city has 1,500 committable hotel rooms at all price levels and categories. Interstates 40 (formerly legendary Route 66) and 27 travel through Amarillo’s center city.
Locals call it “hub city” because of its location amid five major highways that resemble wagon wheel spokes. Though it has a colorful West Texas heritage and charm, Lubbock is a big city today, with over 250,000 residents. From wineries to an archaeological preserve, the largest cowboy symposium in the world and a rich musical heritage from luminaries such as Buddy Holly, Lubbock delivers a memorable visitor experience.
The city’s major meetings facilities include Overton Hotel and Conference Center, with 303 guest rooms and 20,000 square feet of meeting space, and Lubbock Memorial Civic Center, with 100,000 square feet of function space. Lubbock’s hotel inventory includes 53 properties with 4,800 guest rooms.
Groups have a wide array of private event venues in this major West Texas city, including The Texas Tech Club on the Texas Tech campus.
The Buddy Holly Center extols the life and music of a Lubbock favorite son and includes a fine arts gallery and the Texas Musicians Hall of Fame. Once a train depot, the center frequently hosts receptions, meetings and other special events.
Often referred to as a West Texas oasis, the friendly city of Midland has a population of just under 200,000, 185,000 square feet of meeting space, several unique museums, great cuisine choices and plenty of nightlife.
“Lots of people think our region is a place where everything stings, bites or crawls, but this is so not the case,” says Gaylia Olivas, vice president of the Midland CVB. “Midland brings together everything you would want in a modern city without the inconvenience of traffic congestion. Our possibilities are just as open as our skies.”
One segment, the oil and gas industry, has brought a new weekday meetings boom.
“The boom began about 18 months ago, and it’s proving to be consistent,” Olivas says. “Because we are often sold out Monday through Thursday, we urge planners to come to our bureau well ahead of their dates. We are one-stop and provide them many services and incentives.”
Midland has made downtown revitalization a priority. One project on that roster is Midland Center, the city’s premier conference site, with nearly 12,500 square feet of space. Renovations will begin soon at the center. Centennial Plaza, a nearby outdoor venue provides a platform for trade shows and music events.
In the past two years, Midland has added several hotels, bringing the total room count to 2,700. Among the newest in progress are TownePlace Suites, Best Western, Hilton Garden Inn and SpringHill Suites.
The event-ready Wagner Noel Performing Arts Center opened in November adjacent to the University of Texas Center for Energy and Economic Diversification midway between Midland and Odessa and near the Midland International Airport.
Just 20 miles from Midland is Odessa, a city where cowboys and culture, oil and hockey, steel guitars and jazz live together in harmony. The legendary West Texas hospitality is just one thing meeting groups love about the city.
For starters, Odessa has easy air access. Midland International Airport is a 10-minute drive from downtown and is served by Southwest, American Eagle and United Express. There are 2,500 guest rooms available, including major national chains such as Best Western, Comfort Suites, Fairfield Inn and Hilton Garden Inn.
Meeting spaces can accommodate up to 1,000 attendees, says Linda Sweatt, director of the Odessa CVB: “We have 2,500 guest rooms, and our convention properties include the MCM Elegante Hotel and the MCM Grande Hotel.”
Also in the meetings facility portfolio is the West Texas Convention Center in the MCM Grande FunDome. The Ector County Coliseum Complex features 150,000 square feet of convention space, including a 5,000-seat coliseum and exhibit buildings.
Out and about there are several heritage stops that are popular with groups, including the Commemorative Air Force Museum and the American Airpower Heritage Museum, Parker Ranch House Museum and The White-Pool House.
As Texas’ westernmost major city, El Paso leaves the plains behind with a mountain in its middle and a location on the Rio Grande River. Many groups immerse themselves in the city’s natural attractions by experiencing Franklin Mountains State Park, a 37-square-mile urban park that has some of the toughest bike trails in America. Some hike, rock climb or just take in the scenery at Hueco Tanks State Historical Site, where prehistoric and historic pictographs are featured draws.
El Paso’s proximity to Mexico has caused some planners to question safety issues in recent years, but Brooke Underwood, director of convention development at the El Paso CVB, points to a CQ Press survey that ranks the city as America’s safest from among cities with a population of more than 500,000.
“In the past nine years, we have been rated in the top three safest cities in that category,” Underwood says. “What has happened across our border is unfortunate. We used to sell two-nation experiences, but a lot of restaurants, clubs and other attractions that used to be across the border have moved here.”
Another feather in the city’s conventions cap is the recent $7 million renovation of the El Paso Convention Center complex. Government meetings, military reunions and state education associations are among the city’s primary meetings customers.
“Our affordability is one of our biggest meetings draws,” Underwood says. “Government per diem is now $87. We can get groups great accommodations for $100 a night, including complimentary things like parking, Wi-Fi and other amenities they might pay for at other destinations.”
Ruth A. Hill is a Texas native and frequent contributor to Meetings Focus South.