From the beaches of the state’s Coastal Bend area to the cities of its citrus-growing Rio Grande Valley where it meets Mexico, South Texas presents a whole other country for planners to consider. It has a heritage of historic downtowns, activities that range from birding to fishing, and an enticing bicultural mix, all wrapped in a sunny climate for most of the year.
Early summer brought with it a new crop of attractions and activities, giving groups even more places to gather.
A beach destination and metropolitan area with a port and an international airport, Corpus Christi is the Lone Star State’s largest oceanfront city. Well endowed with museums and attractions, it saw 7.1 million visitors last year, an increase of a half-million.
Its SEA (Sports, Entertainment & Arts) District close to downtown encompasses the American Bank Center, the city’s convention center, and Whataburger Field, home to the Corpus Christi Hooks, a Houston Astros Double-A affiliate.
With 500,000 square feet of event space, the bayfront convention complex includes 76,000 square feet of exhibit space, a 20,000-square-foot ballroom, a 2,500-seat auditorium and an 8,000-seat arena. Nearby, the Ortiz International Center has space for groups of up to 2,000.
“Corpus Christi adds new attractions each year, ensuring that there is always something fresh and appealing to our convention delegates,” says Keith Arnold, CEO of the Corpus Christi CVB.
This year’s big addition, Hurricane Alley Waterpark, debuted in May adjacent to Whataburger Field. The new waterpark includes a 12,000-square-foot wave pool, a six-story slide complex and a four-lane racer slide, and has three event spaces, each for groups of up to 200.
Across the harbor bridge from the SEA District, North Beach has two top attractions: the Texas State Aquarium, which can take groups of up to 3,000, and the USS Lexington Museum on the Bay, a World War II carrier, which can handle 2,600 for functions on its hangar deck.
In May, the Texas State Aquarium unveiled a new 10,000-gallon interactive exhibit, Stingray Lagoon, where visitors can hand-feed 30 stingrays. Last year, it added two new attractions: a wetlands boardwalk exhibit and Dorsey’s Splash Park. Another attraction, the South Texas Botanical Gardens & Nature Center, has added several new exhibits in the last year, including a butterfly house and reptiles.
A Schlitterbahn waterpark and resort is coming to 70-mile-long Padre Island, the country’s longest barrier island, which Corpus Christi promotes. In May, the city approved a $117 million incentive package. Schlitterbahn expects construction to begin this summer. The first phase of the project, which includes a waterpark, hotels and shopping, is expected to debut Memorial Day 2013.
In March, USA Today named a top beach in each state in an article headlined “Just for Summer: 51 Great American Beaches.” Padre Island National Seashore was chosen for Texas.
With 239 species counted, Corpus Christi is also a big birding destination. Last year, it was again named America’s Birdiest City by Dauphin Island Bird Sanctuaries, a title it has held annually since 2003.
Corpus Christi’s major meetings properties include the recently renovated Omni Corpus Christi, which recently completed renovations to guest rooms in its Bayfront Tower as well as meeting space; Holiday Inn Emerald Beach; Holiday Inn Corpus Christi Airport; and Best Western Marina Grand Hotel.
Located on the north bank of the Rio Grande River, Laredo is on the southern end of I-35, which runs south through the state.
Downtown’s Laredo Civic Center, which has undergone a remodeling, includes a 1,979-seat auditorium and a 24,470-square-foot banquet/exhibit hall, and has a 203-room Holiday Inn and a 110-room Courtyard close by.
Six miles away and close to the international airport, which is served by three carriers, is another major facility: the 10,000-seat multipurpose Laredo Energy Arena, home of the Laredo Bucks hockey team.
Laredo has 4,000 hotel rooms, a downtown riverfront core and a 40-block stretch of Mexican import stores. Major meetings hotels include the Spanish Colonial-style La Posada Hotel/Suites overlooking the Rio Grande in the historic district, and an Embassy Suites across from Mall del Norte.
“We do well providing customized and individualized attention to groups that have from 80 to 300 delegates,” says Blasita Lopez, director of the Laredo CVB. “Our community is also easily navigated; it’s easy to get from one point to another, and usually at most 15 minutes to get across town.”
For an off-site venue choice, Lopez suggests the Laredo Center for the Arts, located in the historic district in a building that once was City Hall. It features galleries and a hall that can host up to 200 people.
In May, the city opened a new $18 million, 6,000-seat multipurpose ballpark, the Uni-Trade Stadium, home to the Laredo Lemurs. It can handle functions for up to 420 people and concerts for 16,000 people.
In November, Laredo will debut the new Robert Trent Jones II-designed Max A. Mandel Municipal Golf Course, its second course open to the public.
Tagged “The Texas Tropics,” McAllen is 145 miles southeast of Laredo in the Rio Grande Valley, a delta region that extends to the coast. The city has roughly 3,000 hotel rooms.
“We’ve hosted many different kinds of meetings,” says Nancy Millar, vice president and director of the McAllen CVB. “Nature groups, religious groups and Hispanic organizations, among others, have done very well here. Our convention center can handle groups up to 1,500.”
The McAllen Convention Center, which was five years old in March, features 174,000 square feet of space, including a 60,000-square-foot, column-free exhibit hall and more than 25,000 square feet of meeting space. It is three miles from McAllen Miller International Airport.
A groundbreaking is expected over the next few months for a 160-room Holiday Inn Express & Suites that will be connected to the convention center, with an opening by summer next year.
Major meetings hotels include Casa de Palmas Renaissance, a Holiday Inn Express and an Embassy Suites.
Construction began four years ago on a new entertainment district centered in the heart of downtown at Austin and 17th street, and the complex now has almost 50 venues in renovated historic buildings, including restaurants, lounges and nightclubs.
McAllen is on the World Birding Center (WBC) trail, a network of nine valley birding sites (www.theworldbirdingcenter.com). It boasts the Quinta Mazatlan World Birding Center, a 20-acre, city-operated facility that features nature trails, gardens and a mansion built in the 1930s that can handle groups of up to 300.
Harlingen is 35 miles east of McAllen and 30 miles west of the coast. It is home to Valley International Airport, served by Southwest, United and Sun Country airlines.
According to Sonny Martinez Jr., director of marketing at the Harlingen CVB, the city stands out as a meetings destination because of its accessibility and affordability.
“Located between the two other major cities in the Rio Grande Valley, McAllen and Brownsville, and just minutes from South Padre Island, Harlingen is in the center of it all,” he says.
In 2011, for the second year, the Council for Community and Economic Research ranked Harlingen No. 1 as the country’s least-expensive city (McAllen was third).
“This guarantees an economical opportunity for meeting and seminar hosts, as well as stretching the per diem and accommodations dollar for meeting and seminar attendees,” Martinez says.
Major meetings facilities include the Harlingen Municipal Auditorium, with 18,300 square feet of meeting space and seating for up to 1,719 theater-style; La Sierra Event Center, with 12,000 square feet of space and a capacity for 1,000 for banquets; and Casa de Amistad, with 13,000 square feet of space and seating for 816 for banquets.
Casa de Amistad is home to November’s five-day annual Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, now in its 19th year and attended by more than 600 registrants. Harlingen has the Arroyo Colorado, a two-mile hiking and biking trail and WBC site along a wooded Rio Grande tributary that runs through the middle of town. Harlingen prides itself at being “Outdoors 365,” which it adopted as its tagline.
Tourist magnets include shopping on historic downtown’s Jackson Street; the city’s 25 murals, which visitors can view on a walking tour; and Grande Valley Premium Outlets, with over 140 stores.
The newest attraction, a 150,000-square-foot Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World, opened last November.
Attractions with rental space include the 274-seat Harlingen Performing Arts Theatre, the Valley Race Park for greyhound racing, and the Harlingen Arts & Heritage Museum. The museum complex includes such buildings as the home of Lon C. Hill, the town’s founder; the Paso Real Stagecoach Inn; and the city’s first hospital.
South Padre Island
The beach resort town of South Padre Island takes up about five miles of a barrier island that is 34 miles long by three blocks wide.
Birding, dolphin-watching cruises, fishing and watersports are among the many activities available. Groups can go horseback riding on the beach or take a Black Dragon Cruises pirate ship excursion.
The destination, which has 4,000 hotel and condo rooms, can handle groups of more than 2,000 delegates.
With 45,000 square feet of function space, the primary venue, the South Padre Island Convention Center, has a 22,000-square-foot exhibit hall, a 250-seat auditorium and 9,000 square feet of meeting rooms.
Nearby is the largest meetings hotel, the beachfront Hilton Garden Inn, which has 127 guest rooms and 12,000 square feet of meeting space.
The newest of the nine WBC sites is the $6.5 million South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, which opened in September 2009. Adjacent to the convention center, it is a five-story observation tower and a boardwalk that links with the convention facility. With a capacity for 500, the entire building can be rented for functions.
Among a dozen meetings-ready hotels and resorts is the 251-room Pearl South Padre, the former Sheraton South Padre Island, which was renamed in April last year and has 8,500 square feet of meeting space.
“We’ve been rolling along, occupancy has been up 4 percent this year,” says Connie Ledbetter, senior sales manager at the South Padre Island CVB. “Spring break was good. Birding has become popular with the nature center, and we are now getting a new resort.”
At press time, the new Schlitterbahn Beach Resort was slated to open its first hotel rooms in July, followed by a new 80,000-square-foot indoor waterpark later this summer. The resort will be composed of the existing 26-acre Schlitterbahn Beach Waterpark, a new indoor waterpark and the adjacent, renovated 221-room South Padre Beach Resort, which has been closed since being damaged by Hurricane Dolly in 2008.
Texas’ southernmost city of Brownsville is in the Rio Grande Valley across from Matamoros, Mexico. Less than 30 miles from South Padre, it markets itself with the tagline “On the Border by the Sea.” The area features two gulf-front beaches, seven golf courses and many museums and historical sites.
In February, the city launched a new adaptable marketing campaign, “Wow. A Fiesta Every Day.” It replaced “A History as Big as Texas,” a campaign that had been going for four years.
Miguel Collis, communications director at the Brownsville CVB, points to Brownsville’s many annual festivals, which include Charro Days, Mr. Amigo and Sombrero Fest in February, Air Fiesta in March and the Latin Jazz Festival in October.
Collis says the city is also going after sporting events nowadays with the tagline “Wow, More Reason to Play in Brownsville.”
The city’s largest meeting space is at Fort Brown Memorial Center on the University of Texas Brownsville campus, which includes a 1,500-seat auditorium. Another facility, the Brownsville Events Center, features 13,500 square feet of usable space and can host 1,200 theater-style. With 11,000 square feet of meeting space, the Ringgold Civic Pavilion in Dean Porter Park can seat 400 for banquets.
The city has 2,300 guest rooms, and its largest meetings hotel is the 141-room Holiday Inn Brownsville, with 6,800 square feet of meeting space.
Among the city’s attractions with event space are the 26-acre Gladys Porter Zoo; the Camille Playhouse; the Children’s Museum of Brownsville; and the Brownsville Museum of Fine Art.
Outside Brownsville there is a WBC site, the 1,200-acre Resaca de la Palma, a meetings-friendly Texas state park that features a visitor’s center, gift shop, more than six miles of trails and four observation decks.
Tony Bartlett has been writing about the travel industry for more than 25 years.