Having traveled through George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston at least a dozen times en route to other destinations, I was happy to finally get a chance to visit — thanks to an exclusive invitation from the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau to attend a unique event this past October. As a member of the BestCities Global Alliance — a partnership of convention bureaus from 10 cities around the world — Houston was hosting the biannual BestCities Client Workshop. I joined representatives from each city, as well as their hosted meeting-planner guests, for a look at what H-Town has to offer.
The media portion of the visit began with a tour of our host hotel, the 1,200-room downtown Hilton Americas-Houston, which is connected via two skybridges to the adjacent George R. Brown (GRB) Convention Center. The hotel also has its fair share of room for meetings, with 91,500 square feet of space, including the nearly 26,000-square-foot Ballroom of the Americas.
At a kickoff reception and networking event at Houston's Natural Science Museum — one of 19 museums located in the city's 1.5-mile Museum District — we chatted over drinks and hors d'oeuvres in the Morian Overlook, which sits above the football-field-sized paleontology hall, where dinosaur skeletons are poised in “action,” giving visitors a glimpse into what the ancient creatures were really up to millions of years ago. This and other areas of the museum can be utilized for groups from 20 to 2,000 guests.
After our prehistoric adventure, we were off to try some seriously authentic Mexican food at Hugo's, where the energetic waiters shook up delicious signature Hugo Ritas, pouring them ceremoniously into traditional blue-rimmed margarita glasses right at the table. Hugo's is located in Houston's Montrose neighborhood, an area that is primarily residential, but has a lively bar-and-restaurant scene and is fondly referred to by some as “The SoHo of Houston.”
The next morning, we toured the nautical-themed GRB, named for the famed local shipping magnate, and located in the heart of downtown Houston, overlooking the 12-acre Discovery Green Park and not far from the Toyota Center, home of the Houston Rockets. The center is one of the largest in the country, with 639,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space and 100 flexible meeting rooms. Our tour guides were still aglow with the recent announcement that the GRB will play a major role as the site of the NFL Experience fan festival and the media center during NFL Super Bowl LI, which will take place in Houston in 2017.
After our tour, we joined other representatives from Houston at The Grove, a chic two-story restaurant located in Discovery Green Park. We enjoyed a leisurely lunch of Texas redfish and cheddar grits at the popular eatery, which is nestled in a grove of mature oak trees, before taking a 35-minute ride to one of the most famous Houston attractions — Space Center Houston and NASA's Johnson Space Center.
There our group found a bevy of attractions for space-travel buffs and novices alike, and was enthralled by artifacts from past space missions, even touching a rock from the Moon. We then joined the must-do NASA Tram Tour of the still-working areas of the Johnson Space Center, which includes a stop at the historic Mission Control room, where NASA monitored nine Galileo missions and all of the Apollo flights.
That evening, we traveled to Kemah, just outside Houston, for a dinner cruise that took us out on Galveston Bay during a stunning sunset. We enjoyed dinner and drinks as we sailed past Kemah Boardwalk, a year-round, family-friendly attraction with rides, restaurants, and other amusements.
The second morning of the media tour included a site inspection at the downtown Hyatt Regency, which features 71,300 square feet of meeting space, 947 guest rooms, and a soaring, 30-story atrium that's often used for receptions. Then we were off for lunch at the elegant, 232-room St. Regis Houston, 12 miles from downtown, near the Uptown Galleria shopping district. The recently renovated hotel offers more than 10,000 square feet of space for events of up to 400 people.
The Downtown Aquarium - Houston, which boasts eight distinct exhibits — including Maharaja's Temple, home to four majestic white tigers — along with a restaurant set inside a 150,000-gallon aquarium tank, is also one of the city's most popular event spaces. With views of the downtown skyline, the 6,000-square-foot ballroom has ample space for up to 450 seated guests, and can be divided into two rooms for general and breakout sessions.
One of the premier steakhouses in Houston, Pappas Bros, has a storied history and an old-timey feel. For the last dinner of my portion of the tour, we sat in a private room designed in the style of a train car, overlooking the restaurant's main dining area. After dinner, including some of Pappas Bros.’ famed desserts, part of the group stopped for a nightcap at Sambuca, located close to the Hilton Americas-Houston. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner, and features live jazz, dance, or rock performances nearly every night of the week.
A Union of 10 Cities
Twice a year, members of the BestCities Global Alliance of convention bureaus from 10 destinations — Berlin, Cape Town, Chicago, Copenhagen, Dubai, Edinburgh, Houston, Melbourne, Singapore, and Vancouver — gather in one of those cities for the BestCities Client Workshop. Invited clients, who are representatives from international associations, are handpicked by alliance members, and must meet specific criteria to qualify. “The client must be in a decision-making role,” said Jane Cunningham, who works in association business development for BestCities, “and it's important that the association has not held its international congress in more than five BestCities [destinations] over the past 20 years or so.”
Members of BestCities collect and share conference data with each other in an effort to make planning meetings in any of the destinations a smooth process. BestCities also helps planners research and prepare for bid proposals in any of the 10 cities, which all have been vetted as being well-equipped for international meetings.
Houston is a great fit with the alliance, according to Daniel Palomo, deputy director of international sales and tourism for the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau, because of its extensive resources in the field of medicine and medical education, including access to the Texas Medical Center, the largest medical center in the world. “BestCities benefits by having Houston as a strong partner in the medical-association meetings industry,” Palomo said, “since many of its intellectual and technological resources become available to all 10 partners when bidding for world medical meetings.”
Houston is one of the newest members of the alliance, and this was the first time it hosted the workshop. The main objective of the tour's programming, Palomo said, “was to showcase Houston as an international association meetings destination, while letting our guests enjoy an unforgettable experience that would keep reminding them to come back for business and leisure.”