When attending conferences, I never feel like the experience is truly complete until exploring the city, at least what is doable within a short amount of time. That’s why I prefer staying in downtown hotels to do this on foot, public transportation or a bike-sharing program, which in Houston’s case happened while speaking on a panel of meeting and event magazine editors at the Public Relations Society of America Travel and Tourism earlier this year. It didn’t take much looking around to see that big things are happening, confirmed by Greater Houston Convention & Visitor Bureau President Mike Waterman in his welcome to the group.
There’s nothing like a major deadline—this one in the form of Super Bowl LI on Feb. 5, 2017—to spur on action in the form of renovations, new hotels and attractions, and general sprucing up of a city. The conference hotel, Four Seasons Hotel Houston, is undergoing a multi-million dollar renovation and showcased its ability to present unique breakfasts, lunches and breaks and offer top-notch custom service. I had the good fortune of staying in one of the hotel’s beautiful residences and enjoyed some quiet time in the pool area.
I also stayed one night at The Whitehall, an iconic property that opened in 1963 and became known for its white Italian marble floors. Known as Houston’s business hotel, the property was shuttered for a decade starting in 1991 due to economic downturn, reopened as a Crowne Plaza, and recently completed a $5 million renovation and returned to independent boutique hotel status in April. With large guest rooms, 12,000 square feet of meeting space and three new food and beverage outlets such as Part & Parcel in a lovely outdoor courtyard, The Whitehall, like the Four Seasons, is right in the middle of downtown action.
From the Four Seasons, I hopped on a B-Cycle at a nearby station (soon there will be more than 100 stations and nearly 800 bikes thanks to a federal grant) and cruised through nearby Buffalo Bayou Park, a 160-acre, 2.3-mile oasis in the city that underwent a $58 million renovation that was completed last fall. It was tempting to pull over and dash into the Downtown Aquarium but there was no missing the PRSA conference reception “A Taste of Houston” at The Astorian, a 14,000-square-foot industrial chic event space in the Washington Avenue Arts District. The next day before flying out, it was off to the Houston Museum District, accessible from downtown via light rail. I only had time for The Museum of Fine Arts and Houston Zoo but there are many venues and attractions for groups to enjoy.
Speaking of groups, there is a renaissance brewing in Houston’s downtown convention district. The section of Avenida de las Americas along the front of George R. Brown Convention Center is getting a makeover to bring restaurants, art, entertainment and nightlife to the district along with a pedestrian promenade that connects with the 12-acre Discovery Green park. Upon the December 2016 opening of the new 1,000-room Marriott Marquis Houston with 153,000 square feet of meeting and event space, there will be two headquarter hotels with a total of 2,200 guest rooms connected by skywalk to the convention center.
There are too many what’s new happenings to mention in this short article, so keep up with the latest at Greater Houston CVB’s website. It was the first time I’d been Houston since grade school, and it’s clear that big things are happening in the nation’s fourth largest city.
Beth Buehler is editor of Colorado Meetings + Events and Mountain Meetings magazines, sister publications of Texas Meetings + Events.