With an increased focus on creating experiences instead of just meetings and events, cities across the country are seeing a new trend: walking conferences.
Walking conferences place an emphasis on getting attendees outside during a meeting, in addition to free time and activities. During a walking conference, attendees move between different venues instead of staying within just one hotel or venue.
Walking conferences serve multiple purposes. Many times, guests can better enjoy their host location as they get out into the city and explore various attractions and dining options. Walking conferences can also benefit smaller hotels and venues that may not have enough space to host a full meeting or event, but can host a portion.
The rise of walking conferences pairs nicely with another trend in Texas cities: the construction and recent opening of huge, multiuse residential and commercial developments that also offer new hotel space, dining and entertainment options. These developments allow the high walkability and accessibility of places like the San Antonio River Walk and downtown Waco, and provide plenty of options for guests to explore and enjoy during their event or meeting.
Plano’s new Legacy West development has brought plenty of new venues and attractions online for 2018 that are within walking distance.
The Legacy West development, which cost $3.2 billion, opened in west Plano in March 2017. Legacy West features office space— including the Visit Plano office—shops and restaurants on 255 acres.
Legacy West is anchored by the new Renaissance Dallas at Plano Legacy West hotel, the third full-service property in Plano. The hotel opened in June 2017.
A great dining offering at Legacy West is the Legacy Food Hall, which features 22 artisan, chef-driven food stalls on three floors. Many of the food stalls represent chefs in the DFW area, says Millerann Moya, senior marketing specialist at Visit Plano & Plano Event Center.
The venue bills itself as “equal parts premium food hall, beer garden, craft brewery and live entertainment destination,” with a stage for live music and entertainment and the Unlawful Assembly Brewing Co. inside. Guests use a cashless system when purchasing food and drink from the stalls; digital kiosks at the venue are used to load money onto a card before guests proceed to a vendor.
If a guest wants to quickly get from the third floor to the first, the food hall has a unique solution—take a ride down a slide. Worried about your drink spilling? No worries—place your drink in a box located next to the slide. Your drink will then be separately transported down the slide, much like the cart escalators at some large supermarkets.
“[Legacy Food Hall is] definitely very unique,” Moya says. “Especially now with the Plano Renaissance, it’s something unique for people to walk down the street and take advantage of.”
From Legacy West, guests can walk to the Shops at Legacy, Moya says.
And now, the city is improving its infrastructure to make this walk even easier; Plano is building a pedestrian bridge to better connect the two properties.
The Shops at Legacy include boutiques, a film center and nightlife opportunities, including Blue Martini or Sambuca 360, Moya says.
The Brixton, which opened last year, offers live music most nights of the week.
The Shops at Legacy is anchored by the Dallas/ Plano Marriott at Legacy Town Center. A big benefit of booking a group at the hotel is not having to worry about planning your guests’ every meal, Moya says.
“You don’t necessarily have to plan,” she says. “You can plan a dine-around or tell people it’s a free night, and they don’t have to get in their car to go anywhere. They have 12 restaurants to choose from that are right outside the hotel doors.”
Plano’s third, full-service property, the Hilton Granite Park, is just a quick drive from the Shops at Legacy and Legacy West.
San Antonio has a unique moniker that lends itself perfectly to walking conferences. “The San Antonio River Walk is often called ‘The World’s Largest Hotel Lobby’ because it inspires visitors to get outside and explore,” says Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit San Antonio.
Plus, the city’s weather (San Antonio typically has 300 days of sunshine a year) makes walking around enjoyable for guests.
Walking both at street level and at River Walk level makes it easy to navigate the city, Matej says. Now 15 miles long, the River Walk extends from Museum Reach to the north, through downtown to the Mission Reach to the south. Museum Reach includes the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Witte Museum, along with the newly developed Pearl district. To the south, King William and Southtown feature historic homes, hip breweries and art galleries.
From downtown, groups can walk to Southtown, King William and the Pearl District along the River Walk. They can also take river barges throughout downtown and to the Pearl, or take bikes and kayaks to Mission Reach.
The Pearl opened as a brewery in the 1880s. Since 2002, the space has been reimagined as a mix of reuse and new developments. The Pearl is now an exciting new neighborhood along the San Antonio River Walk, with apartments, commercial businesses, shops and dining. The development also includes Hotel Emma, a former brewhouse-turned-boutique-hotel.
For a walking conference in the Pearl District, Matej recommends that groups stay at Hotel Emma, with a luncheon or reception at the Pearl Stables, formerly home to the brewery’s draft horses. Then, groups can take part in a culinary boot camp at the nearby Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus.
There are also plenty of options to connect the convention center to other venues for a walking conference. The newly renovated Henry B. González Convention Center is within walking distance of 14,000 hotel rooms, Matej says, and many hotels offer meeting space as well.
With so many options nearby, one example of a walking conference in San Antonio could include a meeting at the convention center, a smaller event at the Briscoe Western Art Museum, and then a walk or river barge ride to the Pearl district for dinner.
The concentration of shops, venues, restaurants (most with meeting space) and the Magnolia Market in Waco make the downtown area a great choice for a walking conference, says Susan Morton, tourism manager at the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Magnolia Market has quickly become a “must include” stop for groups visiting Waco, Morton says. The market, which opened in 2015, was built over two city blocks by HGTV “Fixer Upper” stars and Waco natives Chip and Joanna Gaines. The property includes shops, a bakery, food trucks, a garden and a large green space in the center of the property for lawn games.
A sample itinerary for a walking conference in Waco could include an outdoor breakfast meeting on the grounds of Magnolia Silos with breakfast at the Silos Baking Company, Milos or Co-Town Crepes, Morton says.
Groups could then move to the Dr Pepper Museum, located two blocks away. The museum offers classrooms, a courtyard, and a theater for meetings and events. There are also nearby venues with rooftop patios, including a winery and Balcones Distilling, as well as multiple local restaurants with meeting space.
In addition to plenty of attractions and venues within walking distance, Waco’s downtown trolley provides easy access to more venues and dining options around the downtown area. The trolley is a flagstop route, so visitors just need to wave to the driver at any location along the route to board. The trolley runs every 15-20 minutes.
The Waco Convention Center, Courtyard Marriott, Hotel Indigo, Magnolia Market, the Saturday Farmers Market and the Dr Pepper Museum are all on the route. Also included is Chow Town, another hub in the city for food trucks. Chow Town is located near the Brazos River, the Riverwalk and riverfront parks. After a meal, groups can take advantage of Waco’s outdoor spaces, such as Cameron Park, which offers 27 miles of biking and hiking trails. Paddleboard, kayak and bike rentals are available, too.
The Waco CVB can provide planners with copies of the trolley and city maps, visitor guides and coupon brochures, Morton says. She also recommends guests download the CVB’s free app to help guide them around the city. The app includes a walking tour of murals in the downtown area, which can be a fun addition for a photo scavenger hunt or other activities, Morton says.
Planners have traditionally taken advantage of the George R. Brown Convention Center’s proximity to Houston attractions, says Judi Quesonova, vice president of client services at VisitHouston. “Larger meetings, like Starbucks and First Robotics, have planned programs at venues close to the George R. Brown Convention Center (GRB), such as BBVA Compass soccer stadium, Minute Maid Park and Toyota Center, with the goal of encouraging guests to enjoy Houston’s attractions,” Quesonova says.
Planners wanting to follow in those footsteps and add more attractions within walking distance need to check out the Avenida Houston campus, which was completed in December 2016.
The campus is the entertainment district for the GRB and includes the Hilton Americas-Houston, the new Marriott Marquis and Discovery Green, a 12-acre park that acts as the front yard of the convention center. There are also options for dining and nightlife. The name “Avenida” comes from Avenida de las Americas, the boulevard that fronts the convention center and runs from Minute Maid Park to the Hilton Americas-Houston hotel.
Walkability was an important consideration when designing the campus, Quesonova says.
“In fact, walkability was key to the development,” she says. “Avenida Houston was designed as a walkable plaza to provide an experience of restaurants, retail stores and a 12-acre park for conferencegoers.”
More than 700 events take place within the Avenida Houston annually, and visitors to the convention center can easily access the area, Quesonova says. A new grand entrance connects the convention center to the plaza and park across the street.
The Marriott Marquis opened in Avenida Houston in late 2016, adding 1,000 hotel rooms to the convention district.
The most iconic feature of the hotel may be its Texas-shaped lazy river (see page 30). The hotel also offers 150,000 square feet of meeting space and has five dining options. These include Xochi, the passion project of James Beard Award-winning chef Hugo Ortega and the ground-floor wine bar Cueva. There’s also more casual dining offered at the High Dive Bar—located on the pool deck with access restricted to guests—Biggio’s Sports Bar and Walker Street Kitchen, which offers Texas countryside-style fare.
It’s easy to get around the city from the hotel, as the Marriott Marquis offers access to Houston’s light rail on both the Green and Purple lines. The Marriott Marquis is a short walk to three professional sporting venues in and around Avenida Houston, including Minute Maid Park—home of the World Series champions, the Houston Astros.
There’s also plenty of public art to enjoy both in the convention center and outside, including the tree-lit promenade in Discovery Green and ample parking available with three main parking garages in the area (Avenida North, South and Central).
Frisco’s new development, The Star, is perfectly suited to host a walking conference, says Ryan Callison, director of marketing and communications at Visit Frisco.
The Star is a 91-acre office, retail and restaurant space anchored by the Dallas Cowboys Training Facility and World Headquarters. Much of The Star was completed and opened in 2017.
The Star offers 51,000 square feet of restaurants and retail space, including a Mediterranean restaurant by Michelin-rated chef Jose Andres. There are also more than 20 meeting spaces, including Ford Center, a multipurpose event center to be used by the Cowboys, the city of Frisco and the Frisco Independent School District. The Star also includes the Omni Frisco Hotel, a 300-room property that is connected to the Cowboys’ training facility.
All of The Star’s many offerings are located within walking distance to the Omni Frisco Hotel, Callison says.
“The Star is a 91-acre meeting planner’s dream to create flow and movement throughout the day,” he says. “Groups could be focused on meetings inside the Omni Frisco Hotel, while others are having a meeting inside ‘The War Room,’ the room where the Dallas Cowboys do all of the draft work from every season.”
A group might start off with meetings or an event at the Omni Frisco Hotel before moving to lunch on a 50-yard outdoor turn field. They can then take a VIP guided tour of The Star before heading to one of the many entertainment venues or outdoor patios to cap off the day, says Callison.
More development—and opportunities for walking conferences—is on the way. Frisco Station, set to open in early 2019, will add 200,000 square feet of mixed-use space around The Star. That includes four hotels, including a Marriott AC Hotel, Residence Inn, Canopy Hotel by Hilton and Hyatt Place Hotel. In total, these hotels will add 600 rooms to Frisco.