Coastal Construction

Texas' oceanside cities continue to build, in hopes of broadening their appeal and luring groups from afar.

Fourteen months have passed since Hurricane Ike ravaged Galveston, causing a total of $3.6 billion in damages and losses to the coastal Texas destination. While there was significant residential damage, the community's hospitality infrastructure was spared in large part and rebounded in the initial months after the storm. Tourism components that were not as lucky now have caught up, and there is more redevelopment on the way.

Reopened or brand-new eateries, shops, and art galleries in the historic Strand District, which suffered Ike's massive storm surge, are busy. A $6 million federal emergency beach replenishment project was completed last April, transplanting 400,000 cubic yards of sand to beaches around the seawall area of town. Five months later, the federal government granted another $40.5 million to a $46.4 million beach renourishment and dune restoration project extending six miles from the western end of the seawall.

Lou Muller, executive director of the Galveston Island Park Board, says 5 million visitors flock to Galveston each year primarily for its beaches, and he estimates that for every dollar spent on beach recovery, four dollars go back to the city in tourism revenue.

Recent talk around town has centered on a Galveston icon, the over-the-water Flagship Hotel on Seawall Boulevard. Plans are in motion to revitalize the 225-room property—built in 1965 but run down even before it was damaged by Ike—along with the former pleasure pier on which the hotel stands. The owner, Landry's Restaurants, intends to rename it the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier Hotel and Resort and bring the pier back to its 1940 roots, by spending at least $15 million on the hotel as well as attractions including a carousel and a Ferris wheel.

While Landry's has yet to release further details on the project, a company spokesperson noted that there are plans for meeting, banquet, and breakout space, as well as a pool and a sundeck jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico. The property is expected to debut in 2011.

Although Galveston's bed-tax revenues were down significantly in 2009, they were suppressed by lower room rates in the flagging economy, not the hurricane. But Meg Winchester, director of sales for the Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau, says group business has been "holding very well," noting, "we're a popular destination for Texas associations and we've had quite a bit of education groups lately."

Business for 2011 and future years is promising, as Winchester says national associations are beginning to show interest in the historically in-state market. Those associations "are looking for value, and our small island has the historic aspect, the beach, and affordable but first-class hotels," she explains.

While acknowledging that corporate business remains sluggish, Winchester points out that the CVB is working hard to maintain relationships with corporate clients. The bureau has done heavy one-on-one marketing with them to stay top-of-mind when budgets free up.

Getting to where the economy, not the hurricane, is the primary challenge took not only federal and state aid but the generosity of groups. Notes Winchester: "We've had many incredible groups give back to Galveston. They have restored sand dunes and cleaned up trash on the beaches. One group bused down school supplies for local children."

One of the voluntourism catalysts has been the landmark 119-room Tremont House, with 17,000 sf of meeting space. Reopened since last June, after a nine-month post-Ike rebirth, the property connects groups with local volunteer organizations.

Patty Rouse, area director of sales and marketing, says the pace of groups using the Tremont has been brisk. The property, managed by Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, added the 700-sf Cynthia Woods Mitchell Room for groups and turned the old dining venue into the new Tremont Cafe.

Meanwhile, the 224-room Hotel Galvez, the Tremont's iconic sister property, also run by Wyndham and owned by Mitchell Historic Properties, reopened its spa this past June, as well. It has begun room renovations, putting in historically accurate windows, repainting rooms, and overhauling soft goods and bathrooms, in preparation for its centennial celebration in 2011.

Corpus Christi Holds Strong

About 150 miles south of Galveston and having escaped Ike's wrath, Corpus Christi saw a softening in group business in 2009, but a robust leisure side rescued the market, according to Paulette Kluge, marketing director of the Omni Corpus Christi Hotel, the city's main meetings and convention property with 38,000 sf of group space.

That was reiterated by Keith Arnold, CEO of the Corpus Christi Convention & Visitors Bureau, who says, "The local tourism industry is doing well in comparison to other cities nationally."

Groups have traditionally accounted for 30 percent of the more than 7 million visitors to Corpus Christi each year, with 80 percent of those groups comprised of state associations and government agencies headquartered in Austin, according to Arnold.

And while some groups at the Omni have shrunk by 15 to 20 percent, others have grown by 30 percent. The numbers have been as volatile as the nation's economic indicators. "It's been difficult to forecast; you think you know a group's history," Kluge explains. "Yes, businesspeople are traveling less, but Corpus Christi is still a draw. Attendees love coastal destinations."

Corpus Christi, like Galveston, is reworking its shorefront. Construction is scheduled to be completed this year on Bayfront Water Park, with a wading park, a sculpture garden, and walkways.

Visitors will enjoy exploring the Padre Island National Seashore, kayaking on the bay, or bird-watching. New is Horses on the Beach, a horseback ride along the shores of Mustang Island. Another recently opened attraction is the Butterfly House & Bromeliad Conservatory Exhibit at the South Texas Botanical Gardens & Nature Center.

Originally published Jan. 1, 2010

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