It makes sense that Houston, TX, is the home of NASA, because the city seems to be changing at rocket speed.
"If you haven't visited the city in the last few years, you are going to be very surprised," says Mike Waterman, president of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau (GHCVB). "We are fresh off the NCAA Final Four, getting ready for next year's Super Bowl, and the city has never looked better."
Attendees expecting more asphalt than green space will be delighted by Houston's makeover. Take downtown: now home to a 568,000-square-foot mixed-use convention district with more than 12 acres of park (make sure to visit Discovery Green) with water accents, playgrounds, outdoor concert venues, art installations, eateries, bars, and retail shops.
"We have also revitalized the 'Buffalo Bayou' [a river running through Houston and out into the Gulf], where visitors can rent pontoon boats and kayaks," says Waterman. He points out that the city has spent $175 million revamping the George R. Brown Convention Center, adding seven new restaurants, sky bridges, and art installations, including a sculpture by Houston artist Ed Wilson. "[At the convention center], we took eight lanes of road and cut them down to two lanes. The six lanes were turned into pedestrian-friendly walkways with fountains, art installations, and there will be a wharf area with an outdoor café."
The new Marriott Marquis on the north side of the convention center is scheduled to open in November. On the fifth floor of the 1,000-room property, guests will be able to enjoy multiple event lawns, an outdoor infinity-edge pool, and a Texas-shaped lazy river. Opposite the Marriott, on the south end of the convention center, is the 1,200-room Hilton Americas Houston, the first Green Seal Certified hotel in Texas.
"Because of this new Marriott expansion, we are able to offer convention packages that we didn't have in the past," shares Waterman. "Our lead volume is up 25 percent and our closure rate is up 10 percent."
The city appears to be on a winning streak: in 2015, GHCVB booked a record number of room nights in conjunction with meetings and events. Waterman says it shouldn't come as a surprise; the city's laid-back Gulf Coast vibe combined with southern hospitality and ethnic diversity make Houston unique.
"We speak 146 languages here," says Waterman. "Houston is the culinary and cultural capital of the South. We have a wealth of restaurants -- over 10,000."
Try Mala Sichuan Bistro for what Southern Living magazine calls "cutting-edge Chinese charcuterie," or visit one of Houston's many food trucks, like Phamily Bites, serving a twist on Vietnamese street food. Local cuisine stays true to its Texas roots -- try crawfish at the Boil House or barbeque at Gatlin's BBQ Ribs.
And the city's diversity isn't just culinary.
"There is so much to do in Houston," says Waterman. "Families love our aquarium and zoo. We have microbreweries and hundreds of acres of parks and waterways to explore."
In addition, there are 19 art institutions and a theater district that spans 17 blocks. And don't forget NASA's Space Center. "There is an unbelievable amount of activity and an energy going on right now in Houston," he adds. "Last I heard there were $1.5 billion worth of economic drivers happening -- from apartments, hotels, bars, and retail space under construction. The city is thriving."
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This article appears in the May 2016 issue of Successful Meetings.