When I touched down in San Antonio for a late-March press trip for my first visit to River City, my anticipation was high. I’d heard that San Antonio’s lively mix of history, art, food, and sports make it magnetic for both tourists and business travelers. But rather than rest on its laurels, Texas’ second-largest city is pushing itself forward, especially when it comes to meetings. A $325-million renovation of the Henry B. González Convention Center was unveiled in January. Simultaneously, the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau has been pursuing privatization — no simple task in the midst of so much change.
Why now? “We were the only fully city department out of the top 50 [meetings] cities,” said Casandra Vatej, executive director of the San Antonio CVB. “We were looking at our comp set, and they were growing their budgets by double digits. We thought we should look at other ways to gain funding. When you’re under a city structure, your budget is set and you don’t have a lot of flexibility.”
ON THE RIVER
The CVB’s organizational change should be complete by January 2017 — but in the meantime, it’s still doing business as usual, including hosting Convene and other media outlets for a visit. After checking in to our host hotel, the 473-room Westin Riverwalk, our group was greeted with an evening reception at Zocca, the Westin’s Italian restaurant. Zocca’s glass doors open onto a patio that borders the famous River Walk, which runs along the San Antonio River for about five miles downtown.
Gondolas drifted by as we sipped Zocca’s signature Amaretto margaritas. Soon, we boarded our own boat for a dinner cruise along the river. Passersby waved as we floated under arched bridges and past crowded cafés, tucking into lump-crab pappardelle at a banquet table that ran the length of the boat. After disembarking, we strolled over to La Vista Terrace, a brand-new indoor-outdoor event space at the Hyatt Regency Hotel that overlooks the Alamo. The staff plied us with dessert as we gawked from the 1,200-square-foot terrace down onto the mission where the Battle of the Alamo raged in 1836.
At Southtown’s historic Guenther House the next morning, we got a taste of the German side of multicultural San Antonio. This Art Nouveau home is decked out in stained glass and carved-stone details, and topped by a light-drenched Roof Garden that falls somewhere between a ballroom and a solarium. Downstairs in Guenther’s café, one of the city’s beloved breakfast spots, an epic meal of breakfast tacos and strawberry waffles left us dangerously close to food coma.
I got it together for a post-breakfast tour of the Blue Star Arts Complex, a funky compound of old warehouses in the King William neighborhood that have been transformed into galleries, eateries, and shops. Soon, though — too soon? — it was time for yet more eating at Rosario’s, an iconic Mexican restaurant where the ceviche, tortilla soup, and queso flameado are both fresh and enormous.
Back at the Westin, we toured the property’s 26,000 square feet of elegant event space. Then we retired to gussy ourselves up for the trip’s main event: the gala opening party for the reimagined Henry B. González Convention Center (HBGCC).
IN THE CENTER
Originally built as part of HemisFair ’68, the 1968 World’s Fair, the HBGCC had been in the midst of a dramatic facelift for several years. The project included a new wing bordering Market Street that integrates the facility more fully with downtown, as well as the closure of another section that will be demolished to expand adjacent HemisFair park.
The reborn HBGCC is a playground of modernized meeting rooms, ballrooms, and terraces, with a soaring entrance atrium anchored by Liquid Crystal, a sculpture of LCD panels that change color based on nearby activity. During the gala, this “digital fountain” glistened as dancers twirled gossamer banners to welcome guests who were then guided through theatrical spaces themed around fire, wind, ice, and earth. Along the way, we encountered fog, an ice bar, dancers inside balloons, and the release of paper lanterns into the night sky above the HBGCC.
The next morning, a more formal tour revealed a convention center that is sleek, undulating, airy, and playful. It was surreal to wander through spaces that had been returned to “normal” after the previous night’s event. An exhibition hall that had resembled a glacier was now nearly empty, its 514,000 square feet of space able to accommodate 3,000 exhibitor booths. The 55,000-square foot Stars At Night Ballroom — the largest ballroom in Texas — was now hushed.
All told, the renovated center encompasses 1.6 million square feet, has 70 meeting rooms, and is dotted with unique touches such as an outdoor pizza oven and an event grotto along the River Walk. According to Matej, not only is San Antonio able to woo bigger conferences than before, the city also can accommodate the growing events of current clients. “We had some existing customers who were starting to expand their programs, and they would’ve outgrown San Antonio,” Matej told Convene. “We’ve been able to secure new bookings that we wouldn’t have been able to without the transformation.”
It’s not the only rebirth this city has undergone in the last few years. A few miles away, the historic Pearl District, once anchored by the Pearl Brewery, is now a hip, mixed-use neighborhood of shops and eateries, as well as the weekly Pearl Farmers Market and an outpost of the Culinary Institute of America. The brewery building, once derelict, is now the Hotel Emma, a chic boutique property that capitalizes on its industrial details and was recently named one of the best new hotels in the world by Condé Nast Traveler. It’s also home to Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery, where we munched on fried red-snapper throats, deviled eggs, and wings turned out by chef Jeff Balfour.
After spending time in San Antonio’s mellow downtown, it was hard to believe that the city has 1.5 million residents — or that we could find even more serenity only 20 minutes away, in Texas Hill Country. There, at La Cantera Hill Country Resort, we wound down our visit during an alfresco dinner of pitch-perfect Mexican food. The visit may have been my first, but I hope it won’t be my last.