During a press tour of San Antonio’s revamped Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center (SAHBCC) a few weeks ago, I paused to take a photo of the view from meeting room 220, a tropical-colored space that feels as though it floats above Market Street (fittingly, it’s also called the Cantilever Room). Then another writer and I lingered to speak with a PSAV executive about the room’s built-in screens as our group filed out the door. “I’ll catch up with them,” I thought.
But only a minute later, when we had finished chatting, it seemed that our tour group had vanished. We looked left, we looked right. We peeked our heads into the next meeting space, then peered down from the terrace into the enormous atrium below. Not a sign.
Such is the dramatic result of the two-year, $325-million transformation, which added 350,000 square feet of space to the center. Unofficially unveiled in January, the addition brings the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center’s total space to 1.6 million square feet, that is at turns sleek, undulating, airy, and playful — with a string of enormous exhibition halls, the largest ballroom in Texas (the Stars at Night Ballroom), and various nooks, crannies, and outdoor spaces. Trying to figure out which of those nooks or crannies our group had disappeared to took us on our own impromptu tour of the spaces that barely 12 hours earlier had hosted a lavish gala — the official unveiling of the center’s transformation.
It was surreal to wander into halls that had been turned back to normal after the previous night’s event. An exhibition hall that had been decked out in blue lights and ice bars, and populated with human sculptures and guests the night before was now nearly empty and its 514,000 square feet of contiguous space seemed cavernous. In the north entry atrium, where performers had twirled gossamer banners at the gala, we now had an unimpeded view of the sculpture in its midst, “Liquid Crystal,” a 30-foot-high tower of panels that change color and turn based on the number of people in the space. Inside the adjacent Market Café, one of the employees offered me a sample of fresh-squeezed orange juice straight from a Zumex Juicer, which I sipped as an SAHBCC sales executive led us to see a courtyard with an outdoor pizza oven.
With a plum spot on the city’s River Walk, the circa-1968 convention center already was a draw. But Casandra Matej, executive director of the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the center’s transformation has opened up new avenues of convention business. “We are definitely seeing two things happen,” Matej told Convene. Not only is San Antonio now able to bid on and land bigger conferences than before, the city can accommodate the evolving business of current clients. “We had some existing customers who were starting to expand their programs, and they would’ve outgrown San Antonio,” she said. “We’ve been able to secure 34 new bookings that we wouldn’t have been able to secure without the transformation.”
That includes meetings for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and the U.S. Travel Association, which will hold its IPW Conference in San Antonio in 2023. Without the expansion, San Antonio also would have been unable to host all of the fan-experience events for the NCAA Final Four Tournament in 2018, Matej said.
When asked about her favorite part of the new SAHBCC, Matej said it was difficult to choose, but the new atrium fills her with a “sense of awe.” For the first time, she said, “we have a real presence of entrance to the building that we didn’t have before. And the building itself has become an icon in downtown San Antonio.”
Meanwhile, plans are in place for the convention center’s former space to be reintegrated with downtown. Look for more on this in Convene’s June issue.