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Culture, cuisine and convention savvy draw conferences to San Antonio and the Hill Country

Meetings Focus |
The city that gave the American lexicon one of its signature phrases—“Remember the Alamo”—has a special talent for creating unforgettable memories.
 
As any conventioneer or visitor knows, the nation’s seventh-largest metropolis offers numerous memorable interactions, from River Walk and its landmark Spanish Colonial missions to vibrant art and culture, sizzling culinary offerings and exuberant festivals. San Antonio does not rest on its laurels, however. Earlier this year, in a stroke of especially creative wooing, the San Antonio CVB sponsored a multifaceted marketing campaign called “City of Yellow Roses” (marrying the state’s symbolic flower with Valentine’s Day) that included handing out yellow roses to passersby in other cities.
 
The aim of the campaign, as San Antonio CVB Executive Director Casandra Matej told the New York Times, “was to own the holiday season devoted to romance and drive people to San Antonio during that time frame” as well as “educate them about just how romantic San Antonio is year-round.” It’s hard to resist such a classy invite, and to borrow the analogy, the city is also enticing planners and groups with a bright bouquet of new offerings. From a dramatic convention center upgrade to a further expansion of the Pearl Brewery complex to yet more offerings in its cultural and culinary mix, San Antonio, already in full bloom for meetings, continues to blossom for the years ahead.
 
Conventional Authority
Presently hosting more than 450 events each year with over 750,000 convention delegates from around the world, the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, located in the heart of downtown on River Walk and incorporating the 2,400-seat Lila Cockrell Theatre, is San Antonio’s centerpiece group asset.
 
In August 2013, the versatile facility released plans and schematics for a $325 million transformation that includes approximately 360,000 square feet of new exhibit hall, meeting room and ballroom space along with renovations to approximately 78,000 square feet of existing spaces. According to a release from the San Antonio CVB, the “highly anticipated” transformation, set for completion in fall 2015, “will be accomplished while the center remains operational, with no disruptions to events and customers.”
 
In addition to seeking Silver LEED Certification, other announced enhancements include what will be the largest ballroom in Texas, at approximately 55,000 square feet; larger and more flexible breakout rooms; improvements to circulation and wayfinding; and new well-defined entrances.
 
“Strong infrastructure combined with a distinct visitor experience is what makes San Antonio one of the top convention destinations in the nation,” stated Matej in the release. “This project will allow us to offer convention clients a flexible, innovative facility that is built to meet their needs, providing benefits to all groups meeting in San Antonio, no matter the size.”
 
The new convention facilities will complement the city’s existing lineup of impressive meetings-ready properties, including venerable historic gems such as Omni La Mansion del Rio and Hotel Valencia, both situated on River Walk, and the Menger Hotel, located next to The Alamo.
 
Reaching Out
The nearly complete expansion of River Walk includes the largest-ever urban ecosystem restoration project in the nation, involving the planting over 10,000 pounds of native wildflower and grass seeds (representing over 60 different native species) and planting over 23,000 trees and shrubs (over 40 different native species).
 
Scheduled for completion this October, the project, representing an investment of approximately $358 million, principally restores an eight-mile stretch of the San Antonio River reengineered into a drainage ditch back in the 1950s. Known as Mission Reach, the revived section links River Walk to the four 18th century Spanish missions south of the city that comprise San Antonio Missions National Historic Park. Along with the Alamo, River Walk is practically synonymous with the San Antonio experience, and as one of the most-visited attractions in Texas, contributes a staggering $12 billion to the local economy each year.
 
Western Works
San Antonio’s diverse cultural campus gets an exciting new addition this October with the grand opening of the Briscoe Western Art Museum. Named for late Texas Gov. Dolph Briscoe Jr. and his wife, Janey, the museum preserves and interprets the art, history and culture of the American West through exhibitions, educational programs and public events.
 
Located on River Walk in downtown, the Briscoe, occupying the historic former home of the San Antonio Public Library, sits on an acre and a quarter of land comprising two buildings and the expansive McNutt Courtyard & Sculpture Garden, which has hosted events ranging from outdoor weddings and cocktail parties to corporate conferences, meetings and luncheons since April 2012. The adjacent Jack Guenther Pavilion features three floors of customizable event space, while the museum’s main building, at nearly 38,000 square feet, includes nine galleries on three floors.
 
Hungry for More
Presently offering 10 restaurants, 12 unique retailers, the largest farmers market in San Antonio and a growing residential component, the Pearl Brewery complex, dating to 1883, is a triumph of mixed-use reinvention. Anchored by the Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus, the Pearl offers the city’s densest concentration of innovative dining and is a destination unto itself for visitors and groups. With more exciting developments on the horizon for the Pearl (see Zoom In, page s12), San Antonio as a whole continues to evolve as a culinary destination.
 
The new Fruteria-Botanero in Southtown is Chef Johnny Hernandez’s contemporary interpretation of fruit stands found across interior Mexico during the day, and at night, a hopping cocktail lounge. Fellow CIA-trained alum Andrew Weissman, who put the city on the fine dining map with his celebrated Le Reve back in 1998, opened his fifth restaurant, French bistro-style Minnie’s Tavern, this summer. Other new arrivals include Kimura, a hand-crafted ramen noodle shop from Chef Michael Sohocki, 2013 semifinalist for Best Chef Southwest from the Beard Foundation and owner of old-school fine dining establishment, Restaurant Gwendolyn.
 
Another 2013 Beard semifinalist for Best Chef Southwest is David Gilbert, who after partnering with celebrity Texas Chef Stephan Pyles at Sustenio Restaurant at the city’s Eilan Hotel & Spa, is opening his first restaurant this fall. Located in San Antonio’s emerging River North neighborhood, Tuk Tuk Tap Room is Gilbert’s homage to authentic Southeast Asian street fare.
 
San Antonio loves its festivals, and food and drink are no exception. Scheduled for next May, the celebrated Culinaria Wine and Culinary Arts Festival will feature internationally renowned vintners, top Texas wine producers and the hottest San Antonio chefs. In January, meanwhile, the city welcomes the inaugural San Antonio Cocktail Conference. Modeled on the wildly popular Manhattan Cocktail Classic and New Orleans’ Tales of the Cocktail event, the conference is the first of its kind in Texas.