The City of San Antonio and the region’s private sector have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the downtown core during the last decade to modernize America’s seventh largest city.
In the heart of that new development and civic energy, the Henry B. González Convention Center completed a $325 million expansion in February 2016, elevating San Antonio’s stature as a first-tier meetings destination.
Adjacent to the convention center, more than $80 million of public investment is reimagining Hemisfair Park, which was the site of the 1968 World’s Fair, to create an entirely new indoor/outdoor meetings and events ecosystem in central Texas.
Together, the updated convention center and park — overlooking the central juncture of the city’s famed River Walk, not far from the Alamo — represents more than a new building and enhanced landscaping.
It signals an aggressive re-positioning of San Antonio in the meetings industry as a 21st-century, highly connected, cosmopolitan city that champions global innovation and local urban dynamism, while embracing its pioneering past and iconic American spirit.
THE FUTURE OF CONVENTIONS
The future of conventions requires the convergence of a city’s assets to provide a richer attendee experience, combining its primary meeting facilities, public spaces, knowledge industries, and urban social fabric. The meetings destination of tomorrow, in effect, is evolving as an integrated city-wide venue where companies and attendees can plug into different environments that best align with a specific event’s purpose.
San Antonio’s walkable downtown district provides myriad arteries to support the connectivity and mobility required for today’s holistic, urbanized convention design. That’s been enhanced in recent years with the extensions of the River Walk to the creative Pearl district, and the region’s numerous UNESCO World Heritage-designated Spanish Missions, which includes the Alamo.
The Henry B. González Convention Center and Hemisfair Park redevelopments are the new hub of that urban neural network for meeting planners. Upcoming developments to support that include a renovation of the nearby Alamodome, the launch of the San Antonio Tech District, and several mixed-use projects inspired by the success of the Pearl district, such as the new San Pedro Creek Project and Lone Star Brewery District.
“We’re getting ready for our Tricentennial in 2018, and while of course we’ll celebrate the 300 years that got our destination to where it is today, it’s also going to focus on what the future looks like,” says Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit San Antonio. “One thing that San Antonio does really well is we preserve our past, but we’re also now looking much more at how that merges with our future.”
The blueprint for that vision is the City of San Antonio’s “SA Tomorrow” urban and economic development plan. The Henry B. González Convention Center, which is the city’s largest ever capital improvement investment, is the keystone of the plan.
Michael J. Sawaya, executive director of convention and sports facilities for the City of San Antonio, says the convention center is the front door for a new downtown San Antonio.
“There’s not many opportunities to take something like this and redo it and re-introduce it to the world,” he says. “We have this opportunity to re-launch something that only once in your lifetime you get to be involved in. Really, it’s about how we want to represent San Antonio to the world.”
THE CONVENTION CENTER OF THE FUTURE
The expansion of the Henry B. González Convention Center increased the facility’s total size to 1.6 million square feet. The signature function spaces include the new 87,000-square-foot, column-free Exhibit Hall 1, and the new 54,000-square-foot Stars At Night Ballroom — the largest in Texas.
There’s also the new Cantilever Room spanning over two lanes of Market Street. Conceptualized as “The Meeting Room of the Future” by the Populous architecture firm, which specializes in large general assembly facilities, the Cantilever Room was designed as a configurable group innovation lab. It features the latest innovations in mobile furniture, a fully integrated video wall and flexible audio-visual technology, easily portable room dividers, huge natural light, and great views of downtown San Antonio.
“Populous has a conference where they gather together a brain trust of people from around the country called ‘Imagine That,’” says Sawaya. “They bring in meeting planners, convention and visitor bureau directors, and folks like myself who operate buildings. They bring them together and ask, ‘What should the convention center design of the future be?’”
Sawaya got inspired. He said he wanted a convention center like that, delivering a next-generation environment that supports crowd-sourced learning.
“Meeting planners of the future believe that the exchange of ideas is different when they’re more relaxed and comfortable, and where they can be more creative,” he says. “We developed the convention center for the meeting planner who understands that.”
Architect Michael Lockwood, senior principle of Populous, adds that the Henry B. González Convention Center provides a flexible, efficient attendee experience that exudes the character, spirit and vibrant culture of San Antonio and its community.
“It was really important to the project team to align our design with the goals for downtown San Antonio,” he says. “We feel this project is part of a bigger plan. It helps maximize visitors, brings life to the street level, and transforms the urban experience in San Antonio now and for the future.”
GREAT CITIES HAVE GREAT DOWNTOWNS
Explaining that great cities have great downtowns, both Matej and Sawaya emphasize that the overall user experience for the convention center needed to be connected more organically to San Antonio’s outside environs.
The goal was to create a more seamless and cohesive union between the convention attendee and the downtown experience, encompassing the River Walk and Hemisfair Park, because they connect to more urban pathways extending deeper into the city.
“Our plan in San Antonio speaks to how a destination can show its unique sense of place within the meeting and event venues,” says Matej. “You can walk by our convention center through a historic artisan village called La Villita, which is one of the original villages of downtown San Antonio. It also serves as a unique and wonderful venue for a small reception or large event.”
Matej points out that meeting and event organizers are utilizing a broader spectrum of the destination to host their programs. For example, one of the first uses of Hemisfair Park will be for the NCAA Men’s Final Four college basketball championships in 2018, where the host organization will be using the park for the March Madness Music Festival.
The demand from both meeting planners and attendees for that local immersion will continue to drive new development in the eclectic neighborhoods surrounding San Antonio’s downtown core. The city is no longer just a city, so to speak. It’s a network of neighborhood experiences that planners can customize to deliver creative event experiences and specific business outcomes, imbued with local color and culture.
“One of the things about our success in the convention industry here is that you reach a point where you need to spread the crowd out a little bit, because we have grown so much,” sums up Sawaya. “Those opportunities actually create new attractions for the event attendees. Folks who come from around the country want to feel like they’re a part of the fabric here. That’s a big consideration for how meeting and event planners make their decisions today.”