Twice each day, cattle and cowboys amble down the main street in Fort Worth’s Stockyards Historic District.
The faux cattle drives — more than a dozen longhorn cattle flanked by a team of cowhands in their cowboy duds — are for tourists, a visual reminder of the late 1800s, when Fort Worth was a major stop for cattle drives on the legendary Chisholm Trail.
Long called Cowtown, Fort Worth is proud of its rich Western history, but in recent years, the city also boasts about its world-class museums and dazzling performance hall.
“It’s a city of cowboys and culture,” said David DuBois, president and CEO of the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau, using the current catch phrase for the city whose branding feature is the longhorn steer.
The cowboy/culture combo is steering business to Cowtown.
In down times, Fort Worth sees upturn
In a down economy, Fort Worth has opened 1,300 hotel rooms in its downtown area within the past two years, bringing the total to 2,300. The city of more than 700,000 has also added 1,500 downtown restaurant seats.
“For as bad as the economy has been, Fort Worth has not been hit as hard as other areas,” said John Cychol, vice president of marketing sales for the Fort Worth CVB.
“In 2009, we had a 34 percent increase in the number of rooms occupied,” said DuBois. “And I think things will be even better in 2010.
“The foresight by our mayor, city council and other city leaders over the past few years to improve our overall destination package has resulted in our city attracting larger meetings and conventions than ever before,” said DuBois.
A turning point for Fort Worth’s revitalization and redevelopment came more than a dozen years ago when the city bought the convention center, built in the late 1960s, from the county; made plans to expand it; and developed a master plan for the city, including the addition of a convention hotel, according to Kirk Slaughter, Fort Worth public events director.
Other hotels in the convention center area followed suit with their own plans for renovations and expansions.
The $75 million expansion of the Fort Worth Convention Center, which encompasses a 14-block area, was completed in 2003. It now provides 253,226 square feet of exhibit space and an additional 45,000-square-foot exhibit annex adjacent to an expanded loading dock.
“Groups often use the annex for storage,” said Slaughter. The new exhibit hall is large enough for most groups, and the annex is immediately inside the loading dock.
At one end of the complex is a 13,500-seat multifunction arena, and at the other end of the exhibit hall is a grand lobby. Three additional lobbies flank the exhibit hall on Houston Street.
The grand lobby opens to a 55,000-square-foot plaza that connects to the Fort Worth Water Gardens, an urban park that features three pools of water.
Upstairs is a 28,160-square-foot ballroom. The center has 41 meeting rooms ranging from 483 to 6,670 square feet and totaling 58,849 square feet. Newer meeting rooms are outside the exhibit hall and on the second floor next to the ballroom; older ones surround the arena.
The convention center can easily accommodate multiple events, although it is sometimes used for only one.
Kenneth Copeland Ministries used the arena for producing its show; it used the exhibit hall for book sales and the ballroom for other functions, according to Slaughter.
One of the largest groups to meet at the convention center recently was the Texas High School Coaches Association, which brought about 14,000 people, said Slaughter. “But ideally, the 3,000-to-4,000 range is the best fit for us.”
Equine events race to Will Rogers center
The Cultural District is home to five museums and the Will Rogers Memorial Center. The center, with 2 million square feet of space under one roof, is “the premier equestrian facility around the world, hosting world-class shows,” said Slaughter.
With a 2,000-seat arena and 1,000 all-metal stalls, and a 1,000-seat show arena, the facility is so popular that it has only five dark days a year, said Slaughter.
The Will Rogers Memorial Center also has more traditional spaces, including 100,000 square feet of exhibit space, a 6,000-seat coliseum and a 3,000-seat theater. A $32 million expansion to the center will break ground this summer.
A boost to Fort Worth’s convention market has been the opening last year of the convention center headquarters hotel, the Omni Fort Worth Hotel, across the street from the center.
“It is purposely not connected to the convention center in order to get visitors out onto our very walkable, pedestrian-friendly streets,” said Slaughter.
The Texas-theme luxury property, with its native stone, rich hardwoods and leather chairs, has 614 rooms and nearly 68,000 square feet of meeting space, including an 18,788-square-footballroom. Amenities include three restaurants, a wine bar and a spa.
Business up 30 percent at new Omni
“We had a good 2009 and an incredible first quarter of 2010,” said Larry Auth, area director of sales and marketing for Omni. “We are up 30 percent over the same period last year.”
Even weekends have been good, which Auth attributes to the new Dallas Cowboys stadium 17 miles away in Arlington. “I hope that’s a good sign for the economy, because people are willing to spend their own money,” he said.
About 40 percent of the hotel’s meeting business is for groups at the convention center, and the other 60 percent use the hotel for their meetings.
Meeting rooms are versatile, laid close to each other, have lots of natural light and are well appointed.
“It’s a four-star hotel,” said Slaughter. “Everything is first class.”
The most memorable event held at the hotel was its grand opening, with 300 meeting planners from around the world as its guests. The highlight was a block party at the Fort Worth Water Gardens.
“We had 12 restaurants that cooked the food,” said Auth. In addition to the bands, cuisine and activities, “the weather was perfect,” he said.
The renovation and reopening of hotels near the convention center have helped the city attract more meetings.
Almost $50 million was spent to turn a Ramada Inn into the 431-room Sheraton Fort Worth Hotel and Spa. The hotel has 22,000 square feet of meeting space.
The Embassy Suites Hotel, formerly a Clarion, also completed an extensive renovation and reopened in 2008 with 156 two-room suites. Its largest meeting room is 4,060 square feet. Both hotels are within walking distance of the convention center.
Also in 2008, two limited-service properties opened: the 132-room Holiday Inn Express and Suites Fort Worth Downtown and the 102-room Hyatt Place Fort Worth Stockyards in the Stockyards Historic District, two miles north of downtown.
The convention center expansion and the variety of hotels close to the convention center are changing the complexion of meetings in the city.
“Fort Worth is considered a tier 2 city based on its population, and we are proud of that,” said DuBois. “It is an advantage. You can come here and feel like you are in a village but have all the amenities of larger cities and certain international arenas.”
And change is not over for Fort Worth, singled out as one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“We are a destination in transition,” said Cychol, the CVB sales executive. “We can now go after businesses that we couldn’t accommodate before. In the past, we have relied upon religious and educational groups, which we are continuing to do, but we can increase our groups to more national associations and, as the economy recovers, to more corporate groups.”
Beyond the convention center and hotels, memorable places to gather are abundant in Fort Worth.
Several distinct entertainment districts, within three miles of each other, pump life into the city.
Sundance Square, about two blocks from the convention center, is considered one of the premier downtown settings in the country with its red-brick streets, landscaping and early-20th-century buildings. It is 35 square blocks of shopping, restaurants, live theater, a movie theater, art galleries and more. Molly the Trolley is a new addition to Sundance Square; the trolley stops at area hotels seven days a week and provides free transportation within the district.
The Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District is home not only to the twice-daily cattle drive and Texas-theme shopping and grub, but also to the Livestock Exchange Building and Cowtown Coliseum, the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame and Billy Bob’s, billed as the World’s Largest Honky-tonk.
There you can also hear stars from Willie Nelson and Wynonna Judd to Clay Walker and Rick Springfield, have roping contests and armadillo races to build camaraderie and see cowboys ride live bulls inside the arena on weekends.
No lack of nightlife
With the entertainment districts, Fort Worth does not shut down and become a concrete canyon at night.
“The city comes alive at night,” said Slaughter. “It is alive during the day but even more so in the evening.”
Fort Worth is a safe city: A couple of years ago, CQ Press named it the ninth-safest city in the country among cities with a population over 500,000. It is home to Texas Christian University, close to one of the largest airports in the country and part of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, which offers meeting goers the chance to hop a train to Dallas or head to Arlington to see the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium.
Although Fort Worth plays well with its sister city, Dallas, it is a distinctly different experience. For many, Dallas is all about shopping, haute cuisine and glitz. Fort Worth, known as “Where the West Begins,” is a bit more down to earth. Cowboy hats and boots are generally worn by the real McCoy in Fort Worth. Levi’s jeans are probably a bit more common here than the designer ones found at Neiman Marcus. But the two big cities mesh well.
“At industry trade shows, we work together as a single destination,” said Cychol. “One-third of the hotel tax in Texas comes from the DFW Metroplex.”
“We are proud to have the Super Bowl here next year,” said DuBois, “although that’s technically in Arlington. We compete every day with each other for business, but it’s a friendly competition.”
Fort Worth is working hard to win that friendly competition.
“The master plan for the city has paid off,” said Slaughter. “On top of that, we have one of the best convention and visitor bureaus anywhere.”
John Saunders, executive director of the National Forum for Black Public Administrators, thinks so too. He brought about 1,000 people to the group’s annual meeting a few years ago. There were a few glitches, from hotel overbooking to a scheduling mistake for an outing, but the CVB was quick to solve the problems.
“It all worked out, maybe even better,” said Saunders. “The CVB was very helpful and responded very well to solve the problems. And other than that, our conference was flawless. The Worthington was the hotel headquarters, and we had exceptional service.”
Kate Allen, senior meeting planner for the Texas Association of School Boards in Austin, has also been happy with Fort Worth. Her group’s summer leadership institute, offered for the past 15 years in San Antonio, grew too large for that city. For the past four years, the association has offered an additional institute in Fort Worth, and it has signed a contract for the next four years.
“Clearly, we like Fort Worth,” she said. Last year, the group had 1,033 attendees at the Worthington Hotel [about seven blocks from the convention center], with overflow at the Omni. This year, the meeting will be at the Omni, with overflow at the Sheraton.
“Attendees like it because it is easy to get around; traffic is not difficult getting here,” said Allen. “They can park their cars, and they are good to go, especially with Molly the Trolley. It’s a friendly city. Our folks feel well cared for, and that means I don’t have to worry.”
Especially impressive to Allen are the city ambassadors who are assigned to the meetings.
“These folks are head and shoulders above any other city’s ambassadors in engaging our members,” said Allen. “They genuinely love their city, and they want you to see the city they know.”
No doubt, Fort Worth has the meeting business by the horns.