Mayor Bill White is on a clean tech crusade to change the perception of Houston as a one-horse oil and gas boomtown.
“From being the country’s leading entity purchasing wind energy, to the rooftop solar panels powering George R. Brown Convention Center, to our growing fleet of more than 500 city hybrids, Houston is on a green roll,” he says. “We’ve been the nation’s energy capital for years and we’re on the way to becoming the country’s sustainable energy capital, too.”
Stephen Miner, senior vp of conference membership for the American Wind Energy Association, agrees.
“Houston drew our annual global conference of 13,000 participants because of mayor White’s commitment to renewable energy,” he says. When 12 acres of parking lots were being converted into the Discovery Green downtown park by the convention center, Miner says, “The city pledged to have it ready for us to use for our events. They did.”
Discovery Green is a leafy park in the heart of downtown encompassing a 1-acre lake, an amphitheater that can seat 1,000 and The Grove restaurant, with three private dining rooms totaling 250 seats.
Miner admits sometimes being green can raise conference costs in the short term, like using biodegradable utensils or china plates in the convention center instead of items that clog up the landfill. “But there’s a social consciousness, a politically correct reason for being green,” he explains. “If the city has the same primary commitment, it’s easier to choose them because we’re not having to create that consciousness. We felt that commitment from their sales force right from the beginning.”
Houston’s environmental policies also attracted the 2009 Comverge Clean Energy Users’ Group conference.
“They’re the top producers of wind power, producing enough to power more than 600,000 homes in the US,” says Rachael Licata, marketing coordinator. She adds that conference attendees were given a list of Houston’s greenest properties such as theHoustonian Hotel, Club & Spa. “They used ZigBee technology for their automation. They had CFL lighting, removed any unnecessary recessed lighting, developed some organic in-room products with recycled packaging, had recycling bins throughout the hotel, and had biodegradable corn product cups. Quite impressive.”
The Houstonian is situated on 18 lushly wooded acres in the heart of the city, with 26 meeting venues and 32,000 sf of meeting space.
Connected to the convention center across the street from Discovery Green, the 1,200-room Hilton Americas-Houston is the largest convention hotel in town. It was also the first Texas hotel to achieve Green Seal certification. Total function space is 91,500 sf, while the Spencer’s for Steaks & Chops restaurant is consistently ranked top of its class.
CULTURED AFFAIRS In a city that defines the steel and glass building boom of the 70s, we’re happy to discover a collection of mid-size boutiques with good size group space and head-turning looks. That, and one world-beating art gallery worth a trip in itself.
Featuring Houston’s only rooftop pool and Jacuzzi, the 22-story Houston Magnolia Hotel was originally the 1926 Post Dispatch Building. The 314-room property is located in the heart of the biz district, with 44 studios and 19 one-bedroom suites featuring full kitchens and living areas. The bar was anointed Houston’s sexiest watering hole, and the third floor features seven meeting rooms totaling 6,000 sf. Bayou Place dining and the theater district are just minutes away.
City-chic doesn’t begin to do justice to the downtown, 144-room Hotel ICON, which began life as the Union National Bank in 1911. Today, the 4-diamond hotel has retained its fun mix of straitlaced Western and neoclassic Greek design motifs, while the San Francisco interior designers went to town with colorful and retro romantic furnishings. Think intricate molded ceilings, delicate ironwork and 30-ft Doric columns in the lobby, with clawfoot bathtubs and striped canary yellow wall treatment in the bathrooms. We like the cow fur upholstery in the Voice Restaurant.
Chef Michael Kramer has won national raves for New American dishes like black grouper with serrano ham. Planners can cater Kramer’s cuisine in the Wine Vault and 3-level Penthouse Ritz Suite with lovely views from the balcony. Both are in demand for corporate pow wows and impromptu war rooms for lawyers. The 2,300-sf Aventine Ballroom seats 130.
The brand new, 244-room Hotel Sorella opened this summer on Houston’s west side, the most affluent zip code in the country, next to the 18,000-sf Norris Conference Center that opened in May. The thoroughly contemporary design blends a modernist tower with stylish amenities like an outdoor pool with daybeds and a chi-chi lounge. A nationally renowned New Orleans’ Brennan family restaurateur is heading up the kitchens at Café Rosé and Bistro Alex. And Sorella is part of the new CITYCENTRE mixed use development, so groups can walk to a barrage of other eateries, from dim sum dippin’ at the Singapore-themed Straits to Tex-Mex tapas at Chipotle.
While you’re in town, there’s no excuse for bypassing the Menil Collection, showcasing 20th century surrealist and pop art. On display are lots of heavy hitters: Picasso, Matisse, Warhol and Pollock. The big show is the sky-lit Rothko Chapel with kneeling mats and prayer benches to channel the energy of Rothko’s ephemeral shade-shifting paintings.
HELP4GALVESTON Last year, one hour away in Galveston, Hurricane Ike smashed through town on its way to becoming the third costliest storm in US history. Over 200 Keller Williams (KW) real estate agents answered the call and descended on the small island to help fix the place up. The energetic group made quite the impression dressed in t-shirts emblazoned with “RED”—Renew, Energize, Donate.
“Our Galveston office was completely washed away. We knew the area needed help,” says Carol Cones, KW’s Houston area regional director. She sought out the help of Help4Galveston, an organization who partners visiting groups with local operations such as Artist Boat, a preservation/education nonprofit.
Cone says, “Instead of 14 small projects, we wanted to collectively do dune restoration. Artist Boat set us up to clean 2,300 ft of beach and supplied the tools and equipment to do it.” The group also planted some 7,000 indigenous plants.
“Synergy,” she marveled, proud of what she calls “our corporate culture of caring.”
Big projects need strong partnerships and planning. New Hampshire-based boot company Timberland PRO has a long legacy of community service, and together with corporate partner Academy Sports, they approached Galveston’s parks and recreation department to identify specific needs after Ike.
“Timberland gives us 40 hours a year to devote to community service,” says project creator Alan Jones, a Timberland PRO account rep who manages the Texas region. He says planners should, “Think big, do projects that are more lasting…something that people who participated can return to with their families and say, ‘I helped with that’.”
This particular project included refurbishing Fort Crockett Park, building a community garden at Menard Park and supplying fitness equipment for the community center—the only LEED-certified building on Galveston Island.
Timberland employees created Valor Garden with 20 flower beds bordered by a 6-ft composite wood fence. Jones contacted Fibertech Polymers rep Jeff Shulz, who agreed to supply the composite materials.
“This fence is composed of more than 49,000 used plastic milk containers, so it’s more durable, helps reduce landfill waste, and aids Galveston’s efforts to improve their environmental impact while rebuilding,” explains Jones.
“Truly it was a gift to the community,” says Erin Toberman, director of Help4Galveston. “They pre-packaged their volunteer experience. They coordinated the volunteers, expectations, transportation, refreshments, and they brought all the materials. Galveston just had to find them the location and assist in the prep.”
Toberman says smaller groups are certainly welcome in Galveston, too. When the Comverge Group met in Houston, CEO Robert M. Chiste encouraged attendees to participate in a volunteer effort in Galveston.
“We formed a hurricane relief team and bussed about 25 volunteers into Galveston,” says Licata about her group of first-time volunteers. “We helped restore a church to be used for community housing for other hurricane relief teams.” She adds, “I believe it’s something we may repeat annually.”
BETTER, BIGGER, BEACHIER Even with the vast numbers of previous volunteers, it’s never too late to help. “There is always more to do and we welcome any company looking to ‘give back’,” says Vicky Corrington, CMP, senior national sales manager for Galveston Island CVB. “Thanks to the generous response of corporations assisting in our recovery from Hurricane Ike, Galveston has rebounded, and the beaches have never looked better after a $10 million beach renourishment.”
Corrington is quick to add, “Don’t just come to Galveston to work.” Aside from the beaches, she says she loves the historic downtown district, which has one of the country’s largest and most well-preserved concentrations of Victorian iron-front commercial architecture.
For lodging, Galveston is home to three 4-diamond resorts, targeting both small and large groups. San Luis Resort, Spa & Conference Center features a 40,000-sf conference center on the 30-acre Historic Seawall Boulevard, which includes the 140,000-sfGalveston Island Convention Center. The Steakhouse restaurant was ranked in the top 10 in Texas.
The 4-diamond, 226-room Hotel Galvez is a Wyndham Historic Hotel originally opened in 1911, when it quickly became known thereafter as “The Queen of the Gulf.” Following an all-encompassing renovation, it just unveiled a $6 million spa. Total meeting space is 14,500 sf.
Moody Gardens, Galveston’s #1 attraction, is comprised of three pyramids housing a rainforest, aquarium and science museum. Inside the complex, the 4-diamond, 428-room Moody Gardens Hotel offers 100,000 sf of meeting space.
Inside the Aquarium Pyramid, penguins bobble about while a biologist takes groups for a backstage tour with chatty insights about conservation, training and care. The penguins are the most popular attraction at Moody, perhaps due to their diva personalities. It’s true that some penguins like to be photographed while others do not.
Also check out the Rainforest Pyramid, with plant and animal life from Asia and Africa. The facility has purchased thousands of acres of rainforest in Panama, Peru and Belize to, “contribute to efforts by the Rainforest Foundation to assist indigenous peoples to preserve their land from takeover,” reads the CSR statement. Giving back in Galveston has been a long established tradition for some.