This vibrant Texas city is diverse, cosmopolitan and cultured, offering plenty of top-quality distractions for discerning groups. By Allan Lynch, November/December 2008
In Dallas, you can find anything from Turner to Tutankhamun to Tibetan art. This city with the reputation for being little more than an oil-rich, cowboy capital has mega-surprises in store for those who haven’t visited.With the oil boys relocated to Houston, today’s Dallas is focused on cuisine, culture and going green.
Phillip Jones, president and CEO of the Dallas Visitors and Convention Bureau, chuckles at the old notions of Dallas. “Yeah, JR Ewing is one of the stereotypes we constantly fight against,” he says. “But Dallas is not the cowboy capital you thought it was. And that’s one of the biggest surprises, that Dallas is an incredibly diverse, cosmopolitan, cultured city with incredible restaurants and shopping. When our art-district expansion is complete, we will rival any other major city in America – Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Washington, San Francisco– because we will have the largest arts district in the country.”
In fact, Dallas’s arts district is a 19-block, 68-acre neighbourhood that is awash in $338-million in new facilities, which come on-line Oct. 12, 2009. As part of the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts, these include Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House; Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre; the 10-acre Elaine D. and Charles A. Sammons Park and Annette Strauss Artist Square, an outdoor amphitheatre. They will join the Dallas Museum of Art, which recently hosted exhibitions of JWM Turner and “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs”; the Crow Collection of Asian Art; the Nasher Sculpture Center; and the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, home of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. All of these facilities are available for private group functions. The Nasher is a five-year-old collection housed in an elegant, modern gallery backed by a walled garden filled with fountains, pools and modern sculpture. It also has a large, light-filled room available for daytime functions.
In a state known for red meat and oil, it’s nothing short of shocking to discover that part of the city’s redevelopment includes building a $100-million park with an outdoor theatre and seating for 3,300 over the Woodall Rodgers Freeway. Another revelation is that Dallas has public transportation – the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) connects neighbouring communities with hot shopping districts and provides built-in transportation between more than 8,000 hotel rooms and the Dallas Convention Center’s (DCC) own DART station.
Everyone knows the cliché about things being big in Texas – Dallas’s slogan is ‘Live large. Think big’ – but the DCC is massive, even in Texas terms. With 2-million sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor space, it seems the size of Prince Edward Island. It offers a 9,800-seat arena, about 800,000 sq. ft. of contiguous exhibit halls, 88 breakout rooms and space for four helicopters and has permission to build a 1,000-room hotel on an adjacent lot.
This renaissance is just one part of the $13-billion investment in new development that has swept Dallas in the last three years. Jones says, “If you haven’t been here in the last three years, you don’t know the city.”
This is part of the rethinking that needs to be done when considering Dallas. With over 7,000 restaurants, Dallas has replaced New York as the city with the most restaurants per capita. It’s also a shopping mecca. Dallas is home to Neiman Marcus, as well as North America’s first shopping centre and high-end designer malls. And the four-building campus of the Dallas Market Center is so big (it’s the world’s largest wholesale merchandise facility) and hosts so many industry events and trade shows, it has its own in-house travel agency to handle attendee bookings.
As with all real estate, location is a key selling point for Dallas, according to Jones. “We’re in the central part of the country, in the central time zone, and have both Dallas/Forth Worth and Love Field (airports), so there’s easy access to anywhere in the United States. Most destinations are within a three-to-four-hour flight, and with numerous flights a day on American or Southwest, the average fare has gone down considerably. So in addition to the affordability of flights, is the affordability of Dallas as a destination, because we have great four- and five-star restaurants and hotels you can stay in for considerably less than you would pay in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco or Orlando. Also, the cost of doing business in Texas in general, but Dallas, in particular, is less, because we are a right-to-work state, so you don’t have to pay the high rate that you would in some of the unionized states and cities. So it’s a very cost-effective destination for meetings.”
Location and the lower cost of doing business were two factors that helped convince a Maritz Canada client to book a repeat conference in Dallas.
Bonnie Roebuck, business manager with Maritz, in Mississauga, Ont., says a telecommunications and technology client chose Dallas for its 175-attendee, three-night conference in January, 2009. “They’re traveling to Dallas because Dallas is one of their main hubs, so they have quite a bit of their own attendee population centralized in the Dallas area,” which reduces travel costs. “The client had previously used the same hotel, the Grand Hyatt Dallas Fort Worth Airport, for the same meeting a couple of years ago, so the client feels there are certain efficiencies” thanks to the familiarity of property and partners.
Using an airport hotel, Roebuck says, further cuts transportation costs. Delegates land and walk to their rooms.
Conscious of appearances in a post-Wall Street meltdown, Roebuck says, “A trend everybody’s noticing is how our clients are more budget-focused on getting the greatest value for their spend and how can they do that really creatively. Being a main hub for them was a bonus, but also being able to get as much content time by not spending time transferring people, and doing it at an airport location, was a benefit for attendees as well.”
Texas’s right-to-work laws are also attractive. Roebuck says, “Absolutely. Chicago is a big union town, so there is additional cost there. In New York, you have additional expense and typically higher costs. San Diego is a great destination and we actually looked at San Diego, but the room rates where higher. The airfare potentially was higher as well.” And Dallas offered greater options for direct flights.
For Roebuck’s client, Dallas delivered on several levels, including appearance. “Our client traditionally holds this programme in conjunction with another business meeting, so they were looking for a business-meeting environment. They didn’t want to get too resort-y, so San Diego and San Antonio felt more resort-y, and they cost more money. Even if your rates were better, there’s the perception and optics on companies of how they’re spending their money, so that heat is turned up considerably. Whereas if you say you’re going to Dallas, it feels like a business meeting. It doesn’t look like a waste to your attendees or stakeholders or investors.”
For Jones, this is key. Dallas has evolved into a medical and business centre. “We have Parkland Medical Centre, Children’s Hospital, Baylor Hospital System is based here, Tenet Health Care (an HMO) is based here. So we have a strong medical presence in Dallas. The American Heart Association is based here. One of the other statistics we like to point out is we have 24 Fortune 500 companies headquartered in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, and Texas is now number-one for corporate headquarters in the country. We passed both New York and California this year.” So for clients under the magnifying glass, Dallas offers the right services and right optics for public scrutiny.
While Dallas has evolved to a corporate centre, its hasn’t lost its sense of fun. Jones laughs that each year, the city hosts the Mary Kay Cosmetics annual meeting. “We have 50,000 ladies from all over the world who show up and it’s wonderful to walk down the street at 6 or 7 o’clock in the evening and see women with tiaras and evening gowns in 100 degree weather walking through downtown Dallas on their way to a special event or party. It’s a sight to behold.”
For the adventurous, you can still ride the mechanical bull at world-famous Gilley’s or host a theme event in any of their eight rooms. With 65,000 sq. ft. of event space, Gilley’s caters over 200 corporate events a year (private concerts, receptions, dinners and team-building) with horseshoes, shooting at cans and Armadillo races. Other city options range from golf to a Segway tour of downtown or sky-high gatherings in the 33rd-floor Ghostbar at the W Dallas-Victory Hotel, which has a glass floor. Or go even higher up, in the 50-storey, lollipop-like Reunion Tower reopening in January, 2009, after a $23-million renovation that will add a Wolfgang Puck fine-dining restaurant.
The delight of Dallas is how different it is from outsider perceptions. This is no dusty one-horse town. It’s a modern, sunny destination with a “yes, ma’am” attitude and a sense of humour.
–Allan Lynch is a New Minas, N.S.-based freelancer writer.