One of the most historic cities in the United States, the City of San Antonio has a right to be proud. Named in 1691 during a Spanish expedition for Saint Anthony of Padua, one of the most canonized saints, the area grew and was later founded as a Spanish mission and colonial outpost. The city was an outgrowth of the fortified settlement Royal Presidio of San António de Béjar in 1718, constructed to protect the Mission San António de Valero, which later played a pivotal role during the Texas Revolution of 1835 to 1836, becoming known around the world as The Alamo. Today, the former Franciscan monastery is a state landmark, one of the best-known in the United States.
Celebrating its 300th anniversary this year, San Antonio has plenty to offer, from Spanish frontier missions The Alamo and the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park (both designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2015) to the 750-foot high Tower of the Americas, amusement parks, sports teams like the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, the annual San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo, and a great deal more.
Welcoming about 32 million visitors every year, San Antonio is positioned to host a range of events, many of them taking place in the Henry B. González Convention Center.
50 successful years
Located at 900 E. Market St., the Henry B. González Convention Center is a popular venue and a San Antonio landmark. Named in honor of respected U.S. Congressman Henry Barbosa González – widely acknowledged as a pioneer for encouraging other Hispanics to enter politics – San Antonio-born González’s lengthy career saw him graduating law school, serving as a Navy and Army intelligence censor during WWII, and active in probation and public housing. Becoming the first state Senator of Mexican descent in 1956, he proudly served 37 years in the House (the longest-serving Hispanic Member in Congress), and earned a reputation as a true, old-fashioned public servant before passing away in November of 2000.
This year, the 50th anniversary of the Convention Center bearing his name coincides with the 300th anniversary of San Antonio. Originally built as part of the World’s Fair – HemisFair ’68, the Convention Center has undergone a number of significant renovations over the years, most recently those completed in February of 2016. At a cost of $325 million, the work was funded with hotel tax revenue bonds, and represents the largest single capital project in the city’s history. Also home to the Lila Cockrell Theatre, which was gutted and renovated in 2010 at a price of $26 million, the Convention Center’s building envelope is 1,600,000 square feet, with about 750,000 square feet of sellable, programmable space. “There are no facilities that are beyond 2001 vintage,” comments Michael Sawaya. “I would say that everything is of consistently high quality throughout, and the integrated facilities are all of similar prime quality.”
As Executive Director, Convention and Sports Facilities, Sawaya’s experience encompasses many areas. A hotel general manager all over the southern U.S. for 20 years and the former interim aviation director at the San Antonio International Airport (SAT), he was previously the convention facilities director, with sports facilities being added in 2005. Hired to increase efficiencies when consolidated with the 65,000 seat Alamodome stadium, Sawaya’s responsibilities today include not only the Henry B. González Convention Center, but the Alamodome, the Carver Community Cultural Center and the Lila Cockrell Theatre, ground lease management for the grand Hyatt Hotel, the Nelson Wolff Municipal Stadium, and Toyota Field, a soccer-specific stadium. “We have qualified leaders in each building who run the day-to-day operations; that’s what makes us successful,” he says of the 350-strong staff, including a five-member executive team, a general manager who runs each building, and an assistant director who reports directly to him.
Hosting approximately 325 distinct events every year, the Henry B. González Convention Center is located along the scenic River Walk and welcomes 750,000 guests annually. A world-class site, its wide-ranging events include public shows, conventions, invitation-only trade shows, and an array of private functions, such as meetings and other social events. In recent months, the Convention Center has hosted the Alamo Kiwanis Charity Art Show, the annual PennWell Corporation/DistribuTECH electric power transmission and distribution conference and exhibition, world-renowned Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo in concert, the American Traffic Safety Services Association/Annual National Convention & Traffic Exposition, and a dinner for publisher HarperCollins, to name a few.
With its top-notch facilities and amenities, the Henry B. González Convention Center has plenty to offer. Located just eight miles from the airport, it is accessible and convenient, and boasts the space, staff, and amenities to accommodate large events. Near major hotels including the Grand Hyatt San Antonio, the Marriott Riverwalk, the Hilton Palacio del Rio and many others, it is also home to the Broken Crust Café next to the Lila Cockrell Theatre, the Market Café, and the El Puente Café, where patrons can take advantage of free Wi-Fi in public spaces, or use the business center.
“The package is really dynamic here,” says Sawaya. “There are 14,000 hotel rooms within the downtown area, and about 9,000 of those are within walking distance of the Convention Center. They are connected by the Riverwalk, and the airport is a 15 minute drive into downtown. So I think the destination itself is dynamic with infrastructure.”
In addition to the modernized Convention Center, the Alamodome recently underwent a $60 million renovation. A popular venue for football, baseball, soccer, basketball, and conventions, the structure’s multi-million modernization project represented the biggest capital improvement in the facility’s history, and included doubling the size of the concourses, a new 360-degree ribbon board, a multipurpose and media room on the ground level, an outdoor concessions area, upgrades to the locker room, two video walls, and a new sound system, with upgrades in technology alone amounting to a $15 million investment. Since the Henry B. González Convention Center runs at about 70 percent occupancy, many public expositions take place at the multi-purpose Alamodome, which has ample meeting rooms and space, and continues to be used for sports, along with concerts and monster jam truck shows.
A year for milestones, the Alamodome turns 25 this year, the Convention Center 50, and the Carver Community Cultural Center – prominent with African-American talent such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington – celebrates its centennial. “So we have a 25, a 50, and 100 in the same year, and it is the city’s Tricentennial anniversary,” states Sawaya of San Antonio’s year-long 300th birthday celebrations, which kicked off on New Year’s Eve.
Certainly, the Henry B. González Convention Center itself has become a major attraction. A well-known venue for events, the Center also serves as a showpiece for innovative design and technology, and boasts a number of artworks celebrating San Antonio’s rich history. With the Center continually receiving praise for its professional staff, event spaces, décor, technological amenities and attention to detail to ensure all events perform smoothly from start to finish, recent accolades include the 2015 Convention South Reader’s Award Choice Award, and the Convention South New & Renovated Award, also for 2015.
Along with the 2,300 seat Lila Cockrell Theatre, which will host Broadway shows starting in 2021, San Antonio and the Henry B. González Convention Center will celebrate their respective anniversaries in style. “With its Tricentennial, San Antonio is really is one of the top tourist and convention destinations in the country,” says Sawaya. “And with its world heritage designation status and world gastronomy status, the appeal of the destination on its Tricentennial has never been greater.”
With a master plan in place to reconfigure the city’s historic Alamo grounds, the city is truly part of a select group honored for its historical and cultural attributes. “The destination is truly the best it’s been ever. So I think rediscovering San Antonio, from a tourism as well as a convention perspective, has never been more important. And with all the things going on here, it truly is the time to come and celebrate 300 years of one of America’s great cities.”