Stevie Ray Vaughan Memorial on the shores of Lady Bird Lake. // © 2013 Dan Herron/HerronStock.com
If the cities of Texas were a family, Austin would be the stereotypical youngest child, an oddball freethinker who always has a colorful story for the dinner table. Texas’ capital city is specifically known for being different from the rest of the state — and other Texans are not bashful in making that distinction clear. Austin’s uniqueness, however, is very much a part of its charm.
“For me, the magic of Austin is that it brings people together from all backgrounds and walks of life, those united by a love of live music, outdoor activities, incredible dining opportunities and great weather,” said East Austin resident Shelley Norton.
From two-step dancing in a local honky-tonk and sampling the region’s famous barbecue to stand-up paddleboarding in the middle of downtown — Austin appeals to a wide-range of travelers all year round.
According to the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau, the city welcomed 19.1 million visitors in 2011, an increase of 5.1 percent over the previous year. Although it’s too early for an analysis of 2012, visitor numbers could hit a new record, due in part to a year of hugely successful festivals and events, including the South by Southwest Conferences & Festivals, the Austin City Limits Music Festival and the Inaugural U.S. Grand Prix held at the brand-new Circuit of the Americas.
The $400 million Circuit of the Americas is the only purpose-built facility in the country designed for Formula 1 racing and will serve as Grand Prix’s host circuit for the next 10 years. Austin is already seeing a return on its investment as the total economic impact for the inaugural race hit the $300 million mark.
“It’s really a game-changer for us,” said Jennifer Walker, director of marketing and communications for the Austin CVB. “The Circuit of the Americas is proposing to use the track year-round so, the Formula 1 race is just one of multiple races that will take place throughout the year. It’s a facility that is going to attract even more world-class events.”
If you haven’t been thinking about Austin as a MICE destination, than you need to reconsider, and do so quickly. For the fiscal year of 2011-2012, the Austin CVB booked 457 meetings and provided services to an average of 120 conventions per month. In order to keep up with demand for conferences, expositions, meetings and festivals, the city is bullishly growing its hotel inventory, adding more than 2,000 downtown hotel rooms by 2015.
“This new inventory is going to open up a whole new ball game for us because we are going to be able to attract bigger, new conventions to town,” Walker said. “In the past, we have had to turn away business from various groups because we didn’t have the room blocks to accommodate their conventions.”
Hilton Austin, featuring 800 guestrooms and 80,000 square feet of function space, is downtown’s largest property — but not for long. When the 1,012-room JW Marriott Austin opens its doors in 2015, it will not only be Austin’s largest hotel but also JW Marriott’s largest U.S. hotel to date. Located two blocks from the Austin Convention Center, the JW Marriott Austin will feature a Texas-size fitness center, a specialty restaurant featuring local cuisine and 110,500 square feet of flexible meeting, banquet and event space.
During groundbreaking ceremonies in October, the hotel announced that it had already booked a remarkable 71,000 rooms as well as several industry conventions, each expected to bring approximately 3,000 attendees to the city.
Further boosting the convention market, the 50-story Fairmont Austin will become the second-tallest structure on downtown Austin’s skyline when it opens in 2015. The hotel’s design encompasses a number of green building elements and will seek LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. The project, which will feature more than 70,000 square feet of function space and 1,000 guestrooms, will be the brand’s second hotel in Texas.
Hotels With Heart
Austin is known for being fun and funky, and its leisure travel offerings do not disappoint. Austin’s newest boutique property, the Heywood Hotel located in the ultra-hip neighborhood of East Austin, combines an original 1925 Craftsman home with all the comforts of modernity. The property’s seven guestrooms, none of which are alike, feature refinished vintage furnishings, high ceilings (most with skylights), huge flat-screen televisions, complimentary Wi-Fi access and Squeezebox music players that stream the music of native son Willie Nelson as well as other Austinites.
“Our goal was to take a home that was a part of Austin, preserve it and create a one-of-a-kind bespoke experience for guests,” said owner and general manager, Kathy Setzer. “I fell in love with Austin, and I wanted to open this hotel so that I could introduce people to the city for the first time.”
Guests should take an afternoon to explore the East Side of town on one of Heywood’s brand-new cruiser bicycles — especially on Sundays, when the nearby Hope Farmers’ Market is open. The market, much like Heywood Hotel itself, has a certain entrepreneurial spirit. Fresh fruit and vegetables, crafts and curios, free outdoor yoga classes, a self-serve kombucha tea bar and live music add to its charm.
Later this year, the Valencia Group will unveil Lone Star Court, an upscale Americana roadside hotel located at the Domain entertainment and retail district. Lone Star Court will feature 123 retro-inspired guestrooms, live music by an outdoor fire pit, a dipping pool and a restaurant/bar that aims to attract locals and visitors alike. Lone Star Court will be the flagship of what will eventually be a series of motor court concept hotels across the southeastern U.S.
Those looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city should head north to the recently rebranded Travaasa Austin. Guests can explore the experiential resort’s 210 acres via horseback and choose from a number of activities, including guided hikes through the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, Texas two-step classes and ziplining through the resort’s massive on-site challenge course. And where else can you find a mechanical bull in the gym? All-inclusive stays start at $313 per person and include a daily golf or spa credit of $125.
Taking a Bite of Austin
Anyone who comes to the capital city has an obligation to try the local cuisine, particularly its barbecue. Rudy’s Country Store & Bar-B-Q and Lamberts Downtown Barbecue are tried-and-true favorites, but foodies just can’t stop talking about Franklin Barbecue ever since Bon Appetit magazine called it the Best Barbecue in America. Formerly a food trailer, the brick-and-mortar restaurant in East Austin was founded by a husband and wife duo who are big on brisket. Expect a traditional menu featuring pulled pork sandwiches, flavorful brisket and bourbon banana pie.
To say that local chef, David Bull, is ambitious would be an understatement. His latest downtown endeavors, Congress, Bar Congress and Second Bar + Kitchen, have gotten nods from The New York Times, Esquire and Bon Appetit — and it’s just the beginning.
“I have a few other projects in the works and plans to expand in Austin,” said the chef. “The menus will be completely different, and the food will be a reflection of the location.”
Connoisseurs can catch Bull in the kitchen at Congress three to four nights a week, preparing a bold prix-fixe menu that showcases the best of the season from wagu beef tongue pastrami with pickled cabbage (the chef’s deconstruction of a pastrami sandwich) to black gnocchi topped with black truffles and chanterelle mushrooms. Guests might as well go all out and ask for the shaved white Alba truffle “enhancement” for an additional $75. It is money well spent.
If you have trouble sharing, then Chef Bryce Gilmore’s new restaurant Barley Swine probably won’t be your cup of tea. Strangers become fast friends at its community tables, and small plates encourage guests to sample and share just about every farm-fresh dish on the menu. The gastropub abides by its motto — “find the best ingredients and don’t mess them up” — and prides itself on its selection of craft beer and charcuterie.
Nowadays, no respectable cosmopolitan city can live without a culinary festival. The Austin Food & Wine Festival promises to elevate the epicurean experience in its second year of operation. Attendees can hone their skills at interactive chef stations where experts will prepare their specialties, reveal secrets and dish out samples. Also new this year are larger tents for Grand Tastings and seminars, an overall increase in food offerings and a redesigned programming schedule that facilitates more interaction with culinary talent. The three-day festival in April will welcome sommeliers, winemakers and celebrity chefs. Among this year’s talent are Andrew Zimmern, Susan Feniger, Marcus Samuelsson and Austin phenom Paul Qui, who won a James Beard Award as well as television’s coveted “Top Chef” title.