Founded in 1849, Waco has been hosting conventions for quite a long time—since 1856, in fact. Its central location has consistently made it a popular site for Texas groups.
Waco is within a three-hour drive of 80 percent of the state. Located on Interstate 35, this lively city is just 90 miles from Dallas and Austin and 150 miles from Houston. American Eagle services Waco Regional Airport with flights to and from Dallas/ Fort-Worth International Airport, but most guests drive in to Waco, according to Carla Pendergraft, director of marketing at the Waco Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“That’s our big selling point for conventions,” Pendergraft says. “Texas state associations tend to want to drive instead of fly. We’re right in the middle of all the population centers.”
Waco has a population of 125,000 and is home to Baylor University and two colleges. The town also has many well-loved Texas attractions, from the Dr Pepper Museum and the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame & Museum to the archaeological site of the nation’s only recorded discovery of a nursey herd of Colombian Mammoths.
And, a new attraction is drawing large crowds in downtown Waco: Magnolia Market, developed by HGTV “Fixer Upper” stars and Waco natives Chip and Joanna Gaines. “[Chip and Joanna Gaines] love Waco so much they opened this whole complex,” says Pendergraft. “It’s completely changed our town.”
The market, which opened in 2015, has already welcomed 1.2 million visitors. Magnolia Market is built over two city blocks near two old cotton seed silos downtown. An enclosed space, the market offers items in Joanna’s “shabby-chic style” and visitors can check out Silos Baking Co. or the food truck court, shop in the Magnolia Seed and Supply Shop, and play games or picnic on the lawn. Even in the summer heat, the market has been packed, Pendergraft says. The market can see 9,000 visitors on a Saturday, and guests tend to stay two to six hours, she says.
Admission is free to enter, and a free trolley service brings guests from the convention center to Magnolia Market and Waco’s downtown area. “Convention groups really enjoy going to a town that has an attraction,” Pendergraft says. “It’s a bonus to holding a convention here; it’s enjoyment guests don’t have to pay for.”
For guests inspired to spruce up their own homes, there are also several home décor and specialty shows within a 2-mile radius of the market.
Waco has had a strong 2016 so far. Waco hotels have seen a 20 percent increase in revenue growth in the second quarter of 2016, with a year-over-year leap from $19 million to $22.8 million. Waco boasts the third largest hotel occupancy rate in the state of Texas, behind Austin-Round Rock and Dallas, at 74.7 percent for the second quarter of 2016, according to Pendergraft.
Waco, which currently offers more than 40 hotels, added 300 more rooms to its inventory in 2015. Three new hotels open in 2017: a La Quinta Del Sol, a Hilton Garden Inn and a Springhill Suites. The La Quinta Del Sol and Springhill Suites will open in Waco’s downtown area and are part of a rededication to development around the Waco Convention Center. More development is expected down the line: A proposed 10-story hotel on Waco’s riverfront is in the early stages of development.
The Brazos River winds through downtown, providing opportunities for kayaking, canoeing and paddle boarding. Guests can also enjoy the outdoors in Cameron Park, a 416-acre park, including a trail system and cliffs overlooking the Brazos and Bosque Rivers. The Lake Waco Wetlands is 15 miles away from Cameron Park.
Waco is also home to the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame & Museum, making it a popular destination for law enforcement associations and groups. The Texas Ranger Hall of Fame & Museum houses 14,000 artifacts including firearms, tack and badges dating back to 1823, as well as a Bonnie & Clyde exhibit and memorabilia from Walker, Texas Ranger, and The Lone Ranger. The Hall of Fame honors 30 Rangers who served with distinction and died in service.
The 35,000-square-foot Texas Sports Hall of Fame includes the Southwest Conference Hall of Fame, the Nolan Ryan Museum, the Texas Tennis Hall of Fame and the Texas High School Football Hall of Fame.
Visitors should expect to see plenty of consumption of Dr Pepper, Pendergraft says. Dr Pepper was invented in Waco in 1885, making it the nation’s oldest major soft drink. The Dr Pepper Museum offers an old-fashioned soda fountain. A popular dessert is a Dr Pepper float or sundae with Blue Bell ice cream and Dr Pepper syrup. Visitors can also buy Dr Pepper syrup for pancakes or other uses.
Visitors are also treated to Waco’s cultural district, including open-air festivals, a Saturday morning farmers market, concerts by the river, theater, art galleries, and rodeo and sporting events.
Groups can plan their events in these venues, among others:
Waco Convention Center
The 144,000-square-foot Waco Convention Center is perfect for events with 400 to 800 people, Pendergraft says. Its 800-person banquet hall overlooks Waco’s suspension bridge. The bridge was built in 1870 and is the oldest suspension bridge still in use in the state (the bridge is now open to pedestrian traffic only).
The convention center includes the 32,976-square-foot Chisholm Hall, the 15,000-square-foot McLennan Hall and the 13,818-square-foot Brazos Ballroom, in addition to 15 smaller rooms. The convention center is connected to the Waco Hilton, which offers 196 rooms. Larger groups also use the 153-room Courtyard Marriott across the street, and the Hotel Indigo, which offers 122 rooms.
“We have numerous groups coming to the Waco Convention Center as recurring guests, but we are always excited to host new groups and welcome them to Waco,” says Mandy Spikes, convention sales and service manager for the Waco Convention Center.
There are 1,000 hotel rooms within a 1-mile radius of the center and 4,200 in greater Waco.
The recently opened Baylor Club inside McLane Stadium is another popular venue, Pendergraft says. The enclosed club overlooks the 45,000-seat stadium and downtown Waco with floor-to-ceiling windows. The space can accommodate groups of up to 500 people.
An outdoor patio overlooks the football field, and there is an upscale dining room as well as private dining and meeting space. A ballroom can accommodate 1,500 guests or a 750-person seated event.
The Phoenix Ballroom
Previously home to a manufacturing warehouse for tents and tarps, the restored building offers a warm atmosphere with polished hardwood floors, chandeliers and a fireplace. The Phoenix Ballroom has more than 10,000 square feet of space and can accommodate up to 400 guests.