by Pádraic Gilligan, Chief Marketing Office SITE & Managing Partner, SoolNua
I could see the hotel directly in front of me, no more than 100m away. But I was separated from it by a complex wall involving a 6 lane highway and a tangle of spiralling over-passes. Traffic was relentless and fast. There was simply no way over that wall. I took out my phone, clicked on the app and got an Uber to take me there. Eventually I walked into the Hilton Lincoln Centre asking myself what had just happened?
I thought how this was yet another example of the unintended consequences of progress that often blight our lives these days – in an effort to speed things up, connect people and places more efficiently, the very opposite had happened. A wall had been constructed. The solution had generated a further problem. I couldn’t walk the 2 mins to my hotel from the Galleria Mall because the “civil” engineers who built the road made zero provision for pedestrian or non-motorised access across it. There was, in real terms, a wall between us.
I share this experience of suburban Dallas as, extraordinarily, the very opposite is happening downtown and has lead to an bourgeoning re-generation of the city centre that’s increased its inhabitants 10 fold over the past decade. Klyde Warren Park is an 5.2 acre urban green space right in the heart of the downtown area. It’s the size of two city blocks and it seamlessly connects and unifies the uptown and downtown city quarters by being a bridge over the Woodall Rodgers Freeway that previously cut the city in two.
An ugly scar that cut deep into the middle of the city has been given miraculous treatment and now it’s beautiful again with greenery, seating, cool lighting, food trucks, civic spaces and wonderful places for children be play. Noise and fumes from cars and trucks have been replaced by songs and smells from birds and flowers.
Clyde Warren Park is but one of the wonderful initiatives that’re turning Dallas into a truly appealing city with a unique life and soul. My guide to the city, proud Texan and DMC extraordinaire, Laurie Sprouse, had explained how Dallas was predominantly a convention city with relatively low incidence of incentive travel programmes. Following a whistle stop tour of city filtered through Laurie’s expert eyes, I wondered whether it wasn’t time for Dallas to start telling a new story? A story about a city about to burst into bloom and present itself with all the characteristics of a town that incentive qualifiers really want to be seen in?
Dallas – Convention City
The city’s credentials as a great convention destination are without reproach. Under the steady stewardship of Philip Jones, Visit Dallas grew annual overnights from MICE from 500,000 to a staggering 2,500,000 in a decade and a half.
With American Airlines at DFW and SouthWest Airlines at Love Field, Dallas is one of the best connected cities in the US. It’s highway network east/west and north/south has been repeatedly upgraded and enhanced over the past decade so transfers around the greater metropolitan area are never a problem even if the distances are great. There are also significant numbers of big box hotels with over 1000 guest rooms – the Hyatt Regency, the downtown Sheraton and Marriott, connected by a skybridge and the legendary Hilton Anatole that actually boasts over 1,600 guest rooms.
The development of massive hospitality projects in the city, however, have not been without controversy. 10 years ago when the city itself decided to build a new 1000 room hotel at the convention centre it met with fierce opposition from tax payers convinced that it was a waste of public money. The plebiscite that eventually led to the opening of the spectacular Omni Hotel on 11/11/11 only passed by 51,000 votes to 49,000. The bitterly fought campaign against its construction was allegedly funded by another big box property!
The Arts District, Dallas
The crowning glory of the developments of the past decade in the city has to be its astonishing arts district which occupies a massive 19 contiguous city blocks right in the downtown heartland. Initially funded by $1m dollar donations from 100 local wealthy families, the area is a veritable celebration of award winning buildings and a cultural cornucopia of art museums, symphony halls, opera houses and fine art locations.
There’s probably no other city in the world with such an intense concentration of arts and cultural delights, all located within walking distance of each other. Interestingly – and a salutary lesson for those of us in Business Events / MICE – the arts district has developed metrics that allow it demonstrate how the cultural sector has increased its economic impact from $128.6 million to $395.8 million in the 5 years to 2017. Numbers always count, particularly in political spheres.
Incidentally jazz chanteuse Norah Jones is a graduate of Booker T Washington High School of Performing Arts, one of the institutions that comprise the arts district.
Other “incentive worthy” discoveries
Laurie took me, almost inevitably, to Dealey Plaza where, all of a sudden, phrases such as “grassy knoll” and “book depository” came to life in a tangibly chilling way. It’s a truly unique experience to imagine yourself as a simple face in the crowd on November 1963 – I was 3 years old at the time – and to have witnessed an event that, arguably, changed the course of modern history.
According to Laurie, the Museum on the sixth floor of the Book Depository is an intriguing visit, requiring several hours. It even postulates on the conspiratory theory that Oswald was not a lone wolf at all.
All the chains and big box hotel properties are in Dallas but, according to Laurie, there’s a growing coterie of funky, independent boutique properties that are actively disrupting any bland destination notions we might continue to harbour. She mentioned The Joule Hotel with its roof top pool that daringly cantilevers out over the downtown area, The Lorenzo Hotel with its super-cool LED projections and, Canvas, in the Cedars District, with its to-die-for views on the city skyline.
Pádraic Gilligan, Pat Delaney & Aoife McCrum run SoolNua, a specialist agency working with destinations, hotels, venues, MICE agencies and associations on strategy, marketing and training. Padraic also serves as Chief Marketing officer for SITE and was in Dallas with SITE President, Philip Eidsvold, to speak at the SITE Texas Chapter meeting