Conference center to undergo renovation

18-month project includes new rooms, restaurant, lazy river

Work has begun on a $60 million expansion and renovation of the 39-year-old Woodlands Resort and Conference Center—a project developers hope will improve the stature of the iconic facility while establishing it as a tourist destination.

The Woodlands Development Company and the Howard Hughes Corporation, which own the conference center, announced the project in March, and Alex Sutton, co-president of the Development Company, said construction has begun and should take about 18 months to complete.

The project includes the renovation of the property's 60,000-square-foot conference center and more than 400 guest rooms as well as construction of a lazy river, a new steakhouse and spa.

"The market is to the point now that in order to remain competitive we need to upgrade our meeting space and upgrade our rooms," Sutton said.

Project details

Peter Doyle, Howard Hughes Corp. executive vice president, said the conference center's current 222 rooms will undergo an overhaul, while an additional 184 guest rooms and suites will be constructed along the Panther Trails golf course. The room renovations will results in 406 new guest rooms at the facility.

The conference center will feature a new covered entryway and a new renovated lobby using modern design concepts while acknowledging the facility's history.

"I believe in having projects that preserve the past and respect the future, as well," Doyle said. "We want to retain that character and create a really sophisticated, bold and environmentally sensitive look."

According to the Development Company, the facility's renovation will feature contemporary Texas-style architecture that makes use of stone, steel and wood elements, as well as large windows and modern art designs. One of the goals of the project, said Greg Parsons, general manager for The Woodlands Resort and Conference Center, is to make the facility welcoming for both business and social events.

"You try to balance the environment where a company can hold a meeting in a dedicating meeting service, while at the same time you want to have a social event, but don't want to have it in a meeting environment," Parsons said. "So we'll be doing things like softening finishes in ballrooms and adding new chandeliers."

With features such as the new 1,000-foot lazy river and improved guest rooms, Sutton said, the resort hopes to attract more weekend traffic.

"From Monday through Friday [we] get the business travel, but the weekend is always difficult [to draw travelers] with conference centers," Sutton said.

Target markets

In 1997, the resort opened the $27.5 million Forest Oasis Waterscape, a collection of water slides, swimming pools, fountains and other features designed to provide activities for families, adults and children. With the development of the lazy river and a new 120-seat steakhouse adjacent to the 18th hole, the Development Company and the Howard Hughes Corp. are hoping the resort will evolve into a regional travel destination.

"There is competition to become a regional destination," Doyle said. "We needed to create amenities here to attract families other than for conference visits."

In addition, Doyle said, over the past 18 months there has been a significant increase in demand for meeting space and hotel rooms in The Woodlands.

"The Woodlands Resort and Conference Center is a premier meeting destination in the southwest," Parsons said. "But you can't rest on your laurels. Continuous improvement of your product is essential. We think the timing for this investment is spot on."

Sutton said ExxonMobil's impending relocation to a 385-acre campus just south of The Woodlands will have a significant effect on hotel stays.

"With ExxonMobil moving out here, there is a very large number of room nights moving to the north," he said. "Right now those people are staying in the Galleria and in Downtown [Houston]."

History

The Woodlands Inn, as it was then known, opened in 1974, a year after George Mitchell established The Woodlands. According to the Development Company, with the closest hotels 45 minutes away, Mitchell saw a need to accommodate business travelers and potential homebuyers visiting The Woodlands. Guestrooms at the time featured full kitchens and amenities were developed nearby that included a boutique shopping center and ice skating rink.

"The conference center is an icon in The Woodlands," Sutton said. "In those days they would page people, 'Arnold Palmer, please pick up the phone.' It was a celebrity place in the beginning."

Sutton said during the early years of the center, indoor tennis was a popular recreational activity, so the conference center featured indoor tennis courts behind the main lobby.

"Things change, times change, and in the 1990s we replaced the tennis court with the ballroom," Sutton said. "The market was no longer for indoor tennis. Really since that time, about the mid-1990s, we have been upgrading the rooms over time."

According to the Development Company, between 1989 through 2002, the property invested in larger meeting space, more guest rooms and more spacious public areas. While The Woodlands has since sold its golf courses and country club facilities to Canongate, the two organizations have incorporated a partnership that provides for travel and golf packages, Sutton said.

Since its inception, The Woodlands Resort and Conference Center has been recognized by several meeting planners and trade publications, including Successful Meetings, which gave the center the Pinnacle Award for outstanding meeting facility.

With the next phase of renovations, Doyle said, the sites have been set on the highest of honors.

"The Development Company has an interest in creating a project where we want to be at the top of the class," he said. "It's going to be a Four Diamond project when we finish."