Luther Villagomez has been associated with the city's convention center since it opened in 1987. He has directed day-to-day operations at the George R. Brown since 1990 and was promoted to COO when Houston First was formed in 2011.
He has been involved in many major events at the GRB, from its construction in the mid-1980s to the completion of a $165 million expansion project that virtually doubled its size in 2003. He oversaw operations of the GRB which served as a shelter in 2005 for many displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
Can you give a brief history of the George R. Brown Convention Center?
The George R. Brown Convention Center, which is located on the east side of downtown Houston, opened in September 1987 to replace an older center that had become obsolete.
At that time, it was one of the top convention centers in the country. Market demand quickly surpassed the facility’s capacity, so in 2000, we doubled the size and built a 1,200-room hotel, which is connected to the convention center.
In 2014, we undertook a $175-million renovation project to update the convention center, increase the number of hotel rooms, build an adjoining office tower and add some restaurants. That was a project that we completed in 2016.
The center now can offer a million square feet of meeting and exhibit space, 2,200 connected hotel rooms, and over 6,000 parking spaces. In addition, we have a 12-acre park where attendees can enjoy the outdoors, five restaurants, and a grand entrance into the convention center.
What amenities do you provide to event planners?
The facility has over 100 meeting rooms, a ballroom space, 550,000 contiguous square-feet of exhibit space, and another 223,000 square-feet of hall space. On the ground level, we have a mezzanine that connects the center to the two hotels.
The building is wired for Wi-Fi including the meeting rooms, exhibit halls, and public areas; and there is fiber throughout the convention center. On the exhibit floor, we have 35-foot ceilings and utility boxes at every 30 feet, which make it easy to set up trade shows and exhibits.
In 2015, the air conditioning system was upgraded to 7,200 tons, which keeps the building cool on the hottest days. As far as cell phone connectivity, we recently added a Distributed Antenna System, which will accommodate 10,000-to-15,000 people making phone calls at one time.
Do you provide marketing support to event planners?
In 2011, the City of Houston reorganized its public facilities under a single management structure and renamed it the Houston First Corporation. Houston First now manages 10 city-owned buildings and parking facilities, including the convention center, and they are responsible for day-to-day maintenance and operation.
Then in 2014, Convention and Visitors Bureau along with our organization was reformed as the marketing and sales arm of Houston First and called VisitHouston. This alignment helps drive the synergy of being one organization.
Because our people are focused on the delivery of service and hospitality, the synergy between our marketing and operations makes this destination attractive and us very successful.
What are the events that you host?
Because of our size and flexibility, we can host events that draw tens of thousands of attendees or meetings with as few 200 people. For example, we host an Annual Quilt Convention, which is a 10-day event that draws over 50,000 attendees.
We host many medical related events, like the meetings of the American Heart Association and The Society of Thoracic Surgeons. Because of Houston’s association with the petroleum industry, we host events like the Society of Exploration Geophysicists and The American Association of Petroleum Geologists.
We also host many technology related events like Spacecom and FIRST Robotics, as well as many events with Microsoft.
Our organization also owns a few events that we produce and host ourselves. We started this initiative a few years ago, and it has been very successful.
How many events do you own now?
We now have a portfolio of six events. Comicpalooza is one of our consumers. It started as a small event held at a retail mall. When we recognized the potential, we formed a partnership with the promoter and it has grown every year. The last time the event was held, it drew 50,000 attendees.
Are there certain events or shows that are repetitive at your facility?
The Quilt Convention is our longest repeating event – it has been coming to the convention center for over 28 years. A number of the energy shows we host are on a rotation schedule and return every other year or so.
The Society of Exploration Geophysicists and the Offshore Technology Conference, which is one of the world’s largest offshore technology events, return every year.
We host a variety of consumer and community events every year like the Hispanic Forum, which is a one-day educational conference for students. One of our favorites is a bridal event that returns every year.
What are some of the other attractions Huston offers event planners?
There are over 7,000 hotel rooms within close proximity of the convention center. Just steps away, we have a variety of excellent restaurants, shopping centers, and other major attractions; and Houston has a number of great museums and urban parks. Within eight blocks of the convention center, there are theaters for performing arts with a resident opera, ballet, and symphony.
Right next to the convention center, there are three stadiums: the Toyota Center, a 20,000-square-foot indoor arena, which is the Home of the Rockets; the baseball stadium, Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros, which is a 42,000-seat retractable roof stadium; and our soccer stadium, an outdoor 20,000 seat stadium where the Dynamo play.
How has the City of Houston developed?
Houston is the fourth largest city in the U.S. and its airports, which are within 20 minutes of downtown, provide direct connections from all over the world.
Our downtown is vibrant and the convention center is located in close proximity to the heart of the city. There are many nearby attractions for visitors like golf courses and the NASA Center.
Houston is a friendly place to visit with diversity and culture that make people around the world feel welcome.