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Golf is near, but Houstonian's health club real draw for meetings

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

HOUSTON, Texas - The Houstonian Hotel looks like something a big-spending, Texas oil baron might have built in the old days. In fact, it was builtin 1980, but even in the nearly quarter century it's been in existence, the hotel hasleft behind more than its share of history.

A G-7 summit signing was held there in the Manor House Restaurant, which in factused to be a residence where George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara lived briefly.

The elder Bush is still a member of the hotel's exclusive health club and gets his hair cut at the spa.

Jack Nicholson and Shirley MacClaine stayed there during the filming of Termsof Endearment, and Arnold Schwarzennegger has gawked at the hotel's massivelobby, with its giant, stone gas fireplace. Andre Agassi has played tennis there.

Other celebrities have passed through, as well as most of Houston's social elite,since the hotel sits hidden away in one of the more exclusive areas of the city.

"It's like a Who's Who of Houston," said Mark Lupton, the hotel's director ofsales.

The history helps, but it is the hotel's location, next to the shopping mecca ofthe Galleria, and minutes from downtown, that have made it a favorite destination ofmeetings, big and small. Tucked away in a concrete jungle, the hotel sits back offthe 610-loop in a wooded oasis.

You might think the lack of a golf course on the premises would detract from itsallure for meeting planners, but its nationally known health club makes up thedifference.

"While it would be nice to have a golf course on the premises, people don't seemto mind," Lupton said, noting the hotel's affiliation with Redstone Golf Club, where the Houston Shell Open is held. "They love thelocation, and they can hop on 610 (Loop) to (Highway) 59 and scoot over to Redstone.I don't think if we were sitting over at Redstone, we'd be as successful (in themeetings industry) as we are now."

The hotel can arrange group transportation to Redstone, and if you get the chanceto go, take it.

It's a free-swinging golfer's dream: no gimmicks like misplaced waterfalls, pot bunkers, railroad ties, split fairways, bizarre bunker complexes, greens that fall off into oblivion or the like. It's just 7,508 yards of mano a mano - a man and his driver.

"There's no tricks, no goofy holes where you can hit good shots and be penalized,"Redston head pro Derek Crouse said. "You sort of get what you see. It's not easy atall, but you don't have to hit miracle shots. If you hit good shots out here, you'regoing to have a good round."

There is nothing girly about the greens either.

"Other than No. 7, there's not a lot of tricky undulation," Crouse said. "Thereare curves and subtle movement, but you're not going to have three or four breaks ona 30-foot put or where the pin is going to be in an unfair place to get to."

With no golf course on the grounds, the big draw is the hotel's fitness club andspa. The fitness club is 125,000 square feet and offers everything from rock climbingto volleyball. It has three swimming pool, a boxing ring, eight tennis courts and afull-court gymnasium.

"It's like joining a country club except the game is fitness instead of golf,"Lupton said.

It's where Houston's elite go to pump up, and it is said to be one of the mostexpensive in the country to join, with initiation fees ranging from $10-$21,000, plusmonthly membership fees. Hotel guests have full access.

About half of the hotel's business comes from meetings, and it is set up toaccommodate them.

The Houstonian has 288 gues rooms and 32,000 square feet of meeting space. Hotelsof a similar size typically have about half that amount of meeting space.

"The Houstonian is a little different than normal places," Lupton said. "We'rekind of like halfway between a luxury hotel and a full-fledged conferencecenter."

The hotel offers day meeting packages, for example, that cost around $89 perperson, per day, that is all inclusive, including meeting space, meals, breaks andother odds and ends.

Hotel officials say it is the little touches that set them apart, like realwindows in the meeting rooms and padded conference chairs.

"I can tell you that makes all the difference in the world," Lupton said. "You can look outside and see all the greenery, versus staring at the wallpaper or the freeway. We call it an urban resort in its own little oasis. You pull out of here and a quarter mile, you're back among all the tall buildings."

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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