As the events of 2020 are starting to appear in the rearview mirror, San Antonio is slowly and gracefully rebounding. Many of its cultural attractions, museums, neighborhoods and restaurants are open for business. Local safety measures are politely enforced and observed, and a mild year-round climate ensures some of its more memorable attractions–which happen to be outdoors–are accessible.
Even as most conferences, meetings and expos were rolling out on ZOOM at press time, there are many reasons why the “Alamo City” is worth a visit once you personally feel safe traveling by plane. It’s a fantastic non-beach alternative for those looking to escape cold weather, as well as a good place to scout for locations in anticipation of the time destination expos, conferences and executive retreats make a comeback. San Antonio can also be inspirational for business travelers, as it is home to several Fortune 500 companies and up-and-coming national firms, including Rackspace, TaskUs, USAA, Argo Group, Visionworks, Bank of America, Boeing Preferred and Mailgun Technologies.
With international travel off the table for the time being, San Antonio’s cosmopolitan character can also fulfill a worldly traveler’s wanderlust. It is not only shaped by Mexican culture but also has nuances of German (from immigrants coming in during the 19th century), Italian (parts of the Riverwalk do have a Venice-like feel) and South American culture. You can see it at The Hotel Valencia Riverwalk, opened in 2003 and was upgraded in 2017 by architect/designer Lauren Rottetby. She updated the boutique property by blending the city’s classic Spanish Colonial sensibility with a fresh-yet-earthy palette, clean-lined furnishings and clever repurposing. For example, she replaced the original registration desk with a library space that’s reminiscent of an old-school cigar lounge. It is further enlivened with artist Maksim Koloskov’s map of San Antonio, painted onto spines of the books in the bookcase spanning one wall of the library.
Whenever it becomes safe to plan in-person business events, Hotel Valencia is ready for action, offering event planners everything from catering to state-of-the-art audiovisual through local firm Team AV and 7,000 square feet of event space that can be broken down or mixed and matched for a variety of different events, including an open-air courtyard. It also has a Business Travel Program designed for companies with higher volume business and corporate travel in the San Antonio area. Dorrego’s, the hotel’s official restaurant, stands as the city’s only gastronomic trek into Argentina. Àcenar, adjoining the hotel, is a local favorite thanks to its fantastic river views and creative takes on traditional Mexican fare. On the block’s opposite corner, one can get their daily dose of caffein at SIP Coffee, at the end of the hotel’s block, which also serves up fresh pastries and a boho-cool setting.
Bohanan’s Prime Steaks and Seafood, a five-minute walk from the front door, still earns its reputation as the essential “splurge” destination restaurant with its superb steaks, beautifully plated seafood dishes and sides. It’s also regarded by many as the birthplace of San Antonio’s modern craft cocktail scene and San Antonio Cocktail Conference. About a decade ago, the late Sasha Petrosky–founder of the legendary Manhattan bar Milk & Honey and father of the American craft cocktail revolution–was spirited to San Antonio to train a generation of young bartenders who would later proliferate across town and push locals out of their margarita, shot and beer comfort zone.
Outside of Hotel Valencia’s doors, there’s an adjoining stairway down to the Riverwalk. The Alamo, Historic Market Square and the Spanish Governor’s Palace are minutes away, and a slightly longer walk or short drive via Alamo Street leads to La Villita Historic Arts Village, Southtown and the King William Historic District–some of the city’s hippest revitalized neighborhoods. While The Pearl (atpearl.com), on the northern edge of downtown, enjoys a similar cache (thanks to billionaire and former Pace Foods CEO Christopher “Kit” Goldsbury investing in the industrial area’s redevelopment in 2002), it dates back to 1881 when the J.B. Behloradsky Brewery—later renamed the Pearl Brewery—opened its doors. What makes the locale even more intriguing is the enduring presence of Emma Koehler, who took over the brewery in 1914 when husband Otto died under scandalous circumstances. Under her management, it survived Prohibition and thrived during the Great Depression. Even when her nephew took over the helm in 1933, she remained involved in its operations until her death in 1943.
Although the actual Pearl Brewery relocated its operations to Austin, The Hotel Emma , opened in 2015, carries on the namesake’s lasting legacy of initiative and innovation. Under the direction of San Antonio design firm Roman and Williams, the 19th century brewhouse and five other adjoining buildings encompass 146 rooms and suites and conversation-starting event spaces, public areas and three restaurants. With so many one-of-a-kind suites and enclaves, it doesn’t fit it into any specific architecture genre as the architects and designers elegantly meshed original architectural attributes and materials with modern appointments and global touches.
The approach to service and amenities is on a par with international luxury properties of the “Four Seasons” and “Peninsula” variety, but presented with personalized “Southern hospitality” flair. In every room, guests will find Cuban-style Guayabera robes custom-made by Dos Carolinas (one of The Pearl’s independently-owned retailers, noted for their bespoke shirts), local Merit Roasting Company coffee, Frette linens, a macaron from The Pearl’s Bakery Lorraine instead of a mint on the pillow, and an “Ice Box” and In-Room Pantry that teases a few of the offerings available at The Larder, the hotel’s fancy food shop.
Hotel Emma’s takes on the presidential suite (Otto Koehler, Emma Koehler) and two-story “Billmeier” and “Maritzen” suites take things up a notch. Each of these rooms, on the seventh floor or inside the pinnacle of the original Brewhouse, were built with balancing the integrity of 19th century structure with the needs of discerning 21st century executives and vacationers. Appointments customized for each room include a full wet bar, distinctive dining tables and seating areas, fireplaces, custom-designed furniture and original artwork.
Guests can kick back between meetings and presentations at the rooftop pool (which looks like a 1930s travel poster), grab a morning snack or afternoon relaxation inside the 3,700-volume library, work out in the immaculate fitness center, or enjoy craft cocktails with colleagues (preferably inside an actual fermenting tank) inside Sternewirth (a massive storage room built in 1896), open exclusively to guests at press time. The hotel has 6,160 square feet of event space within the six connected buildings and outdoor areas, applying the same attention to historic details and preserved architectural attributes as the suites and public spaces, while providing luxury catering options from executive Chef John Brand as well as all of the technical and logistical essentials required for the meeting.
Other luxe services exclusively for guests include complimentary Electra cruiser loaner bikes as well as car service that can take you to must-see destinations away from downtown, such as the San Antonio Botanical Garden, the McNay Art Museum and the San Antonio Museum of Art (which is also accessible on foot via the northern stretch of the Riverwalk). Groups can also consult Hotel Emma’s Culinary Concierge, to arrange and book custom culinary and cultural experiences. The Pearl can also be the proverbial oyster for foodies and event planners, opening out to a treasure trove of independently-owned restaurants, a twice-weekly Farmers Market, as well as the San Antonio Branch of the Culinary Institute of America, which offers its own distinctive dining experiences.
Supper, Hotel Emma’s fine dining restaurant, is another showcase for Brand, who proves the familiar hotel dining formula of classic American-European menus weaving in seasonal ingredients stands the test of time, like the lobby (the former engine room) adjoining it. While the adjoining Southerleigh is not technically part of the hotel, it incorporates the location’s beer heritage through its on-premise brewery and a rotating range of craft batch beers on tap. Chef Jeff Balfour’s menus crackle with Southern classics such as fried chicken, meatloaf, four cheese mac-and-cheese, crawfish sandwiches and other items that blend comforting portions and heartiness with the right-sized punch of spice and pepper. Elsewhere in The Pearl, Chef Geronimo Lopez’s blend of Asian and South American flavors makes Botika one of the most original restaurants in town, while La Gloria fulfills the “eat like a local” requirement as it was created by Johnny Hernandez (a popular restaurateur who also has traction among locals with his margarita truck).
For more information, check out the Visit San Antonio website.
Author’s Note: While there remain many questions and concerns about the safety of travel domestically and abroad at press time, I hope this story will provide inspiration on how you can plan for interesting, enlightening and responsible journeys once circumstances allow for travel with confidence—such as increased availability of a vaccine or the dramatic slowing of new cases. In the meantime, be sure to regularly consult sites such as the U.S. State Department (state.gov), the Centers for Disease Control (cdc.gov) and the tourism offices and official government sites of your intended destination.