[ON LOCATION] CHERYL ROSEN
Sometimes a press trip coincides with an event that tells a story about the very essence of a city—and that’s what happened when Prevue visited Guanajuato State for its Sustainable and Social Tourism Summit. Intertwined with our rambles down the quaint cobblestone streets and tiny alleys that date back to the 18th century, local officials spoke of the importance of maintaining the essence of Mexican culture here as they build an up-to-date infrastructure for international visitors.
And indeed, that culture lies at the heart of meetings in Guanajuato. Mexico’s warm climate, easy entry requirements and close proximity to the United States have always made it the number-one international destination for U.S. travelers and meetings. But for planners looking for something beyond just a beach—for a true immersive experience into the local culture of our neighbor to the south, complete with beautiful venues and conference spaces—Guanajuato beckons.
We began our trip in the modern but 400-year-old city of Leon, where the indigenous peoples date back to 600 BC. Right in the middle of Mexico and high above sea level, with an airport offering direct flights to many international cities, Leon’s cool breezes draw 2 million meeting and convention attendees a year. Meeting venues and international hotel brands abound here, and everything a group might need is centralized and walkable.
The 60-acre Leon MX District complex of meeting venues includes the Cultural Forum, Bicentennial Theater, Poliforum Leon (the third largest convention center in Mexico), Domo de la Feria stadium and Explora Park, an interactive museum. Restaurants and terraces line the walks among them, offering indoor and outdoor spaces, and public transportation comes to the front gates. Hotels within walking distance hold a combined 4,000 guests. This area hosts the annual Leon Fair, which brings in 5 million visitors over 27 days, as well as the Summer Festival, the Hot Air Balloon Festival, and an annual international veterinary congress that this year will welcome 25,000 attendees. It is built for crowds, and knows how to handle them.
Just a block or two away is another beautiful and modern complex designed by IM Pei that includes the Victor Marin Museum of Art. Along with its regular displays, the museum currently is hosting a Rembrandt exhibit, and you can walk right up to (but please not touch) original works. Its second floor offers meeting space and F&B overlooking the park, for groups of 50 or larger. Next door, the modern and technology-rich Bicentennial Theater holds 1,500 in the main hall, with acoustics designed for opera.
We met with the official event production company of the complex, Produce Comunicacion, and then toured the Museum of Art and the convention center, which can hold 30,000 attendees in a total of 24 rooms. In keeping with the theme of sustainability, its 3,000 solar panels produce 60-70 percent of the energy used here.
But it was at the opening of the Sustainable & Social Tourism Summit that the real lure of Guanajuato became apparent. Far from the touristy destinations, this part of the country sees itself as the authentic Mexico—and realizes what a valuable draw that is, for the tourism industry and for the future generations of the country. In a world where more and more destinations look the same, Guanajuato is fighting to look and feel different. In addition to taking us behind the scenes to see how an international conference comes together, the message of the speakers underscored how planners need to consider the sustainability and the cultural impact of their meetings and conventions. “Tourism and culture must work together,” was the theme.
On the trade show floor, Picasso Tours offered an example of how that might play out, with sustainable adventures for groups, including canoes, bikes and ecotourism groups that head into the Panales mountains to meet with a community that produces honey. Coyote Canyon, meanwhile, brings groups to its ranch in the mountains for hot air ballooning and moonlight horseback rides through the hills and valleys; you can even stay for a weeklong ride, where 35 cowboys will accompany your group. Take advantage of the golf courses that dot the hillsides overlooking the city; visit the vineyards and tequila factories; or stop at Atelier Amaretto to have boots custom-made to your specifications.
No visit to Leon is complete without a stop in neighboring Guanajuato City, a beautiful colonial town dating back to the 1600s, a UNESCO World Heritage site located 6,700 ft above sea level. There is a smaller convention center here that holds 1,600. But the real magic comes from the cobblestone streets, the sounds of music playing in the village square, the shops that line the alleyways. We rode the funicular down the mountainside, bought handmade ostrich boots and jewelry and had dinner at Casa Valandez.
Over lunch with local meeting planners at the Metria Hotel in Leon, just across the street from the convention complex, we asked what they think makes Leon and Guanajuato a good destination for groups. (Editor’s note: If you host a meal there, do not miss the sopa de pimientos with roasted tomatoes.)
The best part, they say, is the way the whole city comes together—from the location to the infrastructure to the suppliers, from the tourism board to the hotels, from the government to the private sector—to make meetings here special, and the life of the meeting planner easy. With its history of leather production and farming, it’s an area that has hosted international commerce since the 1700s, and has generations of experience. In short, “la historia de Mexico esta aqui (the history of Mexico is here). We welcome you not just for your event, but also as a chance to experience the culture of Mexico.”