By Kristi Casey Sanders
The U.S. State Department has issued travel advisories for many cities in Mexico, but that doesn’t mean your group has to miss out on all Mexico has to offer. Just head for the border, the American border that is.
Laredo, Texas, the fifth-largest port in the U.S., provides groups with Mexican flavors, colors, culture and history. But it’s not the Wild, Wild West. According to 2006 FBI crime statistics, it’s twice as safe as family friendly Orlando. Laredo also was designated one of 20 semi-finalists for the 2007 All-American City title, the only Texas or border city so chosen.
“One of the best-kept secrets is it’s a very, very friendly place,” says Richard Gentry, who coordinated the Texas Association for Physical Plant Administrators’ April conference in Laredo. “We thought it’d be a good idea to bring it here because the border venue is very unusual and we have a new university; it was built here about 12 years ago.”
Attendees were impressed by the one million-sq. ft. campus and facilities at Texas A&M International University. “This is the first university to be built from scratch in 80 years in the state of Texas, and it’s just a crown jewel of higher education,” Gentry says.
They also were surprised to see how sophisticated Laredo has become. “A lot of people who came to Laredo came 20 or 30 years ago, and it’s not the same sleepy, little border town,” he says. “This is an international city with lots of international trade and business going on.”
A common misperception is that Laredo is the same city as Nuevo Laredo, a Mexican city on the U.S. State Department’s travel advisory list. “We held our conference 100 percent on the American side and we told people, ‘Laredo is just like any other city, but Nuevo Laredo is in another country; there may be violence going on over there, but it’s not here,’” Gentry says. “We had some conference attendees going across the border, but we didn’t have any problems.”
Blasita Lopez, the assistant director of the Laredo Convention and Visitors Bureau, says some groups still choose to incorporate events and activities in Nuevo Laredo while meeting in Laredo. “We had a group around the first of the year who started their meeting downtown, had an evening reception in Nuevo Laredo, and came back,” she says. “We tell [them] to exercise and practice the same common-sense precautions they would in any foreign country. We tell people, ‘If you’re going to go, go during the daytime, not at night.’
“But we try to steer people away from Nuevo Laredo … because anything you might see or do there, you can do here.”
Laredo restaurants feature specialties such as Mexican barbecue, Mexican-style seafood and unusual cuts of meat. Latin nightclubs and live music clubs heat up what is known as Laredo’s “mini-Sixth Street” district (in a nod to Austin’s famous strip) and Calle Iturbide. And 40 blocks worth of colorful shops line San Bernardo. Unusual off-site venues, such as the Border Heritage Museum and Casa Ortiz, reflect centuries of the city’s history, and the entire Villa Antiqua Historic District is under renovation, to be completed and open for events in 2009. The city also has a wealth of natural attractions including a river through the downtown area, and nature tours and trails led by Audubon trailmasters, who also are helping to organize the city’s first annual Birding and Butterfly Festival for February 2008.
Groups who have met recently in Laredo include the Miss Texas Pageant (which is four years into a five year contract and brings roughly 250 young women with friends and family to the city for more than a week), the Friends of Aviation/International Aviation Safety Seminar (200 attendees) and the Region X Catholic Youth Conference (3,500 attendees). But Laredo’s amenities very well may be one of the border’s best-kept secrets.
“I think that Laredo is positioned to offer [groups] top-notch service,” Lopez says. “We will bend over backwards to show them a good time and help them have a successful meeting.”