LEON, MEXICO North American conference organizers and meeting planners got burned when the Mexican peso suddenly plunged in 1995. "We had to cancel an exhibition," says a planner for a mid-sized international association based in Virginia. "We had to return deposits--we lost a lot of money."
That was then, this is now. The Mexican economy is bouncing back, partly because its devalued currency has made its exports such a bargain in world markets. It has also made some Mexican destinations breathtakingly inexpensive for meetings and conventions.
Take, for example, the city of Leon in Central Mexico, which is home to the country's largest convention center, the 272,000-square-foot Conexpo Leon. Here, planners will find 1,150 four- and five-star hotel rooms within walking distance, and the 211-room Fiesta Americana Leon a five-minute shuttle ride away. The best part? Rack rates for many of these properties start at $50 a night. And while many U.S. planners may be unfamiliar with the city, it is known in Mexico as a destination that knows how to handle large events--the international leather industry meets there every year (Leon is an international center for shoe manufacturing) and World Cup Soccer matches have been held from time to time.
Access from the U.S. is good. There are direct flights to and from Chicago, DallasFort Worth, Houston, and Los Angeles. Guanajuato Airport is 16 miles from downtown and is served by Continental and five other airlines, which offer 36 flights a week to the U.S.
While Leon has many unusual attractions, ranging from the wonderful interactive Explora science museum to the slightly surreal Panteon Taurino (a bullfight museum restaurant where patrons sit at tables made from the tombstones of deceased matadors), it is principally an industrial and agribusiness center, home to the likes of General Motors, Molinex, and a myriad of leather shoe and clothing manufacturers. Corporations and commercial associations will find the convention center staff and hoteliers in the city to be very much in tune with the needs of businesspeople.
For pre- or post-conference activities, or for smaller meetings, the nearby colonial city of Guanajuato fits the bill. Established in 1550 and given its city charter by the King of Spain in 1741, it contains many jewels of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century architecture, not to mention the Valenciana gold and silver mine.
History is taken seriously here: Guanajuato is where the Mexican independence movement was born in 1810, as well as the later Mexican Revolution. The United Nations has declared the city a "World Heritage Zone." Built up the sides of a narrow valley, its winding streets, pastel houses seemingly piled one atop the other, and lovely tree-lined main square provide a working definition of romance, Mexican style (although planners who must meet the dictates of the Americans With Disabilities Act will need to go elsewhere). Guanajuato is 33 miles from Leon and 18 miles from the airport.