DOING BUSINESS IN
What you need to know about one of America's most successful cities
by Joseph Pedro
With its low cost of living, a young, highly educated, bilingual workforce, vast land for expansion, and employment growth, Austin, Texas continues to be an economic beacon during rough economic times.
The state of Texas is considered to have one of the most favorable business climates in the country. Like the rest of Texas, Austin has no state income tax, no corporate income tax, and it offers financial incentives for business development. This means more jobs for the people of Austin. While two thirds of the nation's major markets have fewer jobs now than five years ago, Austin added 99,200 jobs during that span. That's an annual employment growth of 2.8%, which is the fastest rate in America.
Now, place all this within a gorgeous, well-manicured, and vibrant city, and it's no wonder why Austin, Texas is consistently ranked as one of the country's most successful places to do business in.
Austin's economic environment is filled with diversity, but by far the most important business sector is technology. As IT companies began to call Austin home in the late 90s and help build the city into what it is today, they equally threatened to bring the area into near ruins when the dot-com bubble burst in the early 2000s. For three years, Austin suffered layoffs and job reductions, but under strong leadership, the city launched Opportunity Austin in 2003. Instead of reinventing the city's economy, it invested in already existing industries such as computer software, digital media, wireless technology, semiconductors, and tourism. The five-year goal helped increase jobs by approximately 123,000 and bring in new businesses. Today, Austin is home to some of the world's most recognized brands including headquarters for Dell, IBM Corp., Apple Inc., AT&T, 3M Corp., Time Warner Cable Co., Hewlett-Packard, Cisco Systems, and a new outpost for Facebook
Companies also find Austin an attractive city because of its work force. With institutions like the University of Texas at Austin and a culture of academic research, there is a skilled pool of labor and an abundance of educated people seeking to fill positions at some of these major companies. This has helped the city become one of the fastest growing in the United States. The city, though, isn't attracting an older generation; its population is the youngest of all of the nation's 67 metropolitan areas, according to Portfolio.com. Its young, educated inhabitants also create a liberal, open, and "weird" culture that Austinites pride themselves on. This blue spot in the sea of red also makes Austin a popular home for LGBT people from all over Texas. Downtown boasts more rainbow flags than I've seen in New York City and an overall live-and-let-live attitude that fosters a thriving LGBT community and breeds an atmosphere of unique, only-in-Austin traits.
From quirky gay-owned restaurants and the wildly popular food truck scene to a corybantic nightlife that's even taken over a residential street, there is no shortage of fresh business ventures in the capital of Texas. "Austin has an openness to new ideas," says Richard L. Williams II, the owner of Luna Park Events, an event-planning company that does everything from LGBT fundraisers like the annual Lovexotic 2011 to fashion events. Innovative entrepreneurs, along with major chains, respect the "Keep-Austin-Weird" culture, and they all want to add something unique to this dynamic city.
Austin's ever-increasing hospitality scene exemplifies a mix of both tradition and innovation, which makes staying here a treat for business travelers. Openly lesbian entrepreneur Liz Lambert is often credited with rejuvenating the once seedy South Congress area (the now gentrified neighborhood is called SoCo). The renewal of the area began with Lambert's acquisition of an old motel turned brothel turned church. With the help of architecture firm Lake|Flato, she transformed the property into one of the hottest places to stay, Hotel San José. (Well, that was until she acquired her second property in Austin, Hotel Saint Cecilia.) San José continues, though, to be one of Austin's most unique and trendy properties. The compound, surrounded by stucco walls, centers on a beautiful, small pool. Rooms here run the gamut. The cheapest share a bath, while the most expensive are large suites, which have porches overlooking the courtyard. No matter where you stay in the hotel, Lambert's playful decorating, which incorporates everything from vintage cameras and movie posters to travel memorabilia from when the hotel was a motel, adds an unforgettable touch. If you miss the complimentary morning breakfast, pop across the street to the hotel's parking lot where Lambert's Jo's Coffee is located.
Her newest property is the converted estate called Hotel Saint Cecilia. Situated behind a gated entrance, this secluded property is perfect if you're looking for some peace and quiet with a dose of inspiration. Paying homage to music and literature, guestrooms are fashioned with pieces handpicked by Lambert. Modern-day amenities also add to the ambience: each room is equipped with creative distractions like the iPod turntables. Sit out by the 50-foot pool that is lined on one side by the hotel's gorgeous bungalows. Take a late-night dip as the large neon sign that reads "Soul" shines above you. The tree-filled property also has a patio where guests can enjoy breakfast.
For accommodations with a more traditional touch, the Hyatt Regency Austin is a prime choice. This towering, 448-room property is ideal for the business traveler. Rooms are equipped with two types of Wi-Fi—one specifically for those working in their rooms and the other for the casual user. Spend a few extra dollars on a Lady Bird Lake-view room where you'll be treated to a gorgeous sunrise and sunset. There is a good chance that if you're in town for a meeting it will take place here. With 23,000 square feet of function space, it's the choice location for many company conferences. In the mornings, before it gets too hot, head outside. The hotel is located directly on the ten-mile, hike-and-bike trail that loops Lady Bird Lake. You don't even have to bring your own water as the path is lined with H20 and Gatorade stations. You'll also get proof as to why Austin is ranked one of the fittest cities in America. (None of the men wear shirts when it's 105 degrees). If biking or running are not your thing, rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard from one of the rental docks located steps from the hotel and head out on the turquoise water. For the über-fit, try the morning paddleboard yoga class. Too hot out? The hotel has a state-of-the-art gym, too.
When W Austin moved into the heart of Downtown, they made sure that the property wasn't a cookie-cutter hotel. W Austin stays true to Starwood's formula, but it doesn't take away from the soul of Austin. As the fourth-tallest building in the city at 37 floors, the residential and hotel tower also hosts numerous community events. The dimly lit lobby is a great place for guests and locals to mingle over glasses of wine and superb cocktails. To the left of the lobby, the nighttime options continue with four other bars and lounges packed with Austin's more fashionable crowd. Paying homage to the music scene in Austin, there are literally thousands of records hanging about, which can be played on a vintage stereo. There is also the adjoining Trace restaurant that is popular for both a leisurely meal or a business meeting. As one of the newest W properties (it made its official opening earlier this year), it has exactly what you'd expect from W, plus updated amenities like superfast Internet and oversized rooms with sweeping views of Austin's skyline and the lake. Need a break from work? Relax by the outdoor pool, complete with cabanas and a bar.
The ever-evolving dining scene in Austin has caught the attention of bon vivants around the country. Probably the most unique sub-dining culture here is the food trailer scene. These carts have everything from Asian fusion and "breakfast tacos" to cupcakes. Grab a breakfast burrito from Torchy's Trailer Park. Erase any trailer park connotation you may have in your head; this trailer has a line down the street of suits and hipsters hoping to score a tasty taco filled with your choice of classic breakfast fare. If your sweet tooth beckons, enjoy a cupcake from Hey Cupcake! You can't miss these silver, retro trailers around the city that bake scrumptious $3 treats.
Need a place to have a quiet business lunch? Get a reservation at Second Bar + Kitchen, located Downtown in the Second Street District. Exciting new American cuisine dreamed up by Chef du Cuisine Ethan Holmes is fun and playful, yet surprisingly refined. Start with the fried pickles with cheese and spicy buffalo sauce (my mouth is still watering). For a main course, the menu is fit for any mood. It's peppered with classic sandwiches, salads, and proteins. Wash it all down with one of a dozen specialty drinks. The refreshing Congress GT with cascade hopped gin, tonic, grapefruit bitters, and seltzer will make you forget just how hot it is outside. If you need to impress a client, get your concierge to reserve a table at Congress. The Michelin-starred restaurant, which shares a kitchen with Second Bar + Kitchen, is the neighborhood hotspot; when you have a look at its Prix-fix menu, you'll see why.