09.28.12 at 3:00 p.m.
Peter Radowick
GRB's Luther Villagomez remembers 1987 opening

As a witness to change since the George R. Brown Convention Center opened 25 years ago, Luther Villagomez is uniquely qualified to offer reflection on the passage of time.

An event manager on September 26, 1987, when the GRB opened with a two-day civic celebration, Villagomez has risen to where he is now – general manager of the convention center and chief operating officer of Houston First Corporation, the entity that manages the GRB and other city-owned facilities.

What's the biggest difference between the George R. Brown today and the one that opened a quarter-century ago? One word: technology.

"Back in '87, meeting planners would ask us how many pay phones we had (the answer was 285) and would that be enough," Villagomez said. "Today, they ask us how much bandwidth we have."

(By the way, there are only six pay phones left in the building!)

Villagomez believes technology has helped clients to earn a greater return on investment.

"Our job used to be opening the doors and turning off the lights at night," he said. "Now, we're working with our clients to help them reach more attendees. Meeting planners are under increased pressure to show a greater ROI. With the help of technology and other amenities, we are able to help them do that."

Villagomez thinks back to the opening of the GRB as a time of great celebration.

"Here we were, moving from the tired, 120,000-square-foot Albert Thomas (Convention Center) with no amenities to a 1 million square-foot, red white and blue convention center with all the bells and whistles. In the late '80s, there were only three or four convention centers like the George R. Brown. We went from being a non-player in the industry to a significant new player immediately.

"So the industry celebrated the George R. Brown and the community celebrated us, too," he added. "With the savings and loan debacle of the time and the oil bust, there wasn't a lot of good news in those days. The opening of the George R. Brown certainly was."

Villagomez didn't have a lot of time to enjoy the opening festivities. He was busy keeping events associated with the grand opening running smoothly as well as getting ready for the building's first social event, a March of Dimes gala, on opening night.

If the opening was heady stuff, the ensuing weeks and months were hard work. The first convention, the American Society of Travel Agents, took place two weeks later and went off without a hitch.

"In the days before the internet, it was those travel agents who were putting the word out that the George R. Brown was open for business."

With the buzz in place, 1988 was a busy year, Villagomez recalls. Some of the big shows were the American Rental Association, Golf Course Superintendents and National Association of Television Programming Executives.

"We were a state-of-the-art center in '87 but meeting planners have a lot more places to choose from these days and we've always pushed the envelope to keep the Brown at the forefront among facilities."

GRB, GRBCC, George R. Brown Convention Center
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