Midsize City: Austin, Texas
It starts at the airport: Instead of Starbucks and Cinnabon, you'll find Austin Java, Amy's Ice Cream and Waterloo Records. Most vendors on the concourse are based in or near Austin, a reflection of a community that takes pride in its ingenuity.
"There's a unique spirit of independence here, and a pride in locally owned and locally run things," says Hugh Forrest, event director for the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival, which draws internet and communications trendsetters to the city each March. "We've been branded as this place where creative people come together, brainstorm and create new ideas."
For years, Austin was known for its state government and the University of Texas. These days, talk is of those SXSW conferences (music, film and interactive); homegrown companies such as Dell and Whole Foods; and the Formula 1 Grand Prix, which debuts in November. On top of it all is America's most vibrant live music scene, with hundreds of venues, even at the airport.
The result is a business destination like no other. Over the past four decades, Austin's population has tripled. Yet unlike many Sun Belt cities, which have become increasingly homogeneous, it has retained its singular feel. The "Keep Austin Weird" movement characterizes a city that has distinguished itself with its distinctiveness and is attracting a wide range of talent as a result. "There are a ton of really smart people here," says attorney Bill Garrison. "You'll find entrepreneurial, original people everywhere you go. That creates a great business climate."
So do one-of-a-kind venues such as the new Austin City Limits Live concert hall, which has rented space to companies--including Microsoft, Dell, AT&T and Tito's Handmade Vodka--for meetings ranging from 10 to 300 attendees. And a laid-back professional culture: It's typical to see executives finishing the day with a long run or bike ride, then watching the sun set from one of the city's innumerable outdoor terraces while sipping a draft beer--brewed locally, of course.
Where to stay: Hotel Saint Cecilia. Set in a residential neighborhood two blocks from the funky shops and bars of South Congress, this 14-room property is named after the patron saint of music. Like the storied Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, there's a sense of exclusivity, and celebrity sightings are common. Companies (and bands) have been known to rent out the hotel for a week or two to brainstorm, commune or just unwind. There's no fitness center, but there is a lap pool and a vast library of albums to play on your in-room turntable. (112 Academy Drive; hotelstcecilia.com)
Where to eat lunch: La Condesa. There are more than 400 Mexican restaurants in Austin, but La Condesa is likely the only one playing Talking Heads. Located across the street from City Hall, it offers executives pushing through a day of downtown meetings a polished but authentic take on tacos, ceviches, tostadas and other staples. If you don't want to indulge in the signature margarita at lunch, the fresh-squeezed lemonade offers a similar tang. (400A W. Second St.; lacondesaaustin.com)
Where to eat dinner: Uchiko. The Japanese food at this busy spinoff of Austin's best sushi bar is smart and soulful. Texas-born Tyson Cole, a James Beard Award winner as the Southwest's best chef, uses his impeccable technique to make rarefied ingredients like sea urchin, abalone and pickled turnip gloriously accessible. You won't find anything like it no matter where your travel schedule takes you. Add a healthy dollop of Top Chef buzz--executive chef Paul Qui won the most recent season--and you can see why it's one of the city's most coveted reservations. (4200 N. Lamar Blvd.; uchiaustin.com)
Where to meet for drinks: Trio. Its outdoor terrace--which fronts Lady Bird Lake below the Four Seasons hotel's mission-style lobby--is a convivial gathering place year-round. Amid an all-local soundtrack, the city's business community wanders by to enjoy moist pulled-pork sliders at happy hour or wine from a sophisticated selection. (98 San Jacinto Blvd.; triorestaurantaustin.com)
Three extra hours: As might be expected in Texas, the state capitol is the nation's largest; tours run throughout the day. The 80,000-square-foot Whole Foods flagship is also worth a visit, with a seafood bar, raw food/vegan counter, local beers on tap, house-smoked barbecue and rooftop movies. The 20-block South Congress strip has dozens of food trailers and one-of-a-kind shops.