Gaming resorts have a lot going for them. These sprawling properties can have a plethora of entertainment options, from gambling and night life to restaurants, spas and swimming pools. Because most are in the entertainment business, they’re likely to offer good food and terrific customer service at reasonable prices.
The myriad distractions at gaming resorts can make it challenging to keep meeting attendees focused on the matters at hand. But a tightly crafted agenda, good flow to the event space, and built-in time for leisure and networking can help keep them on track. Meeting planners offer their thoughts about what makes these resorts good destinations for different types of meetings.
That out-of-the-way, resort feel was a big part of the reason the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), a membership organization based in Arlington, Virginia, chose to host a 50-person leadership meeting at the newly opened MGM National Harbor in Maryland. Valerie Esty, the nonprofit’s meeting and member services manager, explains that the previous year’s meeting was held in Washington, DC, but people kept leaving for work commitments.
“We wanted an intimate, fun atmosphere that would encourage dialogue,” she says. The MGM was close to the group’s headquarters but far enough away that people stayed onsite for the two-day gathering (plus the board and committee meetings that took place on either end of the main event).
Esty says she was very impressed by the MGM National Harbor, which had its grand opening in December. A lobby filled with modern artwork and upscale décor communicates that this is a special place as soon as guests walk through the door. The hotel has a range of restaurants, which meant guests could enjoy meals with each other without leaving the venue.
The meeting had a packed agenda, which means guests didn’t have much down time. But when they were on their own, they could explore the property’s swimming pool, spa, bars, casino and stores. Given that the property is so new, attractions are still coming online. The Bellagio Patisserie now has a chocolate fountain, and Finks Rolex and Breitling stores are opening in July.
“The hotel has good meeting space, especially for somewhat smaller groups,” says Esty, who points out that the nearby Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center can accommodate larger meetings if necessary. “The staff was amazing. I was really impressed with how cohesive they already were.” Sometimes hotel staff in different departments don’t work well together, she says, which makes it difficult to solve problems. At the MGM, communication was excellent and issues were resolved very efficiently.
Associations sometimes worry that hosting a meeting at a gaming resort will look bad or be criticized by bosses or constituents. “If you focus on the resort aspect, that helps with perception,” Esty says. “When you’re in a big city people want to go and explore and you tend to lose people. If you can keep them onsite, they can come back more easily.” That means less attrition and fewer distractions than you might find at other venues.
Of all the cities known for gaming, Atlantic City is one of the most iconic. The city’s struggles to attract business have been well-publicized in recent years, but revitalization efforts seem to be paying off. Tajma Kotoric, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Osteopathic Physicians and Surgeons (NJAOPS), has seen positive changes come to the seaside town over the past few years.
NJAOPS hosts an annual conference called AROC that attracts 1,100 physicians, surgeons and exhibitors from across the region. There are continuing education seminars, keynote addresses by big names such as former U.S. attorney Paul Fishman and former NFL wide receiver Vance Johnson, a cocktail gala to honor their incoming president, and a 100-booth trade show.
“Atlantic City works well because they have these large spaces to host events under one roof,” Kotoric says. “What we hear from our attendees is that they like that everything is under one roof. Then once everything is done they can go and have dinner with friends, walk on the boardwalk, have a good time without having to sit in their car. They can walk instead.”
The AROC conference has been at Bally’s Atlantic City for the past 10 years. For the next two years NJAOPS is scheduled to be at the Golden Nugget. It’s right next to the marina, which means attendees can bring their boats. Kotoric also thinks attendees may be more likely to bring their families to a meeting at the Golden Nugget, which is very important to their membership.
“We’re having a difficult time engaging the millennials because they’re very family-friendly, and they don’t see Atlantic City as a family-friendly resort,” she says. “We hear a lot about how important it is to bring families to the convention because physicians are very busy and family time is precious. …We were seeing pushback with the casino atmosphere.”
Golden Nugget is one of a handful of properties that’s trying to change Atlantic City’s “Boardwalk Empire” perception. While the resort has a casino, it’s removed from many of the other facilities. The property also has a good selection of shops and restaurants, as well as pools, an arcade, a spa and activities that give families plenty of things to do while mom or dad is at the conference.
When looking at facilities, Kotoric highly recommends a site visit to make sure the space fits your needs. “A lot of hotels are chopping up (the event space) and it doesn’t give you a good flow to keep everyone under the one roof,” she says. “Do your homework and look at the venue a couple of times to make sure the flow works for you because you can easily lose your attendee by not having the right floor plan.”
In Atlantic City specifically, it’s very important to understand your contract. “A majority of their resorts have union restrictions, so truly understand your contract to make sure there are no hidden fees,” she says. “The unions require a lot of their own specifications, which can inflate your expenses.” One year NJAOPS hired its own videographers so it could livestream educational sessions. The hotel required that one of its AV staff sit in each room with the videographers, which tacked on an unanticipated cost.
But overall, Kotoric is bullish on AC. “We’re seeing finally that shift happening for the better,” she says. “It’s a great experience. Everyone really loves it. There are more people that are coming that are not associated with events; they’re just citizens. The atmosphere is changing. It’s nice to see it livelier.”
Caesars is an example of the newly bullish investment in the destination. Caesars has invested $200 million over the last three years in its Atlantic City resorts, Bally’s, Caesars and Harrah’s Resort, including the new $125 million Waterfront Conference Center at Harrah’s.
Shannon McLaughlin with McLaughlin Garner Group, a Jackson, Mississippi-based event services company co-owned by Emily Myers Garner, recently collaborated with the Mississippi Workers’ Compensation Educational Association to plan a three-day educational conference. Six hundred people gathered to participate in workshops, hear keynote speakers, and network at meals and receptions. “The event went really well,” McLaughlin says. “They had great turnout and everyone seemed really pleased.”
The event was held at Beau Rivage in Biloxi, a property McLaughlin had successfully worked with in the past. “If you’re looking at the Gulf Coast, it’s the probably the top-caliber location as far as the building, the décor and the staff,” she says. “That’s not saying the other properties on the coast aren’t wonderful,” McLaughlin says, “but being an MGM resort property they step everything up a notch. The staff is very attentive. They’re very easy to work with.”
Beau Rivage’s staff is always very accommodating and creative, she says. Because of the group’s size, the food service staff set up identical buffets in several of the onsite restaurants so everyone didn’t have to squeeze in to the same ballroom. “It allowed people to go out and eat and get off the conference room floor,” she says. “Sometimes when you’re in the same spot all day it’s nice to get a bit of a break.”
The food is always fabulous there, McLaughlin says, and she likes that the property’s restaurants and bars stay open late. It provides more opportunities for attendees to meet for informal networking and relationship-building after each day’s events have concluded.
McLaughlin advises planners looking into gaming resorts to look at all of each site’s amenities before settling on a location. People sometimes focus on the gambling and forget that gaming resorts offer many other benefits, including live shows, shopping, swimming pools and spas.
Properties where the gaming portion is removed from the conference facilities also remove the temptation to skip out of meetings early. To keep participants engaged through the meeting, “try to have interesting speakers and keep the day flowing well,” McLaughlin says. “We try to do really yummy breaks where there’s fun food. There are always good door prizes and you have to be present to win, and that’s a bonus.”
The main thing to consider with gaming resorts is the same things planners think about with any venue: making sure the space is the right fit for the meeting. “Anytime you’re going to a space — and especially a new space — know what your vision is and let the staff know what your expectations are,” McLaughlin says. “There’s no such thing as overcommunication.”
Dover Downs Hotel & Casino, a gaming resort that’s also Delaware’s largest property for meetings and events, has good prices, good food, great services, and plenty of entertainment and dining options. That and more is what keeps Marcia Powers, business operations administrator for leisure travel for AAA mid-Atlantic, which is based in Wilmington, planning an annual leadership forum there.
The event draws about 500 associates from as far away as Kansas. With all those people coming from other places, Powers appreciates that Dover Downs is near an airport and offers reasonable room rates. That’s pretty typical of gaming resorts, she says; they offer low prices because they’re trying to draw people into the casino. The rooms are also quite nice, she reports. “The things I look for when I do site visits are spaciousness and cleanliness, and they definitely have those. The bathrooms are always immaculate.”
Powers has found all of Dover Downs’ hospitality quite praiseworthy. “You don’t have to pay tax on food and beverage,” she says. “That can be a significant portion of your budget if you’re paying tax on those items.
“The service is very good,” she adds. “I’ve had excellent experiences with all the folks I’ve worked with down there, from the general manager on down. That means a lot to a meeting planner because someone has my back. If I needed something all I had to do was ask.”
Once guests are onsite they can avail themselves of the onsite casino, shops, restaurants, bars, spa and occasional concerts. The Dover Mall is within walking distance, and shoppers pay no sales tax. All of these easily accessible entertainment options mean planners can focus less on keeping attendees busy in the off-hours and more on the meeting agenda.
While gaming resorts are often associated with big cities and bright lights, some are tucked in rural communities that offer beautiful scenery and a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. That’s one of the things the Indiana Bankers Association likes about French Lick Resort.
“It’s a relaxed atmosphere down there,” says Chris Bennett, the association’s vice president of meetings and events. “When we do meetings in Indianapolis it’s difficult to retain everyone. Everyone scatters out to restaurants and other attractions. At French Lick there’s nothing else there, so we’re the only game in town for them.”
The association’s annual three-day convention gathering kicks off with a welcome reception on the patio. After that there’s a combination of meetings, a trade show, a silent auction that benefits IBA’s PAC, a golf tournament, and plenty of time for guests to network and unwind. “My members really enjoy golf, so golf is a bigger draw for us than the gaming,” Bennett says of French Lick. They can play the championship Pete Dye course or one of several other courses. They also can check out the spa, pools, fitness center, bowling alley or arcade, walking tours of the historic property and more.
Bennett appreciates that the gaming isn’t front and center at the property. “You don’t even know there’s a casino there unless you go find it,” she says. Those who enjoy gambling can partake in their off hours. Those that don’t have plenty of other ways to keep themselves entertained. AC&F