Some planners say Las Vegas offers unparalleled amenities, while others prefer the understated Reno with its mountain views.
Catering to 22,000 meetings annually that draw anywhere from a few dozen attendees to the more than 180,000 who attend the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January, it probably comes as no surprise that Las Vegas was recently named World’s Leading Meetings & Conference Destination for 2018 by the World Travel Awards — for the sixth year in a row.
Home to three of the country’s 10 largest convention venues, the city is built to host, offering more than 147,000 hotel rooms, and drawing 6.5 million convention attendees last year.
All of this is conducted against a backdrop of 24/7 entertainment, gaming and endless nightlife — the “lost weekend” cliché for which this Sin City is also known. Needless to say, association meetings and conferences are a big business in Las Vegas.
“Planning a meeting or event in Las Vegas is not for the faint of heart,” says Cindy Nachman-Senders, senior consultant for meetings and conventions at Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America. “Know the value of your business during the contracting phase and fully understand union jurisdictions and the costs associated with union labor.”
The Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America rotates its convention between Orlando and Las Vegas, but Nachman-Senders says Las Vegas is the bigger show because it’s a natural location for a wine and spirits industry event. “Our attendees enjoy the proximity of the airport and the variety and quality of dining options in the city,” she adds.
For its 75th Annual Convention and Exposition in May 2018, the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America chose 3,792-room Caesars Palace to host the 3,000-attendee event, a property Nachman-Senders says is the perfect size and, compared to other Vegas hotels, relatively easy to navigate.
“We [like] Caesars Palace because the hotel is well maintained, and they are committed to putting resources back into the property on a regular basis, whether it is making improvements in room product and public spaces or introducing new and innovative dining options.”
“Our meeting model does not include the use of a convention center but it does require over 350,000 sf of space and 1,900 sleeping rooms on peak. We also like Caesars because the hotel is well maintained, and they are committed to putting resources back into the property on a regular basis, whether it is making improvements in room product and public spaces or introducing new and innovative dining options.”
“We require quite a bit of space,” adds Nachman-Senders. “Our attendees don’t want to walk two miles to get there, and also, being that there is a lot of alcohol, we prefer not to share our space with another group. We also use suites to host meetings, so we need a hotel that is flexible in allowing us to remove bedding and other furnishings to accommodate the need for private meeting spaces on sleeping room floors.”
Nachman-Senders says her strategy is to select hotels where she has strong relationships. “Regrettably, the industry is moving towards a transactional-based experience and, as a result, many planners new to the industry don’t understand the value of relationships and the difference it can make in the outcome of an event. Las Vegas seems to be one of the few holdouts that still promotes relationship-building with its customers.”
For Nachman-Senders, the secret weapon at Caesars Palace is Don Ross, vice president of catering, conventions & events.
“He’s known to many as the ‘king of hospitality,’” says Nachman-Senders. “I have known Don for too many years to count and he is my go-to for most problems.” She also commends Caesars’ shipping and receiving department. “It is, hands down, the best of any hotel in any city. I am not sure how they make the magic happen, but the shipping and receiving team of Angie Barragan, George Carter and Chris Bales is exceptional. Organized, friendly, helpful and committed to excellence.”
Planners need to be prepared and informed in Las Vegas, Nachman-Senders cautions.
“Make sure you get all the space you need during the contracting phase, and don’t forget to allow time for load-in and load-out. Read and understand the hotel’s catering rules. For example, if you have a reception and hope to move any remaining food to your staff office, that may not be allowed.”
“Create a budget that includes an allowance for labor overages. The AV departments provide proposals based on labor estimates, however, it always seems to take more time than anticipated. Consider using in-house for some of your breakouts and smaller AV needs or for your exhibitor needs and leverage that into complimentary power and rigging. Roll the dice, make the ask,” adds Nachman-Senders. “Remember, it’s Las Vegas. Most things are negotiable.”
For the American MedSpa Association, making “the ask” was essential in turning its recent Medical Spa Show at the Aria Resort & Casino a success. The organization, which provides legal and business resources and training seminars for medical spas and medical aesthetic practices, faced the best kind of challenge — a surge of interest as plans came together for its February 2019 event.
“We experienced huge growth year over year,” says Mary Richter, CMP, senior events manager with AmSpa. The Medical Spa Show is a new event and 2019 represented only the second year of its existence. Further, the Medical Spa Show was held between the Super Bowl LIII party and during the Chinese New Year party — major events for Las Vegas and at Aria.
“The hotel was able to partner with us to accommodate additional hotel rooms at the property and within the MGM family, including last-minute changes to room sets and very last-minute changes to increases in food and beverage counts,” Richter says. “But with everything going on and sell outs on various nights, the hotel still provided exceptional service on every level.”
“The South and East Verandas inside of Primrose Ballroom in the newly renovated East Convention Center Space are beautiful areas for a meeting, group dinner or reception,” Richter says. “They especially stand out at night and can be used for a variety of purposes. In addition, the Ironwood Terrace lends itself to a beautiful outdoor space for a reception, meal function or party. And, if you operate a tradeshow in addition to your meeting, Aria is really set up similar to a convention center with an on-site exhibitor services department, for electrical and cleaning, etc.”
Following a recent expansion, the convention facilities at Aria are now a sprawling 500,000 sf, consuming the space originally dedicated to a Cirque du Soleil stage show. Much of the original three-story facility is flooded with natural light by day, courtesy of a soaring glass curtain wall opening onto a landscape of native plants and trees. Aria now has seven ballrooms, ranging from the 17,542-sf Orovada Ballroom to the Bristlecone Ballroom, which measures 51,225 sf.
The 200,000-sf expansion at Aria offers versatile indoor-outdoor meeting rooms with retractable windows and dramatic views of The Park, an immersive outdoor dining and entertainment district, and T-Mobile Arena. Aria’s top floor offers one of the Strip’s most distinctive meeting venues: a vast ballroom with two open-air verandas that can accommodate receptions for up to 2,000 attendees.
Another facet of the approximately $170 million expansion is the discreetly marked Cypress Executive Lounge. The 3,000-sf space features a fully stocked pantry, three private suites for personal workspaces and one-on-one meetings, a conference room with flexible furniture setups for up to 30 and a study for toasting to a successful event.
“The Cypress Executive Lounge in the East Convention Center space is perfect for a VIP reception or meeting,” Richter says. “Not only does Aria have everything under one roof for groups — gaming, great restaurants, nightclubs and convention space — but it is the perfect atmosphere for our audience.”
Furthermore, she says it felt as though the entire Aria staff worked as a team.
“They all wanted the best for our group and we could feel their support throughout the duration of the event. They really tried to accommodate everything I asked for,” Richter says. “Whatever request or situation we had while on-site, their team made it happen and our group found a true partner. They went out of their way to assist us with our meeting and make us look good to our speakers, exhibitors and attendees.”
In addition to the expansions at Aria, meeting options on and near the Las Vegas Strip are in a huge growth phase.
Located just east of The LINQ Hotel & Casino, the $375 million CAESARS FORUM began construction last summer. The project will build a LEED Silver-certified conference center featuring 300,000 sf of flexible meeting space, including two 108,000-sf ballrooms, a 100,000-sf outdoor plaza that will connect directly to the LINQ Promenade, and to the Las Vegas Monorail. CAESARS FORUM is set to open in 2020.
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) is midway through the Las Vegas Convention Center District’s $935 million expansion, which will add 1.4 million sf to the current facility, including at least 600,000 sf of new, leasable exhibit space. The expansion is slated for completion in time to welcome CES in January 2021.
Meanwhile, since its acquisition of the former Las Vegas Hilton, the closest hotel to the convention center, timeshare developer Westgate Resorts has invested $175 million in upgrades to the property since taking over in 2014. Now known as the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino, renovations have touched every corner of the property, which holds more than 225,000 sf of meeting space. Including the addition of 300 timeshare villas, all guest room upgrades are projected to be completed by 2020. Westgate also touts a new International Bar, a fully renovated pool deck, restaurant renovations, convention expansion, and elevator replacements.
At Wynn Las Vegas, a state-of-the-art meeting and convention center is under construction to open in March 2020. The new, 300,000-sf complex was conceived to be a desert oasis, on repurposed land previously used for the Wynn golf course. At its foundation is clean energy use — the complex will be powered by 100-percent renewable energy sourced from a new 160-acre solar energy facility, an industry first for a gaming operator in Nevada. With 18 rooms scaled for a variety of uses from small receptions to large general sessions, the complex also encompasses a one-of-a-kind, 20,000-sf outdoor events pavilion, and an 83,000-sf pillarless ballroom. The new development complements the resort’s existing 275,000 sf of convention space across the 4,750-room Wynn-Encore property.
At the north end of the Strip, SLS Las Vegas Hotel & Casino has also launched a $100 million renovation, designed to upgrade the casino floor and hotel rooms, and renovate existing pool and entertainment venues. Alex Meruelo, founder of the Meruelo Group and owner of the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino in Reno, acquired the SLS property in 2018.
At the legendary Tropicana Las Vegas, a Doubletree by Hilton, a renovation is also underway, which includes a two-phase revamp of its 100,000-sf convention center — phase one debuts later this year — and a facelift for all 1,470 guest rooms, starting with the Paradise Tower.
“They’re putting some real money behind it now to redo every single room and the convention space,” says Jack Freckman, immediate past national chair of the Labor Assistance Professionals. “The hotel itself is old, it’s worn. They’re taking it from that 1950s orange and going into soft muted greys and dark browns. When they get done with it, the Tropicana will be very modern, very upscale — as nice as any facility on the Strip.”
The Labor Assistance Professionals (LAP) promotes the development of peer-based member assistance (substance abuse) programs in the labor movement and, as such, will only meet at union properties. Additionally, as with many associations or attendees with limited budgets, Freckman says that LAP’s annual National Conference in July doesn’t entail a lot of spending. Separately, the group also holds a small annual Board Meeting at the Tropicana.
“When we were getting ready to re-contract, I looked at 10 properties,” Freckman says. “Well, some I didn’t even look at. For hotels that hold large conferences, a lot of their income comes from F&B. In a brief call, they said they would deal with us but the guarantees they asked for were way out of line with what we could afford. Some of our members are dealing with substance abuse or are in recovery, so although many of our members do drink, you don’t find any open bars at our conference; no long lines at the bars. “
“When we first went into the Tropicana 10 years ago I was up front,” Freckman adds. “I told them, we’re not an organization that is going to give you a huge liquor bill, and our food bill isn’t extravagant. But for 10 years they’ve treated us like royalty. That’s why we come in July — they know we’re coming and what they’re going to get, and they give us priority that week.”
Freckman says LAP has considered moving to another city besides Vegas, but the last event outside the city was held in Orlando in 2009, but the group decided to move back to Vegas the following year.
“The key factor that keeps us coming back is the staff, from Gavin Mealiffe [vice president of sales at the Tropicana], all the way on down,” Freckman says. “The people we deal with have been there for years. I personally know most every server in the hotel by name — it’s like they’re family. The number of complaints has diminished to almost nothing. Any time we’ve had a problem, it’s almost always corrected within five to 10 minutes.”
Freckman says the Tropicana is very easy to navigate, and for most functions LAP uses the hotel’s 24,742-sf Cohiba Ballroom, one of two nearly identically sized ballrooms.
“If you’re coming in for a meeting I’d definitely arrange to have your rooms in the Club Tower, where the Cohiba is,” he adds. “They guarantee that our people will be in that tower. We went to look at another facility and they wouldn’t guarantee a certain tower — they said, ‘No, we assign rooms when people come in.’ At the Tropicana, I have put very few demands that they have not met.” Freckman says a minor challenge for his group is the hotel’s limited sit-down dining choices, though his group doesn’t really complain about it.
“Neither of our two events are huge numbers, obviously, and they’d be nothing for the larger Vegas properties, where we would literally be lost in the comings and goings,” Freckman adds. “Even the Tropicana gets groups in for a weekend that spend more than we do in a week, but that doesn’t matter to them. I imagine that because they’re independently owned they’re probably given a little bit more flexibility to work with us. When we’re there we seem to be the big fish in the pond.”
While Las Vegas is the drawing card for associations looking to set a meeting in a city with all the bells and whistles, planners might also consider looking 430 miles north, to Reno, neighboring Sparks, and Lake Tahoe. Sure, you’ll trade a desert backdrop for one defined by the Sierra Nevada mountain range, but costs are often less, and it’s easier for small and medium-sized events to be a big fish in the Reno pond. And yet, the destination also boasts 10 casino-resort hotels with more than 800 rooms apiece, each featuring meeting space ranging up to 200,000 sf. All of them are located within minutes of the Reno-Tahoe International Airport.
The California Nevada Moose Association, Inc., a fraternal service organization, has been coming to Reno twice annually since 1999, for both its Mid-Year Conference in March and an Annual Convention in September. Fred Reichelt, the association’s past president and current secretary, says Reno has been the order’s choice for its airlift, ease of access, cost, the quality of lodging, and entertainment.
The association has based its meetings at the 824-room Atlantis Casino Resort Spa, which offers stunning views of the city and mountains. As Reichelt explains: “Atlantis was selected based on its central location, room layouts, and accessibility to break-out rooms, meals available in a room next to large meeting rooms and relatively good sound insulation between rooms.”
“I consider this location to be both family and business-orientated,” Reichelt says. “The area meets the needs of family and friends that accompany many of our members. There’s an arcade area for all ages, multiple swimming pools, golf within 30 minutes and fishing within an hour. And don’t forget the historical landmarks within a two-hour drive.”
Atlantis is the only resort directly connected to the 600,000-sf Reno-Sparks Convention Center, via sky bridge. The resort’s 50,000 sf meeting space is on the second floor, and includes two ballrooms measuring up to 14,261 sf, with accompanying breakout rooms, an executive boardroom, and a business center. The AAA Four Diamond resort is located in the heart of the Reno shopping, restaurant and entertainment district.
“Good luck in finding a hotel set up as this one is for a general stay, business meetings, and the areas for family and friends to have a great time,” Reichelt says. “The rooms are very nice, well equipped for families with children, LED TV, Wi-Fi and with great views of the surrounding area.”
The Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority recently noted that, while major hotel groups across the United States have cut third-party commissions to 7 percent, most of the major hotel properties in Reno have remained at 10 percent.
Atlantis has retained the higher rate, along with Reno-Sparks’ largest property, the 1,900-room Grand Sierra Resort & Casino, which features a full-service spa, fitness center, mini-golf, go-karts, “skydiving” experience, bowling alley, movie theater, an indoor simulated golf course and more than 100,000 sf of meeting space.
Other Reno-Sparks properties continuing to offer 10-percent commissions include the 1,382-room Nugget Casino Resort, the 928-room Harrah’s Reno Hotel & Casino, the 1,621-room Peppermill Resort Spa Casino and the multiresort destination in downtown Reno, The Row. Following $50 million in improvements, the Row includes the 814-room Eldorado, the 4,200-room Silver Legacy Resort Casino, and the 1,572-room Circus Circus Reno.