When Steve van der Molen first began working for Caesars Entertainment in Atlantic City, many companies were leery to host meetings at gaming resorts. They were nervous to expose their attendees to the gaming portion of the property and all of the perceived problems that gambling can bring.
That’s not really the case anymore. “Over the years, people have seen gaming as an acceptable form of entertainment,” says van der Molen, who is now vice president, meeting operations, Atlantic City, and oversees meeting operations at the company’s properties along the eastern seaboard, including Caesars Palace, Harrah’s Resort and Bally’s Atlantic City Hotel and Casino. “Today, it’s considered more of an amenity. People can use it or not, and it’s not the distraction people thought it was 16 years ago.”
Now that the stigma of going to a gaming resort has eased, companies are free to focus on the many benefits they offer.
“The big difference is you have a lot of things under one roof,” says van der Molen. Business travelers can find all of the amenities they need to be successful at meetings. But when the day’s events are over, they have a variety of ways to spend their time or mingle with colleagues. Depending on the property, options may include restaurants, bars, music or other live shows, pools, fitness facilities and shopping.
“We call them integrated resorts because they have so much to offer,” says van der Molen. “You can literally spend four or five days at the property, and you don’t have to eat at the same restaurants or bars. There are different and ever-changing entertainment options.”
The wide variety of things to do is a real benefit to both planners and attendees, who can take advantage of multiple entertainment options without much effort. “Gaming resorts can be a great place for meetings because they offer attendees a chance to do something fun and different after a long day of meetings,” says Abby Kahn, vice president of global events at the technology solutions company Numerix. “When we do our annual kickoff sales meeting at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa [in Atlantic City], it allows my colleagues the chance to socialize in a way that wouldn’t be possible at just a hotel.”
“When you do a sales meeting for as many as 2,000 people, you end up with the gambit of people,” says Shelley Williams, director of events for Seacret Direct, which manufactures skincare products from ingredients sourced from the Dead Sea. “Some people like to relax, some people like to dance, some people want to go to the pool. Some people like to gamble. Talking Stick Resort and Casino [in Scottsdale, Arizona] gives people everything they need. Last year, when I was finished with the event for the day, my whole group was dancing in the mid-bar and having a great time — and I could watch them do that.”
“No matter what type of event you are hosting, when you come to Las Vegas as a destination, the opportunities you have at the value and price points you have are unbelievable.” — Stephanie Glanzer, CMP
Conference participants can feel connected without having to engage in the same activities or spend every waking moment together, she adds.
Located on Cable Beach, Baha Mar in Nassau, The Bahamas, is an oceanfront property with 1,800 rooms among three hotels: the Rosewood, the SLS and the Grand Hyatt. While the Grand Hyatt Baha Mar features the Caribbean’s largest casino — 100,000 square feet of world-class gaming, including the latest slot machines, table games and live entertainment, it has so much more to offer.
Complete with beautiful ocean views, Grand Hyatt Baha Mar boasts 200,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor event space. An event held in the 82,000-square-foot Baha Mar Convention, Arts & Entertainment Center surrounds attendees with a magnificent collection of Bahamian art. Planners can choose from one of three nautical-inspired ballrooms — the 29,600-square-foot Grand Ballroom, the 19,610-square-foot Andros Ballroom and the 15,725-square-foot New Providence Ballroom, as well as a 2,000-seat entertainment venue, 16 breakout meeting rooms or lush outdoor spaces to accommodate groups of any size. And, located throughout Baha Mar are facilities and amenities that guests of all the hotels can access, including a golf course, kids club, racquet club, a luxurious spa, art gallery, more than 20 restaurants and bars. And, a trip to The Bahamas wouldn’t be complete without soaking up the sun by any of the six onsite pools or on the miles of beautiful beaches. After a day of meetings, attendees can stroll through the nearby open-air Straw Market, where local craftsmen sell handwoven items, island souvenirs and other charming goods.
Another benefit to gaming resorts is that they can be quite affordable. “No matter what type of event you are hosting, when you come to Las Vegas as a destination, the opportunities you have at the value and price points you have are unbelievable,” says Stephanie Glanzer, CMP, vice president of sales at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino and Delano Las Vegas.
The large resorts do brisk business with leisure travelers on the weekends, but they need ways to keep their properties full during the week. Offering great deals on hotel rooms and meeting spaces allows them to stay busy all seven days of the week.
Because gaming resorts have so many amenities, planners can also create experiences for their groups without the cost of transportation or outside experience companies.
Mandalay Bay hosts Cirque du Soleil troupes in its performance space, and convention staff can arrange for small groups to have meet-and-greets with cast members before attending shows. “It gives them that exclusive, ‘in-the-know’ feel,” says Glanzer.
“We’ve been doing a lot of dine-around functions where it’s not the entire group going to one restaurant, but kind of a pub crawl where you go from restaurant to restaurant within the resort,” she adds. That’s possible within large resorts because there are so many different eating establishments.
Gaming resorts will often allow planners to do full restaurant buy-outs so they can host dinners or special events. Williams is using that to her advantage for her upcoming event. She’s planning a special dinner called “Light Up Your Life” that will be available only to the company’s top-performing salespeople. It will be held in Talking Stick’s Orange Sky Restaurant, so named for its stunning views of the desert sunset. The meal will take place at sundown and be lit entirely by candlelight, giving the room its own glow as participants watch the sun sink toward the horizon.
“Harrah’s has a Viking Cooking School, which is a fun experience where you and your colleagues can get together and do this cooking experience,” says van der Molen. “It’s two to three hours, and you cook with a chef and prepare your own meal. They teach cutting techniques, you make your own marinades, then as a group, you eat the meal that you prepared yourselves. Those are the types of things you wouldn’t see at other properties. You would have to venture out into the city to find those things.”
The grand size of many resorts’ spaces also allows them to do some fun things. “We had a group last week that was in our foyer space, and they actually built out a tiny beach with hammocks so that in between meetings, exhibits and general sessions, people could sit in these hammocks and put their feet in the sand,” says Glanzer.
She encourages planners to lean on their convention services manager for advice about the best ways to utilize the property. “We see everything that happens every day,” she points out. “Take advantage of the knowledge and experience your hotel contacts have. They know the layout of the space and what works and what people like to do.”
In addition to their physical size, gaming resorts often have some oversized amenities that you wouldn’t find at a more conventional property. The Pool at Harrah’s Resort is one of the largest covered pools on the East Coast and is set under a giant dome. “During the day, it’s a nice, balmy 80 degrees,” says van der Molen. “At night, we bring the temperature down to about 70 degrees and do group receptions or meals there. Around 10 p.m. on certain nights of the week, it turns into a night club environment. It’s rated one of the top 20 nightclubs in the U.S.”
Groups that want to use the space for private parties can glam it up with floating lights in the pool, tropical décor or a sign with their company logo on the DJ booth. The pool, nightclub, fitness center and all the guest rooms in the Bayview Tower were renovated last year, making the facility very up-to-date and modern-looking. A $56 million renovation of the guest rooms in the Harbor Tower is planned for next spring.
One of the advantages to using a family of gaming resorts like Caesars is that they often allow planners to utilize all their properties for events and gatherings. “Within our organization here in Atlantic City, meeting organizers and conferences have the option to take the food and beverage minimum and apply it not only at this resort, but at Bally’s and Caesars,” says van der Molen. “You can have your opening or closing reception somewhere else or have flexibility for where you have your meals. It’s the same in Las Vegas.”
Planners organizing smaller events or who like a more intimate feeling to their meetings and conventions can still have great success with gaming resorts. Not all of them are city-sized complexes with urban entertainment. “The thing I love about Talking Stick is it’s not five miles to walk to the convention space,” says Williams. “It’s compact — not in a small way, but things are close. The rooms are beautiful, and people love to stay there.”
The new ilani in Ridgefield, Washington, is located 20 miles north of Portland in a semi-rural setting. “We have access to the city, and it’s convenient because we’re right off the highway,” says president and general manager Kara Fox-LaRose. However, because it’s not in the middle of a city, “we have a beautiful landscape around us. You can see three mountains from our facility. If you’re going to be here for a few days and are looking to engage in some sort of outdoor recreation or want to have a retreat built into your itinerary, we have plenty of options. We’re close to the Columbia River, and there are many wineries and breweries nearby. We’re close to a golf course.” Attractions such as the beach and mountains are a short drive away.
Corporate executives sometimes worry that the many amenities offered by gaming resorts will distract event participants from the things they’re supposed to be doing at the event.
Glanzer assures them that’s not the case. “There are great statistics from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority that [reveal] trade show attendance is higher when groups come to Las Vegas because people want to come here,” she says. Participation in meetings and other events also tends to be higher because people realize if they blow off their meetings or other obligations, they might not get to come to Las Vegas in the future.
Fox-LaRose offers a similar perspective. “Meeting planners sometimes hesitate to have events at gaming resorts because of the gambling and perception of what that brings, or the concern that it will be a distraction and you won’t retain those people in the meeting,” she says. “What we’ve found is our meeting planners tend to see a higher level of attendance.” The attraction of being in a beautiful, fun setting serves as an incentive and attracts more participants.
Companies may also worry that the lure of gambling may prove too great for employees and guests to ignore. Again, Glanzer says that usually isn’t true. “People don’t really come to Las Vegas anymore to gamble. There are too many other amenities to take advantage of,” she says.
Keep in mind, too, that the gambling part of resorts typically isn’t “in your face” the way it used to be. “Our property is designed in a way that people are able to navigate around the casino floor if they’re not interested and access the other amenities,” says Fox-LaRose.
The best thing planners can do to make sure participants attend all of the event sessions is to build free time into the agenda so people feel like they’ll have a chance to explore the city. If they know there will be opportunities to eat out, take in shows and do the things they want to do, they won’t feel like they need to skip programmatic elements.
“I try to make sure that we have a lot of meetings and group activities planned so that there is not much time to get distracted,” says Kahn. “After all of the meeting events are completed, attendees are welcome to enjoy the casino floor and all it has to offer.
However, we have pretty strict rules that are explained by our CEO at the start of our event: ‘Have as much fun as you’d like, but show up the next day ready to listen and participate.’ It’s up to everyone to act responsibly and know that they are representing our company while at the meeting.”
While you don’t want the resort to be too much of a distraction to attendees, there’s no reason not to play it up when you’re trying to attract people to an event. “In your marketing materials you can say, ‘You can do almost anything you want here. You can even gamble if you want to,’” says Williams.
Companies might even look at creative ways to make the gambling more fun and somewhat less risky for attendees. “We offer all attendees some casino chips as a welcome gift so they can enjoy the games without fear of losing too much of their own money,” says Kahn.
Williams brings up a benefit to gaming resorts that many planners may not think about.
Because there is so much money moving around, most properties have very tight security. In a time when more and more groups are concerned about the safety of their guests, that can be a real benefit.
“There are stringent rules at gaming resorts,” says Williams. “You know there are cameras everywhere. The resorts are ready for anything because they’re a gaming property. You know you’re secure.”
The other thing planners should keep in mind is that they might not have the same access to the space they’re accustomed to.
“Planners often think they can just wander around the back hallways,” says Williams. “But you have to have the right passes to go many places within the building. Make sure you have the right credentials from your convention services manager.” C&IT