What do Madonna and Las Vegas have in common? It may sound like a bad joke that can have a lot of endings, but the queen of pop and the home of countless impersonators of the king of rock ’n’ roll both know how to do one thing better than all their competition: reinvent themselves.
After a brief stint in the early 2000s trying to turn itself into a family-friendly destination where children could enjoy the pool and roller coasters and families could easily eat on a budget at the buffet, Las Vegas is once again owning up to its sin city reputation, but with a new polish that makes it an ideal meeting destination.
This December, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority even resurrected one of the city’s most enduring phrases, “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” as the tagline of its new advertising campaign.
All of the latest Las Vegas hotel openings, especially this year’s SLS and Cromwell, have brought a new vibe that is more Miami Beach meets Alexander McQueen haute couture than either the city’s family-friendly phase or its usual something-for-everyone casino culture.
This mix of sophisticated elegance and an edge of exclusivity — especially with the plethora of unique celebrity chef-driven dining options and all-suite properties such as The Venetian and Palazzo favored by many planners — has transformed Las Vegas from an excellent meeting and event destination with good airlift, lots of space and frequent deals to an even more powerful draw for the most high-end executive meetings and retreats.
Debbie Dalton, CMP, CMM, AVP, shows and events, for New York, New York-based Redken & Pureology, a division of L’Oreal, holds the majority of her events in Las Vegas, and not just because she’s local. “There’s been so much that has developed in the last 10 years,” she says. “Everything has changed. It’s like they’re trying to create this urban experience. If you go to The Linq, you have shopping, restaurants and the new (High Roller observation wheel).”
Like many planners specializing in ultra-large events, Dalton, whose main event is a 10,000-person biannual meeting, originally found herself locating her event in Las Vegas because, “there’s not another destination in the U.S. that can hold an event that size,” she explains. But her audience, which includes attendees from 33 countries, comes back year after year for the eternal novelty only Las Vegas can provide. When she took her event to Orlando, attendance dropped by half.
“What I really like about holding events here is that everything is pretty much always new,” she says. “All the technology is cutting-edge and that goes with our brand because it’s new and current. I’ve taken my events to lots of cities, and here there’s always something new and appealing: the London Eye look-a-like, the celebrity chefs or new entertainment.”
Unexpectedly, a lot of the buzz in Las Vegas, including the properties that are leading the changing charge, are not even on The Strip. “Another event I do for 1,000, I took off The Strip to the Red Rock. It’s very hip and trendy, which goes with our branding,” says Dalton. “It’s got wonderful meeting space, and it gives people a different feel of Las Vegas, like the new SLS, another great hip, trendy venue. They also have one in Beverly Hills.”
For meeting planners, one of the big draws of the new SLS, which opened August 2014, is that it’s situated toward the end of The Strip, closer to downtown Las Vegas, the country club and the convention center. There’s less to worry about in terms of attendee distraction, and the hotel, with 1,613 rooms and interiors by Philippe Starck and Lenny Kravitz, maintains a boutique atmosphere despite its Las Vegas scale.
Eight flexible meeting rooms, including a 9,000-sf ballroom, offer a total of 30,000 sf of meeting space, but there is a total of 80,000 sf of rental space available for groups. Other unique SLS venues, such as the 10,000-sf Beach Life with an open-air rooftop pool, can also be used for private events. Catering comes from the hotel kitchen driven by celebrity chef José Andrés, who also has created a gourmet menu of craft cocktails and food for the onsite casino. Named by Eater as “2014 Las Vegas Restaurant of the Year,” Bazaar Meat by José Andrés is the James Beard Award-winning chef’s celebration of the carnivorous, in all its forms.
Coming in March 2015, a $200 million renovation of the Tropicana Las Vegas – a DoubleTree by Hilton will bring even more South Beach to Las Vegas, with new beachhouse-style suites and luxury villas. An expansion of the Tropicana Pavilion, the resort’s main meeting venue, will bring the self-contained space up to 55,000 sf with 26,000 brand new sf of meeting space, including 11 breakout rooms. After the expansion is complete, the resort will have a total of 100,000 sf of meeting space.
Central and sophisticated, the Cosmopolitan, with 200,000 sf of meeting space including eight ballrooms ranging from 7,000 to 40,000 sf, has become a hot choice for planners since it opened in 2010. “In July, I had a meeting at the Cosmopolitan,” says Dalton. “It’s an awesome space, very trendy, and offers a lot of restaurants.
“They have a venue in there that holds about 2,500 people and can be rented out for corporate functions that’s right in the heart of everything, right there in the middle of The Strip,” she continues. “The Cosmopolitan also has four different meeting levels that are very self-contained. The way their space is laid out, you wouldn’t notice if there were people on other levels.”
“We had an event at the Cosmopolitan in the last year, a property that definitely exudes more of a boutique feel,” says Kelley Butler, director of meetings and events for Oak Brook, Illinois-based McDonald’s Corporation. “Places like the Mandalay Bay and Venetian are so much larger, and as a result, they cater to a different audience. From a design and innovation perspective, the Cosmopolitan is truly unique and stands out from the competition — particularly with the lobby design and their approach to customer engagement. There’s a lot of flexibility in how they can be innovative with their space.”
Regarding newer venues such as the SLS and the Cosmopolitan, Butler says, “I think the smaller properties can offer a level of service and creative details that can meet a higher level of expectation than larger properties due to this flexible approach and their various service and amenity offerings. Especially during this turnaround, I’ve watched the culture change, and customer service has been a noticeable focus. To keep corporate business, you have to prioritize that.”
Regarding newer venues such as the SLS and the Cosmopolitan, Butler says, “I think the smaller properties can offer a level of service and creative details that can meet a higher level of expectation than larger properties, because of the number of things going on in them. Especially during this turnaround, I’ve watched the culture change, and customer service has been out in front much more. To keep corporate business, you have to prioritize that.
Though the Cosmopolitan has been around long enough that it’s somewhat old news for planners who come to Las Vegas often, the 2014 completion of the long-awaited Linq Hotel and Casino by Caesars Entertainment, a complete re-imagination of the Quad Resort & Casino that features 2,256 brand new rooms and suites, was the watershed moment for the shifting tide in Las Vegas’ image.
The hotel is located within the The Linq retail, dining and entertainment promenade, which is home to the High Roller, the world’s largest observation wheel. The Linq also will add renovated meeting space to its offerings in spring 2015.
If the current rental opportunities, which include an 82,000-sf private bowling and performance space, an 8,500-sf Andy Warhol Museum and Polaroid Fotobar, and a craft cocktail piano bar with floor-to-ceiling views of The Linq fountains, are any indication, they will be some of the most exciting meeting and event spaces on The Strip.
Also from Caesar’s, The Cromwell Las Vegas, heralded as the only boutique hotel on The Strip, opened this year in a completely overhauled 1979 Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall and Saloon space. Though The Cromwell does not have its own meeting space, the concierge service available in its 188 rooms make it an easy choice for planners looking for executive rooms for The Linq meeting facilities next door.
“There are so many unique venues now with the High Roller there,” adds Butler. In addition to the great meeting space, it’s a destination that has great amenities, and quality food and beverage options. There’s a plethora of entertainment options that can be easily accommodated, and airlift is easy. In my opinion, Las Vegas is truly an all-encompassing destination; a place where business and pleasure can coexist, and meeting objectives can be achieved with ease.
“Las Vegas is truly an all-encompassing destination; a place where business and pleasure can coexist, and meeting objectives can be achieved with ease.” — Kelley Butler
“It’s attractive to returning planners who are looking for ways to change programs with tight budgets,” she continues. “The value of corporate business has turned a corner for them. Like so many businesses and organizations out there, they’re trying to anticipate what the next ‘golden’ moment will be. They try to get all the incentive, meeting and leisure business while simultaneously providing family aspects to alleviate any concerns some organizations have of choosing Vegas for events.”
Due to the increased excitement around Las Vegas’s offerings for high-end meetings, Butler has found herself doing many more events in Las Vegas than in previous years. Every other year, she brings three waves of 5,500 to 6,500 managers and operators together to educate them about business initiatives and create an opportunity to discuss their franchises together over three days per group, often back to back.
As the event is optional, the location is an important factor for attendees, but a destination that can handle both the number of attendees and the quick turnaround Butler needs is paramount. She’s increasingly found that Las Vegas is the ideal place to check off all these boxes.
One of the unusual upsides of all these activities for planners is that having so much going on all night actually helps get derrières in chairs during daytime meetings. While many planners worry destinations with a lot of distractions make attendees choose between sightseeing and sessions, Todd Thrall, director of meetings and events for Phoenix, Arizona-based Best Western International, actually has found the exact opposite to be true.
“We see strong attendance at business sessions from eight to five, because attendees know they can go out in the evening,” he says. Thrall has been involved with the annual meeting for nearly 25 years and directed the department for 13 years, and has been using Las Vegas often throughout his tenure. “In my experience, I know a lot of groups have a reluctance to take business meetings to Vegas because of perception, but we have found — and we’ve done meetings for a long time in Vegas — they will attend business sessions because they know they have time to explore later.
“We’ve done this event in a lot of destinations, and we’re going to Honolulu, Hawaii, in October with this group, for instance,” he continues. “There, we have to craft an agenda that lets people go out during the day to enjoy the sun and the beach, and to a certain extent we find that also in Orlando. You have to give people an opportunity to do theme parks during daytime hours when they’re open. In Vegas, at least for my group, we’ve been very pleased with the turnout at the daytime meetings, because there’s 24-hour opportunities to do other things.”
You may think the 24-hour entertainment would cause morning session attendance to drop off, but Thrall says they move start times back a touch, to 8:30 or 9 a.m. rather than 7:30 or 8 a.m. and “generally attendees are able to muster and be there at the beginning.”
Rather than detract from business functions, the energy and entertainment in Las Vegas seems to invigorate attendees and stave off the usual lag that sets in at the end of several days in windowless meeting spaces. Work hard, play hard may soon be the new Las Vegas meetings motto.
As the U.S. hotel industry rebounds, planners have been having a more and more difficult time securing the dates, rates and amenities they want. Now that the economy is bouncing back, you don’t always see the hotels and meeting space you need, but Butler has found, “The Vegas pattern works well (for us) because our team doesn’t have to travel on the weekends. For us, our size can be a challenge because our programs are so large, and it can be very difficult to get the dates that we seek for various events. Therefore, for our largest programs, we’re looking in the 2026-2028 time frame.”
Las Vegas offers a welcome change of pace in that regard. “For us more recently, the value equation has changed a bit, but from a travel perspective Las Vegas rooms are reasonable compared to major destinations in North America,” says Thrall.
“I agree that it’s a cost-effective option, and the reason is that if you don’t have the budget to entertain in the evening, attendees can go to restaurants and shows,” says Dalton. “It’s more cost-effective because you don’t have to entertain them at night. And people want that.”
However, this domestic sweet spot won’t remain an easy solution for planners forever, and some are already starting to feel a pinch on availability. “Frankly selecting on availability and rate, we’ve seen certainly in the last two to three years that the pendulum has swung,” says Thrall. “Business in Vegas is strong, and it’s increasingly difficult to find availability on The Strip.”
With increased market pressure, prices will likely begin to rise soon, but local planners, like Dalton, have found that having more energy and events in the city actually can make Las Vegas events even more budget-friendly.
“I prefer to bring in the entertainment, because it’s better to negotiate the bar and food at the venue, but I figure out who is entertaining at another corporate event and tag on to that,” says explains. “I go through a large DMC and ask, for instance, ‘who’s at the consumer electronics show that happens right before us and what would it cost us to hold them over two nights to entertain at our event?’ Because there are so many back-to-back events, you can figure it out.”
Butler has found that the biggest change coming down the pipeline isn’t in any individual or even group of properties, but in the destination’s approach to visitors, especially meeting business. “It’s operating in a similar fashion to how our events have transpired in Orlando,” she says. “They’re coming together as a community and starting to understand how to market the city as whole.”
You might soon find, too, that meetings that happen in Las Vegas stay in Las Vegas.
By mid-December, Las Vegas reported that it had surpassed its record for annual visitation, drawing more than 40 million people of which roughly 5 million were in the city for a meeting or convention.
“Las Vegas couldn’t have reached this milestone without the continued investments of our resort partners, and the more than 40 million people who came to experience all the destination has to offer,” said Rossi Ralenkotter, president/CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “Ongoing developments in the destination, including new, renovated and rebranded resort properties, exciting new attractions, world-class entertainment, incredible culinary offerings and more are what keep first-time visitors and loyalists returning to Las Vegas time and time again.”
Offerings such as the following:
Award-winning chef Michael Mina opened Bardot Brasserie at Aria Resort & Casino January 16. Offering a modern and sexy take on the traditional French brasserie experience, Bardot will present an exquisite array of Parisian cuisine, transporting guests on a culinary journey through The City of Light. Located on the second floor of Aria, Bardot is open from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
Among MGM Grand’s 5,044 guest rooms is the 14th floor comprised of 171 Stay Well rooms, completed in January of this year. The Stay Well guest rooms feature vitamin C-infused shower water, advanced room lighting tailored to sleep/wake cycles, air purification systems, EMF protection and more. The resort offers a Stay Well mobile app that provides wellness recommendations such as techniques to reduce the effects of jetlag.
Stay Well Meetings was officially unveiled in late summer. Created by Delos, the pioneer of Wellness Real Estate, whose advisory board includes alternative medicine guru Deepak Chopra, M.D., the program incorporates healthful environments in meeting rooms and spaces such as ergonomic seating, air purification, circadian lighting, virtual window lights, aromatherapy, healthful menu items and much more.
South Point Hotel and Casino’s new $35 million bowling tournament facility, South Point Bowling Plaza, rolls into Las Vegas early with a full schedule of tournament events. The South Point Bowling Plaza, a 90,000-sf facility, features 60 lanes with two parallel rows of 30 lanes, a 360-seat viewing area and a 720-unit locker room.
Hakkasan Group has announced its newest nightclub concept, Omnia. Omnia will take over the former space of the iconic Pure Nightclub at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The multifaceted destination is set to open spring 2015.
Designed by the internationally renowned Rockwell Group, Omnia spans 75,000 total sf. The multilevel venue will encompass a seductive ultra-lounge, a high-energy main room and mezzanine, as well as a breathtaking rooftop garden, showcasing panoramic views of the Las Vegas Strip. Omnia will boast opulent design as well as interactive features.
Westgate Resorts announced the renovation of its newest acquisition — the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino — a landmark property, which is located one block off The Las Vegas Strip, adjacent to the Las Vegas Convention Center, and is one of seven stations on the Las Vegas Monorail.
Over the next several months, in addition to the updating of the 1,200 Central Tower guest rooms, the renovation project will include enhancements to the convention areas, renovations to the pool area as well as the Health Club & Spa and Cabanas; sports book improvements such as new seating and state-of-the-art TVs; new LED lighting throughout various areas of the property; a new guest service program and customer-service training. Also, several new restaurant concepts are in the planning stage.
Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino features a 95,000-sf casino, 200,000 sf of meeting and convention space, restaurants, entertainment, a spa and fitness center, pool with luxurious cabanas, access to golf at the exclusive Las Vegas Country Club, and the world’s largest race and sports SuperBook.
The three-level Mandalay Bay Convention Center recently unveiled plans to expand the facility to more than 2 million sf from its current 1.7 million sf of event space. Plans call for the addition of more than 350,000 sf of exhibit space, as well as underground parking and additional carpeted ballroom space. New exhibit space is expected to be available in late summer 2015.
Circus Circus Las Vegas recently debuted the “gravity defying” new roller coaster El Loco at The Adventuredome, one of the world’s largest indoor theme parks. The thrill ride features “a greater-than-straight-down diving drop producing a negative 1.5 ‘vertical G.’ ” Circus Circus also boasts the world’s largest permanent circus, which performs under its hallmark Big Top. The Adventuredome is available for private groups of up to 4,000 attendees.
Wynn Las Vegas introduced a new multimillion-dollar show element to “Le Rêve – The Dream” to mark the 10th anniversary of the aquatic production show. The new “dénouement” scene is situated as the penultimate act in the 75-minute production. More than 18 months in the making, the “dénouement” includes 172 high-powered fountains, 120 individual LED lighting fixtures and 16 fire-shooting devices.
“Over the past 4,500 shows, we’ve continued to introduce new elements, costumes, music and scenes to “Le Rêve – The Dream.” The ‘dénouement’ stands as one of the greatest advancements in the show’s history,” said Rick Gray, general manager of entertainment operations for Wynn Las Vegas. “We do this for our guests. As no two dreams are ever truly the same, neither is our show — and we take pride in that.”
According to Chris Baldizan, senior vice president of entertainment for MGM Resorts International, future entertainment trends include the emergence of festivals. “Interactive and social forms of entertainment, like music festivals and outdoor events, will be a major focus in Las Vegas,” he says. From the Electric Daisy Carnival at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway to Life is Beautiful in Downtown Las Vegas, multi-day music festivals will continue to find homes in Las Vegas in 2015. Notably, the May U.S. debut of Brazil’s iconic Rock in Rio, the world’s largest music festival, will deliver top acts such as Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, Metallica, John Legend and more. Other events on the horizon for 2015 include the return of Wine Amplified, an alternative rock music and wine festival; and the Route 91 Harvest Festival, which features the best talent in the country music industry. C&IT