When it comes to gaming resorts, Las Vegas has been the heavyweight champion for more than 50 years. The perennially popular destination combines major meeting hotels with thousands of rooms and unparalleled amenities, and a vast array of offsite venues and activities.
Katy Grant, a partner at independent meeting planning company Event Alchemy in Lafayette, CA, uses Las Vegas for at least one meeting a year. For the last two years, she has used the AAA Four Diamond, 5,044-room MGM Grand as the venue for a high-tech client’s annual HR conference for 2,500 attendees.
“One of the main reasons they selected Las Vegas the first time was that the company is growing very rapidly, and they had somewhat of a handle on what their attendance would be, but they didn’t know exactly,” Grant says. “So Las Vegas was a safe bet because we could work with a large hotel like MGM Grand that could grow with the group. It meant that if we needed more sleeping rooms, there would be the capability to do that. And the same thing held true with meeting space. And in fact, by the time the meeting happened, we ended up using their entire conference space. And that allowed us to have more breakout space and enlarge the size of our general session.”
Las Vegas is one of just a few U.S. destinations where a planner can find several thousand rooms under one roof. “And it is very important to this client to keep this meeting under one roof so it feels cohesive and there are lots of opportunities for face-to-face networking,” Grant says.
Another key advantage of Las Vegas is that it provides a broad, almost unlimited creative canvas.
“Our high-tech client is on the cutting edge of their industry, so they always like to do things that are creative,” Grant says. “And Las Vegas really lends itself to that, because you have all this great entertainment and fantastic amenities. And those things allow them to create unique experiences.”
For example, the company armed attendees with video cameras and staged a movie-making competition that capitalized on the vast visual palette of the Las Vegas Strip and its beautiful surroundings. In turn, the films were thematically geared toward the company’s business goals and achievements.
The many venues and dining and entertainment options housed onsite at mega-hotels such as MGM Grand save planners time as well as transportation costs.
“There are so many incredible dining options in the MGM Grand that we’ve done dine-around programs just within the hotel,” Grant says. “We’ve also done high-end executive dinners. And we’ve used a number of the meeting and event venues within the hotel. That range of options just makes things simpler and easier for me as a planner, but it also offers our attendees a lot of options for dining and entertainment.”
MGM Grand features two restaurants from celebrity chef Joel Robuchon — the Michelin three-star, Forbes Five Star and AAA Five Diamond Joel Robuchon and the more causal L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon — as well as acclaimed restaurants from Michael Mina, Tom Colicchio, Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck.
Entertainment options include KÀ by Cirque du Soleil and the long-running Crazy Horse Paris.
A related benefit that often surprises planners who are first-time users of Las Vegas is its general value proposition. “Vegas is a great place when it comes to budgets,” Grant says. “There are a lot of famous high-end restaurants, but there are also a lot of inexpensive places to eat. You have everything from Michelin-starred restaurants from celebrity chefs down to food courts. And there are a lot of activities. So that means you can have a welcome reception early in the evening and you don’t really have to feed your attendees, because there are so many options for places to go for them afterward. And the same is true of entertainment. There is literally something for everybody in Las Vegas.”
Mike Dominguez, senior vice president of sales for MGM Resorts International extols the virtues of one of his largest meeting hotels in Las Vegas: “The appeal of a property like MGM Grand is that we really offer something for every conceivable type of client and meeting,” he says. “And that ranges from holding an event for 15,000 people in the Grand Garden Arena, to having 15 high-end executives use our conference center for a very important meeting. We can customize any kind of meeting for any kind of client and still also deliver the unique benefits of a gaming resort.”
Two additional MGM Resorts properties ideal for meetings and events of various sizes include Monte Carlo, which features 30,000 sf of flexible meeting space with a variety of floor plans to best fit a planner’s needs, and New York-New York Hotel & Casino, which offers more than 21,000 sf of convenient, adaptable space.
Marquee names in Las Vegas that generate planner enthusiasm include MGM’s Aria Resort & Casino, which anchors the world-renowned City Center complex that now dominates The Strip, Wynn Las Vegas and its newer sister next door, Encore.
The gaming properties operated by MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment form the backbone of a vast portfolio enthusiastically promoted by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which has established a universal reputation as one of the premier providers of consultative services and resources for meeting planners.
Off-The-Strip gaming resorts can provide a more relaxed, less hectic atmosphere for meetings. One such property is Station Casinos’ 500-room, Mediterranean-style Green Valley Ranch Resort, Spa & Casino in Henderson — one of the first luxury boutique hotels built in the Las Vegas Valley — offering 79,000 sf of meetings space plus “The Backyard,” a poolside event space accommodating up to 4,500 attendees. Shuttles are available to take attendees to The Strip, which is about 10 miles away.
The 2,163-room South Point Hotel & Spa, located just off The Strip, also offers planners a self-contained resort to keep the focus on meetings, as well as a shuttle to all the action when the business is done. South Point has 165,000 sf of exhibit, meeting and banquet space, as well as a 4,600-seat arena, 64-lane bowling center and Costa del Sur Spa.
Once hindered by a stigma that rendered them off-limits to many companies and meeting planners, gaming resorts are becoming an increasingly popular option in a recovering market where bottom-line value and convenience for both planners and attendees are at a premium.
That news comes as no surprise to Larry Huttinger, CMP, director of 25-year-old meeting and trade show planning firm D. Lawrence Planners in Atlantic City.
“What I’ve learned over the years is that a primary reason why some clients select a gaming resort for certain kinds of meetings is that there is an underlying understanding that a casino hotel property typically incorporates a lot of components and options when it comes to activities and what attendees can do during their free time or in the evenings,” he says. “A gaming resort usually includes a lot of aspects under one roof. And that is generally not the case at a typical meeting hotel.”
Atlantic City’s premier gaming resorts include the 2,000-room Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, which has undergone a $50 million redesign of its 1,566 classic guest rooms. The resort features world-class amenities that include celebrity chef restaurants from Bobby Flay and Wolfgang Puck.
And unlike most hotels that feature celebrity chef eateries, those at Borgata include private dining rooms, says Huttinger, one of the hotel’s most vocal fans.
“The meeting space in the event center is extremely flexible, and it offers some wonderful opportunities for creating conferences for 500 or 1,000 attendees, or even more,” he says. “There is a very solid sales and service team that is very knowledgeable. You also have a property that is regularly upgraded and is kept in wonderful condition.”
Connecticut boasts its own gaming resorts popular among meeting planners, including Foxwoods Resort Casino, located in Mashantucket and owned by the Mashantucket Pequot Nation. The AAA Four Diamond Foxwoods features more than 2,200 rooms and 150,000 sf of state-of-the-art meeting space including the 50,000-sf, column-free Premier Ballroom, the largest in the Northeast. Located adjacent to the property is its sister property MGM Grand Foxwoods, which adds further amenities to a sprawling resort complex.
In Uncasville on 240 acres along the Thames River in southeastern Connecticut is the Mohegan Tribe-owned Mohegan Sun. The 34-story hotel features 1,175 rooms and more than 100,000 sf of meeting space, including the 38,000-sf Uncas Ballroom and convention center.
In addition to offering practical benefits for planners, gaming resorts are naturally a big draw with attendees, says Tony Corpin, publisher of Torrance, CA-based School Transportation News, which has held its annual conference and trade show for 1,100 school transportation supervisors, related personnel and vendors at Grand Sierra Resort in Reno for almost two decades.
“We tried other hotels in other destinations once or twice over the years,” Corpin says. “But we found, based on those experiences, that Grand Sierra is more popular with our attendees and contributes to the success of the meeting by attracting more interest. There are some schools and school districts where gaming is an issue, in terms of getting budget approvals. But over the years, our conference has grown and grown. And one of the reasons it has become so popular every year is that it is held in a gaming resort and therefore offers some after-hours fun for our attendees.”
Corpin says that compared to other hotels, gaming resorts deliver a trio of distinct and compelling benefits: value, service and amenities.
Most important is better value. “What we have found is that having the gaming element gives us the ability to offer our attendees rooms that have, in effect, been heavily discounted in terms of rates relative to the value we get with the rooms,” Corpin says. “And to us, that is a big benefit for our attendees.”
Corpin estimates that when compared directly to traditional hotels, gaming resorts offer what amounts to a 50 percent discount on the cost of rooms. “What I mean by that is that based on my experience, at a gaming resort like Grand Sierra you get a room for $100 that compares very well to a $200 room at a non-gaming property. But on top of that, I also find that the rooms — in addition to being much less expensive — are actually also much nicer at Grand Sierra Resort.”
Huttinger, who regularly books clients into Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, agrees with that assessment. “And I think that today,” he says, “that’s a pattern that you can now see across the country, not just in places like Atlantic City or Las Vegas.
Katherine Overkamp, CMM, CMP, manager, special events and client hospitality at US Airways in Tempe, AZ, shares that view. “You just get a better value proposition at a gaming resort,” says Overkamp, who will host a management meeting for 2,100 attendees at Talking Stick Resort in Scottsdale in February.
But it’s not just better pricing that appeals to Overkamp. In her experience in recent years, a gaming property also delivers demonstrably better service.
Corpin agrees. “We also find that the overall quality of the service we get, including the quality of the restaurants and other amenities, is better at a gaming resort,” he says.
Huttinger notes again that based on its demanding transient clientele, a gaming property is simply geared toward a higher standard of service.
“Of course, a planner will find good service at any four- or five-star hotel,” Huttinger says. “But the difference is that in casino hotels, because they usually have so many things going on at the same time, you just have more of a depth of experience and expertise. And that means that often a casino hotel provides special types of services, such as AV services that are geared toward major entertainment attractions, or VIP hosting, that you don’t find even at a four- or five-star traditional hotel. At a gaming resort, that kind of staff infrastructure is built into the property and that helps meeting planners stage more interesting and effective events.”
The third key benefit offered by gaming resorts is more — and better — amenities. “There’s so much to do at a resort like Grand Sierra that our attendees don’t have to leave the property,” Corpin says. “For example, there are great restaurants right on the property. And that is very attractive to our attendees because it means convenience. But it also means that there is a social atmosphere onsite for our vendors, exhibitors and attendees to be able to get together in various venues and get business done.”
Overkamp saw that realization reinforced last year when she used Talking Stick as an overflow property for one of her major meetings. “What happens at a major meeting is that attendees often want to get together in small groups and have dinner,” she says. “And what I’ve found in many non-gaming properties is that maybe they only have one restaurant. So that means I wind up having to transport people to an offsite restaurant. Talking Stick offers a variety of restaurants, so that means when various groups of attendees want to get together for their team dinner, I can just book them into one of the restaurants at the resort. That saves me transportation costs and the time required to plan getting people off-property.”
That reality also appealed to Overkamp’s attendees last year. “They liked the number of options available to them and that they didn’t have to go off the property,” she says. “For them, it’s mainly an issue of convenience because their time is very important. But at Talking Stick, they also liked the quality of rooms and the service, too. And based on those measurements, we definitely got a better response from attendees who stayed at Talking Stick then we did from those who stayed at other properties.”
The big benefit for planners, Huttinger says, is that they can negotiate contract terms that include amenities that can’t be easily matched by traditional hotels. “That’s because the amenities are designed into their infrastructure,” he says, “based on the clientele they usually cater to. For example, in a gaming property, you will typically find a better inventory of suites and other special accommodations and amenities that are designed for high-end gaming customers. But as a meeting planner, you can take advantage of them.”
Overkamp corroborates that analysis. “You can get similar kinds of amenities at non-gaming luxury hotels,” she says. “But it’s at more of a cost. At a gaming property, you often get higher quality rooms and more amenities at a lower cost.”
Dominguez adds that top gaming resorts offer upscale, exclusive amenities that cannot be matched by other hotels. As an example, Dominguez cites the 51 luxury VIP suites in the Skylofts hotel-within-the-hotel located atop the MGM Grand. Although they were originally created for high rollers, he says, today they are very popular with high-end meeting clients.
Yet another advantage of gaming resorts is their unique ability to generate attendee enthusiasm and group activity.
“Camaraderie is a really important part of a company’s culture and its meetings,” Huttinger says. “And one thing you can do in a place like Atlantic City is create ways to promote that camaraderie. And there are many ways to do that in a gaming property. And often, that functions as almost a teambuilding kind of activity.”
For the last 10 years, Corpin has hosted a sponsored slot machine tournament that has become a core tradition of his annual conference and trade show. “It’s extremely popular,” he says. “People pay to participate and sponsors also pay to be part of it. We have some sponsors that have been involved for 10 years. They absolutely love it.”
This year, about 250 attendees and vendors participated in the event, which offers cash prizes subsidized by sponsors.
“It works for us because it’s an inexpensive, fun event that people can enjoy during the conference,” Corpin says. “And it also adds another way for attendees, vendors and exhibitors to interact and network.”
At MGM Grand, similar activities such as tournaments in the hotel’s fabled poker room or lessons from dealers are popular with planners and attendees.
Although long-established gaming destinations such as Atlantic City, Reno and Las Vegas are enjoying a new surge of popularity among meeting planners, a frenzy of development activity across the U.S. is lengthening the list of available options. Lured by tax dollars and the promise of more tourism, states and municipalities across the country are rushing to get in on the action, which means more options in more places when it comes to new and noteworthy venues.
Opened in 2009, the $800 million Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem, PA, has since expanded to include a hotel tower that made its debut last year. Owned by Las Vegas Sands Corp. and billionaire developer Sheldon Adelson, the Sands Bethlehem outpost has brought the high standard established at Adelson’s The Venetian and Palazzo to the East Coast.
Meanwhile, Hard Rock International, operator of highly successful gaming resorts from Las Vegas to Florida, has partnered with Tower Entertainment to propose a new gaming resort named The Provence in downtown Philadelphia. The co-developers are now pursuing licensing from the state of Pennsylvania and funding from investors.
In Springfield, MA, developer Peter Picknelly is pursuing plans to create a casino project on 13 acres of prime land, and MGM Resorts is vying for a similar project. Casinos have to be approved by the citizens of Springfield as well as the state gambling commission. According to Massachusetts state law, only one casino is allowed in western Massachusetts.
In Cincinnati, Caesars Entertainment — operators of legendary Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and a sister property in Atlantic City — has announced plans to develop a new Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati.
Caesars also recently announced that their San Diego North property Harrah’s Rincon Casino & Resort has begun a $150 million expansion, adding a 21-story, 400-room hotel tower and 23,000-sf ballroom that will connect to an expansive outdoor patio. The tower will open in the spring in 2014, bringing the total number of guest rooms to 1,065.
In downtown Las Vegas, work has begun on a Downtown Grand hotel that will rise from the site formerly occupied by the Lady Luck, built in 1964. The Downtown Grand is scheduled to make its debut in late 2013.
Even though gaming resorts have generated an almost unprecedented level of enthusiasm as the meeting market has recovered over the past year, there are still planners who have not discovered and taken advantage of their singular appeal.
“There are also still a lot of planners who for whatever reason have not had the opportunity to experience the difference, sometimes because the company had held back from making a decision to actually consider a gaming property,” Huttinger says. “But other times, it’s just because the destinations where gaming properties are located across the country are not the kind of destinations the company typically uses.”
And there are still a few companies and planners who adhere to the old stigma about gaming properties. Huttinger says. But, he adds, more and more of those companies and planners are now realizing that there are more and more gaming properties across the country — and that every state except Utah and Hawaii has now approved gaming to some extent.
“Gaming has now permeated American culture, especially if you consider things like the Powerball lottery,” Huttinger says. “So I think the stigma is largely disappearing. And as a result, I think a lot more planners will start to see the benefits of using a gaming resort for certain meetings.” C&IT