Optics remain a concern for many insurance and financial companies when it comes to offsite meetings: Will stakeholders perceive a given meeting location as being more associated with entertainment and recreation than business? If so, the site is generally best avoided for highly visible meetings that are not reward programs. Gaming resorts, and the destinations where they are clustered, may well fall under that perception. But insofar as the hoteliers don’t want to lose out on meetings business from insurance and financial firms, they are not leaving perception up to chance. Many have been working diligently for years to demonstrate their commitment to servicing all kinds of meetings, even those that are “strictly business.”
Several recent investments by properties in the gaming hubs of Las Vegas, Atlantic City and southeastern Connecticut show a laser focus on meetings. The MGM Grand in Las Vegas, for example, launched its Conference Center expansion this June. The $130 million project will add 250,000 sf, bringing the total square footage of the MGM Grand Conference Center to 850,000. Groups will have at their disposal a new 49,000-sf ballroom, 32,000-sf ballroom, 5,500-sf outdoor courtyard for private events, 22,000 sf of additional Stay Well Meetings space, as well as new smaller ballrooms and breakout rooms when the project is complete at the end of 2018.
Meanwhile, Aria Resort & Casino, also an MGM Resorts property, is expanding its LEED Gold-certified convention center, adding 200,000 sf by February. In the venerable gaming destination of Atlantic City, the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa unveiled its 18,000-sf Central Conference Center this January. The $11 million facility comprises two stories of customizable event space including five meeting rooms, a boardroom and a 6,500-sf clear-span ballroom on the upper level. Among the tech highlights are high-definition digital projection TV and internet system capabilities paired with all-digital distributed sound systems.
At Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut, the future for meetings is bright with the construction of the new 240,000-sf Sun Expo Center set to open next summer. Located in proximity to Mohegan Sun’s newest hotel, Earth Tower, the Expo Center will offer a 21,412-sf ballroom, 131,000 sf of exhibit space, 18 meeting rooms ranging from 360 sf to 675 sf, and a 1,263-sf boardroom with 230 sf of prefunction space and its own 3,600-sf outdoor terrace.
Gaming resorts show their devotion to the meetings market not only by opening these new facilities, however. They are also demonstrating it via quality of service to planners and attendees. Mohegan Sun’s service to Meriden, Connecticut-based Infinex Financial Group’s National Sales Conference is just one example. “We’re planning our fourth consecutive event at Mohegan Sun. Through every stage of the event process, the Mohegan Sun staff is consistently professional, friendly, knowledgeable and resourceful in helping us deliver our conference,” notes Christine M. Strickland, vice president, training and development. The three-day conference brings in approximately 400 attendees, and like most events, it sometimes experiences last-minute changes, Strickland says. “The Mohegan Sun convention services team and the PSAV team always react with a can-do attitude, and the changes happen in a way that doesn’t disrupt the event,” she explains, providing an example. “Last year, I asked them to move a setup for a panel presentation including barstools, sound equipment and video cameras to a different breakout room. They literally had less than 10 minutes to make the change and pulled it off without any issues.”
Such meetings proficiency is not only found at gaming resorts of the size and scope of Mohegan Sun, MGM Grand or Borgata. In Dover, Delaware, the AAA Four Diamond Dover Downs Hotel & Casino offers 500 guest rooms complemented by 40,000 sf of function space that includes the 18,000-sf Rollins Center, and multiple meeting and breakout rooms.
Lewisburg, Pennsylvania-based M&T Bank brought its “Town Hall” meeting for the first time to Dover Downs this past May, and Jeanne Reed, secretary and meeting planner, found the property offered ideal service and spaces for the 105 attendees. The group met in the Diamond Rooms, which are on a different floor than the main casino area, eliminating distractions from casino traffic, Reed says. And the staff was on the ball. “When people checked in they had everything reserved, so that went very smoothly,” says Reed. In addition, the CSM “met me when I arrived to make sure everything was set up the way I wanted it. When she gave me the contract, she had everything spelled out, even how the tables were to be set up and the centerpieces.” Dover Downs is a draw for local groups looking for well-appointed meeting rooms, luxury and some casino excitement; the M&T Bank attendees, for example, hailed from both Delaware and Pennsylvania.
Harrah’s Atlantic City is an example of an East Coast gaming property that aims for major meetings business on a national scale. That became especially evident in 2015 with the debut of the Harrah’s Atlantic City Waterfront Conference Center, a 100,000-sf meeting space expansion comprised of two 50,000-sf ballrooms that can be configured 200 different ways.
Hosted by both Caesars Entertainment and Meet AC, the MPI 2016 World Education Congress delegates were able to experience that versatility, as well as the multitude of amenities at the 2,590-room Harrah’s Atlantic City. From the 25,000-sf pool at the center of a 90-foot glass dome, to the award-winning Elizabeth Arden Red Door spa, to the Waterfront Shops, to a casino with more than 3,800 slot machines, Harrah’s is a classic example of a casino hotel that is more aptly described as a “destination resort.”
Another example is Tropicana Atlantic City, which is opening The Chelsea Tower at Tropicana Atlantic City this month. In July, Tropicana Entertainment Inc. acquired The Chelsea Hotel, located directly across Morris Avenue from Tropicana Atlantic City, and will integrate the 20-story oceanfront hotel into the Tropicana’s existing operations. Featuring approximately 330 hotel rooms, The Chelsea Tower adds to the Tropicana’s 2,078 rooms. Groups have 122,000 sf of meeting space at their disposal, as well as a slew of retail, dining, entertainment, and spa experiences at The Quarter. New at the hotel this summer is Escape AC, a murder-mystery room that is suitable for corporate teambuilding.
Resorts Casino Hotel, a Mohegan Sun Property is also adding to its recreational amenities with 22 new slot machines. It’s really just the icing on the cake after major upgrades at this property. Since 2012, Resorts has completed more than $100 million in renovations, including the 480 guest rooms in its Ocean Tower last year. In August 2015, Resorts debuted its $4.7 million Convention Center, adding 12,000 sf of meeting space and bringing the total meeting space to 64,000 sf.
Planners tend to appreciate a sequestered collection of meeting rooms at properties in tourist hubs such as Atlantic City, and Bally’s Atlantic City delivers with 80,000 sf of meeting space across 28 rooms — all on one floor. The 1,760-room hotel also offers an intriguing event venue in the 450-seat Legends in Concert Theater, available to groups. During their free time, participants can avail themselves of The Pier Shops at Caesars and The Walk, both in proximity.
Beau Rivage in Biloxi, Mississippi, rivals many of the resorts in Atlantic City and Las Vegas in terms of free-time amenities. Here, attendees can partake of so much beyond the 85,000-sf casino, including top-tier entertainment at its 1,550-seat theater, upscale retailers, the nearby Fallen Oak golf course, a spa and tropical pool. A cruise out on the Gulf is yet another option.
The 1,740-room Beau Rivage is “located in an area that’s away from everything else so you get the quaintness and not a lot of disruption,” describes Mack Stallings, CPCU, vice president, operations with MS Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance Company. “Our conferences are a combination of business and personal time, so the various things they’ve got on the personal side have been attractive.”
When it’s time for business, the Beau Rivage offers the necessary seclusion in its meetings area. “The meeting rooms are on a floor by themselves, and you have a large atrium outside of the meeting rooms. So you don’t have any foot traffic or interruptions from any non-attendees of the meeting,” Stallings says. The resort accommodates the company’s meetings, which range from 50 to 300 attendees, with 50,000 sf of function space, including the 17,000-sf Magnolia Ballroom. Stallings adds that “We have always received numerous compliments from our attendees as to the quality of the food. That’s not always easy when serving a large number of people at the same time.”
Both the Beau Rivage and French Lick Resort in Indiana reopened in 2006 after extensive renovations. The latter, a historic property dating from 1901, became a gaming resort with the debut of the French Lick Casino in 2006. In January 2015, a $20 million, 58,000-sf expansion of the French Lick Springs Hotel’s Meeting and Event Center opened that brought the total meeting space to more than 165,000 sf.
Kevin Wallace, CIC CPCU AU, senior marketing representative with United Fire Group, part of Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based United Fire & Casualty Company, has partnered with the French Lick Springs Hotel for several agents’ advisory meetings with prior employers. He observes that when the new meeting rooms were added, “French Lick did it right. The meeting rooms are all secluded from high-traffic areas, yet very easy to get to. They are filled with the state-of-the-art equipment, and the staff knows how to work with all presenters to get any issues worked out.”
Among the amenities, Wallace highlights the swimming pool area, which “is very unique with its indoor/outside facility. It is particularly a nice place for a spouse to hang out while meetings are going on and a great place to relax as a couple afterwards.” He also lauds the golf courses: With the Pete Dye Course, Donald Ross Course, Valley Links Course and Sultan’s Run, it’s as much a golf resort as a gaming resort. “The terrain around the area makes the game a challenge with a fantastic scenery that makes you feel as if the real world is a million miles away from you,” Wallace describes.
Comprising both the 443-room French Lick Springs Hotel and 243-room West Baden Springs Hotel, French Lick Resort is certainly an oasis for meetings in the Midwest.
Steve Wynn currently is working with developers to create an “escape” atmosphere in Las Vegas with the Paradise Park project. The $1.5 billion first phase is scheduled to break ground by early 2018, and will ultimately feature a lagoon for water sports, white-sand beaches, a meetings facility and new lodging space. Paradise Park, along with new luxury retail at Wynn Plaza opening in early 2018, will complement and further diversify Wynn Las Vegas and Encore Las Vegas. The resorts offer a combined 4,750 guest rooms and 290,000 sf of function space.
Also expanding its retail offerings is the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Las Vegas, which recently partnered with the largest travel retailer in North America, Hudson Group, to introduce six new shops totaling 14,500 sf. Goods include high-end watches, timepieces and jewelry, travel essentials, electronics, wine, spirits and apparel. On the meetings front, the hotel added nearly 18,000 sf of function space last December, bringing the total function space to nearly 110,000 sf. The 1,506-room property’s high-tech package for meetings is exceptional, including Wi-Fi, CAT5 cabling and a program to create customizable AV for special events.
The newest meetings facility at the 390-room M Resort Spa Casino Las Vegas is the 25,000-sf M Pavilion, an open, pillarless space accommodating up to 2,300 guests. Overall, the M Resort offers more than 92,000 sf of function space, including a 17,400-sf ballroom and the Villaggio Del Sole venue, which includes a built-in stage with an event capacity of 6,000. That’s complemented by a wealth of “R&R” venues, such as two over-5,000-sf infinity-edge pools and a 23,000-sf spa.
Caesars Entertainment has not only invested in its meetings product in Atlantic City with Harrah’s Waterfront Conference Center — in Las Vegas, the company will be offering groups an updated hospitality experience at The Strip’s most storied property, the Flamingo Las Vegas. The hotel just announced the completion of a $6.5 million meeting space renovation, which began in April 2017. A $90 million renovation of 1,270 guest rooms begins this month, with completion scheduled for the second quarter of 2018. Caesars describes the new look as “unique, contemporary and retro-chic designs with accents that celebrate Flamingo’s rich history.” The 70-year-old hotel offers more than 3,500 guest rooms and a 73,000-sf Corporate Convention Center and Executive Conference Center.
Last year, Caesars Entertainment upgraded more than 4,800 rooms at four of its Las Vegas resorts: Caesars Palace, Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino, Paris Las Vegas and Harrah’s Las Vegas.
In nearby Reno, Nevada, Eldorado Resorts Inc. also is making a sizable investment in its properties. Eldorado Reno, Silver Legacy and Circus Circus Reno, three connected properties that span eight city blocks in the downtown, are receiving $50 million in enhancements. In addition to the renovation of more than 4,100 guest rooms, each of the three resorts will introduce new restaurants, nightlife venues and a new full-service spa.
Also making news in Reno is the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino, which installed the Grand Stadium earlier this year. The video gaming experience includes baccarat, blackjack, craps and roulette with six 65-inch monitors and 30 seats. The 1,900-room property offers more than 200,000 sf of meeting space.
A similarly sized gaming resort in the city is the 1,635-room Peppermill Reno, with 106,000 sf of meeting space that includes a 62,000-sf convention center, 12,000-sf Naples Ballroom, 10,000-sf Capri Ballroom and a 4,000-sf Executive Boardroom ideal for smaller insurance and financial groups.
While Nevada certainly is home to the “capital” of the casino industry in the West, planners also can find notable gaming resorts in Arizona, New Mexico and even Washington.
In Scottsdale, Arizona, the 496-room Talking Stick Resort offers more than 100,000 sf of flexible meeting space, including a 25,000-sf Grand Ballroom and a Conference Center with up to 12 meeting rooms. The resort is surrounded by recreational venues, such as the 36-hole Talking Stick Golf Club, OdySea Aquarium and Topgolf at Riverwalk.
In Mescalero, New Mexico, the Inn of the Mountain Gods is now, like Talking Stick, a AAA Four Diamond property — the only property in southern New Mexico to earn the designation. The Inn of the Mountain Gods offers groups 40,000 sf of meeting space and an updated lodging experience, having completed a $2.4 million renovation of its 273 guest rooms in June 2015.
From January 2016 through this spring, Tulalip Resort Casino, in Tulalip, Washington, completed a $15 million renovation that included a redesign of 360 guest rooms to pay homage to the rich history and culture of the Tulalip Tribes. The resort offers 30,000 sf of meeting space, including a 15,000-sf ballroom.
For a Caribbean gaming experience, few resorts can match Atlantis, Paradise Island, home to the world’s largest open-air marine habitat. The resort completed a $1 billion expansion in 2007, adding The Cove Atlantis, a luxurious 600-room resort within the resort; Dolphin Cay, a 14-acre dolphin habitat and education center; the 63-acre Aquaventure; and the 30,000-sf Mandara Spa. And similar to the many gaming resorts in the States that have significantly invested in their meetings product, Atlantis added approximately 100,000 sf of new function space. The Conference Center alone features the 50,000-sf Imperial Ballroom, 30 breakout rooms and three boardrooms, and is perfect for insurance and financial groups intent on doing business while in paradise.
While casinos and robust meeting facilities are common denominators at all of these resorts, they each offer a unique character rooted in environments as diverse as the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the Las Vegas Strip, the Sonoran Desert and the Caribbean islands.I&FMM