In a word, the casino resort industry is remaking its image: call it gaming, they say, not gambling, which helps to dispel those unfair, unseemly stereotypes: guests indulging in excesses such as late nights/early mornings on the casino floor. This marketing spin also has helped to protect the insurance and financial group clients of these resorts from negative perception. Even the term “gaming resort” is rather misleading, as it suggests that the main recreational option available to guests is the casino, when in fact most of today’s gaming resorts offer so much more.
The Beau Rivage Resort & Casino on the Gulf Coast in Biloxi, Mississippi, is a prime example of a “destination” gaming resort where the casino is just one of numerous, equally compelling diversions. Golf, spa, fine dining, shopping and even fishing are among the activities groups can select. The diversity of recreation beyond gaming is one reason why Richland, Mississippi-based Associated Risk Managers South has opted for Beau Rivage as “the home base for our meetings,” notes company president Dan Gleason, who oversees agents in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama as part of a 22-state operation.
“At least once a year we get together at the Beau; we have about 60 attendees the first night and about 40 stay the second night,” Gleason says. “Those who want to play golf enjoy Fallen Oak golf course in the morning, and the 19th hole out there is pretty wonderful.” At other times, Gleason says the group has chartered a fishing boat. The resort’s location effectively “shows off the Mississippi coast for attendees from other parts of the country,” Gleason adds. And it’s a “self-contained” resort, where attendees are not drawn to venture off-property, unlike hotels in New Orleans, where “you lose too many people,” he quips.
When it comes to meeting space, the 1,740-room, AAA Four Diamond Beau Rivage is well-stocked with 50,000 sf complemented by “a very good IT department,” says Gleason, whose group will take its meeting overseas in 2015 and return to Beau Rivage in 2016.
The Beau Rivage’s meeting space is on a separate floor, with only escalator access to the casino or restaurants. In recent years, the property has undertaken piecemeal renovations and improvements so as not to interrupt the flow of business. More than $3 million has been invested in upgrading the convention floor, wall coverings and AV, as well as the addition of new airwalls. The project will be complete within a year, according to Beau Rivage’s Director of Sales Mike Davis. Earlier this year, new carpet was installed on the 77,000-sf casino floor, and at press time, the VIP service area was being enlarged.
Finally, Fallen Oak underwent a renovation this summer overseen by course architect Tom Fazio. Exclusive to the resort, Fallen Oak is located 15 miles away from Beau Rivage on the edge of DeSoto National Forest and was recently named 30th on the “Top 100 Courses You Can Play” by Golf Magazine.
But perhaps the most intriguing development is taking place right across from Beau Rivage, on a 15-acre parcel of land donated by MGM Resorts International. The State of Mississippi and the City of Biloxi are partnering to develop MGM Park at that location, where a 6,000-capacity stadium will be home to the minor-league Biloxi Baseball team. The stadium will have a capacity of up to 18,000 for other types of events such as concerts, and groups meeting at Beau Rivage will have the option of visiting MGM Park to enjoy a baseball game (70 throughout the year) or for their own teambuilding events. It’s just another example of the diversity of recreation that can be found at a gaming resort, such that many attendees will not even step onto the casino floor during their free time, or they will engage in gaming only as an afterthought. Gleason describes his attendees as merely “dabbling” in gaming. “They’re not ‘whales’ (high rollers),” he assures.
Of course, there are many more examples of casino hotels that cater to meeting groups in Las Vegas. A particular standout is the M Resort Spa Casino. Drew Varga, vice president of sales at the hotel, estimates that 35 percent to 40 percent of occupancy, on average, is comprised of meeting attendees, with about 10 percent in the insurance/financial sector. That’s quite a significant proportion, and several factors may explain it.
First, the property boasts an unusually large amount of function space relative to its number of guest rooms, more than 92,000 sf complementing 390 guest rooms. Second, the convention space is on a level below the casino floor, minimizing distraction for attendees. Third, the property has a very open, Frank Lloyd Wright design with plenty of natural light and spaces for networking among attendees. And fourth, the M Resort is well removed from the heart of The Strip, which again minimizes distractions while still affording attendees a sense that they’re in Las Vegas: The Strip is visible from guest-room windows and easily accessible via shuttle.
For insurance and financial meeting groups sensitive to perception when it comes to site choice (i.e., they do not want to be perceived as visiting properties that are mainly focused on gaming and recreation), the less-centralized location of properties such as the M Resort may be a plus.
The ambience is “a little more serious when it’s removed from The Strip,” notes Allison Forcier, travel program manager with Mission, Kansas-based travel management company Acendas. Forcier has been staging a meeting for about 200 representatives of a financial company at the M Resort annually since 2010, just about a year after the M Resort opened. With the resort’s distance from the center of the Las Vegas Strip, the financial institution would be less at risk to being seen as “promoting going to Vegas for the fun and glitz,” she adds.
Several other features made the M Resort attractive to Forcier’s client. “A huge factor is the flexibility of the meeting space, since we do a lot of breakout sessions and flipping rooms back and forth,” she explains. And while attendees “definitely can make a stop on the casino floor (en route to the meeting space), the casino is not as much of a distraction as it is at other properties where you have to literally walk through the gaming space to get to the meeting space.” The resort is also quite accommodating to the group from a service perspective. For the financial group’s next meeting, “they’re opening the fitness center early to let my attendees get their workouts in before their meeting starts,” Forcier notes.
At M Resort “the casino is not as much of a distraction as it is at other properties where you have to literally walk through the gaming space to get to the meeting space.” — Allison Forcier
While the 390-room M Resort falls into the boutique category, Las Vegas is best known for its mammoth properties, the largest being the MGM Grand. The hotel’s 602,000 sf of meeting space includes a 380,000-sf Grand Conference Center and the newer, 92,000-sf, pillarless Marquee Ballroom. Among its 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 has even developed a Stay Well mobile app that provides wellness recommendations such as techniques to reduce the effects of jetlag.
In August, Stay Well Meetings was officially unveiled. 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.
This development at the MGM Grand is a sign of how far gaming resorts have come in terms of the kind of guest experience they are promoting. A concern for health and wellness has not been traditionally associated with such resorts among the general public.
There is no denying that a casino does provide an exciting change of pace for the typical meeting attendee. In the course of their daily lives, many professionals will enjoy golf, fine dining, shopping and perhaps spa with some regularity, but gaming will be a relatively unusual experience.
Juanita Whiteside, CEO of Alamogordo, New Mexico-based Otero Federal Credit Union, sees the gaming offered at Inn of the Mountain Gods in Mescalero as an opportunity for her attendees to “let their hair down and relax a little after an intense planning session.
“We do our annual planning session there each year, and we have for nearly seven years,” she says. “It includes our executive management and our board of directors, about 17 attendees.”
With 270 rooms and 40,000 sf of meeting space, the resort can and has accommodated other meeting groups concurrently with Otero over those years, yet the 17-member group has received very attentive service, Whiteside reports.
Along with the casino, the Inn’s natural environment is equally an escape for Otero’s attendees, Whiteside notes. Her firm is based in the desert area of New Mexico, and the Inn is “up in the cool mountains, a very pretty location. They’re very into health and fitness, and they like to walk the perimeter of the facility. It’s a beautiful time of the year (November); sometimes you wake up in the morning and look across the lake and see elk.” The planning session was originally held either at Otero offices or a nearby hotel, but once the group began meeting at Inn of the Mountain Gods, “we stayed there ever since,” she adds.
The AAA Four Diamond Talking Stick Resort, in Scottsdale, Arizona, offers a similar Southwestern climate as well as inviting outdoor activities such as hiking and horseback riding in the Sonoran Desert. Owned by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, the property offers 496 guest rooms, 11 restaurants and lounges, a 13,000-sf spa, a 650-seat showroom and more than 100,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting space, including the 25,000-sf Grand Ballroom. The resort is part of the growing Talking Stick Cultural & Entertainment District, which also includes Talking Stick Golf Club, Salt River Fields, The Pavilions at Talking Stick, Butterfly Wonderland and Top Golf.
New features at the resort include: The newly expanded casino-level lounge, Palo Verde, which has two multicolored LED staircases activated by motion, deejay booth for live entertainment, oversized couches and seating for more than 100 guests; and an outdoor programmable lighting system that can display 16.7 million different colors and display an infinite number of designs and messages on the building. In April, the resort debuted an outdoor concert venue with a 40-by-60-foot stage equipped with state-of-the-art AV. The 4,000-capacity venue is part of Talking Stick Resort’s newly renovated and expanded pool complex.
Like any successful industry, the casino industry is not without its misfires. The recent bankruptcy and sale of Revel Casino Hotel, a $2.4 billion Atlantic City property on the Boardwalk, arguably resulted from the luxury resort’s being poorly matched to its marketplace, rather than a stagnant local gaming industry. True, New Jersey’s annual gaming revenue fell to about $3 billion last year, a 41 percent decline from 2006, but many casinos have debuted in neighboring Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states during those years, thus heightening the competition.
The vitality of the city’s gaming resorts, despite any overall decrease in revenue, is evidenced by the investments hoteliers are making, and some of those investments will certainly benefit meeting groups. Most notably, Harrah’s Atlantic City aims to debut its Waterfront Conference Center next August. Featuring two 50,000-sf ballrooms divisible into up to 29 sections, the facility will offer high-tech meeting space directly accessible from the hotel’s 2,500 guest rooms.
Planners who instead choose the 1,144-room Caesars Atlantic City eventually will have the Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill at their disposal thanks to a newly announced partnership between the celebrity chef and Caesars Entertainment.
In addition, the Tropicana Atlantic City is embarking on a $35 million renovation that will include the hotel’s Boardwalk façade (graced by a new light and sound show), a new fitness center on Brighton Avenue and North Tower hotel room renovations.
With 2,078 guest rooms, more than 122,000 sf of meeting space and CMPs on staff, the Tropicana is one of the bastions of both the gaming and meeting industries in Atlantic City. And with the opening of Harrah’s Conference Center next year, the city will offer yet another example of how today’s gaming resorts are generally very attuned to the needs of meeting groups.
M Resort’s Drew Varga, a sales and management veteran in the Las Vegas resort industry who previously served as vice president of the Western region for Caesars/Harrah’s Entertainment for 17 years, has observed that insurance group clients, and to some degree financial clients, tend to be very loyal to a resort once it wins their trust. The groups profiled in this feature are evidence of that trait: Forcier’s client has met at the M Resort almost since its inception in 2009, and both Associated Risk Managers South and Otero Federal Credit Union have met at the Beau Rivage and Inn of the Mountain Gods, respectively, for multiple consecutive years.
That kind of loyalty is a great reason for gaming resorts to cater to that segment of the corporate meetings industry with the best rate flexibility, contract terms and service they can offer. The end result may well be a client relationship that lasts for many years, a group whose annual return is a “safe bet.” I&FMM