Las Vegas’ economy, like that of the rest of the nation, proved stronger in 2012 than a few years prior, but a “full recovery” is still elusive. While a record 39.7 million visitors came to the city last year, that bright statistic is tempered by a more sobering one: An average of $1,021 was spent per visit last year, compared to $1,318 per visit in pre-recession 2007, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA). And last year’s total gaming revenue, $15.3 billion, was $500 million below the 2007 figure.
Visitor spending, then, is still reserved, but the city is investing unreservedly in its tourism product, as well as its meetings infrastructure. Recently, the LVCVA completed $20 million worth of improvements to the Las Vegas Convention Center, including a new, modernized facade, an additional eight acres of parking, more than 1 million sf of new red carpet, energy-efficient lighting fixtures and the new American Express Open Business Lounge. The project was just one facet of the plan for a $2.5 billion Global Business District surrounding the convention center.
Insurance and financial meeting planners are more likely to have their eye on Las Vegas’ hotels than the convention center, and fortunately there is also plenty of development in that area, from large to small properties. For example, the 1,600-room SLS Hotel & Casino opens next year with 30,000 sf of meeting space, and the 188-room Gansevoort Las Vegas debuts early next year after a $185 million renovation of Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall. Meanwhile, Ravella at Lake Las Vegas has been reflagged as the Hilton Lake Las Vegas Resort & Spa, housing 354 guest rooms and 35,000 sf of meeting space.
Growing along with the city’s hotel portfolio is the number of incoming corporate groups this year and next, reports Stephanie Arone, DMCP, president and general manager of Las Vegas-based Activity Planners Inc. “A good part of our business is and has been the insurance and financial services market for many years now, and we have been delighted to see many of our longtime clients who had taken a ‘break’ from Las Vegas return to our calendars,” Arone notes.
But the resurgence doesn’t exactly make it easier for planners to find their ideal dates, rates and space. “Now that the overall economy is on the rebound and planning is on the up, some groups — especially those that are disproportionately high on meeting space needs compared to room block — may have some challenges in securing space too far in advance of their scheduled dates,” she explains. “Consequently, groups that are minimal on their space needs are welcomed with a little more consistency, and many incentives are offered for short-term booking (under six months) to fill in around larger more space-heavy programs.
“Seasonality is always an issue in Las Vegas,” Arone continues. “Our peak windows for groups (when rates are higher) is January through May — then again September through mid-November. If planners are looking for a deal on space and rates, working outside of those windows will play to their advantage.”
Mary Jo Blythe Valentine, CMP, president of La Grange Highlands, IL-based Masterplan, confirms the upward trend in corporate group visitation. Interest in Las Vegas “is definitely going back to where it was pre-2008. We don’t hear clients saying, ‘Oh, we can’t go to Vegas’ (due to perception). That’s kind of over, which I think is great because Las Vegas has those large, five-star properties, of which there aren’t many across the country.”
It is “destination resorts” like Bellagio, Wynn Las Vegas and The Venetian that make the city not just viable for annual meetings drawing hundreds (if not thousands) of reps, but also for incentive programs. “Las Vegas is a great convention destination, but most people overlook it for incentives, and they shouldn’t,” asserts Carla Salvans-Buchborn, CMP, president of Richmond, TX-based Meeting Innovations. “With amazing restaurants, incredible shows, numerous direct domestic/international flights daily and some of the best hotels in the world, it is a great place to host an incentive for every budget.”
In February, Meeting Innovations staged an incentive trip for an insurance company whose agents are based in North America and Canada. The 35 qualifiers, along with spouses, stayed at the 2,024-room New York-New York Hotel & Casino. “The program is usually held right around the Super Bowl. Every time I send the RFP, I cross my fingers and pray!” quips Salvans-Buchborn. “However, MGM Resorts is able to offer us two or three hotels within our budget. We have used New York-New York several years in a row and find the hotel is a great host for this client. It offers excellent value in rates, even during high convention season, leaving us with enough room in the budget to add on show tickets and additional networking events. It’s definitely a win-win for everyone.”
The property offers 21,000 sf of meeting space, but also several atypical places for groups to gather, notes Salvans-Buchborn. “The hotel has always been able to offer us options other than a ho-hum, four-walled function room. One of our meetings is actually held in one of their restaurants, which is closed during the day. The hotel team is amazing in setting up AV and catering in their unique venues, and our attendees revel in the fact they don’t feel closed-in to a banquet room.
“This particular client gives a lot of free time to their attendees,” Salvans-Buchborn continues. “However, they always plan a welcome reception at the hotel and offer the group show tickets. We’ve hosted many events at the Cirque du Soleil shows — ‘The Beatles Love’ and ‘O’ being some of our favorites. But no matter what offsite venue we take our attendees to, they always end up at New York-New York’s Center Bar or the Bar at Times Square — the dueling pianos are their absolute favorite.”
Malaysia-based Genting Group announced the acquisition of the partially completed Echelon project from Boyd Gaming. The once highly touted project, on the former site of the Stardust Hotel, fell apart during the recession after construction had begun. Genting, which operates casinos in Singapore and New York, bought the project for less than $500 million and will invest an additional $1.5 billion to develop an 87-acre, Asian-themed casino hotel complex under its Resorts World brand. The new property is expected to open in 2016.
The area between New York-New York and the Monte Carlo Resort and Casino will be revitalized next summer in preparation for a new $350 million, 20,000-seat indoor arena being developed by MGM Resorts International and AEG, projected for completion in spring 2016. The front facades of both hotels will be transformed into an outdoor plaza with dining and shopping establishments, including a two-story Hershey’s Chocolate World.
Another major MGM Resorts project was completed last fall at the company’s Las Vegas flagship property, the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino. As part of a $160 million remodeling, the 3,570 guest rooms and 642 suites in the Grand Tower were redesigned and equipped with environmentally responsible features including LED lighting, solar shades and biodegradable bath amenities.
And this spring, Hakkasan Las Vegas Restaurant and Nightclub debuted at MGM Grand. Hakkasan offers a variety of environments, including the restaurant, private dining room, Ling Ling level, main nightclub, pavilion and mezzanine.
Other MGM Resorts properties are also featuring new restaurants. The 230-seat Tom Colicchio’s Heritage Steak opened at the 3,044-room Mirage Hotel & Casino (more than 170,000 sf of meeting space) in August, and Morimoto Las Vegas will debut at the hotel next spring. The 4,004-room Aria Resort & Casino (300,000 sf of meeting space) introduced FIVE50 Pizza Bar, by James Beard award-winning chef Shawn McClain, in July and remodeled its Aria Buffet last fall.
Wynn Las Vegas has more Forbes Four Star restaurants than any other casino hotel in North America. One of the newest is Wing Lei, voted Best Chinese Restaurant by Las Vegas Life. The only Asian restaurant in North America to earn a Michelin star, Wing Lei’s offerings include a mix of Cantonese, Shanghai and Szechwan dishes.
Mandalay Bay is perhaps the MGM Resorts property with the greatest variety of new venues, including the 1,675-sf Seascape Ballroom within Shark Reef Aquarium. Floor-to-ceiling windows frame a living seascape as the backdrop for up to 100 attendees in a reception and up to 80 seated. Mandalay Bay itself is the backdrop for groups gathering at the new Daylight Beach Club, offering 50,000 sf of flexible outdoor space. And the hotels within Mandalay Bay also have news to report. Early this year, Four Seasons Hotel Las Vegas, located on floors 35–39 of Mandalay Bay, completed a renovation of its 424 guest rooms and suites. In addition, the 1,100-suite THEhotel will become Delano Las Vegas, a South Beach-style resort scheduled to open next spring.
Speaking of hotels within hotels, the 3,960-room Caesars Palace introduced the 181-room Nobu Hotel and Restaurant in February, featuring an 11,200-sf restaurant by celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa. Caesars also recently opened a new lineup of 15 remodeled stores at Appian Way Shops. Meanwhile, the 2,814-room Bally’s Las Vegas renovated and renamed its 756-room South Tower as the all-new Jubilee Tower this summer. Caesars offers 300,000 sf of meeting space and Bally’s offers 175,000 sf.
The Tropicana Las Vegas currently offers more than 60,000 sf of meeting space, but plans were announced this summer to expand the facilities to more than 100,000 sf. The 1,502-room hotel will begin its expansion by constructing five, 650-sf breakout rooms on the second floor of the Club Tower. As part of the transformation, the resort will expand the Tropicana Pavilion, which is a wing of the hotel’s conference center, to more than 55,000 sf.
The 4,027-suite Venetian Resort Hotel Casino, together with the Sands Expo and the 3,066-suite Palazzo Resort Hotel Casino, house a total of 2.25 million sf of function space, including the 85,000-sf Venetian Ballroom. There’s always something new at The Venetian, and the most recent buzz surrounds B&B Burger & Beer, a 120-seat casual eatery by Mario Batali and Joe Bastanich. It is complemented by a 2,000-sf outdoor, 100-seat patio facing Las Vegas Boulevard.
Hyde Bellagio, the new lounge and event space overlooking the Fountains of Bellagio, transforms into one of the city’s hottest spots after dark featuring established and up-and-coming disc jockeys.
Specializing in smaller groups that desire to “Do Vegas Differently” is Vdara Hotel & Spa at CityCenter next to Aria Resort & Casino. It’s an all-suite, non-gaming, non-smoking, eco-friendly property catering to groups of from 10 to 300 attendees. The 1,495-suite hotel’s 10,000 sf of conference space includes a 3,900-sf ballroom, 3,500 sf of prefunction space, three breakout rooms, an executive boardroom and a rooftop pool area for special events. Coming soon is Silk Road, a new 6,400-sf, intimate meeting/event space that accommodates up to 200 attendees. The space includes a 3,700-sf Junior Ballroom and 900-sf breakout room, and features views of Aria Resort & Casino and its Big Edge sculpture.
Planners looking for unique amenities will find plenty of them at South Point Hotel Casino & Spa, located just off The Strip. There’s a 16-screen cineplex, a 64-lane bowling center, an equestrian center, world-class spa and a 400-seat showroom, which presents entertainment at night but can be used for meetings during the day. A new $30 million bowling tournament facility with more than 60 lanes is expected to be completed by fall 2015. As a result, South Point, the United States Bowling Congress (USBC), Las Vegas Events, and the LVCVA announced a 12-year deal to host several annual USBC events, both citywide and inside.
Other relatively new event venues include those at the 390-room M Resort Spa Casino, which received the 2013 AAA Four Diamond award as well as the Forbes Four Star rating for not only the hotel but its 23,000-sf Spa Mio. Included in the hotel’s 92,000 sf of meeting and conference space is the freestanding, 23,000-sf M Pavilion, which can handle large-scale galas for up to 2,300 attendees. Planners can hold even larger outdoor events with up to 4,000 attendees at the 100,000-sf Villaggio Del Sole pool and entertainment space. Lux on the 16th floor features 7,200 sf of unique, flexible space for private dinners and events with expansive views of The Strip. The hotel’s elevated location also allows attendees to enjoy optimal views of the Las Vegas skyline from guest rooms and the conference center as well as restaurants.
There are many more ways to ensure attendees experience memorable views of The Strip. Those visiting the city this December and thereafter will be able to board the 550-foot-tall High Roller observation wheel at the Linq, a 300,000-sf, $550 million dining, shopping and entertainment venue by Caesars Entertainment. The High Roller will have cabins large enough to accommodate groups of 40 attendees. Also at Linq will be a branch of Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
Another breathtaking new venue not for the acrophobic is the soon-to-open Dinner in the Sky Las Vegas. The upscale dining attraction serves meals 180 feet in the air, with 360-degree views of The Strip and surrounding mountains. The venue on the ground will feature a 6,500-sf main events center and a 10,000-sf private event space.
Groups can enjoy yet another sky-high view via helicopter by working with a company such as Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters or Maverick Helicopters, as Blythe suggests. “That’s a great event for an incentive program. We do a little champagne reception and then take them up for 30 minutes. It’s an exhilarating kick-off for the evening.”
The Las Vegas entertainment scene is fueled by superstar headliners such as Celine Dion, Shania Twain and Elton John, world-renowned theatrical presentations such as exotic Cirque du Soleil shows and the interactive masterpieces from Blue Man Group, not to mention award-winning Broadway shows such as “Jersey Boys,” now at Paris Las Vegas. There’s something for every group size, budget and taste.
Country superstar Shania Twain is the latest attraction at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace. Like Celine Dion and Elton John who have multi-year arrangements, Twain started a two-year stint last December.
With the opening of his eponymous comedy club, Emmy Award-winning comedian and actor Brad Garrett brings his comedy to MGM Grand’s entertainment lineup. Brad Garrett’s Comedy Club, a 250-seat venue, provides Garrett, as well as legendary comedians and the next generation of comics, a place to call “home” in Las Vegas.
One of the city’s most anticipated new shows, Cirque du Soleil’s “Michael Jackson ONE,” premiered at Mandalay Bay on June 29. According to a statement,“ONE” is a “state-of-the-art visual and audio experience creating a theatrical evocation of Michael’s creative genius.”
Also by Cirque du Soleil, the awe-inspiring “Zarkana” is now at Aria. An acrobatic, musical spectacle with a diverse cast of more than 75 international artists, Zarkana creates a fantasy world in which a circus comes back to life.
In January, DJ Pauly D launched his latest residency at Haze Nightclub at Aria. The reality star, best known for appearing on MTV’s “Jersey Shore,” brings his Turnt Up party to the cutting-edge nightlife venue, providing guests with a fist-pumping good time.
“For the adventurous spirit, there is so much that Las Vegas offers as activities ‘beyond the neon,’ ” Arone confirms. “The Southwest desert location and favorable weather offer a number of exciting activities for incentive groups. Those who have a ‘need for speed’ can satisfy that at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where they can have a hands-on experience behind the wheel of a Ferrari F430 Race Car, or a good old American stockcar.
Should they prefer to take to the skies, they can learn to be a Sky Combat Ace, or sit behind the controls of an authentic flight-training simulator (at Sky Combat Ace in Henderson).” She cites many other intriguing offsite activities for thrill-seeking corporate attendees in the city, including trapeze school at Trapeze Las Vegas, AntiGravity Yoga and UFC training at UFC Gym.
Also “beyond the neon” are opportunities to give back to the local community during attendees’ free time. And there’s no reason that gaming and giving can’t be combined, as Activity Planners Inc. has demonstrated. “One large financial group client of ours incorporated a CSR function into their welcome reception, where we created a mock casino with a ‘win as much as you can’ concept,” Arone explains. “That’s not new to Las Vegas, but the twist was that the top performers throughout the evening were ranked on a live leaderboard, and the top three were awarded with donations made to the selected charity in their name. The local charity was standing by at the event to offer additional ‘funny money’ buy-ins to those who made cash donations during the course of the night, and the combination resulted in a high-energy, highly competitive event for over 1,800 people — all for a very worthy cause.”
The city of Reno is not merely a more cost-effective alternative to Las Vegas. It has a distinct appeal largely based in its high-desert-valley surroundings at the foot of the Sierra Nevada. Groups can now get a sense of the natural beauty of the area immediately upon arrival at Reno-Tahoe International Airport, which recently completed a 17-month, $26 million construction program that has incorporated a Lake Tahoe theme throughout the first floor of the terminal building, with tiles evoking images of the Truckee River and rock installations on the columns.
Digital displays of the Reno-Tahoe area now grace the main entrance of Grand Sierra Resort, thanks to an ongoing $25 million renovation. The project covers the hotel’s 2,000 guest rooms, meeting space and lobby, and includes the addition of Wet, a new ultra-lounge; Cantina, a small-plates Mexican restaurant; and an indoor pool and racquetball court, still to come this year. At 200,000 sf, the Grand Sierra’s meeting space rivals that of Las Vegas’ mega-resorts.
Meanwhile, the 422-room Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa and Casino has completed a $20 million renovation of its guest rooms, Sierra Café and the Spa Terrace Conference Center. A $500,000 upgrade of Hyatt’s meeting space, which includes 50,000 sf of indoor-outdoor space overlooking Lake Tahoe, was completed at the end of 2011.
That was a very significant year for the AAA Four Diamond, 1,623-room Peppermill Resort Spa Casino, which then completed a two-year project to harness the power of a geothermal well more than a mile beneath the resort. Geothermal energy now heats all 2.1 million sf of the Peppermill as well as all of the property’s water, including the 43,000-sf Spa Toscana and two outdoor swimming pools and spas. The resort’s 106,000 sf of meeting space includes the 62,000-sf, clear-span Tuscany Ballroom.
Physically active attendees have some of the nation’s finest ski resorts at their disposal in Reno’s environs, and several are busy with upgrades. Northstar California has completed $30 million in capital improvements, including a new 1,440-foot detachable quad chairlift and a new 700-seat on-mountain restaurant atop the resort’s Tahoe Zephyr Express Lift, featuring expansive views of the Pacific Crest. And as part of more than $6 million in capital improvements, Kirkwood Mountain Resort has installed two new activity hubs in the heart of the resort’s Mountain Village: the High Alpine Adventure Center and the ZipTahoe Canopy Tour. I&FMM