There’s no question that gaming destinations and resorts can be a huge draw for meetings. They offer rooms, ample meeting space, and multiple dining and entertainment options all under one roof, which can significantly reduce transportation costs. For many groups, they’re a proven registration booster. In a pandemic, gaming destinations can provide even more.
“We’re honored that the state has chosen our convention center as one of New Jersey’s mega vaccination sites,” says Larry Sieg, president and CEO of Meet AC. “The opportunity to be part of a vast administration of the vaccine will certainly be a catalyst in the restart and recovery of the meetings and convention industry. As we enter the second quarter of 2021, I’m very optimistic about not only Atlantic City’s future, but the entire meetings and conventions industry. Atlantic City continues to welcome visitors safely as we take a clean, safe and healthy approach to move our destination forward. The redevelopment and investment continue, and meeting planners have a variety of experiences waiting.”
Among the city’s meeting-friendly hotels is Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City. The Municipal Clerks’ Association of New Jersey has held many events there, and after having to cancel its 2020 and 2021 conferences, the group has booked its annual meeting for March 2022. “This hotel has one of the best conference centers in Atlantic City,” says Joel Popkin, the association’s executive director. “It’s good for our members to have other activities there, such as a casino, restaurants and entertainment. The hotel staff is outstanding and goes out of their way to make our conference most pleasurable.”
Popkin uses the Hard Rock for every aspect of the conference, including meeting rooms, guest rooms, meals and special events. “We selected the Hard Rock because we’ve been going to this hotel for a number of years. The staff for conferences is excellent. The A/V people are good and always there to do anything last minute. Wi-Fi has been good for our meetings and attendees.” As long as COVID cases keep declining, Popkin says, the group should be able to meet as scheduled. “We’re looking forward to our in-person conference moving forward.” He has no reservations about recommending Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City. “The facilities have been upgraded and our attendees were very pleased with the facilities, restaurants, entertainment and casino.”
Lying just off the east coast of Florida, The Bahamas provide a gaming destination with a side of sun, sea and sand. Atlantis, Paradise Island, across the bridge from Nassau on Paradise Island, has more to offer attendees than could possibly be enjoyed during one meeting. “We’re so lucky to have an incredible partnership with Atlantis,” says Jessica Hauser Forte, vice president, client experience with NAHAD — The Association for Hose & Accessories Distribution, which typically has 1,000 attendees at its annual meeting.
“Atlantis provides NAHAD members everything they look for in an annual convention: incredible networking opportunities; pools and outdoor attractions; a casino, restaurants and bars; world-class service; a picturesque beachfront setting; a location just a short drive from an airport serviced regularly by major airlines; a shipping department and procedures for our exhibitors that are among the best we’ve seen; and an incredible partnership mentality from the sales team that stopped at nothing to ensure we were going to have the best meeting ever.”
With all the amenities at Atlantis, Forte adds, “There’s no need to go off-property for any aspect of our convention.” Although the current meeting climate remains uncertain, Forte says Atlantis made things easier for her group when the 2020 contracted convention had to be cancelled. “That’s the only convention ever canceled in NAHAD’s 36-year history. But the decision was made easier when Atlantis provided us the opportunity to rebook to 2023 with no penalty. We cannot wait to share the Atlantis experience with our members in 2023,” Forte adds, “and we look forward to a booming hospitality and travel industry once the worldwide community has eradicated this virus.”
Like other planners, Forte says there are positives and some challenges to holding a meeting at a gaming property. “Gaming wasn’t a reason we chose the property, but it’s definitely a pull. Having the opportunity to visit the casino on the open nights is a major draw for all travelers. Now, how do we keep people out of the casino when we have our sessions? That’s the question.”
She advises planners considering Atlantis to use what the resort has to offer to their benefit. “Make sure your sessions and education draw your attendees away from the casino. But be sure to carve out time to let your guests experience everything the resort has to offer. You won’t be disappointed.”
Asked how she thinks the meetings industry will look in the future, Forte says, “Through listening to our clients, I can definitively say that face-to-face meetings won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Despite the inevitable Zoom burnout, 2020 showed us that being together in person is invaluable and irreplaceable.”
About her team, she says, “We’re leaning into the opportunity to utilize virtual meetings to reach a broader pool of our memberships. Some meetings actually did better virtually. We’ll continue with this format while also ensuring in-person meetings are matching the needs of our communities. My outlook is that fall 2021 will be bustling with in-person meetings, capping a steady incline of the same starting in June.”
Few gaming destinations match Las Vegas for its breadth and depth of engaging amenities, just one reason groups visit from across the globe. MGM Resorts has multiple hotels in the city, including flagship property MGM Grand. That’s where Alexis Wirtz, CMP, senior vice president of meetings and association management services with the National Pest Management Association, has set PestWorld 2021. The convention is scheduled for November with 4,000 attendees expected. “Our group loves Las Vegas. We always see our highest attendance for our annual convention in this location. I believe it’s the place itself that’s attractive. Gaming, entertainment, great food and lots of activities are a highlight for this group,” Wirtz says. “Vegas has embraced the conference/meetings industry more in the last decade. It’s clear there’s a larger focus on meetings and events, and how they can benefit the city.”
Wirtz says that the way MGM Grand is laid out is a plus. She says, “I always like when the meeting space is separated from the casino so we can capture folks during show hours with our content and activities. MGM Grand also has all the great amenities you’d want in a Las Vegas property — proximity to the main Strip, a spa, restaurants and shows. It also has different options for room types, which appeals to what our folks might be looking for.”
While her event is still in the planning stage, Wirtz thinks most activities will be held at MGM Grand, although they’re considering the possibility of some off-site restaurants or venues. Gaming is definitely a draw. “Our group has always liked facilities with gaming options. The key is to offer these destinations but still find ways to keep attendees engaged in the meeting itself. We actually don’t have too many problems with this. Most folks attend the major functions, and those who need education stay on for the educational programming each afternoon. There’s still plenty of free time in the evenings to enjoy the resort amenities.”
Wirtz has a suggestion for planners considering the city. “Understand that Las Vegas offers an appealing destination that can drive attendance to your meeting. The key is to offer content that draws attendees in so you don’t lose them at the gaming tables. Understanding the draw of the destination and how you can work with that is the key to success. It may mean evaluating your normal schedule to find ways for attendees to be engaged with your conference and still allow them to enjoy what Las Vegas has to offer,” she says.
As for what the future holds, Wirtz says, “I can only base it on our group, which is very much looking forward to getting back together in person. Our attendees have supported and embraced virtual as a necessity in education and networking for the past year, but they’re itching to get back in person as soon as possible. I think it worked out that Las Vegas is our destination for 2021 as it’s our most popular location and definitely gives people a chance to be around others in a fun, entertaining environment with lots of things to do.”
In September, Wynn Las Vegas will welcome the Truckload Carriers Association with 1,200 attendees for Truckload 2021: Las Vegas. Kristen Bouchard, the association’s director of meetings, says the city is always a draw for her attendees, comprised primarily of C-level executives from across North America. “We always see at least a 15% increase in attendance over other convention locations because there are so many available dining and entertainment options to enjoy in addition to our event. Networking is a key aspect of our convention, and Las Vegas offers some of the best options for our group in terms of entertaining customers and other attendees. The international airport and transportation options also make it easy fly into Las Vegas and to get to our accommodations. The Wynn Las Vegas in particular offers the highest quality room product. I’m always excited to be able to offer that to attendees in addition to everything else the hotel has to offer.”
The Truckload Carriers Association and Wynn Las Vegas have a partnership spanning more than 15 years, and that made all the difference as 2020 unfolded. “When we had to make a tough decision late last year to not move forward with our originally scheduled program . . . I contacted [Wynn] in hopes of saving our in-person program for 2021. I knew our attendees would love to head to Las Vegas after a long year of social distancing, and I couldn’t think of a better partner with whom to navigate all the new rules and restrictions than . . . the team at Wynn. They know our program and our attendees, and the hotel was well equipped with a detailed safe-meeting plan that put many stakeholders at ease.”
Bouchard knew that health and safety questions would come up and that Wynn would have answers. “The hotel’s detailed health and sanitation guidelines, along with its plan for safe meetings, stood out this year,” she says. “Many attendees want to know what a hotel will be doing to keep them safe if they’re to attend an event. The team at Wynn took the time to guide me through, and advise me on, many of the details so I would be able to accurately communicate plans with our stakeholders. They were also transparent with the process and planning involved, and they were there to support me while I navigated the changing regulations and potential hurdles.”
One of the great things about the Wynn, Bouchard continues, “especially when you’re trying to meet social-distancing requirements, is the size of the meeting rooms and ballrooms, many of which also have attached patios or large doors that can be opened to allow for more airflow.”
The group typically uses indoor and outdoor meeting space, as well as some restaurants for private functions. Bouchard has high praise for the hotel and its various departments and staff. “The décor and food have always been of the highest quality and the staff’s dedication to customer service deserves every accolade. The sales, convention and restaurant teams are there for you every step of the way, and they treat all of our attendees like VIPs. They’re also extremely accommodating to dietary restrictions, such as setting aside special plates during breakfast and lunch, and creating specially crafted dinners for attendees with various allergies during our annual banquet. It makes such a difference to those attendees and I love when I’m able to work with a property to go above and beyond for our members, and provide them with the best event experience. The Wynn really helps us to stand apart from similar shows, and the white-glove service and attention to detail are always applauded in our post-event survey.”
Some details of this year’s convention are still to be decided. “We’re planning to use an outside venue for a fundraising event, and have used Brooklyn Bowl for this event in the past. We were looking for an interactive experience to change up the typical banquet dinner and band routine, and were thrilled with the experience. The downtown location was very convenient, attendees loved the casual atmosphere and some groups even created their own team bowling shirts. The food and beverage minimums were a little higher than our original budget. However, we were very pleased with the attendance and positive response from attendees. I would highly recommend Brooklyn Bowl to anyone looking for something different and engaging for their event.”
Bouchard thinks the future is already looking brighter for in-person events as more vaccines are distributed. “I have three large events scheduled for 2021, along with 20 smaller events. Our attendees are chomping at the bit to meet in-person to stop themselves from becoming ‘Zoombies,’” she says. “The pandemic has expanded our horizons in terms of content delivery and accessibility, and I do believe we’ll see more events provide hybrid or virtual options in the future. However, online events cannot replicate the organic networking an in-person event provides.”
As for booking a gaming property for conventions, Bouchard has no reservations. “Sometimes, planners shy away from gaming properties due to concerns over distractions from the actual event. However, I see a property like Wynn Las Vegas with its restaurants, entertainment and gaming options as an extension of the overall program,” she says. “These properties offer an experience that many people cannot enjoy at home, and I’ve always found that these outlets provide our attendees with ample opportunities for networking outside of our scheduled events.”
Ray Halbritter, CEO of Oneida Nation Enterprises and Turning Stone Resort Casino in Upstate New York, views the future of the meetings industry both optimistically and practically. “As vaccination distribution increases, we’re witnessing society getting more comfortable with coming back together. We’ve heard from many groups we’ve worked with in the past about their desire to connect with others and meet with people in person again,” he says. “While some of the things we’ve adopted during this pandemic will continue into the future, such as a greater use of technology, mobile check-ins, and health and safety initiatives, early signs are positive that groups are looking forward to reconvening.”
He thinks virtual meetings will continue, likely as one component of larger conferences. “Virtual meetings have allowed for greater flexibility in the number and location of participants, which has led to better diversity of thought and input in general,” Halbritter says. “Moreover, the use of technology has not only become part of our ‘new normal’ over the past year, we’ve adapted it to such an extent that we’re now uniquely positioned to provide these complex technology services seamlessly to our guests.”
Using virtual site tours, for example, has allowed Turning Stone to introduce planners to the resort’s chefs and spa directors to directly discuss ideas such as interactive cooking classes and creating custom spa scrubs for attendees. Virtual access has also allowed for remote speakers and far-flung attendees to be brought in, and Halbritter thinks such virtual elements will continue to be part of meetings moving forward. The good news at Turning Stone, he adds, is, “Most of our spaces, whether indoor or outdoor, can accommodate meetings that are partially in-person and partially virtual, and it’s been a great opportunity for us to adjust for the current and future needs of our guests.”
Another positive predictor of coming months: Inquiries are increasing. “We’re beginning to see a greater number of inquiries from all types of businesses and organizations, from big to small and across verticals. This,” Halbritter says, “is incredibly exciting.”
Whatever the “new normal” is, most experts think it’s likely to be different than the “old normal.” Halbritter agrees. “To us, ‘normal’ will most likely mean ‘custom’ post-pandemic. What has been a positive for most people during COVID-19 has been increased flexibility in terms of virtual capabilities and work-life balance. We don’t see that changing. The ability to evolve has been key to remaining successful during this time period, so ‘normal’ will now mean a range of opportunities for our guests. It may mean on-site, in-person meetings for some, totally remote experiences for others, and a combination of remote and on-site events for everyone else.”
The fact is that Halbritter isn’t alone in viewing the pivots and changes spurred by COVID not as problems, but rather as ongoing opportunities to present groups with more options than ever before. The industry as a whole has taken bushels of lemons and made a terrific lemonade to last well into the future.
Sitting atop the list of popular gaming resorts is Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood, which features 150,000 sf of gaming space. Also, the Hard Rock Event Center boasts 120,000 sf of meeting space, including a 38,000-sf carpeted exhibition hall that can host trade shows, conventions, large corporate groups and more. The AAA Four Diamond-rated resort recently completed a $1.5 billion expansion that includes the world’s first Guitar Hotel and a seven-story Oasis Tower overlooking 13.5 acres of recreational waterscape. Also, the property expanded its gaming floor, and added a luxury spa and salon.
Foodies will appreciate the resort’s 19 unique restaurants offering a wide range of dining options, just a few of which include the following: Abiaka, featuring wood fire-grilled food; BAE Korean Grill, featuring upscale Korean barbecue; Beach Club Bar & Grill, offering poolside dining; Cipresso, featuring Italian-American fare; and Council Oak Steaks & Seafood, a classic, American steakhouse. The resort’s Hard Rock Live arena seats 7,000, and is a state-of-the-art entertainment venue capable of supporting A-List acts, nationally televised awards shows, sporting events and more. | AC&F |