Las Vegas has reopened for meetings and convention business — that was the implicit message from Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak in early spring when he announced loosened restrictions on large gatherings, including meetings and conventions, by increasing attendance limitations to 50% of venue capacity. “Las Vegas has been the top convention and meetings destination for many years,” Sisolak says. “We pride ourselves on providing the best facilities, the best service and, now, the safest.”
The announcement is welcome news for planners such as business event management firm PRA, which counts on Las Vegas to deliver a “wow” experience for its clients. Patty Kindness, director of sales and marketing, Las Vegas, at PRA Business Events, ticks off a list of new offerings, on and off the Strip, which will allow the city to remain among the country’s top meeting destinations for corporate and incentive groups. Many of the ideas embrace the open air, and allow for distancing requirements that may be in place for some months to come. “With the opening of Allegiant Stadium, the bar for the ‘wow’ experience got significantly higher in Las Vegas,” Kindness says. “Imagine a tailgate party on the mezzanine overlooking the plaza with a full panoramic view of the Las Vegas Strip as the backdrop to set the tone for your amazing opening night. How about a glamping-style, tented experience on the field itself, or, an elegant plated event on the field under the canopy with a custom drone show for entertainment?” She adds, “AREA15 opened its doors in 2020, and is quickly making a name for itself in Las Vegas.”
The immersive playground has a variety of tenants rolled into an oversized event space. Continuing additions to AREA15 include the 10,000-sf Emporium Arcade Bar, offering a range of classic arcade games, pool tables, pinball, foosball, and an ongoing calendar of live shows, DJs and game tournaments. Chef Todd English debuted his 6,500-sf food hall The Beast, with a communal dining area complete with a competitive mixology program. “There’s a myriad of opportunities at AREA15 for meeting participants to experience this uniquely interactive venue,” Kindness says.
And she notes that Downtown Fremont East has become solidly established as the city’s arts and cultural hub. “It extends for six blocks and it’s lined with refurbished antique Las Vegas neon signs. The district is widely known for its award-winning restaurants, unique and trendy bars, shopping and entertainment at Container Park, and so much more.”
As Las Vegas eases into spring, re-openings dominate the local buzz. In early spring, MGM Resorts resumed operations at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, Park MGM and The Mirage. And in accordance with revised state guidelines, MGM returned its David Copperfield (MGM Grand), Australian Bee Gees (Excalibur) and Terry Fator (New York New York) shows back to the stage. The risqué Absinthe returned to its center-Strip stage at Caesars Palace Las Vegas, with a limited number of VIP tables set aside at every show, offering extra space and other amenities for a cool $1,000 per couple.
Virgin Hotels Las Vegas made its long-anticipated arrival in the city earlier this spring, converting the former Hard Rock Hotel into a reimagined casino resort. Resort fees and self-parking charges have been wiped off the check-out bill; Wi-Fi is included in room rates, and minibars have been “street priced” — all to promote Virgin’s brand-wide “No Nickel and Diming Policy.” The 1,504-room hotel includes 130,000 sf of indoor and outdoor spaces for meetings, including the 28,512-sf Agave Hall and the 4,500-person capacity theater. A distinct selling point for the hotel: Although the Virgin Hotel may not have a Strip address, its location is closer to both the airport and the Las Vegas Convention Center than almost any other hotel, guaranteeing Virgin Hotels will be a solid player in the years to come.
And opening this summer, Resorts World Las Vegas is the first property to be built on the Strip in more than a decade. In partnership with Hilton, the $4.3 billion integrated resort will offer 3,500 guest rooms and suites from three Hilton brands, including Conrad Hotels & Resorts. Resorts World will have 350,000 sf overall meeting space, including a 100,000-sf, pillar-less and carpeted Events Center for trade shows and large-scale events, six ballrooms ranging up to 24,000-sf and more than 50 meeting rooms. A next-generation casino, 5,000-capacity theater (in partnership with AEG Presents) and 5.5-acre pool complex — with the city’s only infinity edge pool overlooking the Strip — are other amenities.
Meanwhile, in March, owners of The Rio Las Vegas announced plans for a major renovation and re-branding initiative. The 2,510-room off-Strip resort will get a face-lift, and the current Caesars Entertainment flag will be replaced by multiple Hyatt-affiliated brands. The hotel has 220,000 sf of meeting space.
The desire to return to meetings in Nevada this year burns bright. At the beginning of the year, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) did a survey to better understand the conference, convention and trade show landscape for the second half of this year, as COVID-19 vaccines become widely distributed. The study was conducted by Heart+Mind Strategies, a national market research and brand strategy consultancy, and found:
• 91% miss the face-to-face interaction of in-person conferences, conventions and trade shows. Additionally, 58% feel burned out from virtual business meetings and conferences.
• 77% of business travelers would prefer attending business conferences, conventions and trade shows in-person.
• 74% believe Las Vegas is best prepared to safely host in-person conferences, conventions and trade shows in the second half of 2021.
“We’re ready and eager to welcome back business travelers to Las Vegas,” says Steve Hill, LVCVA’s president and CEO. “We know there’s pent-up demand for the return of in-person meetings and conventions and for the Las Vegas experience.”
The first post-pandemic, citywide convention scheduled for Las Vegas is expected to be World of Concrete early this summer inside the Las Vegas Convention Center. The trade show will also serve as the debut for the Convention Center’s new $989 million West Hall.
For the past year, meeting planners have been postponing long-planned events and shifting to virtual gatherings. Some companies have embraced a hybrid model to keep some element of the in-person event in place. Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) holds its annual Convening Leaders meeting in January, drawing up to 4,500 attendees. Although the organization has been streaming selected conference content to a digital audience for a decade, for its 2021 event, PCMA opted for a true hybrid format. “Demand for certification this year was through the roof, so we were evaluating options throughout 2020,” says PCMA’s Tonya Almond, CMP, vice president, knowledge and experience design. “By September, based on where everything was and what we were seeing, we knew we needed to move forward with the most flexible model. Caesars Entertainment was very interested in bringing the audience together for all three days.”
In January, PCMA held its first-ever global hybrid conference, using simultaneous hubs in Singapore and Florida. In Las Vegas, 50 attendees were hosted at the new 550,000-sf CAESARS FORUM conference center. All sessions were designed for broadcast, with content in 20-25 minute sessions, followed by live Q&A to provide an interactive experience for those not present in the host cities. The experience gave attendees a glimpse at how their own hybrid programs could operate in the future.
Amazingly, no PCMA staff was present at the hub locations. As one of the partners, the Caesars team collaborated to set up the in-person conference, register attendees and assign seating, provide the content on screens, and ensure the meeting delivered robust content that rose above what the guests would experience at home. Live entertainment, group meals, site tours and activities were featured each day, including tours of Hoover Dam, the Mob Museum, the Neon Museum, and a private, behind-the-scenes peek at Allegiant Stadium, the new home of the Las Vegas Raiders. “I was in a control room at our Chicago headquarters,” Almond says. “We worked live on Singapore time, and the keynote speakers were live and semi-live. It was a complex undertaking, and a lot more work than a traditional in-person event, but the attendees really loved it.” And Almond thinks the program’s success provided a blueprint for future omni-channel events. “Connection is really important — not just networking, but peer-to-peer learning,” she adds.
The medical education company Educational Symposia provides physicians and health care workers with continuing radiology and pathology educational requirements, with meetings held around the country. Since March 2020, the company has been handling all of its programming by webcast, but is now forging ahead with plans for in-person gatherings again. “We’re planning, and we’re cautiously optimistic,” says Toni M. Ebra, director, accreditation services for Educational Symposia. The company is holding its first, true in-person event at Wynn Las Vegas in the spring. “We want our learners and speakers to be comfortable, so we’re offering options for them to webcast, or they can attend in person.” One thing that’s been helpful to Educational Symposia this past year is that the company already had experience with webcasting its sessions to support physicians who couldn’t travel. “We absolutely had a head start with hybrid meetings, but until this year, we hadn’t previously done a meeting with all faculty in their homes.”
Previously, Ebra says a typical symposium would have about 75 in-person attendees and 20 online. She anticipates her first post-pandemic gathering at Wynn will have about 50 in-person. “Las Vegas is a draw for our attendees,” Ebra says. “They have good flights in and out, there’s something for everybody to do over a short period of time, and Wynn certainly makes for a nice atmosphere to have a meeting. Wynn is very easy to work with — it’s a draw for our attendees, a stellar hotel with impeccable service. I have attendees that are physicians that are coming for their continuing medical education and I expect my guests to be treated first-class.”
Cindy Valdes, CMP and vice president, global events for Epicor Software Corporation, says her company is considering all options for its event this year, including a hybrid model. Epicor’s Insights User Conference typically draws about 3,600 attendees, and the event was originally scheduled for last spring at the Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville. “We made the decision to cancel [last year’s] event,” Valdes says. “The Gaylord was an outstanding partner and honored the force majeure clause in our contract.” But as a global company with 20,000 customers in more than 150 countries, Epicor’s annual user conference is a vital part of building its customer relationships and sharing new products. Fortunately, Epicor already had a contract in place for this year with Mandalay Bay. “We have had a long and successful relationship with MGM Resorts. They have been extremely flexible, and a great partner during the pandemic. We have moved our dates to [this summer] as we feel more confident about our ability to host a safe, in-person meeting then,” Valdes says.
She notes that Las Vegas, and MGM properties in particular, have invested resources and money into safety protocols, cleanliness standards and infrastructure for in-person meetings. “For meeting planners, 2021 will be all about flexibility, as restrictions and requirements are constantly changing,” Valdes says. “We are changing the way we run meetings — we must be flexible to room-size requirements, size limitations and catering limitations. We have a large amount of hands-on computer labs that we will need to sanitize after every use, as often as six times per day. We will be working closely with both their staff and our own to make this happen.” Valdes is also planning to keep all activities at the resort. “Because you need double the amount of shuttles to maintain safety standards, transportation to an off-site venue is costly.”
Valdes says she is hoping to avoid building a hybrid event, largely due to the additional expenses incurred. “For a hybrid approach, you are basically producing two meetings,” Valdes says. “You need all the production for the in-person attendees plus all the production crew to produce the online experience. Plus, to be successful, we would need a tremendous amount of internet bandwidth. It’s a challenge to add an additional $100,000-plus to the existing meeting budget for added internet fees.” She concludes, “My best advice is to partner with your hotels. My experience is that they want to partner with you and want to make this as safe and as good an experience for your meeting as possible. We are all in the state of uncertainty, but if you can have open and honest conversations with your hotel partners, you will find a solution that will work for both of you.”
One venerable venue offering the best of what Las Vegas has to offer is South Point Hotel, Casino & Spa. From award-winning restaurants to the latest gaming amenities, to large meeting and event spaces, to luxurious rooms and suites, South Point offers it all. Recently renovated, its casino has more than 2,200 popular slot and video poker machines and more than 60 table games, which include blackjack, craps, roulette and baccarat. South Point also offers 175,000 sf of meetings and events space, which includes a 55,000-sf Conference Center, an 80,000-sf, column-free Exhibit Hall, Executive Conference Rooms and as many as 22 breakout rooms.
While Las Vegas continues to offer a winning hand for corporate and incentive groups looking to meet in a location with all the bells and whistles, small and medium-sized event planners might consider looking to Reno and nearby Lake Tahoe, where an awesome backdrop of mountains and lakes is buffeted by lower meeting costs. Such was the deal for Michele Sheridan, director of programs & administration for Harman Management, who was tasked with negotiating a site for the company’s annual Business Partner Convention, an incentive gathering for 600 of its employees and spouses.
“Reno was intriguing because it was much less expensive,” Sheridan says. “We love Hawaii, but we can’t do it every year. My boss said, ‘Let’s try something different,’ and he’s always wanted to try Reno. They spoke the budget language for us.”
Harman Management is a privately held corporation famed for having opened the first KFC franchise, in 1952. Harman now oversees more than 300 fast food restaurants in the western U.S. Sheridan says the company’s founder, Pete Harman, was high on recognition, and used the annual trip to reward managers and top achievers.
“This is about bringing people together and recognition,” Sheridan says. “It’s like an extended family that has evolved over the last 75 years. But we can’t pull all the managers out of the restaurants all at once, so we’ll do trip A and trip B, back to back. There’s a leisure day, a golf day, and we have business partners come along — poultry suppliers, Proctor & Gamble and others we have valuable relationships with.”
Sheridan started her research with the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority. “I’ve found them so helpful,” Sheridan says. “I find a great advantage to working with a CVB, and on a site visit, you can see what they feel is a good fit for your needs.”
Sheridan settled on the 1,990-room Grand Sierra Resort and Casino as the host hotel. The property offers more than 200,000 sf of meeting space, including a 40,500-sf Grand Ballroom and 3,000-seat theater. “I liked the Grand Sierra because buses drop you off at bottom — you’re not dumped into a smoke-filled casino. And, there are a lot of things to do.” She adds, “It almost seems like it’s too good to be true, the value we’re getting for cost of room night. Downtown Reno is charming; they’re reinventing all the old buildings, cleaning it up, with lots of eateries and cool venues, and the river runs right through it. We booked our two farewell dinners at Bundox Bocce, an event space at the Renaissance Reno Downtown Hotel & Spa. It’s a fantastic venue; we’ll have so much fun there.”
With Nevada’s re-opening, the sky is the limit for meetings and conventions to return. “With great confidence in the efforts made by our resorts, convention centers and meeting hosts, I say . . . welcome back,” Sisolak says. “The greatest place to do business in the world is even better.” C&IT