Betting on Vegas

Growing competition has led to an even more robust meetings infrastructure in the country's top gaming spot.

Cincinnati. St. Louis. Singapore. Philadelphia. The Philippines. With the opportunity to gamble in an increasing number of regional and international cities, planners today have a much wider range of options to consider when they’re looking for a gaming destination. But in Las Vegas, rather than ruffle feathers, this has only made meeting professionals smile.

“The increase in gaming destinations worldwide only makes Las Vegas a more viable option for meetings,” says Stephanie Arone, president and general manager of Las Vegas-based meeting planning company Activity Planners, Inc. “Competitively speaking, the overall value-add of our destination far surpasses that of any other gaming destination internationally.”

Allen Oakley, executive director of business development for Baskow and Associates, a Las Vegas-based event planning firm, asserts that these regional gaming opportunities actually encourage people to visit Las Vegas. “All they do is train people to come [here],” he says.

“It’s not that people are not going to come to Vegas because there are regional opportunities for gaming,” says Michael Dominguez, senior vice president of sales for MGM Resorts International. “They’re just going to be able to enjoy those opportunities closer to home. They’re still going to be coming to Vegas.”

And come they are: Last year the city saw nearly 40 million visitors, the second-highest numbers of annual visitors ever. And why is that? First, as Arone pointed out, there’s no place like Las Vegas when it comes to value for meetings and conventions. It has arguably the most hotel rooms, air accessibility, and meeting space (more than 10.7 million square feet, according to a March Las Vegas Review-Journal estimate) of any gaming city in the U.S. And confidence in Vegas’ ability to draw groups is only growing.

“We’ve been reinvesting in our properties to the tune of $6.6 billion over the last year and a half, and more is continuing,” Chris Meyer, vice president of global business sales for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), told Successful Meetings in November. “It’s a five-year plan. I don’t know of any other destination that is doing that.”

Sure enough, less than two years ago, McCarran International Airport saw the opening of its brand-new Terminal 3 to allow for more flights into and out of Vegas and ensure smoother service. In May, Caesars Entertainment will open The Strip’s first boutique property, The Cromwell, a 188room upscale hotel-casino that will feature a 65,000-square-foot rooftop nightclub and pool deck. Over Labor Day weekend of this year, the much-anticipated $415-million SLS Las Vegas hotel will open on the north end of the Strip with 1,600 rooms and 30,000 square feet of flexible meeting space; the property will also offer several restaurant and nightlife brands operated by SBE, including The Bazaar by José Andrés, Katsuya, and Umami Burger.

Meanwhile, Malaysia’s Genting Group is preparing to build another massive casino project in the same area, the $4-billion Resorts World Las Vegas.

“You see the city is putting the effort in,” says Oakley. “People here in Vegas understand. They understand how important these meetings are. If they don’t service the meeting correctly, it’s a failure for us and the whole city. We want these meetings to go well.”

Dominguez explains that this is because the Recession underscored just how important MICE business was for Las Vegas. Arone adds that it created not just a hungrier, but also a more efficient and creative meetings community in Las Vegas.

“Both planners and service providers are more savvy now, and collectively we are working more efficiently,” he says. “The importance of content and ROI have replaced the days of the ‘boondoggle.’”

As a result, Las Vegas has been working hard to highlight the fact that it is a cost-effective one-stop shop for groups, says Oakley: “Here in Vegas, it’s just so simple. Everything’s taken care of,” he says.

Entertainment Capital of the World

A second critical part of this campaign to woo groups has been the city’s intense spotlight on its non-gaming attractions. Thanks to what Dominguez calls “very aggressive” marketing by the city’s tourism outlets, the city has successfully shifted its image from that of a casino hub in the desert to being the entertainment, culinary, and shopping capital of America. In fact, only about 37 percent of Las Vegas hotel revenue today comes from gaming — the lion’s share is rooms, dining, and entertainment, says David Schwartz, Ph.D., director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“I think that’s critical as to why we stay ahead in the industry,” Dominguez says. “More groups enjoy Las Vegas today because they’re not coming to Vegas only to gamble — they’re coming to meet, network, and have a broad range of experiences. We’re experiential today. That’s where Vegas has done a great job in reinventing itself.”

“Our city draws an incredibly diverse crowd. They all come for a unique experience,” adds Albert Smith, vice president of hotel operations for SLS Las Vegas. “They’re looking for [distinctive] offerings — high design, big-name chefs.”

Of course, Las Vegas is still one of a kind when it comes to the glitz of high-end casino gambling — and attendees who are interested can still get that experience. But gaming is not the only activity available for visitors: Las Vegas has something for everyone.

“You’ve got a critical mass of a lot of different kinds of attractions in a lot of different kinds of categories,” Schwartz says.

If an attendee is a foodie, for example, the city can satisfy his or her appetite with Michelin-starred chefs, including Alain Ducasse, Joël Robuchon, and Guy Savoy, as well as celebrity chefs such as Wolfgang Puck, Todd English, Jean Georges Vongerichten, and Michael Mina. In fact, according to a June 2013 Forbes article, “not only does everyone go to Vegas for the food, but Vegas has arguably the best fine dining scene in the country.”

If an attendee is interested in entertainment, Schwartz points out that “a lot of the superstars play Las Vegas,” including big-name acts such as Celine Dion, Boyz II Men, and magician Criss Angel. Visitors could be treated to a show they might not otherwise have the opportunity to see. On top of that, “you’ve got the Cirque du Soleil shows,” Schwartz says, adding that their appeal extends to those international visitors who might not speak English, since the shows are acrobatic and mostly unspoken. This is particularly relevant since, Schwartz points out, part of Las Vegas’ post-Recession rebound can be attributed to an upswing in international visitors — a trend that is likely to increase thanks to the recent signing of an agreement between Las Vegas and Mexico City to co-market the cities under the World Trade Center brand, encouraging further international business partnerships.

To up the ante for its competition, Las Vegas continues to invest in entertainment offerings. Most notably, in the fall, Caesars Entertainment unveiled The LINQ,a $550-million outdoor retail, dining, and entertainment development anchored by the Las Vegas High Roller, the world’s tallest observation wheel. When it officially opens later this year, the dazzling 550-foot High Roller will feature 28 cabins that can each hold 40 passengers for a half-hour trip offering panoramic views of the Strip.

MGM Resorts International is spending about $350 million this year reinventing and enhancing its current portfolio of 12 hotels and resorts, with the biggest addition being a complete redevelopment of the space between the New York-New York and Monte Carlo properties, which will see the installation of a 20,000-seat arena run by AEG and the first urban park in Las Vegas. The outdoor plaza will feature restaurants — including a beer garden that can be used for group events — retail, and entertainment options, Dominguez says.

“You remember the old adage of Vegas: ‘We don’t have clocks or windows because we want to keep you in the casino’? For us to be building an urban park to get people outdoors and have that experience — that just shows you how different Las Vegas is today,” he says.

Going Niche

MGM’s new urban park is a perfect example of yet another way in which Las Vegas is aiming to attract groups: by creating even more outdoor spaces. This appeals to the growing number of groups seeking outdoor activities, with the city’s dry climate and year-round sun making it that much more appealing. Las Vegas is also ahead of the pack when it comes to environmentally friendly meetings, Arone points out.

“Our destination is leading the industry as a location for green meetings, with more LEED-certified hotel and meeting space than any other destination,” she says.

Las Vegas is also targeting smaller meetings, counteracting the misconception that only large conventions are suited to the destination. “There’s a lot of focus on small groups now,” Schwartz says.

Dominguez asserts that a whopping 78 percent of the groups that come to MGM are 100 people or fewer. “That’s surprising to people,” he says. “You’re not going to get lost here.”

Oakley says groups of even 10 people are welcome and sought after.

Ultimately, experts agree that if anything, increased regional and international gaming opportunities have been good news for Las Vegas.

“It’s exciting to be providing hospitality industry services in a destination that is consistently offering a ‘new and improved’ product,” Arone says. “We are constantly working to offer new and convenient ways for groups to enjoy our destination.”