Las Vegas: The Business of Excess

When it comes to high-end meetings, no one rolls higher than Sin City

Lago Bellagio Resort & Casino

When it comes to high-end meetings, there is no destination that plays the game quite as well as Las Vegas. If you can imagine it, the convention service managers in "Sin City" can make it bigger, better, and more breathtaking than anyone else.

Want to dazzle the VIPs with a cocktail reception? Try holding it in one of the high-roller suites that have recently become available to planners, such as the 9,500-square-foot Marcua Aurelius Villa at Caesars Palace. Planning to splash out on a big-name band that will wow the attendees of a tech company? Acts from Maroon 5 and Bruno Mars, to Black Sabbath and Garth Brooks come through town all the time and can be persuaded to stay another day. Want to rent an impressive nightclub for a private party? Nightclub & Bar says eight of 10 top-grossing venues of 2015 are on the Strip.

The luxury meetings segment "is a growing and demanding market here in Las Vegas," says Tony Yousfi, vice president of sales at the AAA five-diamond ARIA Resort & Casino, which just announced a $154 million expansion of its convention center, to 500,000 square feet. "It's something that we're seeing and groups are outgrowing us," he adds. "This gives us the capability to grow with them."

Which isn't to say that meeting planners necessarily have more to spend, even on their high-end events. "Budgets these days are definitely being stretched, so our destination definitely give us a leg up," says Kurt Wuebbenhorst, vice president of sales of The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. Between the headliners and the nightlife, shows like Cirque du Soleil and Blue Man Group, and restaurants from nearly every celebrity chef you can name, any experience that isn't on-property is no more than a 15-minute ride away. "You don't have to structure an evening, you can just let folks go off on their own."

The key, he adds, is that at the high end of what attendees -- whether they are going to a corporate meeting, an association show, or on an incentive trip -- consider luxury is being redefined. "It's less about status and white-glove service than it is about having a meaningful experience and having a unique story to tell," Wuebbenhorst says. "It is much more experiential. Particularly if we're competing against another destination for high-end business, all of those experiences are right outside the door. That's something that our destination lends itself to."

That doesn't just apply to the Strip itself, he adds. "There's lots of requests for shows and for great dining -- we have great dining experiences -- but I don't think [planners] are taking advantage of this beautiful valley enough," he says. "Our proximity to the Grand Canyon and the ability to do that tour is fantastic. "Red Rock and the Valley of Fire are so close by, and that's something that's unique to this area. When an attendee is able to go back and say, 'Look at the petroglyphs from thousands for years ago we were able to take pictures of' -- that's a really unique experience that makes people go, 'Wow, that's Las Vegas? That's really cool.'"

Of course, memorable experiences can be had inside the meeting rooms, too.

"Groups are really spending their money on content," says Meg Fasy, vice president of sales of the AAA five-diamond Bellagio. "They're bringing in these killer speakers that really make an impact -- the Bill Clintons of the world -- so it makes sense to bring them into a hotel like a Bellagio, so the attendees are getting that complete luxury experience."

On a smaller scale, she adds, high-end meeting and event planners are making a big impact with intimacy. "They've gotten away from the larger receptions and they're doing a lot of smaller VIP receptions," Fasy says. "They're using the president's or chairman's suite for entertaining or buying out a restaurant. We just opened Lago [by Michelin-starred Chef Julian Serrano] a month ago, and practically every big group that comes through has had private parties in there."

Which isn't to say that the big blowout experience has gone by the wayside, Fasy adds. The difference is in the audiences that planners are trying to wow. "Tech companies do go after the cooler bands for their opening receptions, so we do see a lot of Maroon 5 -- some of those bigger, well-known bands," she notes. "That's typically when the audience is a little bit younger. When the audience is a little bit median-age or older, it is less around having that big, loud experience and more around having that dining, networking type of experience."

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This article appears in the January 2016 issue of Successful Meetings.