Luxury Las Vegas: The City Keeps Reinventing Itself

High-end meetings and events have returned to Las Vegas

Fountains of Bellagio

MEET - Tropicana Las Vegas -- A Doubletree by Hilton
The $200-million overhaul and reflagging of the storied Tropicana Las Vegas -- a DoubleTree by Hilton into a South Beach-themed playground is scheduled to continue through March.

PLAY - Wynn Las Vegas Golf Course
Rated one of the top five courses in Las Vegas by both Golf Digest and Golf magazine, the Tom Fazio-designed, par-70 course is the only one directly attached to a hotel on the Strip.  

SHOP - Crystals at CityCenter
You can turn shopping into a networking function and add a memorable touch at the luxury boutiques at Crystals at CityCenter, which offers group planners the ability to do everything, including bringing in food and cocktails.

EAT - Hershey's Chocolate World
Get your chocolate fix at the flagship Hershey's Chocolate World store in New York-New York Las Vegas Hotel & Casino.

The luxury side of Las Vegas may have had difficulties during the recession, but it is back -- big time. According to Cvent, nine of the top 10 most popular meeting resorts in America are located on the Las Vegas Strip.

The meeting-technology and venue-selection company's annual list of the "100 Most Popular Meeting Resorts in North America" and the Caribbean, released in October 2014, reserves the top spots for some of the most opulent and upscale resorts in Las Vegas. The No. 1 spot went to MGM Resorts International's ARIA Resort & Casino at CityCenter, followed by The Venetian and Palazzo Resort, Hotel, and Casinos at No. 2, and Bellagio Las Vegas at No. 3. The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas was fourth and the MGM Grand Resort & Casino was fifth, followed by Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino Las Vegas, Wynn Las Vegas, Caesars Palace Las Vegas, and The Mirage.

During the downturn, "Las Vegas got hit harder than just about any area out there, and we've probably had the biggest rise back," says Eric Bello, vice president of sales for Las Vegas Sands, which owns The Venetian and Palazzo. He predicts 2015 will be a record-breaking year for his group business.

The high end of the meetings business "is back with a vengeance," adds Meg Fasy, vice president of sales at Bellagio. "Our lead sources are coming in very strong and there is a thirst for luxury again. But it's changed a bit in [people] wanting less fluff and more service. People are really looking for a high level of service when they are planning meetings. They know their employees or customers are working very hard -- it's a high level of stress at work these days -- and they want to be able to offer them service in their meetings. I think that is why people are going to luxury properties again, because that is where the service is."

Beyond that, the size of meeting groups coming to Las Vegas has also been growing, says Bob Morse, president of hospitality of Caesars Entertainment. Its flagship Caesars Palace Las Vegas, which has 300,000 square feet of meeting space, has seen steady growth in group size.

The reliable, spacious, and luxurious offerings to the meetings market are not just available at Las Vegas' well-established luxury resorts like ARIA, The Venetian and The Palazzo, Bellagio, and Caesars Palace. At SLS Las Vegas, Sam Nazarian's highly anticipated, Philippe Starck-designed luxury resort that opened in August, has "seen almost more business than we anticipated," from a group standpoint, says Robert Filipelli, executive director of sales for SLS. "There is lots of excitement. It is keeping us extremely busy. Even for big citywide events, a lot of folks are using our venues for entertaining clients. We are really different and people like the idea that they can have 'different' but high end."

Of course, the also want to do business. "The folks who come here to meet are meeting," Filipelli says. "They are making sure business is done, then they enjoy themselves."

Movin' On Up
Las Vegas has always been a place that celebrated and flocked to the new, and that at least has not changed. One way the city is making this happen is by borrowing the boutique style of hotels from cities like New York and Miami.

This can be seen at SLS which, despite its 1,600 rooms, has the strong, independent style of boutique properties in each of its three very different towers. It can also be seen at the 1,117-suite Delano, the newly renovated hotel-within-a-hotel at Mandalay Bay, which features its Miami Beach namesake's minimalist style and its extensive use of white, sheer curtains. The 47-floor, all-suite Palms Place condo hotel tower at the Palms Casino Resort is positioned and designed as a 599-room boutique hotel, with its own 50,000-square-foot pool.

Then there's The Cromwell, Caesars new standalone boutique hotel across from Caesars Palace, which, with just 188 guest rooms, is a lot closer in size to "traditional" boutique properties.  This also applies to the Nobu Hotel Caesars Palace, a distinctive, 181-room hotel-within-a-hotel designed by the famed chef Nobu Matsuhisa and his business partner, actor Robert De Niro.

One reason for these new properties is to attract the hipper, younger clientele that is traditionally drawn to the boutique experience. "Forward-thinking companies are always looking and marketing to the next generation," says Filipelli.

Of course, the luxury hotel-within-a-hotel is not limited to the boutique style. Non-gaming, AAA-Five-Diamond properties such as the 424-room Four Seasons, Las Vegas, and the 392-room Mandarin Oriental, Las Vegas at CityCenter, are also seeing strong meetings and incentive business.

"From a group room-night and a banquet-revenue standpoint, we're up year-over-year about 20 percent, and we see some strong trends continuing into 2015 and 2016," says Gus Tejada, director of marketing (and a former director of sales) at the Four Seasons Hotel Las Vegas. "So we've had a great year and the trends show us that's going to continue for the foreseeable future."

The Four Seasons finished a renovation of its 30,000 square feet of meeting space this past fall. "A lot of groups that come to Las Vegas want the best of both worlds," says Tejada. "Serious groups want to do meetings in our environment. They take care of business here, and go through one set of doors and they're in Mandalay Bay, and then back to the hotel for the Four Seasons experience."

The Mandarin Oriental has also been investing in its meeting facilities. In October the hotel added a new, 1,900-square-foot, raw meeting and event space called The Gallery that can hold up to 200 for cocktails, bringing its total meeting space to more than 14,000 square feet.

Las Vegas Convention Center (2.3 million sf); Sands Expo and Convention Center (1.8 million sf); Mandalay Bay Convention Center (currently 1.7 million sf, growing to more than 2 million sf later this year)

12 percent


Pinnacle Awards Go To:
• Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority
• ARIA Resort & Casino
• Bellagio
• Caesars Palace, Las Vegas
• The Cosmopolitan Las Vegas
• Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino
• The Mirage
• MGM Grand Las Vegas

A New Taste
With a return to luxury meetings and events comes an increased willingness on meeting planners' part to spend more on food and beverage, an area that saw significant cuts during the recent downturn.

"With food and beverage, its not just about having restaurants or catering," says Bellagio's Fasy. "It's about offering something unique and customized. For example, farm-to-table in the catering and banquet area is a unique experience that Five-Diamond luxury properties are able to offer meetings and incentive groups, or organic, that type of thing."

At The Cosmopolitan, Kurt Wuebbenhorst, vice president of sales, says: "We are finding organizers are interested; and focused on culinary and mixology highlights for their events, and they are creating experiences that their guests may not be able to participate in on their own. We are fortunate to have an amazing culinary team focused on delivering completely customized menus as well as new surprises to offer our return guests."

They aren't the only ones. Mandalay Bay's director of wine, Harley Carbery, and director of food and beverage, Sarah Johnson, a certified cicerone (or beer sommelier) preside over wine-versus-beer-pairing dinners available to groups with good-natured competitiveness. Next door at Delano, even the lobby bar Franklin is getting in on this trend beyond just offering craft cocktails with a carefully curated small-batch liquor list (particularly bourbons). One of the standard cocktails is the Daily Punch, a concoction left to the imagination of the bartender on duty, and they also create cocktails specifically for groups: a signature cocktail with something -- such as the color -- related to the company's brand. Vdara at CityCenter can arrange tastings of the organic wines it carries.

Another change is where luxury groups are dining, says Filipelli. "We are not seeing that formal sit-down dinner," he says. "They want more networking than at a traditional 10-top [banquet table]. They really do want to do multiple venues -- go to a restaurant, go to a club. There is an emphasis on food and on quality. There is also an emphasis on experience. They want to make it memorable."

Nicki Berthelsen, director of special events for the SLS Las Vegas's parent company, sbe, adds: "they want something more exciting than the three-course or buffet. We are seeing small plates and shared plates -- dining that is more interactive and exciting." One example is the SLS liquid nitrogen cocktail cart, which creates amazing smoking craft cocktails, she says, adding, "It's a great presentation."

Unique and customized cuisine is not the only change luxury group planners are demanding. "We still see a lot of banquet events that are very upscale, but what we also see a lot these days are health-conscious groups that like gluten-free foods and antioxidant to be part of their meals," says the Four Seasons' Tejada. "They are more health-conscious than we've seen in the past, and they are willing to spend for that. They're looking for good value for dollar, but they're certainly up for creating customized menus or menus that offer anti-oxidant [components]. Gluten-free cuisine is something that has been around, but it seems that antioxidant trend has come into the conversation more in the past six months."

When it comes to healthy cuisine, there are few kitchens that can compete with the food offered at MGM Grand's Stay Well Meetings facilities. While the Stay Well offerings go far beyond food -- MGM partner Delos Living works with the Mayo and Cleveland Clinics on everything from circadian lighting and air purification to hypoallergenic cleaning products and ergonomic furniture, as well as offering meditations guided by Delos partner Deepak Chopra -- it's an important enough element that there is a dedicated Stay Well chef.

"Making sure all the flavors are very pronounced" is important, says Stay Well Chef Justin Frederickson. "We create foods that help energize [attendees] for the rest of the day. There is a farm in Illinois growing vegetables just for us."

Portion size is a big part of Stay Well's success -- really it's part of any healthy diet -- but that also helps offset the extra cost, says Dominguez. The MGM Grand Stay Well Meetings facilities are just a "beta test," Dominguez adds. "We are having discussions about taking this company-wide to our luxury portfolio."

Questions or comments? Email [email protected]

This article appears in the January 2014 issue of Successful Meetings.