Off-the-Beaten-Path Casino Resorts Cater to Groups

These gaming resorts aren't in Vegas -- and that's the point

Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula, CA, is a big draw for meeting groups looking for a wealth of amenities, but often at a better value than Las Vegas or Atlantic City

For five of the past six years, Dawna Leitzke, the Pierre, SD-based executive director of the South Dakota Petroleum and Propane Marketers Association, has brought her annual convention of 250 to 300 attendees to The Lodge at Deadwood Gaming Resort in Deadwood, SD.

And for the past 10 years, Lou Silfe, project manager for South Haven, MS-based Application Data Systems Incorporated, has brought his company's annual conference of approximately 100 to 125 attendees to Gold Strike Casino Resort in Tunica, MS.

What keeps Leitzke and Silfe returning to the same gaming resorts year after year? Well, it's because they have everything their groups need for a successful meeting.

"You don't need to leave the facility when you're there," says Leitzke. "It has everything for everybody, and our group really likes it." She adds, "It's not like Vegas or Atlantic City, but that's the point. It's very quaint, personal, and accommodating. This is a destination resort -- that's why they built The Lodge at Deadwood on this beautiful hill with that view of the mountains. People will come here and not want to leave."

Indeed, throughout the U.S., meeting organizers like Leitzke and Silfe are discovering the advantages of meeting in destination gaming resorts. While these properties possess many of the same attributes as their Vegas and Atlantic City counterparts, they aren't exactly like them -- and that's the point.

Often, you'll find these properties a bit off the beaten path, or close to major cities but not necessarily in them. These are destinations in and of themselves. And they've got plenty of entertainment, food-and-beverage options, accommodations, state-of-the-art meeting spaces, and eager-to-please convention services teams to help planners pull off their best events.

Here's a closer look at why meeting at a destination gaming resort is a sure bet for many meeting groups.

All in One 
One of the biggest advantages of meeting in a destination gaming resort is that they often have everything your group needs -- and much more. This especially holds true when it comes to entertainment and food-and-beverage options.

Pam McKenna, CAE, and president of McKenna Management, a Chelmsford, MA-based association management company, says she often brings her association groups to places like Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, CT, because "everything is under one roof." She notes, "You have the convention center, the overnight rooms, and the restaurants that run the gamut from high-end signature chef restaurants to grab-and-go."

And then there's the entertainment. McKenna says that when it comes to shows and nightlife, when staying at the Mohegan Sun, "You don't have to go anywhere."

Mohegan Sun, which is owned by the Mohegan Tribe, encompasses 185 acres. It has more than 350,000 square feet of gaming space; a 1,200-room hotel tower (with a new, 400-room hotel tower set to debut in fall 2016); a 20,000-square-foot Elemis Spa; more than 45 different restaurants and food-and-beverage outlets; three entertainment venues (one of which is a 10,000-seat arena); a 10,000-square-foot indoor pool; and more than 100,000 square feet of meeting space.

McKenna says, "Our numbers have been higher going to Mohegan Sun than they have been going to other convention centers that didn't have all that Mohegan Sun has to offer." For the past seven years, McKenna has brought four different meetings to the property, ranging from groups of 25 up to 900 for associations related to nursing and higher education.  

In California, Noel L. Natividad, branch development and acquisition assistant for Platinum Home Mortgage in Carson, CA has found success in hosting the company's annual sales conference for 115 at  Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula, CA. "The beneficial aspect of having the meeting at a casino resort like Pechanga is having a variety of entertainment options for attendees once the meetings are over, from spas and golf to sports bars and gaming. Compared to a normal hotel, our group wasn't limited to one or two restaurants and limited entertainment."

All Together Now 
With so many entertainment options available at destination gaming resorts, it's much easier to keep your group all together when you're not in the meeting room. And while gaming isn't always going to be a main draw for all of your attendees -- or a major factor in why they choose to go to your meeting -- it can be used as an effective, and fun, teambuilding and networking tool.

Deb Hammond, vice president of sales and marketing for Seattle-based Worldwide Distributors, a retail buying cooperative, is responsible for organizing trade shows for the co-op's 280 retail members throughout the U.S. For the past 17 years, the trade shows for up to 1,000 to 2,000 attendees have been held in Reno, NV, and in recent years, most of her attendees stay at the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa.

"Some of our attendees are really attracted to the gaming, but it's a much smaller atmosphere here in Reno than going to Vegas," she says. "Most of our attendees are from smaller communities and they're more comfortable with the gaming environment in Reno than they would be in Vegas."

One activity that brings her attendees together, she says, is a casino night at the convention center, which is connected to the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa. "Why not just go to a casino and play? Well, it's a huge event for us, and our members and attendees just love it. It gives them that gaming atmosphere and allows people to learn how to play without spending their own money. It gives them that chance to learn, and practice, and get to know one another."

Leitzke has also found success in organizing a casino night for her attendees at The Lodge at Deadwood, pointing out that attendees feel a sense of camaraderie in putting a quarter in a slot machine or cheering one another along in a hand of blackjack.

"I think it's inherent in human nature to want to play a game of chance, but doing so also allows you to network with your colleagues and contacts," she adds.

You Call the Shots 
One of the biggest benefits of meeting at these types of resorts is their flexibility. Often, these destination gaming resorts are perfect examples of having the right resources and staff to help planners accomplish nearly whatever they need for their meetings.


The casino at Atlantis Casino Resort Spa
in Reno, NV, offers entertainment value
to meeting attendees
The casino at Atlantis Casino Resort Spa in Reno, NV, offers entertainment value to meeting attendees

Jo Anne Hill, CMP, an event management company owner and executive director of Reno-based FireShows West, organizes an annual convention for the public safety industry at the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa in Reno, among many other meetings for other clients. Hill says that the biggest advantage for meeting at the Atlantis is "the overall friendliness and the ability to work with planners." She plans meetings throughout the state at a number of properties, and says that she finds Reno, and the Atlantis in particular, "really align with the meeting planner," helping to see the meeting comes off without a hitch -- while making the planner look good.

"Having that hometown friendliness, and willingness to make you look good in front of your client -- it's worth its weight in gold for me," Hill adds.

The Lodge at Deadwood has also helped Leitzke come up with and arrange unique group activities for her meeting, including a private cooking class with the hotel's executive chef, setting up a spa and golf day at a nearby spa and golf course, and partnering with a local winery where guests could enjoy some fine wines after a day of meetings. "They really work so hard to help us benefit from what's happening in the area," she says.

"I consider myself to be like a travel agent for our meeting planners," says Carmella Biesiot, director of hotel sales and marketing for The Lodge at Deadwood. "I've done poker runs. I've arranged entertainment. I do everything I can to provide you with a very unique and exciting experience. We can do a lot for a little here, which is nice."

Always Improving

Casino resorts aren't content with the same old, same old -- and that's a big plus for planners.

"We totally remodeled nearly every part of our facility recently -- it was the same design team that did Bellagio in Las Vegas that did our rooms and meeting space," notes Kimberly Jordan-Sides, Gold Strike Casino's national sales manager. "So, you get a Vegas-style property in a small town. MGM Resorts International has put a lot of capital into our property."

Lisa Williams, executive director of sales for the MGM Grand Detroit emphasizes that casino hotels are unusual in the high importance they place on keeping things fresh for guests.

"A hotel might change a restaurant or get a renovation every 12 years, but a casino resort would change things up every three or four years, unless it's one of their staples," she says. "Something's always changing and evolving for planners, and they really do benefit from that."

The economic value of meeting at a destination casino resort, coupled with everything it offers in entertainment and in meeting and event space, makes it a sure bet for many planners.

Peter Winters, senior director of global accounts at HemsBriscoe, has found that for many of his groups, casino resorts like Casino Del Sol Resort in Tucson, AZ, are a perfect fit. "It's a resort experience without the pricing that typically goes with it, and there's nightlife after the meeting ends."

McKenna says of Mohegan Sun, "You get great value for your money. Their ballroom is more than 30,000 square feet and it's completely carpeted, for example. If you went to a convention center, it's probably much less attractive and you'd have to pay for that carpeting."

Meeting outside bigger cities and big-name gaming destinations can also help you meet your budget. FireShowsWest's Hill notes, "The hotel rates are much more attractive in Reno for the dollar. It used to be that Vegas had lower rates, but not anymore. Because [FirreShowsWest] is government-focused with our attendee base, we want to stay in that per diem and to be in a property that has all the amenities that the Atlantis in Reno does."

Questions or comments? Email [email protected]

This article appears in the August 2015 issue of Successful Meetings.