Beware of That Group Next Door

Almost no group wants a business competitor in-house when it holds a meeting. That's axiomatic. But now, planners also are finding themselves sharing facilities with groups that champion "alternative lifestyles," a situation that presents its own challenges.

A purposely vague term, "alternative lifestyle" refers to the varied sexual interests of such people as swingers, cross-dressers and leather fetishists, among others. The groups mainly consist of heterosexual couples, although gays and lesbians are also often classified as having an alternative lifestyle despite their greater acceptance in American society.

Many of these groups are increasingly coming out of the closet and into hotel meeting rooms. A case in point came last month, with a planner for a corporate group claiming her meeting at the Alexis Park Hotel in Las Vegas was substantially compromised by such a group.

Hannah Greenberg, conference services director of Voorhees, N.J.-based Meeting Mavericks, said many of the 75 people at her meeting of automotive fleet managers at the Alexis Park were deeply offended by the behavior of some attendees at an event, also going on there, called N'awlins in November.

The N'awlins in November event stages erotic events for couples.

"My attendees were exposed to people running around in the nude, people groping each other, and other explicit displays in the lobby and other public areas of the hotel," said Greenberg.

"I'm not happy, and my client is not happy with me," added Greenberg, who declined to name her corporate client. "I haven't yet decided exactly what to do about it, but I can't get it out of my mind. I'm humiliated."

As is her standard practice, Greenberg asked about the other groups booked into the hotel before signing her contract, in June. At the time, the hotel had not yet booked N'awlins in November. The event is produced annually in New Orleans by French Connection Events, of Covington, La., but was displaced to Las Vegas by Hurricane Katrina.

Greenberg discovered the nature of N'awlins in November when she arrived on property. At first, Greenberg and her attendees tried to tolerate the behavior, but she said it became too egregious.

"If they had kept to themselves and not been so obvious, we could have lived with it," said Greenberg. "But people were walking around with nothing more on than chaps, or a shawl and high heels."

Greenberg claimed that one night she saw a group of seven or eight men and women, completely naked, congregating by the hotel's main swimming pool, which is visible through glass doors from the lobby.

Greenberg said she complained to hotel staffers, but the hotel took no action to curtail the behavior.

"They pretended not to know; they pretended not to see," she said.

For their part, both the hotel and French Connection Events denied that N'awlins in November attendees had run amuck.

Both hotel and French Connection security people were on-site around the clock, according to Valerie Vargas, the hotel's sales director. The president of French Connection, Bob Hannaford, said that officials of the state's gaming control authority also patrolled the grounds.

"We got not one single report of complaints from any of the three security details," said Hannaford, adding, "We don't allow people to run around naked. If people were running around naked, they would have shut us down in a second."

Vargas also denied that people were in the main pool area without clothes.

"If we had seen or heard about anything like that, our security would have been called," she said.

Hannaford said that per his standard procedure for French Connection events, he went to considerable effort to separate his group from the rest of the hotel guests.

Hannaford booked 350 rooms on peak night at the 500-room Alexis Park, cordoning off eight guest buildings and a swimming pool and posting guards. N'awlins in November attendees were required to wear identification bracelets to enter the group's area. The group's meeting space was also cordoned off, with guards posted, he said.

"The only problem we had was from other hotel guests trying to get into our area," Hannaford said.

Hannaford co-founded French Connection Events in 1998. The year before, he staged his first alternative-lifestyle event, the genesis of N'awlins in November, a party that 22 couples attended. Last year, the event drew more than 1,000 couples to the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel in New Orleans' French Quarter, said Hannaford.

"We put on sensuous events, where couples can come and dress up in sexy outfits, and have erotic balls and other fantasies," explained Hannaford, who managed a total of five alternative-lifestyle events this year. He said fewer than 20 percent of couples who attend French Connection events are looking to meet other couples for sexual liaisons; the rest, he said, are monogamous.

Hannaford and other producers of alternative-lifestyle events say the phenomenon is growing largely for two reasons: greater societal acceptance, and the growth of the Internet, which makes it much easier for like-minded people to find each other and meet in person.

"It's been around for several years, but it's more visible now; it's coming to the surface," said Tina Greene, a Los Angeles-based independent planner who has planned alternative-lifestyle events for the past 15 years.

"The Internet has made it explode," said Cyndi Wideman, in charge of exhibit sponsorships for The Lifestyles Organization of Buena Park, Calif. "There are probably 40 to 50 Internet dating sites specifically targeting alternative-lifestyle people, and the event listings on those sites are growing by leaps and bounds."

Among other events, the company produces the annual Lifestyles Convention, in Las Vegas, which last year drew more than 2,000 couples to the Stardust Hotel and sold 103 exhibit booths, according to Wideman.

Started 32 years ago in Las Vegas, the Lifestyles Convention is one of the oldest, continuously operating alternative-lifestyle events in the country.

"We used to be all there was, and now there are about 20 conventions a year in Las Vegas," said Wideman.

Greene, who managed six alternative-lifestyle events this year, said the couples who attend often have plenty of disposable income.

"Revenue per customer on these groups tends to be very good; hotels like them," she said, explaining that attendees at alternative-lifestyle events — already in a party mood — spend generously on food and beverage, including room service, along with other pleasurable pursuits, such as spa treatments.

Said Hannaford, "Eight years ago, we had a hard time finding hotels that would accept us. Today, I can't tell you how many hotels solicit our business."

Las Vegas is not the only destination that attracts alternative-lifestyle groups. Other resort destinations, like Palm Springs and Fort Lauderdale, also have joined in, as have cities with reputations for tolerating free-wheeling lifestyles, such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and New Orleans.

In addition to the more obvious destinations, alternative-lifestyle groups are likely to meet in most any sizable city in the country.

Lynn Brothersen, a senior meeting planner for InvesTools Inc., of Draper, Utah, held a meeting for about 150 of the company's customers a couple of years ago at a major-chain convention hotel in Houston. Right next to her group, which was learning about InvesTools' software for investing in stocks online, was a group of transvestites holding a fashion show.

"They were parading around the hotel not just in dresses but in lingerie," said Brothersen. "Our trainers were mortified, and the attendees were also offended. They didn't expect that kind of a group at that upscale a property.

"The hotel sales staff didn't warn us in advance that that kind of group would be in-house," Brothersen continued. "We request information about potential competitors, but you would hope that a property would tell you if it's having an alternative group at the same time as yours, so you can decide whether you want to have your meeting there."