Fam U.: Harrah's takes meeting planner familiarization tours to the next level

Originally published April 1, 2007 in Successful Meetings.

What's the dirtiest four-letter word that Jordan Clark can think of?

Golf.

Back in 2005, Clark, then a new vice president of sales at Harrah's Entertainment, was designing a familiarization tour for a group of VIPs (as in, Very Important Planners). Because of his distaste for the dimpled ball, Clark didn't want to go the traditional golf-and-spa route. "I've always found those events frustrating because I'm not a golfer," he explains. "Either you're doing an activity you can't stand, or you're getting a spa treatment, and while I love massages, they really don't allow for having a conversation with your customer."

More importantly, Clark knew he wasn't alone. "When I was recruiting planners for these events, I got a lot of responses from people saying they didn't want golf or spa," he says. He also realized that often these planners' bosses didn't want them "to go on a boondoggle—their attitude was, 'I'm not letting you out of the office to play golf when we've got work to do.' "

So Clark and his team set out to design an event that customers would actually want to attend, by doing one simple thing: asking key clients what they wanted. The answer? Education. "Planners told us they can do golf and spa anytime they want," says Clark's colleague Michael Massari, vice president of meeting sales and operations for the chain. "What they really wanted was to learn how to do their jobs better."

Clark ended up devising the polar opposite of a boondoggle: a fam in which planners could earn continuing-education credits that helped them maintain their Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) designation. Of course, Clark adds, there would also be "fun"—dinners, cocktail parties, excursions to nearby Lake Mead—but "we would use those events to show planners what we could do with their groups."

The result was "The Las Vegas Experience," and not surprisingly, it's become wildly popular since its January 2006 debut, with attendance more than doubling from 60 to nearly 150 in the three times it's taken place. Read on to find out how this unique combination of education and networking proved a win-win for Harrah's as well as the planners who attended.

The Urge to Merge

When Harrah's acquired Caesars Entertainment in August 2005, the merger resulted in more than a million square feet of meeting space spread across six Sin City hotels. Harrah's desire to showcase the expanded capabilities of Las Vegas Meetings by Harrah's Entertainment—its centralized meetings department—dovetailed perfectly with Clark's wish to create a familiarization experience that would be meaningful for planners.

Through Las Vegas Meetings by Harrah's Entertainment, planners have one point of contact with the sales, catering, convention services, and banquet departments of all six properties. "For the first time that I know of, groups can have their opening general session at Caesars Palace; breakfasts, meetings, and luncheons at the Flamingo; and the closing-night banquet at Paris Las Vegas," says Massari.

A free shuttle service makes it easy for groups to move from property to property, but more importantly, the planner works with just "one contract, one salesperson, one CSM, and one F&B person," notes Massari. "They're not stuck in one property, but they can leverage their spend with one company instead of splitting it up."

Thus the most recent Las Vegas Experience, held last November, kicked off with a welcome reception Thursday night at Paris Las Vegas. Friday consisted of a full day of educational sessions at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino that began with a breakfast presentation by Larry Winget, a.k.a. "the pit bull of personal development" and author of It's Called Work for a Reason. Planners stayed at different Harrah's hotels (which include Bally's Las Vegas and the Flamingo as well as the eponymous property), based on where they were most interested in doing business.

On Saturday, planners enjoyed off-site activities, from poker tournaments to wine tastings to Hummer tours, all with an eye to giving them ideas for their own programs. The closing gala dinner was held at Caesars Palace that evening, and attendees went home Sunday morning.

Mary Koeppel, senior event planner for Caterpillar, the Peoria, IL-based manufacturer of heavy equipment for construction, mining, and other industries, attended The Las Vegas Experience last fall and found it "very enlightening." "I don't have a lot of free time," explains Koeppel, "and it allowed me to interact with a lot of different suppliers, from DMCs to musicians to lighting people to speakers to comedians. And in one short weekend I experienced all the different venues and locations."

Koeppel's relationship with Harrah's is based on her longtime role handling Caterpillar's exhibits at CONEXPO-CON/AGG, the construction industry's largest trade show. When the show convenes in Vegas next year, Caterpillar will use 2,900 rooms at Caesars Palace on peak night. But it was the chance to experience other Harrah's hotels that she found especially valuable.

"The fam was unusual in that it wasn't just a walk-through of the properties," says Koeppel. "For instance, I had not really sited the Rio, and it opened my eyes to a great opportunity there." Caterpillar has booked at least two additional meetings in Harrah's venues because of her trip, she adds.

Leading Them On

Koeppel is hardly the only planner bringing additional business to Las Vegas because of Harrah's efforts. "An awful lot of business—well in excess of what we would expect—closes in the first two weeks after the fam," says Massari.

Harrah's also tracks the number of sales leads it gets from planner attendees in the six-month period before the fam versus the six-month period afterwards. Remarkably, the number of leads generated per customer nearly doubles. "We have one customer who we know brings 21 meetings a year to Vegas, of which we were only capturing five," says Clark. "Based on the fam, we've been able to increase our share to 12."

That's why Harrah's spares no expense in planning the experience. Besides the chance to sip Champagne, savor gourmet fare, and ride in helicopters, planners also enjoy top entertainment like magicians Penn & Teller and comedian George Wallace—"the funniest man who ever walked the face of the earth, and Jerry Seinfeld's mentor," according to Clark. "The food and drink, the entertainment, the amenities—over the top is the only way to describe them," says Massari.

Indeed. Clark estimates that the cost to host the most recent Las Vegas Experience was somewhere in the neighborhood of $480,000. While that might seem like a lot of money to spend on just 150 people, "If the customer is important enough for us to spend time with, they're important enough for us to do it right," Clark offers. "There can actually be a hindrance in spending time with customers and only half-doing it. We go top-notch on everything."

No doubt that has something to do with why Harrah's has increased the value of its meetings business by almost 50 percent, from $270 million in 2004 to $400 million last year, with the company predicting a similar increase for next year.

"I always wanted to do a customer experience like this," Clark says. "I'd tried unsuccessfully with other companies in the past, and Harrah's was the first that allowed me the resources and commitment to do it." He sums up: "I think not liking golf has actually helped me in my career."