Living Large

Ideally every meeting should fit its chosen venue the way Versace's Grammy's-night gown fit Jennifer Lopez. But fit is sometimes not even a consideration. There are plenty of reasons that decision-makers choose to bring their 30-person meetings to 1,500-room resorts: The boss likes the VIP suites there, or the resort has great airport access, or you want to entice your attendees. So the big venue with the flashy casino and the 50,000-plus square feet of meeting space gets your call, even though you need only one small meeting room. What follows are expert tips for using such properties.

Know Your Value
In 2003, for the first time, Las Vegas casino hotels earned more from non-gaming operations than from gaming. Obviously, where casinos earn their revenue affects the negotiating process. In former times a group's gaming profile—are attendees highly likely to wager at the casino?—was a big consideration when properties looked at a meeting's worth. Now, high spa usage, shopping, and catering can tip the scales in your favor. So do supply this type of history with your RFP; it'll help hotels determine the value of the program.

Be flexible with times and dates. Choose dates toward the beginning of the week. Conventions and tourists come in on weekends. This is true at casino resorts around the country.

Nix Neighbors With Bats
If your meeting is of diminutive size, taking up a tiny corner of a grand meetings property, the single biggest problem you need to worry about is noise from a big confab nearby. Ask questions of your sales contact. Is your group going to be in a room with an airwall? Is there an escalator or prefunction space right outside your door? If so, people could be milling around out there during their breaks while you're trying to be heard. What type of meeting is going to be next door to yours?

If it is a motivational meeting, the audience could even "have plastic bats and they're beating against the table every few minutes," says Glen Parnell, regional director for HelmsBriscoe, in Houston.

Laura Tripp, project coordinator for Mrs. Fields Famous Brands in Salt Lake City, UT, booked an operations team meeting at the Paris Las Vegas and found out about one month out that there would be a very large group at the hotel at the same time. "I think it was Budweiser," she says. "It was huge."

To accommodate Tripp's concerns about noise, the property's sales team moved her to meeting space at Bally's (the Paris and Bally's, two of Harrah's six Las Vegas properties, are adjacent). "It worked out great," says Tripp.

To get ahead of any noise problems, do a site inspection. Parnell, who does at least 25 meetings a year in Las Vegas for various clients, says Vegas properties "usually have one side or section [for small groups] so that you're not totally lost."

Meeting space at the Mohegan Sun Resort, in Uncasville, CT, is laid out so small groups are primarily kept on one level of the self-contained conference center. Having big, noisy neighbors was, therefore, not one of John McLaughlin's worries. McLaughlin, executive vice president of Associated Risk Managers of the Northeast, based in Albany, NY, chose the 1,200-room Mohegan Sun for his 40- person regional meeting of independent insurance agents three years ago and has returned each year since. There's 52,000 square feet of meeting space at the resort, but McLaughlin needs just one room for his meeting, and another (right across the hall) for a cocktail party.

Gain an Advocate
Responsiveness on the part of hotel service staff is the key ingredient that will make a small meeting work in a large casino property. Las Vegas' major properties dedicate a portion of their service staff to small-meeting customers. But there's a catch. Curtis Love, Ph.D., associate professor in the University of Las Vegas Nevada's Tourism & Convention department, says to be aware that "you may not get that seasoned person because they'll be with the large groups. But you can certainly ask."

Mike Massari, vice president of meeting sales & operations, Las Vegas Meetings by Harrah's, says it's true that typically CSMs start out on small meetings and work their way up, but "small meetings are such an important segment for us that we don't want to promote [people] out of it." Besides, younger CSMs often have high energy and enthusiasm.

At the Mohegan Sun, 65 percent of its business is small meetings, averaging 30 to 40 rooms, according to Christopher Perry, vice president, hotel sales & marketing. "You get one contact who handles your room and catering needs," he says. This is a concept the property calls "uniserve". All event service managers have been trained to be the sole point of contact, from registration to menus to technology needs. According to McLaughlin, it works well.

"They're used to that group size, so they're able to put together a very nice menu . . . and it was all set up on time." McLaughlin praises the event service managers for the followup, on all his needs.

Broadcast Your Hot Buttons
"In the precon meeting make sure they know what are the three things that will make you happy," advises Love. After all, he adds, "Every small meeting has the potential to become a large meeting," which the conference sales and management teams certainly understand.

For James Appleton, president of the New Jersey Coalition of Automotive Retailers, in Trenton, NJ, who holds an annual two-day board meeting/retreat in Atlantic City for 15 board members plus executive staff, "Our major concern is the meeting space. We're going to be spending a significant amount of time in that meeting room, so we want to make sure it's comfortable and bright." Next is the quality of the food. But when he sits down to talk with the precon team, he talks about timing. His timeline is precise. He needs a buffet table set up outside the meeting room, with food that's hot, on time, so everyone can fill plates and return to work pronto.

Appleton has used the 2,000-room Borgata Resort since it opened in 2003. "The staff there really does seem to have that [adhering to his schedule] down," he says.

Find a Special Place
Using a private room or intimate outdoor setting for a meal or cocktail event is a great way to create the air of exclusivity that gives your attendees the feeling that they have the best spot in the house.

A customer event that Odalys Bravo-Fernandez plans twice a year as executive secretary and administrator, product management and support, for Amadeus North America Inc. at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel in Hollywood, FL, often uses restaurants outside of the host property. But "one time we wanted the meal function to be a fun dinner instead of formal," she says. She asked for tables for 30 at the Hard Rock Café, which seats 140 and has no private rooms. "We had a special section with the tables set up [so that] it felt self-contained." Special decor wasn't necessary, what with the rock 'n' roll memorabilia all around, but "each of the guests had a menu welcoming them to the Hard Rock. We had a set menu, and we had a couple of waiters catering to us."

At Bally's, Tripp did a lunch in the meeting room that was hand-carried by a group of waiters. Plates were under silver domes, and the waiters removed them all at the same time, with a flourish.

For her final-night dinner, which she wanted to hold at the Paris, Tripp says her convention services manager at Bally's helped smooth the way for her. "She kind of gave [the catering manager at the Paris] a heads up." Although it was just two weeks out, they were able to get commemorative menus with Mrs. Fields logos printed on them. The group had a private room at no charge, just an F&B minimum they had to meet.

Massari at Harrah's says, "Small groups, just like big groups, want to experience all that Las Vegas has to offer . . . We make sure they are able to navigate throughout the city [using any of the Harrah's properties] with one contract, one master bill, one F&B minimum, and one CSM working with them."

Groups as small as 20 can have private check-in and welcome signs in the building. The Wynn Las Vegas is also known for similar small-group considerations.

Give Attendees Options
As a strategy for making people feel comfortable and coddled, nothing works better than giving them plenty of information and some free time to enjoy the casino and the city. Most planners interviewed said they negotiated the rate so individuals could extend their stay before or after the meeting.

Says UNLV's Love, "Have a right agenda, and let your group know that people will have time to enjoy the casino. In other words, build time in for your people to do that."

Originally published April 01, 2007

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