Gaming Gone Wild

Think a gaming destination isn't for your group? Think again. Thanks to the success of TV shows like the Bravo's Celebrity Poker Showdown and the Travel Channel's World Poker Tour, gambling has become hot, say experts.

"The popularity of these shows is astounding -- poker was even shown on NBC opposite the Super Bowl this year," notes Robert Thompson, trustee professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University in Syracuse, NY. And it's not just a spectator sport, he adds: "Whenever a new game gets a lot of attention, people want to try it. This phenomenon is increasing interest in gaming."

What does that mean for planners? Even if a gaming destination hasn't worked for your attendees in the past, don't write it off. Several planners told us they've seen new or increased interest in gambling this year, especially among younger people. "I'm organizing an incentive program right now for a group of young, mostly male restaurant managers," says Carla Salvans-Buchborn, president of Meeting Innovations in El Paso, TX. "Two months ago they didn't want Vegas, and now all of a sudden it's their destination of choice."

Though she herself watches poker shows "religiously," Salvans-Buchborn says she can't say for sure if her attendees are planning on honing their Texas Hold 'Em skills in Sin City. But the fact remains that if you're taking a meeting to a gaming destination this year, you're likely to have more amateur bettors than ever before. Read on to find out how you can help them enjoy the game . . . without going for broke.

Know When to Fold 'Em

At Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, CT, staffers have not only seen more meeting groups visiting the casino lately, but they've had more planners request a "mock casino night" for their attendees. "It's in vogue right now to bring your group to a casino," says one sales manager, "and a popular group activity is Casino 101, where we create a teambuilding exercise around teaching attendees how to play." Interest in this program has grown in the past year, she adds.

David Berwick, director of destination services at Mohegan Sun, has done the Casino 101 activity for groups of all sizes, most notably a 700-person meeting for a telecommunications giant. "We incorporate it into a cocktail reception or a themed event, and we usually bring in a craps table, some blackjack tables, and a roulette table, along with nonvalue gaming chips," he explains. "People really love it -- they feel more prepared to go and hit the gaming floor afterwards."

One group that tried Berwick's Casino 101 program for the first time recently consisted of 120 Nissan parts and service managers from Maine to Delaware who'd won a sales contest. "Parts and service managers are treated like dirt in the industry -- they get the grunt end of the business," says David von Bing, who organized the incentive trip for the automaker. With this event, "We treat them with dignity and reward them well. It's our biggest event for the region and everything needs to be just so."

To that end, von Bing built anticipation around the Casino 101 event by starting with drinks and hors d'oeuvres in an unadorned reception area, then moving his attendees into a beautifully decorated dining room -- "so when they walk in they get that sense of 'this is for you,' " he explains. Participants could help themselves to dinner from the various buffet stations scattered around the room, or go straight to the gaming tables, where Mohegan Sun dealers coached them in the rules of the different games while they bet play money.

Though the incentive program is now in its fifth year, von Bing says it's important to offer the mock casino program to the parts and service managers because more than half of them are first-time winners; in fact, he plans to include it in all future incentives. Mohegan Sun's staff, he adds, was very helpful in coaching his attendees so that they would feel comfortable playing in the real casino if they wished. "Several people came up to me afterwards and said, 'This was a great idea,' " he recalls. "They liked learning about gambling without losing their shirts."

Full House

Another planner who's noticed her attendees getting more juiced about gaming lately is Lisa Dyson, director of conventions and conferences for the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industries (AWCI) in Falls Church, VA. Only in her case, it's not among the contractors who make up her association membership, but their wives. "Contractors are gamblers by nature," explains Dyson. "They love to gamble and party, so Vegas is one of their favorite places to meet. Whenever we hold our annual convention there, attendance is up."

But for the first time this year, Dyson was asked to include an introduction to gaming session as a spouse program for her April convention and trade show, which brought 3,000 attendees and exhibitors to the Paris Las Vegas Hotel. "There's definitely increased awareness by the spouses to learn about gambling," observes Dyson. "I guess it's those TV shows -- or maybe they're just sick of losing their husbands to the casino!"

Baskow and Associates, a local destination management company, coordinated the event, in which over a hundred spouses participated. "The dealers, the tables -- they're all real," says Baskow and Associates account executive John Sanchez, who has also noticed these activities growing in popularity of late. "The only thing fake is the chips."

Groups typically do the mock casino event the first night of their program, Sanchez says, so they can apply their learning during the rest of their stay. "Sometimes we give them a phony thousand-dollar bill when they walk in, which they exchange for chips just like in a casino," he adds. At the end of the evening, attendees can cash in their chips for prizes awarded by the meeting organization, or event sponsors.

Gaming is so popular right now, Sanchez notes, that some clients even ask for mock betting scenarios in trade-show booths: "I'm doing an event next month where the client wants two blackjack tables in the booth," he laughs. "It certainly gets people to come by -- it's a real show-stopper."

When in Rome . . .

For evidence that gaming has truly gone mainstream, you couldn't do much better than the National Catholic Education Association's (NCEA) 2002 conference in Atlantic City, where over 13,000 attendees and exhibitors met. That might not sound exceptional -- except that A.C. had been off-limits to the NCEA ever since the town legalized gaming back in 1978. "We used to meet there quite often," remembers Sue Arvo, convention and exposition director for the Washington D.C.-based association, "but after gambling came in, the local bishop didn't think it would be appropriate."

Eventually, however, that bishop was replaced, and the new bishop thought Atlantic City would make an excellent meeting spot, with its new convention center and the high number of NCEA members living in the area. "The meeting was very successful," notes Arvo, who plans to return to the New Jersey resort town. Did she include a mock casino night for the schoolteachers, pastors, and other educators who make up her membership? Arvo says she didn't go that far. But "every night, the attendees were on their own!"