When Vickie Kress was given a mandate to attract higher attendance at her client's annual software user conference, her solution was plain and simple: Go to the gaming destinations. When planning for any kind of special event, one must look into location, believes Kress, who is the director of events management for Softbrands, a technology manufacturer in Castle Valley, UT. But not just any location: "Our attendance numbers rose twofold when we first started going to gaming destinations like Vegas and Reno," notes Kress. Planners will agree that across the board, holding an event at a gaming destination attracts attendees and gives them more of an incentive to come. The main reason for the boost—these destinations are perfect staging grounds for special events, whether on-site or at local venues around town.
The Scene's the Theme
"Las Vegas is a major meetings place," comments Debbie Baker, account executive for TWI Extras, division of the TWI Group Inc. that specializes in housing and special events which is based there. "Not only is it a destination that people want to come to, it's not hard to get to, either."
Entertainment options in Las Vegas are so lavish that meeting planners can actually give their attendees unique experiences without planning a special event at all. Live, mainstream performers like Celine Dion and Barry Manilow, along with theater productions like Cirque du Soleil, make Vegas more attractive, and give attendees yet another reason to go there. Cirque's most recent show, Ka, in residence at the MGM Grand, is performed on a permanent set that cost $165 million to construct. This makes it an exclusive experience that the attendee can have only in Las Vegas—and that is one of the main lures a planner hopes to dangle when creating a themed event.
And, of course, there is always gaming. It's one of the oldest forms of entertainment in the world and in recent years it's made inroads into the world of corporate events. "Having the gaming offers just so much for people," says Baker. "There's something for everybody; but if people don't want to gamble, they can go to a show. People see Vegas as an opportunity to play as well as work—not to mention that it offers the most square footage of meeting space in the country," she concludes.
The Home Depot of Entertainment
When it comes to creating events, gaming destinations are essentially a one-stop shop for meeting planners. These resorts are all about creating entertainment and they have a wealth of expertise and production materials to assist in the process. That's especially true of the hotels on the Strip in Vegas. The MGM Mirage Events, which puts on productions for groups at the Bellagio, New York-New York, Treasure Island, the MGM Grand, and the Mirage, is a good example of the kind of help planners can expect. The production company provides turnkey event services for themed events that range from simple cocktail receptions up to elaborate stage shows for conventions. This kind of help is even more crucial in these days of shorter lead times for meetings. "Our production company does about 600 events a year, some of them with lead times as short as 10-days," says Cheryl Fish, vice president of MGM Mirage Events.
When Baker planned the pharmaceutical company Glaxo-SmithKline's 2003 sales conference she was asked to create a jungle in The Venetian's ballroom to mirror the company's event theme, "It's a Jungle Out There." Along with gathering hundreds of plants and finding special sound effects of birds and monkeys, she had a 14-foot-volcano built and hired actors posing as witch doctors and snake charmers. All of which was far easier to find in a town like Vegas than it would have been elsewhere. According to Baker, the attendees were so captivated by this event that they even took pictures with the fake wildlife and the so-called "witch doctors." "Not only was the event compelling and successful, the attendees were happy with having their free time be in Vegas," says Baker, "especially at a resort like The Venetian, which is right in the middle of the Strip and offers all the gaming and entertainment one could possibly want."
Events Off the Strip
No doubt every planner would love to plan an event in Vegas; however, there are other gaming destinations in the country that offer quite the same edge and degree of entertainment, and often for less money. Angela Pitrone, VP of global meetings for Solomon & Associates Event Management, based in Glastonbury, CT, chose to plan an event for the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund's Fuel Cell Investment Summit at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, CT, last March because not only is the Indian casino complex partially powered by a fuel cell (a hydrogen-based alternative energy source), but also its gaming aspect offered great appeal to her attendees. "We needed to have good attendance, so I chose Mohegan Sun. The entertainment is unbeatable and people love to gamble. Plus, it was great for the attendees to see and tour Mohegan Sun's fuel cell, for the entire summit was designed to stimulate ideas and explore solutions that will move the fuel-cell industry forward," says Pitrone.
Pitrone's event took place in Mohegan Sun's 38,000-square- foot ballroom, where attendees were able to zip around in hydrogen-fueled cars that were imported just for this event. Attendees also rocked out to a Rhode Island high-school band whose electrical instruments, amplifiers, and vocal PA system were powered by a fuel cell. "Hydrogen fuel cells are a very exciting area of technology and science education—and fun when powering a rock band," says Rhode Island high-school science teacher Ross McCurdy, who attended the event and provided technical assistance to band members. Pitrone exclaimed how "awesome" the band was since they were able to play fun 80s style music, which the attendees loved. Also, notes Pitrone, just knowing that the music was powered by a fuel cell demonstrated a provocative new trend that could ultimately benefit the environment. "Everyone loved the music and the concept because it related to them, and what they do for a living."
According to Vickie Kress of Softbrands, she gets the best attendance numbers in gaming destinations. "Everyone wants to go to Vegas for a meeting," says Kress, "and when we do go, it increases our attendance by 25 percent." However, for her annual user conference she chose to go to Reno—which increased her attendance by 10 percent. "I find that Vegas doesn't really want our 350-person group because we are not big enough for it. Reno, of course, loves having us. We worked with the Reno Hilton a couple of years ago and the staff there did a wonderful job, so they had a leg up and it was an easy choice for us to go to."
For Kress' event, she deviated from the "typical stuffy plated dinners with the low-budget form of entertainment" and rented out Reno Hilton's entire 50-lane bowling alley. Her company provided the music, while the hotel provided food and drinks. "This was something new for our company and our attendees loved it—they were able to network, teambuild, and have fun," she says. Besides enjoying bowling, of course, Kress' attendees took advantage of Reno Hilton's gaming tables: "People like to gamble and that's why we got such high attendance numbers in Vegas," says Kress. "By holding this event in Reno, we were able to provide attendees with some of the Las Vegas feel, but without the Las Vegas cost factors."