The Best of Vegas - on and off The Strip
Fifty years ago this April, the Las Vegas Convention Center hosted its first-ever exhibition: the World Flight Congress, a gathering for the rocket-space and aeronautics industries.
“It was our coming out party,” says Jeremy Handel of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “It says a lot about the city of Las Vegas that we’ve been able to sustain this moniker as the convention city and continue to grow.”
To say that Vegas has grown since 1959 is something of an understatement. Fifty years ago, a 34-year-old Sammy Davis, Jr. was performing at the Sands, the famous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign was newly installed and “lucky” visitors got to occasionally watch mushroom clouds from atom bombs rise up in the nearby desert.
In the ensuing decades, dozens of grand hotels and resorts have been erected, torn down and rebuilt, always bigger and better, largely to attract the next wave of meeting and convention groups, who meet, mingle, celebrate and indulge, then return as quickly as they came. The Las Vegas Convention Center hosted more than 1.5 million delegates last year alone, and the city as a whole hosted approximately 23,000 different meetings.
Of course, growth has not always been steady, and right now Las Vegas is stalled. Gaming revenues have tumbled, bookings have dropped sharply and many major construction projects have been put on hold. Yet, fueled in large part by the promise of future convention business, other major projects are right on track, including the massive CityCenter, on the center Strip. “We’ve got around 13,000 new rooms coming online this year alone,” Handel says. “Despite where the economy is at, there’s a lot of development coming on.”
And in spite of the tough times, thousands of meeting planners this year again will funnel their groups toward the southern Nevada desert, for the same reasons that likely attracted the World Flight Congress five decades ago: the promise of sunny weather, countless entertainments (including a few not legal elsewhere) and a vibe of fun and decadence that has a powerful, seductive allure. It’s not by accident that Las Vegas attracts 18 percent more attendees on average than other destinations, according to the LVCVA.
“There’s so much to do in Las Vegas, and the airfares are relatively inexpensive no matter where you are in the country,” says LouAnn Hunt, who each year plans a Vegas gathering for about 1,000 members of the Single Action Shooting Society, which includes seminars, exhibitions and parties themed around Old West-style shooting. “We’ve always held our event in Las Vegas.”
In many ways, the economic downturn makes Vegas a better destination, as prices have dropped and crowds are down. “The value is really good there right now; it’s a buyer’s market,” says Marci DuBois, corporate events manager at Taco Bell Corp., based in Irvine, Calif. “It’s great for planners as you can negotiate a good deal. I talked to my sales person at The Mirage a few weeks ago and said, we’re looking at space for a meeting in 2009 and we’re not married to Vegas, but we want to give you a run. And she came back with a number that’s remarkable. They’re hurting, and they get it.”
“The meetings business is holding up better than most segments,” says Michael Massari, vice president of meeting sales and operations for Las Vegas Meetings by Harrah’s Entertainment. “We’ve been very fortunate about that, but it’s still remarkably difficult. The job has never been so difficult in my career. I get accused of being an optimist, but when things get difficult and you have to work harder/smarter than ever to go through this, these are the times when you get better at core competencies. You get more efficient and effective, and these are the things that set you up for success.”
According to Richard Harper, vice president of sales and marketing for Mandalay Bay, “We challenge planners to find a better price/value relationship than there is today, right now, in Las Vegas. We respect and appreciate the need for planners to be fiscally responsible to their stakeholders in this economic environment.”
In this article, we present a list of ideas for your next visit to Las Vegas—but keep in mind that this barely scratches the surface. If 50 years has proved anything, it’s that Las Vegas is a city that never stops evolving. “Anybody who tells you they know everything there is to know about Las Vegas—don’t believe them. There’s always something new to see,” Handel says. “It’s the commitment of the industry to make sure that when people bring an event here, they have the best possible experience they can, whether they’re looking for six executives to come in for a golf outing, or 150,000 people for a trade show.”
A few things to know before you go (or plan):
Las Vegas is served by McCarran International Airport (mccarran.com), which is conveniently located just one mile from the Las Vegas Strip and 3.5 miles from the Las Vegas Convention Center. The main zones for resorts are the Las Vegas Strip, an ever-growing development of mega-resorts that stretches for miles along Las Vegas Boulevard, and Downtown, the original Las Vegas core, centered around Fremont Street.
The Summerlin area is home to Red Rock Station Resort and the JW Marriott; Lake Las Vegas, a resort complex about 20 minutes from the Strip, is a complex of resorts, golf courses, shops and more centered around a large man-made lake. Other resorts and hotels are scattered across the city.
Vegas averages 320 days of sunshine per year, with an average temperature of 66.3 degrees. Winters can be a bit chilly and summers scorching hot, so bear that in mind if you intend to hold outdoor events or activities.
The LVCVA is a great first stop for planners, as they can arrange site inspections and familiarization tours, provide facility information, housing assistance and other services (lvcva.com). Also check out Vegas.com, which has listings of upcoming shows, descriptions of hotels and more.
10 Great Event Sites
The bars, nightclubs, museums, restaurants and other venues around Las Vegas are rich with atmosphere, and nearly all are available for group rental. Here are a few unique spots to make your event stand out.
Atomic Testing Museum: This unusual museum, focused on the decades-long history of atomic bomb testing in the Nevada Test Site, offers a memorable event site. Located about one mile from The Strip, the entire museum can be used for events; the interior can hold between 300–325 people, while up to 400 can be hosted for a stand-up buffet by using an outdoor patio (atomictestingmuseum.org).
Brooklyn Bridge: A little taste of the Big Apple in the big desert, this outdoor site at New York-New York has views over The Strip and offers 10,000 sq. ft. of space for receptions for up to 1,000 people (nynyhotelcasino.com).
Eiffel Tower Restaurant, Paris Las Vegas: The half-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower, at Paris Las Vegas, has a restaurant than can seat up to 200, with a private salon for 20. In addition to its own je ne sais quoi, the site has great views of the Bellagio fountain across the street
Ghostbar: Located 55 stories above Las Vegas in the Palms, this stylish 8,000-square-foot bar has 14-foot floor-to-ceiling windows, as well as an outdoor terrace with 360-degree views of the city and desert. The club is operated by the N9NE Group, which also operates Moon, Rain, the Playboy Club and other bars and clubs (9groupvegas.com).
Minus5: The first permanent ice lounge of its kind in the United States, this 1,600- square-foot bar at Mandalay Bay features an ice-chapel, complete with stained “ice” windows and pews, ice sculptures and an ice candelabra. Guests don sheepskin-lined parkas, gloves and booties before entering (minus5experience.com).
Light Group Properties: Located mostly in MGM-Mirage properties, the Light Group operates several bars and nightclubs along The Strip, including Jet, the Beatles Revolution Lounge and Bare, all at the Mirage; The Bank, at Bellagio; and Diablo’s Cantina at Monte Carlo, which has an outdoor patio overlooking The Strip; plus other nightclubs, restaurants and bars. All these facilities are available for rental by groups, and all offer a laid-back party vibe that is great for events (lightgroup.com).
Pure: Pure Nightclub, at Caesars Palace, is the most famous of the Pure Management Group properties around town; it spans 40,000 sq. ft. and can hold up to 2,500 people, in an all-white dance room and an outdoor terrace area overlooking The Strip. Other PMG spots include Lucky Strike, a funky bowling alley at the Rio, and Social House, a hipster sushi restaurant at Treasure Island (purelv.com).
Springs Preserve: Developed recently at a cost of $250 million, this 180-acre community center is built around the site of the natural springs where the city of Las Vegas was founded. The site features attractive gardens, as well as numerous cultural exhibits and an outdoor 1,800-seat amphitheater (springspreserve.org).
Top of the World Restaurant and Lounge: The rotating restaurant atop the soaring Stratosphere Tower has extended private dining rooms and access to the outdoor observation deck. To get any higher, you’ll have to get in an aircraft (topoftheworldlv.com).
Voodoo Café and Lounge: Located 51 stories above ground level with sweeping views of The Strip, this fun indoor/outdoor nightclub has unforgettable outdoor views, as well as steaks, lobster and other specialties; total capacity is 450 (riolasvegas.com).
5 Memorable Incentive Prizes
Las Vegas is a great place to dole out incentive rewards, as VIP-style perks abound. Here are a few ideas for memorable rewards to motivate any corporate team.
Fine Dining: Two decades ago, no one would have imagined that the French Michelin Guides would deign to visit Las Vegas, land of the all-you-can-eat buffets. But in 2009, no fewer than 140 restaurants and 32 hotels were covered by Michelin. A gift certificate to one of these spots—such as three-star winner Joël Robuchon at MGM Grand, or two-star winners Picasso at Bellagio, Guy Savoy at Caesars Palace or Alex at Wynn Las Vegas—can be a great motivator for a sales staff.
Golf: Vegas is home to dozens of excellent golf courses, all within easy striking distance of The Strip and downtown areas, including courses designed by Jack Nicklaus, Tom Fazio and other big names. Top courses include Bali Hai, fashioned after an Indonesian paradise, Shadow Creek, exclusive for MGM Mirage guests, and the Las Vegas Paiute Golf Resort, which has three championship courses. Vegas courses tend to be expensive, so a round can be a nice reward (lasvegasgolfadventures.com).
Shooting Off: Ever wanted to shoot a Magnum—or an M-16 machine gun? Las Vegas is home to a few different shooting ranges that can be used for group events, or for incentive prizes like “Big 5” or “Full Monty,” which offer a diverse set of guns. Among the most popular is The Gun Store, which has a VIP range (thegunstorelasvegas.com).
Into Thin Air: Jumping out of an airplane seems sane by Vegas standards. Companies like Skydive Las Vegas offer jumps over the desert for as little as $149 (skydivelasvegas.com). For something more extreme, Air Combat USA is a “civilian dog fighting school” that lets participants fly real military fighters with licensed pilots in the cockpit. Flights start at around $1,500, with group competitions available as a team-building experience. No pilot’s license required
Swimming with Dolphins: For animal lovers, the “Trainer for a Day” program at the Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat offers an unusual chance to feed, train and play with dolphins. Also available is a one-hour VIP Tour that includes a photo with a dolphin (miragehabitat.com).
4 Spouse Activities
The luckiest people in Vegas may be those who get to come along while their significant others are in meetings all day. Here are a few ways to keep them entertained.
Amusement Rides: Especially for spouses who’ve got kids to entertain, Las Vegas has multiple mini amusement parks, including the mind-blowing rides on top of the Stratosphere (stratospherehotel.com), the roller coaster at New York-New York (nynyhotelcasino.com), and the Adventuredome and Midway at Circus Circus
Culinary Classes: Tuscany Kitchen, at Bellagio (bellagio.com), is an exhibition kitchen that can be used for cooking classes and wine pairings, as well as receptions, formal dinners and tastings, team-building activities and more. Loews Lake Las Vegas Resort offers a two-hour clinic to educate participants about Japanese cuisine in a fun, hands-on environment (loewshotels.com).
Day Trips: Just two hours south of the hustle and bustle, spouses will find plenty of options in Laughlin (visitlaughlin.com). Situated on the banks of the Colorado River, the city offers boat tours, as well as shopping, spas and nightlife.
Into the Desert: The desert around Las Vegas offers tons of great opportunities for hiking, horseback riding, ATV tours, mountain biking and more. Popular spots include Red Rock Canyon, Eldorado Canyon and Lake Mead. Consider working with an outfitter, such as Pink Jeep Tours (pinkjeeptours.com), or Awesome Adventures (awesomeadventureguide.com).
3 Team-Building Activities
A trip to Las Vegas is usually a bonding experience no matter what, but planners can put together special activities to bring groups closer together
Poker Tournament: A Texas Hold ’Em tournament can be a fun team-building activity and a learning experience, with poker used as a metaphor for business. While real wagering is not allowed, you can set up the competitions with prizes for winners. Talk to your hotel sales team, or work with outside companies such as Royal Flush Enterprises (haveapokerparty.com).
Scavenger Hunts: Various operators can help to set up a fun photo-based scavenger hunt around The Strip. Some, such as those available from Mystery Adventures (mysteryadventureslasvegas.com), include elaborate mysteries, while others, e.g. from Dr. Clue (drclue.com), are more explicitly focused on team building.
Race Car Driving: The massive Las Vegas Motor Speedway has 20 meeting and event rooms and can host groups of up to 15,000 (lvms.com). It is also home to the Mario Andretti and Jeff Gordon Racing Schools, as well as the Richard Petty Driving Experience, which provide a unique opportunity to ride in or drive authentic NASCAR or Indy-style cars. Teams can compete in racing as a team-building exercise (andrettigordon.com).
5 Great Shows for Groups
No matter what your group wants—from family-friendly comedy to X-rated hypnosis shows—Vegas has it. Most shows in Las Vegas have group rates; be sure to ask for discounts when booking, or consider tickets to a show when planning.
Bette Midler: Following in the footsteps of Cher and Elton John, The Divine Ms. Midler’s “The Showgirl Must Go On” show at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace has been a crowd-pleaser since opening last year (caesarspalace.com).
Blue Man Group: The rhythmic, highly visual Blue Man Group show at The Venetian is guaranteed to entertain all but the least imaginative crowds. Be sure to get your group called out on the pre-show LED screen dialogue (venetian.com).
Cirque du Soleil: The dominant theater company in town, Cirque has no fewer than six shows along The Strip these days, including Love, the Beatles show at the Mirage, and the new Criss Angel Believe, at Luxor. A new Elvis-themed show is slated to open at CityCenter
The Lion King: The Mandalay Bay Theatre will host giraffes, birds, gazelles and other beasts when Disney’s Broadway smash opens at Mandalay Bay on May 2 (mandalaybay.com).
Penn and Teller: Performing throughout the week, these quirky magicians have one of the most unusual acts in town going, at Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino (riolasvegas.com).
5 New Properties
If you’ve got a jaded group that’s always looking for the latest, greatest thing, here’s a list of some of the spanking-new properties around town.
Aliante Station: The latest from Station Casinos, this North Las Vegas property has 200+ rooms and more than 14,000 sq. ft. of meeting and banquet space, including a pool with cabanas, a 650-seat showroom with VIP booths and an “ultra bar” (aliantecasinohotel.com).
CityCenter: MGM Mirage’s gargantuan 76-acre CityCenter, scheduled to open at the end of 2009, comprises Aria Resort & Casino, Vdara Hotel & Spa, and Crystals, a retail and entertainment district, plus a Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas. The Harmon Hotel, Spa & Residences has been put on hold indefinitely (citycenter.com).
Encore: This brand-new resort adjacent Wynn Las Vegas just opened in December; it has 11 retail outlets, seven bars and lounges, five restaurants, a nightclub and an opulent spa and salon, as well as 60,000 sq. ft. of meeting space (encorelasvegas.com).
Fontainebleau Las Vegas: Scheduled to open later this year, the $2.9-billion Fontainebleau Las Vegas is being built north of the Riviera. This 63-story, 725-foot tower will have a 60,000-square-foot spa, 3,200-seat performing arts theater and nearly 400,000 sq. ft. of conference and event space (fontainebleau.com).
M Resort: A new $1-billion project opening this month, this resort south of The Strip will have a live-action cooking studio within a buffet. See this month’s View from Vegas column (page 26) for more details (themresort.com).
5 Soothing Spas
Nearly every resort property in Las Vegas has a luxurious spa these days; these little oases are great for spouse (or employee) getaways or incentive rewards.
Four Seasons Las Vegas: The Four Seasons Las Vegas is an oasis unto itself, located atop the Mandalay Bay. The spa has relaxation rooms, eucalyptus steam rooms and a Zen lounge, as well as elaborate treatments like the “Vitality of the Glaciers” facial (fourseasons.com).
Qua Baths and Spa: Located in Caesars Palace, this Roman-style spa has no fewer than 51 treatment rooms that use natural light, stone flooring, dark woods and cascading waterfalls to enhance “Roman Rituals” that might use an ultra-heated room or an Arctic Ice Room with falling snow (caesarspalace.com).
Aquae Sulis Spa & Salon: Located at the JW Marriott Las Vegas Resort & Spa in Summerlin, this 40,000-square-foot spa has 36 treatment rooms, with a full-service salon and fitness center (jwlasvegasresort.com).
Canyon Ranch SpaClub: A mini-resort within a resort, the massive “SpaClub” at The Venetian includes a 40-foot rock-climbing wall, as well its own dining and shopping, in addition to the usual spa treatments (venetian.com).
Spa Vita di Lago: At The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Las Vegas, this 30,000-square-foot spa has 24 treatment rooms and is known for its “Spa 101” package, a four-treatment sampler for first-timers
11 Great Meeting Spaces
Caesars Palace: With 3,348 rooms and 240,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, Caesars remains a stalwart on the center Strip, with 110,000 sq. ft. of brand new meeting space coming online this summer. Entertainment and dining options include Bette Midler, Pure Nightclub, Guy Savoy, the Forum Shops and more (caesarspalace.com).
Encore: A sparkling new property adjacent to Wynn, Encore has 2,034 suites, a luxury spa, multiple nightclubs (XS, Blush and Tryst), Le Rêve, magician Danny Gans and countless spaces for group events, including 60,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, in addition to Wynn’s 200,000 sq. ft. (encorelasvegas.com).
Harrah’s: A mid-range budget option with 2,550 guest rooms, specializing in small- to mid-sized meetings with a 25,000-square-foot conference level. Other perks include a spa and salon, seven entertainment venues (and group-friendly acts like Rita Rudner) and an Olympic-size swimming pool (harrahs.com).
Las Vegas Meetings by Harrah’s Entertainment provides a single point of contact for planning meetings in seven major properties at the heart of The Strip (or nearby): Bally’s, Caesars Palace, Flamingo, Harrah’s, Imperial Palace, Paris and Rio. Unlike other properties, you can plan events and meetings across these venues and everything goes on a single contract with a single support team (harrahs.com/groups-meetings/las-vegas).
MGM Grand: The largest hotel in Las Vegas with 5,044 rooms, the MGM Grand has 57 meeting rooms and 593,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, plus numerous nightclubs, restaurants and Ka, a Cirque show, as well as 51 two-story “Skylofts,” among the best VIP suites in town (mgmgrand.com).
M Resort: A brand-new, 390-unit hotel about eight miles from the airport, south of The Strip, with 60,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, state-of-the-art amenities in rooms, a spa and a lightship and a blimp with a 2,100-square-foot screen
New York, New York: This MGM-Mirage-owned property recently redesigned and expanded more than 21,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Skyline rooms start at $75 per night “retail”; on-site thrills include a roller coaster and Cirque show Zumanity (nynyhotelcasino.com).
Palms: Located a couple (long) blocks off The Strip, this self-contained party hotel has hip nightclubs (including Ghostbar and Moon), bowling lanes, a recording studio, a 2,500-seat concert theater and the world’s only Playboy Club. All that, and 60,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and the new Palms Place, a standalone tower (palms.com).
Stratosphere: The famous tower has 2,444 guest rooms and 100 suites. Located in the 103rd and 104th floors, there is also 8,100 sq. ft. of meeting space with amazing views; the rotating Top of the World Restaurant and sky-high thrill rides are a rush (stratospherehotel.com).
Renaissance Las Vegas Hotel: This “boutique” property just off The Strip offers 20,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, 548 guest rooms and 30 suites. The smoke-free, nongaming hotel also houses the gourmet ENVY The Steakhouse restaurant with a private dining room for up to 30 very special guests (renaissancelasvegas.com).
Riviera Hotel Casino Las Vegas: The 23-story Riviera will take your group to a whole different level—literally—to the “Top of the Riv” ballroom (with a total of 10,500 sq. ft.). For larger groups, the hotel’s full-service conference facility, located adjacent to the Convention Center, provides 160,000 sq. ft. of meeting space (rivierahotel.com).
Freelancer Chuck Kapelke also writes our monthly “View from Vegas” column.