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Reinvention is nothing new to Las Vegas. Its history can be described as a series of dynamic eras, each bigger and bolder than its predecessor, each changing its look and character.
Originally home to the Southern Paiute tribe, in the early 1900s Las Vegas was a small oasis in the middle of the Nevada desert. In the 1930s, the legalization of gambling and the construction of the Hoover Dam put it on the map, followed in 1941 by the first Vegas Strip hotel, El Rancho. Next came the Flamingo—the first resort to combine a luxury hotel, name entertainment and gambling—launched by mobster Bugsy Siegel and similar compatriots. In the 1960s, when eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes bought the Desert Inn, it was the end of mob influence and the beginning of corporate ownership.
Another watershed era began in 1989, when entrepreneur Steve Wynn opened the 3,300-room Mirage Resort on The Strip, boasting a volcano attraction in front and triggering a flurry of themed resorts that offered a trip around the world—from Paris to New York to Egypt.
In the mid-1990s, the city launched its new persona as the country’s culinary and retail mecca, becoming a high-end dining and shopping destination that matched the luxury of its resort guest rooms and spas. But, between the proposed construction in 2005 of CityCenter, MGM Mirage’s huge, $8.5-billion city-within-a-city complex, and its opening last December, there dawned an entirely new and different type of era, one defined by a deep economic recession and the perception of Vegas as a frivolous destination for meetings, which have accounted for a huge percentage of its 40-plus million annual visitors.
As a result, Las Vegas was faced with the necessity of “reinventing” itself once again—this time in both the public’s perception and the perception of organization decision-makers—as a practical, serious, affordable destination for meeting groups, conventions and incentives.
Perhaps, however, it’s more accurate to say “reinforce” rather than “reinvent.” The meetings infrastructure has been in place at least since 1959, when the original convention center was built (it has been expanded many times). And since the late 1980s, the hospitality industry has given more than a nod to meeting and event space and services, allowing the city to compete with other first-tier cities for group business.
Hospitality suite at Aria Resort & Casino.
Education has been key in this new era, from the national Meetings Mean Business campaign to concerted efforts by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and its hotel partners to demonstrate the fact that there’s no better place to meet than Vegas.
The smart money says it’s working. Visitation numbers are up, according to the LVCVA. Although the total was expectedly lower overall in 2009, the city hosted more than 2.9 million visitors last November (the latest figures available), an increase of 2.9% compared to the same period in 2008. November also marked the third consecutive year-over-year increase in monthly visitation. (As a new attraction, CityCenter is expected to raise the annual total by 2% to 5% this year.)
Convention business is also on the rise. For example, the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society recently booked its 2012 Annual HIMSS Conference & Exhibition at the Sands Expo—beating out Chicago in the process. “We made the selection based on specific input from our members and exhibitors and our lengthy discussions with both cities,” said H. Stephen Lieber, CAE, HIMSS president and CEO. “Las Vegas demonstrated and committed to the unified cooperation of the Sands Expo Convention Center, the hotels and the city, so that HIMSS can provide our members and attendees with a productive and economical experience.”
And the Professional Convention Management Association is returning in 2011 after an absence of more than three decades. “Having PCMA bring its annual meeting back to [Las Vegas] is another great opportunity for us to show planners and association executives exactly what Las Vegas has to offer,” says Michael Goldsmith, senior director of convention sales for the LVCVA.
That is not to say there’s unbridled optimism about 2010. According to Michael Massari, vice president of meeting sales and operations, Las Vegas Meetings by Harrah’s Entertainment, “2010 is likely to be another challenging year, with modest improvements. The big improvements won’t come until 2011 for us, and 2012 looks really good. All of our metrics are moving positive.”
But, he says, “that optimism comes from the realization that we know what’s coming and we’re ready for it. In 2009, we were like a little kid in the surf for the first time—the waves kept coming and knocking us over, and we didn’t know what was happening. Now we’re getting up and looking at them and diving right into them. We’re ready for them.”
In other words, Las Vegas is on the upswing. And here are 10 great reasons to book your group in Las Vegas—now.
#1 VARIETY OF ACCOMMODATIONS
Las Vegas offers a staggering 150,000 guest rooms, according to the LVCVA, both on and off The Strip, in a variety of gaming and nongaming, smoking and nonsmoking properties. Plus, there’s a range of price points to suit your budget—and plenty of ways to stretch it.
On The Strip
Las Vegas Boulevard, aka “The Strip,” is resort-central. Located between Bellagio and Monte Carlo is CityCenter, the splashy, sophisticated new entry. Its centerpiece is Aria Resort & Casino (arialasvegas.com), a 61-story, 4,004-room gaming resort (the hotel is nonsmoking). Its luxury nongaming hotels include the Mandarin Oriental, Las Vegas, with 392 guest rooms, and Vdara Hotel & Spa, with 1,495. (Veer Towers are solely residential, and The Harmon, its 400-room boutique hotel, is scheduled to open in late 2010).
Under the Harrah’s umbrella are seven major resorts (soon to be eight, see news below): Bally’s Las Vegas, Caesars Palace, Flamingo Las Vegas, Harrah’s Las Vegas, Imperial Palace, Paris Las Vegas and Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino.
Guest room at the Mandarin Oriental, Las Vegas.
A major player in Vegas, Steve Wynn has his eponymous Wynn Las Vegas, with 2,716 guest rooms, plus 2,034 suites at Encore at Wynn Las Vegas, its sister property next door, where we’re hosting our Smart Meeting this month.
Among other meetings resorts are the freshly renovated Tropicana Las Vegas, with 1,876 guest rooms; The Venetian, which features 3,036 guest rooms; The Riviera, with 2,100 rooms; and New York-New York Hotel Casino, with 2,023.
Off The Strip
Off The Strip doesn’t mean off in the boonies. Numerous properties are just a block or two from the boulevard’s bustle, and offer their own attractions and amenities. The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino features 1,525 guest rooms, including its new HRH tower; Palms Place Hotel & Spa offers 599 guest rooms; and The Westin Casuarina has 826. A little farther south on The Strip is the M Resort, which opened in 2009 and has 390 guest rooms.
#2 PLENTY OF MEETING SPACE
You’d expect Vegas to have a wealth of meeting space, and you’d be right. Citywide, there are approximately 10 million sq. ft. of meeting and function space, including three of the country’s largest convention venues, plus a full complement of function space within its hotels, some with dedicated conference spaces. They draw associations, trade shows, consumer shows and corporate functions to their varied facilities; in fact, the city hosts more than 22,000 meetings, conventions and incentives a year, with anywhere from 10 to 100,000 attendees.
The largest venue is the Las Vegas Convention Center, a 3.2-million-square-foot facility. It features approximately 2 million sq. ft. of exhibit space and 144 meeting rooms (more than 241,000 sq. ft.), among its multiple options, and can handle groups from 20 to 2,500.
Sands Expo & Convention Center, adjacent to The Venetian, weighs in with 1.8 million sq. ft. of combined meeting and event space (together with the Venetian Congress facility). It can accommodate the 10 largest conventions in the country, including portions of the Consumer Electronics Show.
Blush nightclub, Encore at Wynn Las Vegas.
Mandalay Bay Convention Center, owned by MGM Mirage, offers 1.7 million sq. ft., with nearly 1 million sq. ft. of flexible exhibit space on two levels, and the largest pillarless hotel ballroom in the country (a 100,000-square-foot mega ballroom).
A lesser-known option is the Thomas & Mack Center, on the campus of the University of Nevada. Originally built as a stadium for its basketball team, the center now also serves as a venue for industrial shows, rodeos and other events, with 20,000 sq. ft. of function space (with the bleachers retracted).
The newcomer on the meetings block is Aria, at CityCenter, with 300,000 sq. ft. of function space in a dedicated conference center with ample natural light and a sleek, desert-hued design.
Set to open this month is Meet Las Vegas, a 30,000-square-foot, three-story venue and outdoor pavilion located downtown, near the Fremont Street Experience. The first two floors of the facility—which can accommodate up to 2,000 attendees—are essentially a blank canvas, with a fixed rigging and technology infrastructure. The third floor is an executive concierge lounge and a state-of-the-art multimedia training center for corporate training and VIP events.
How convenient can you get? McCarran International Airport is only one mile from The Strip and 3.5 miles from the convention center. It is served by 20 U.S. carriers (including Southwest and JetBlue), as well as numerous international airlines. Work on the new Terminal 3—a $2.4 billion, 14-gate construction project—is nearly 50% complete. Scheduled to open in mid-2012, it will allow significant increases in air service from both domestic and international cities.
#4 FINE DINING
It seems like eons ago that Wolfgang Puck opened a branch of his highly touted Spago at the Forum Shops at Caesars—a huge gamble, as this was the first celebrity chef venture into an arena previously known for all-you-can-eat buffets. That was in 1992, a true eon in the restaurant business. Puck has since been joined by an entire constellation of nationally and internationally renowned chefs: Emeril Lagasse, Thomas Keller, Paul Bartolotta, Joel Robuchon and Guy Savoy, to name just a few. Las Vegas has become “the place to be” for the world’s überchefs and, consequently, for diners (see Chef’s Table for the scoop on Aria’s must-dines). Evidence of the caliber comes from Forbes Travel, which named Vegas the top restaurant city in the U.S., an accolade that has been echoed by epicurious.com.
Event set-up at Palms Place Hotel & Spa.
Just as food and wine have a symbiotic affinity, the city also pairs fine wine (and wine expertise) with all that culinary talent. It’s home to 15 Master Sommeliers and other experts, such as Jaime Smith, the new director of wine for Caesars Palace, who has been voted the Best Sommelier in America by Food & Wine magazine.
#5 ENTERTAINMENT AND ATTRACTIONS
You name it, Las Vegas has it—from hot, hot clubs and headliner entertainment to grand-scale attractions and recreational opportunities.
Think nightclubs with a capital “N”: Pure at Caesars, Tao at The Venetian, Blush at Wynn and Wasted Space at the Hard Rock come to mind immediately. Here’s all the glitz and glamour your group can want—and you can arrange private events for a taste of A-list exclusivity.
Headliner entertainment? Country favorite Garth Brooks has launched a concert run at Encore, Carlos Santana has dates at The Joint, a new concert hall at the Hard Rock and—just announced—is Celine Dion’s return to Vegas for a three-year residency at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace beginning March 2011.
Cirque du Soleil plays the town—showcasing seven “worlds” in seven venues. Choose among Mystère at Treasure Island, Zumanity at New York-New York, KÀ at MGM Grand, The Beatles Love at The Mirage, Criss Angel Believe at Luxor and the innovative company’s newest production, Viva Elvis, at Aria. The latter is a tribute to The King, featuring film clips and his legendary music, performed in Cirque du Soleil’s inimitable fashion.
Cirque du Soleil’s Viva Elvis at Aria Resort & Casino.
If your attendees have a free night—or some free time post-meeting—just have them download Harrah’s new iPhone app, which will follow their movements throughout all of its Vegas properties with a GPS locator. This high-tech application then sends out messages with offers for discounts or deals at the company’s nearby restaurants, showrooms and other attractions—for instance, tickets for a show that has a few last-minute seats available.
Maybe you’ve got a group of sports fans, or just thrill-seekers looking for an adrenaline rush. There’s plenty for them as well. ESPN Zone—consistently named best sports bar in Las Vegas—specializes in team building, customer entertaining and networking possibilities. X-Scream, Stratosphere’s giant teeter-totter, towering 866 feet above the ground, is a guaranteed rush.
With the Grand Canyon only about 100 miles away (as the crow—or in this case—as the helicopter flies), you can tie in a visit. Papillon Airways has a new add-on menu of tours that are easy to book. Once you choose the way you’d like to travel—by helicopter or the longer, scenic bus trip—you select other components such as ATVs, kayaking, pontoon tours or walking on the Grand Skywalk, the transparent walkway suspended 4,000 feet above the canyon floor.
Got golfers? Walters Golf offers three challenging courses, all within nine miles of The Strip (one, the tropical-themed Bali Hai Golf Club, is actually right on it). Their full-time event services coordinator can arrange tournaments, lessons and clinics, and equipment rental—plus transportation and dining—with one phone call.
#6 INCREASED ATTENDANCE
If your attendance has been lagging the past few years and you really need a boost—count Las Vegas in. According to the LVCVA, on average, attendance increases 14% when conventions rotate into Las Vegas. Research shows, too, that trade show delegates spend more time on the show floor here (11.5 hours vs. 5.8–9.5 hours) than in other cities. And there’s the fact that all of the city’s attractions are available when you walk out of your meeting at 5 p.m.—no need for your attendees to skip out on a session to have some fun.
#7 WARM WEATHER
Las Vegas averages 320 days of sunshine a year, with an average temperature of 66.3 degrees and an annual rainfall of 4.13 inches. Winters can be quite cool, as can evenings. Summer is hot—no getting around the fact (that’s why they invented air conditioning). But some groups prefer to meet in summer, due to more favorable rates in value season—just keep in mind the temperature when you’re planning outdoor events.
#8 IT’S GREEN
While mentioning green and Las Vegas in the same sentence may seem like an oxymoron, nothing could be further than the truth, as the city’s resorts have made a concerted effort toward conservation and sustainability. For example, as our View from Vegas columnist Chuck Kapelke reported last October, the entire resort industry consumes only 3% of the water in Las Vegas. Individual properties have made water usage reduction part of their overall environmental program, such as Harrah’s company-wide initiative, CodeGreen. This is nothing new for Harrah’s, however, as over the past five years, implementation of 74 different energy conservation projects has reduced their carbon emissions by the equivalent of 164,440 barrels of oil.
Perhaps surprising, too, given the scope of the project, CityCenter’s Aria and Vdara have received three LEED-Gold certifications: Aria for both its hotel tower and its convention center and theater, and the third for Vdara Hotel. CityCenter also anticipates Gold or Silver LEED certification for its remaining developments, including the Mandarin Oriental, Crystals (its 500,000-square-foot retail and entertainment district), Veer Towers and The Harmon.
#9 NEW(S) AND RENOVATED
Something new and larger-than-life is always happening in Vegas—you can bet on it (it’s that reinvention thing). Which means that there’s always a buzz, and also that returning visitors can always find something fresh to see and experience.
Of course, there’s CityCenter. But there’s plenty more. In early February, Harrah’s Entertainment received preliminary state approval to acquire Planet Hollywood—making the celebrity-themed property the eighth in its Las Vegas portfolio. At press time, the Nevada Gaming Commission was meeting to give final approval of the deal; if approved, Harrah’s will assume full control, not just management, on February 19 (see smartmeetings.com for future updates). Planet Hollywood earlier launched its 52-story, 1,201-room PH Towers, and will offer the same Harrah’s one-stop, multiple-venues, one master account options.
Speaking of reinventions, Tropicana’s $125-million renovation is giving the property a beach-club resort feel, according to President Thomas J. McCartney. Under new ownership since last summer, both the resort’s Paradise and Island towers are being renovated: the Paradise is anticipated to finish up this month, and the Island starts directly after.
The hotel’s conference space was one of the first areas to be addressed, and 50,000 sq. ft. has already been renovated, with new carpeting, wall coverings, enhanced lighting, accessories and artwork among the refurbishments. “We’re investing a significant amount of capital to make the transformation meaningful,” he says. “We’re also taking the same initiatives to make sure our service standards meet or exceed expectations.”
Other renovation components include new restaurants, a new casino and a new nightclub, plus a redesigned pool, which will open in late April or early May, sporting a brand-new look. “It will have a very tropical environment with lush landscaping,” he says.
Pools, apparently, are still pretty cool. This month, Caesars Palace unveils five new multi-layer pools, joining three existing pools, increasing the “Garden of the Gods” area to five acres.
Hard Rock Hotel & Casino also recently opened its HRH Tower, an all-suite tower that is part of its $750-million expansion. The project, which adds 860 guest rooms, also includes the Paradise Tower (a new 17-story guest wing) and approximately 60,000 sq. ft. of meeting and convention space, and more than 40,000 sq. ft. of casino space.
Delayed earlier due to financing, the opening of the $3.9-billion Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, just south of Bellagio, is now scheduled for late 2010. It will feature 800 hotel rooms, 2,200 condominium-hotel units, an 1,800-seat theater and 150,000 sq. ft. of meeting and convention space.
And stay tuned for updates on the much-anticipated, but also delayed, Fontainebleau, a 3,800-room casino resort located toward the northern end of The Strip. The unfinished property was recently purchased by billionaire Carl Icahn.
#10 DEALS, DEALS, DEALS
Lower rates and added value are still on the table—for now. “If you’re looking for a meeting in 2010, Las Vegas has some great values, ones we haven’t seen in years,” Harrah’s Massari says. “If you’re looking for 2011, you’d better sign up now—as the pace is moving fast.”
Given that value—plus the sheer number of guest rooms, amount of meeting space, dining and all of the city’s other amenities, “Bringing an event to Las Vegas right now is simply a good business decision,” the LVCVA’s Goldsmith says.