Vegas Sees the Light

Vegas Sees the Light The message coming out of Las Vegas has changed heading into 2010. “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” is still the catchy, high-profile slogan for the leisure crowd, but there’s an altogether different tune aimed toward the meetings industry. Let’s face it, 2009 was brutal. And here’s the irony lost in the toxic soup of misinformation following the AIG implosion:

Las Vegas was, and still is, the best deal in the country for large meetings due to the inventory of group hotels, creative venue space and national airlift, buttressed with the experience and services to pull it all together.

That’s the new message.

“No other city is as good and as well-suited at executing great meetings for large groups as Las Vegas,” says Michael Massari, vp of meeting sales/operations for Las Vegas Meetings by Harrah’s Entertainment. The hotel group now operates nine properties in Vegas, including the new kids, Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino and PH Towers Westgate.

“It’s all here together in one place, which no other destination can touch. And with Harrah’s Entertainment, you can have your opening at Pure, your closing at Paris and your sessions at Caesars all on one master account. That’s part of how we’re helping planners execute great meetings. We’re able to take care of all of their multi-level needs with our vast array of services.”

Regarding the new messaging, Massari says, “It’s not sexy, it’s kind of boring, but everyone already knows Vegas is exciting. What excites a corporate head office is raising their stock by two dollars. So if you’re spending millions of dollars bringing 4,000 attendees together for a meeting, it damn well better go right. And no one can ensure that as well as we can.”

None of that matters, of course, if people are still afraid to come to Vegas. Michael, are people still afraid to come to Vegas?

“2010 isn’t necessarily going to be better but we’re much better prepared than we were in 2009. The good news is ’11 and ’12 are way ahead of pace and much better than we expected. So we know there’s an end to this—we can see the light up ahead.”

DMCS GET IN ON THE ACT “We have more pre-booked, contracted business going into 2010 than we did at the same time of year in 2008,” says Steve Washburn, vp of marketing & business development for local DMC, Baskow & Associates. “The reason why is we’re working very smart with our clients, we’re making sure every dollar they spend is going toward something wise for their company. The focus is not on gaming and showgirls as much as it used to be.”

Most of all, Washburn feels Vegas is headed in the right direction. “Vegas has become a great destination—we have 5-star hotels, more celebrity chef restaurants than you’ll find in most cities, and great shows you can’t see anywhere else…. And many hotels that used to be pricey are being more competitive with their rates, so it’s much more economical for groups.”

He also likes the fact that Vegas hasn’t exactly reined in the sails during these doldrums, pointing to new venues like B.B. King’s Blues Club at The Mirage. The stage hosts live music every night of the week and the menu offers hearty Creole and Southern classics. “They have the best fried pickles,” says Washburn. “It’s a really fun, laid-back blues bar right on the Strip.”

Stephanie Arone, GM of Activity Planners DMC, echoes similar sentiments. She says, “We’re very serious about our motto, ‘Vegas means business,’ and we are a legitimate location for meetings of all sizes. Compared to other top-tier destinations, Vegas offers incredible value for meetings in terms of lower transportation costs and accommodations. You really do get more bang for your buck here.”

When the Hard Rock Café Las Vegas opened on the Strip last year, it filled in a gap in the local music scene, according to Arone. “The new location is awesome! Before it, there was something of a shortage of live music for 30 year-olds and over and this is really filling that niche.”

Spread out over three levels, Hard Rock features retail space on the first floor, à la carte dining on the second level and a top-floor concert venue with additional dining rooms. Groups can rent out as much or as little of the space as they need, whether it’s a private dining room or the concert hall.

“The venue is beautifully spaced out—they have the capability to close off almost an entire floor and you can put on a corporate level concert without having a ton of audio-visual overhead because everything is there,” says Arone.

And you’d be hard pressed to find a better city for hiring affordable talent than Vegas. Tami Hance, vp of Destinations by Design, says planners are always looking for great local entertainers. “We have a lot of people who perform on the Strip,” she says, “like George Wallace or Human Nature or the a cappella group Mosaic, who can all do private performances.”

And even though the city is re-launching its “What Happens in Vegas” campaign, DMCs are finding that the opposite is true. “We’re seeing two big trends: the first is giving back and the second is teambuilding,” says Hance. “People are coming to Vegas to take an experience back with them, whether it’s through a bike-building charity event or a motivational speaker. Planners aren’t coming to Vegas for throwaway experiences anymore, they’re looking for events that will build morale and bolster productivity.”

Other inventive teambuilding programs amp up signature Vegas experiences, such as one popular activity that switches around the classic “dinner and a show” formula to great effect. When the group arrives in the lobby, it’s revealed that they’ll be performing the show and then they’re split up into groups.

“One group learns how to be Cirque du Soleil, another does a Broadway show like A Chorus Line,” says Hance. “They have one hour to prepare and 60 minutes later they’re walking on balls and balancing each other. It’s pretty incredible to see.”

And who better to bring a group together than Barry Manilow? Starting this month, all of the “Fanilows” in your group can sing along with Copacabana, Mandy and all of the rest in the 1,500-seat Paris Théatre at Paris Las Vegas.

YOU’RE GONNA DO WHAT? The Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay houses more than 30 sharks, including sandtiger, white tip, zebra and sandbar sharks, all swimming inside a massive 1.3-million gallon tank. Groups can buy out the space for up to 1,000 attendees for sit-down dinners or cocktail receptions under the watchful gaze of these fascinating sea predators.

For any certified scuba divers in your group, the aquarium launched a 4-hour Dive With Sharks program last summer for an up-close (but not too up-close) and personal encounter that brings all types of bragging rights to the table. Divers are required to wear chain mail armor, like you see in Braveheart or any other Medieval flick. This is required to make the diver feel more relaxed, which the sharks can sense, thus making them more relaxed. Hmmm, what could possibly go wrong here?

“For the divers themselves, it is a one-of-a-kind experience, but the reaction of those people observing from the other side of the glass is often just as impressive. They’re just stunned. It’s a great experience on both sides of the glass,” says Jack Jewell, Shark Reef Aquarium curator.

TABLE RECOMMENDATIONS We made reservations at Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare in Wynn Las Vegas, which has an outdoor courtyard designed for al fresco group dining (pg 54). Chef Paul Bartolotta’s menu is spectacular, with classic Italian dishes and authentic homemade pastas. A fresh seafood cart was beautifully presented at our table, featuring a delectable array of fresh seafood and shellfish flown in from the Mediterranean. We ordered John Dory and Sea Bass, marveling at the quality and freshness. And we couldn’t pass up the lasagnette con ragu di crostacei, “rags” of pasta, lobster, shrimp and crab prepared in white wine with fresh tomato. We also recommend the ravioli de ricotta con caciotta toscana prepared with sheep’s milk ricotta, pecorino cheese and a trophy Marsala wine glaze.

Over the last few years, it seems opening shop in Vegas has become something of celebrity chef’s rite of passage. “Emeril Lagasse’s new Lagasse Stadium restaurant at The Palazzo Resort Hotel Casino is like a sports bar on steroids,” says Washburn. “There are so many screens, I don’t think there’s a sporting event that isn’t playing in there someplace.”

As a result of the marquee names, when AAA announced its 2010 5-diamond award recipients, nearly 10 percent of them were located in Las Vegas, including: Alex at Wynn Las Vegas, Joël Robuchon at MGM Grand, Le Cirque and Picasso at Bellagio, and 3-Michelin star French chef Pierre Gagnaire’s first US restaurant, Twist at Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas.

Restaurant Guy Savoy at Caesars Palace is another 5-diamond winner, serving a 10-course “Menu Prestige” selection of signature dishes like chef Savoy’s artichoke/black truffle soup.

For the ultimate in private dining, the restaurant unveiled the first US-based Krug Champagne Room, following similar establishments in London, Hong Kong and Tokyo. If you’ve ever wanted to put together a caviar and vintage champagne pairing dinner and education class for 35 VIPs, this is the place.

Michael Massari with Harrah’s says planners can provide their attendees with the same sense of exclusivity through the company’s “Meeting Diamond” preferred status program. This translates as front-of-the-line treatment from the beginning to end of your program. Planners are automatically provided with Meeting Diamond status because, as Massari points out, “Meeting planners are always considered our best customers.”