by Barbara Beckley | February 01, 2016

Bright lights, big cities. Starry skies, quiet forests. Nevada is a state of contrasts, which works to an association’s advantage when it comes to creating a memorable meeting. Planners can pick from destinations that reflect the better sides of the West: cowboy casual, glittery nightlife, snow-capped mountains or sunny deserts.

And throughout the Silver State, from Las Vegas to Lake Tahoe, meeting sites and resorts are benefiting from an events infrastructure expanding at a pace “not seen in 40 years,” according to one convention official.

Greater Las Vegas: Master of Change

Las Vegas is courting the meetings market like there’s no tomorrow. And it intends to remain a favorite destination with groups, said Chuck Bowling, who is on the board of the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority and president and chief operating officer of the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino. “The city is engaged in a competitive battle with other cities to host the lucrative convention and trade-show market,” Bowling said recently in a Las Vegas Review-Journal article. “We’re working to maintain Vegas’ lead as the nation’s preeminent convention and trade-show host.”

Bowling can certainly back up his words. In August, the Mandalay Bay Convention Center increased its overall event space to more than 2 million square feet with the opening of a 350,000-square-foot expansion. Features include a 70,000-square-foot carpeted ballroom, underground parking and 1.1 million square feet of exhibit space. “The expansion gives us wider flexibility to host a wider variety of groups,” said Stephanie Glanzer, Mandalay Bay’s vice-president of sales. “Each will have its own dedicated area within our convention center, be they small or mid-sized associations or large trade shows.”

The Men’s Apparel Guild in California (MAGIC) was the first group to utilize the space. Other large industry events that have recently been held at the facility include the National Workers’ Compensation & Disability Conference, the International Pool Spa Patio Expo and the PPAI (Promotional Products Association International) Expo.

The Aria Resort & Casino also has plans to expand its gold LEED–certified convention center by 200,000 square feet, complementing its existing 300,000 square feet of space, which was recently renovated. Construction on a new four-story convention facility is expected to begin in May, with an anticipated completion date of February 2018. The expansion (which will take over the space currently occupied by Cirque du Soleil’s “Zarkana,” to close in April) will feature breakout rooms, two ballrooms and a top-floor patio for up to 2,000.

In the meantime, Aria has several other new and improved options. Adjacent to the resort is the 13,000-square-foot, multi-level Shops at Crystals, with event space for up to 980, while two new restaurants also offer their own gathering space: Carbone features private dining rooms for up to 40, 60 and 105 people, and Herringbone can accommodate up to 111 in its dining room/patio and up to 66 in its lounge. In addition, a mobile check-in for groups now allows attendees to bypass the resort’s lobby and head straight to their rooms. “Hosting large meetings and conventions is a core part of our business,” said Bobby Baldwin, Aria’s president and chief operating officer. “As our clients’ needs grow, we are committed to grow with them.”

One of the more highly anticipated projects along the Strip is The Park, a six-acre green space scheduled to make its debut this spring with cobblestone paths, outdoor cafes and entertainment. It will connect the Monte Carlo and New York–New York casino hotels as well as the new 20,000-seat, recently named T-Mobile Arena, set to open April 6. The arena is a partnership between MGM Resorts and AEG. Finally, a 5,000-seat theater within the Monte Carlo is projected to open by year’s end.

And that’s not all. Last summer, the Linq Hotel & Casino opened after a multimillion-dollar renovation. Its guest rooms and public spaces overlook the Strip and the High Roller observation wheel, and unique features include a spa with Himalayan salt caves and check-in via text. Just up the street, Madame Tussauds offers 30,000 square feet of functional space.

The 1,613-room SLS/Las Vegas has been bought by Starwood, which plans to convert its 289-room Lux Tower into a W Hotel this year. The remaining rooms and amenities will continue to be operated as the SLS, a Tribute Portfolio Resort. Plans for the new W/Las Vegas include the addition of a W Living Room (the brand’s take on the traditional hotel lobby), nearly 14,500 square feet of new event space, a signature Away Spa and an exclusive outdoor pool deck and bar.

In other hotel news, the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas has added 46 new guest suites, 15 of which are Executive Suites with a six-seat conference table. The Venetian Las Vegas, the Encore Resort and the Encore Tower Suites at Wynn Las Vegas recently renovated their guest rooms. And what was formerly the LVH–Las Vegas Hotel & Casino is now the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino.

Downtown Vegas is getting trendier by the minute with new gathering choices. The Venue, a chic events center, opened on Fremont Street last spring with 40,000 square feet of space for functions as large as 2,700. VirtueVice also recently opened with event space, including a rooftop area that can host up to 220. The Window, a glassed-in space, also on Fremont Street, offers art-filled rooms that can host up to several hundred people. At the Downtown Grand Las Vegas Hotel & Casino, real green grass is a unique perk of its 35,000-square-foot rooftop pool deck. The pool setting, its largest event site, can be booked for up to 1,200.

Next to McCarran International Airport is IPEC (the International Peace Education Center), an event facility that opened in August that offers overnight accommodations and more than 20,000 square feet of space. Facilities include a 5,000-square-foot foyer, a 10,000-square-foot ballroom, six conference rooms and an on-site kitchen.

South of the international airport, the South Point Hotel, Casino & Spa has a 64-lane bowling center with seating for up to 360, as well as convention space, an arena and a theater. North of the airport, the National Atomic Testing Museum welcomes events of up to 200.

The multitude of stand-alone venues in Las Vegas make it a prime pick for many of the world’s largest conventions and trade shows. The 2.2 million-square-foot Las Vegas Convention Center and the 1.2 million-square-foot Sands Expo & Convention Center are both A-listers. Additional choices include the Cashman Center, the University of Nevada/Las Vegas’ Cox Pavilion and the adjacent Thomas & Mack Center.

And when it comes to creative venues, the sky’s the limit—literally. The 550-foot-tall High Roller can host up to 40 people in each of its glass-enclosed cabins. The Top of the World rotating restaurant at the Stratosphere Casino Hotel & Tower and the Eiffel Tower Restaurant within the Paris Hotel also welcome private events.

In nearby Henderson, the Westin Lake Las Vegas Resort & Spa was recently purchased by Pacifica Host Hotels. Also in town are the Henderson Events Plaza & Amphitheatre, with a 500-seat amphitheater, and the adjacent, 13,800-square-foot Henderson Convention Center.

Southern Nevada’s Border Towns: On the Edge

There’s nothing prim about the community of Primm, located 45 miles south of Las Vegas on the Nevada/California border. Thrill rides, two championship golf courses, 2,662 guest rooms and function spaces in three themed resorts are just some of the opportunities for fun-loving groups. And for meetings, venues with event space include the Primm Valley Resort & Casino, Buffalo Bill’s Resort & Casino, the Star of the Desert Arena and Whiskey Pete’s Hotel & Casino.

Laughlin, set on the Colorado River 90 miles south of Vegas, is also courting conventions. When it’s not hosting concerts, the Laughlin Event Center’s two-year-old amphitheater welcomes group events of up to 21,000. Of the eight meeting resorts in town, those with the largest spaces are Edgewater Casino Resort and the Aquarius Casino Resort. In between meetings, attendees can enjoy recreational pursuits on riverfront trails. And for an impressive excursion, the Hoover Dam is just 100 miles away.

Reno, Sparks & Carson City: High-desert Dynamic

Where the Eastern Sierra slopes down to meet the desert, beauty reigns supreme in this corner of the state. Reno, long a stopping point before or after heading into the Sierras, is still considered a great bet for team-building functions, conventions, and events that can incorporate gaming—or not.

In 2015, Reno hosted several notable association events, among them the Convention Industry Council’s exclusive CMP Conclave; the National Leadership Conference of SCORE, a nonprofit association dedicated to entrepreneur education and formation; the Council on Occupational Education’s Summer Conference; and the Association of Lutheran Development Executives Conference.

SCORE’s four-day event was held at the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa, “a perfect fit” for the group’s general sessions and 65 breakouts, said Sandra Brewster, its executive administrator. The CMP Conclave used the Grand Sierra Resort & Casino, which recently renovated its Grand Theatre.

The Lutheran executives chose the Peppermill Hotel Resort as their headquarters hotel. Delegates appreciated the property’s commitment to environmentally friendly sustainability, said Phyllis Castens Wiederhoeft, the group’s executive director. The Peppermill relies completely on geothermal power to heat all water and air on the property.

For larger conventions, the Reno-Sparks Convention Center offers 381,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space, a 30,000-square-foot ballroom and 53 meeting rooms. Additional venues include the Reno Events Center, the Reno-Sparks Livestock Events Center and the National Bowling Stadium. Just 27 miles to the southwest, Mount Rose Ski Tahoe is the closest resort to town.

Meeting hotels set to open this year include the non-gaming Renaissance Hotel (formerly the Siena Hotel Spa Casino), with plans to offer 15,000 square feet of event space, and a Courtyard by Marriott across from Aces Ballpark. And the Hampton Inn/West Reno opened last fall with 86 guest rooms and 700 square feet of meeting space.

East of Reno, neighboring Sparks is perhaps best known as home to the Nugget Casino Resort (formerly John Ascuaga’s Nugget Casino Resort). A multiyear redesign has introduced new restaurants, the William Hills Sports Book and a new executive conference center. The property is currently upgrading its guest rooms. Downtown, Victorian Square has begun a $25 million redevelopment project that will create more stores, dining options and urban-style lofts. About eight miles north, the Red Hawk Golf & Resort offers a variety of country club-style settings, the largest of which can accommodate up to 300 people.

Carson City, the state capital, is 32 miles south of Reno. Two notable historic structures welcome events: the Capitol Building and the Brewery Arts Center building. For larger events, planners can turn to the Marv Teixeira Pavilion at Mills Park and the Carson City Fairgrounds/Fuji Park.

Lake Tahoe: Making Waves

America’s largest alpine lake is a blue magnet that entertains visitors with water and shoreline recreation during the summer, snow activities on the surrounding mountains during the winter and all kinds of group gatherings year-round. Its constant popularity as a getaway destination has prompted further development to meet demands and, as a result, various projects that will benefit association groups have recently been completed or in the works.

Mike Frye, event and media relations manager for the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority, said that in the 40 years he has lived at the lake, this is the “most redevelopment and reinvigoration I’ve seen” outside of the recent investments poured into the Heavenly Resort area on the South Shore.

The $100 million Lodge at Edgewood Tahoe, currently in development in the South Shore community of Stateline, will be the area’s first true five-star property and a LEED-designed facility when it opens in summer 2017. It is expected to feature 154 rooms with lake views, a spa, a bistro-style restaurant and conference space. “The development will serve as a catalyst for the South Shore’s reinvention,” said Frye.

Heavy hitters like Harrah’s Lake Tahoe Hotel & Casino, the Montbleu Resort Casino & Spa and the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino have put big money into renovating their convention centers, Frye pointed out. Harrah’s is spending $12 million to renovate its convention center and all guest rooms. In addition, a new fleet of limousines is available. Last spring, the Montbleu Resort completed a $24 million renovation that updated, among other things, its 16,000-square-foot convention center and guest rooms, which feature all-new furniture, flat-screen TVs and remodeled bathrooms. And the year-old Hard Rock Hotel (formerly the Horizon Lake Tahoe Hotel) spent $60 million last year to bring amenities up to its star-studded standards. In addition to improved guest rooms, it offers new two-bedroom poolside terrace suites, four new restaurants and signature live entertainment. RidgeResorts is also enhancing its 302 units and meeting facilities to the tune of $10 million, with completion expected in 2017.

Just over the state border, in South Lake Tahoe, California, the Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel recently invested $8 million in upgrades to its guest rooms and public spaces. At the nearby Heavenly Resort, the new Epic Discovery Program offers a variety of activities.

On the North Shore, the mega makeover of the legendary Cal Neva Resort in Crystal Bay is nearing an end, with management shooting for a May opening. The property will be operated by Starwood Hotels and plans to offer 191 guest rooms, an infinity-edge pool and deck that overlooks the lake and is suitable for small events, a new destination restaurant with lake views, first-floor conference space and a larger lobby.     

Rural Nevada: A Western Agenda

Elko, home to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in January and the Ruby Mountain Balloon Festival in September, is aiming to attract new small and mid-sized business gatherings as well. To this end, the 29,000-square-foot Elko Conference Center opened in late 2015, and three new hotels are scheduled to open in 2016.

The new conference center, combined with the 50,000-square-foot Elko Convention Center, gives Elko the ability to easily accommodate up to 1,500 attendees. A large outdoor plaza connects the two buildings. Additional meeting space, for upwards of 300 attendees, is available at the Western Folklife Center.

For accommodations, Elko currently has 2,440 guest rooms. However, the new Ledgestone Hotel, scheduled to open this month, and a new Hampton Inn and Fairfield Inn & Suites, set to open this summer, will increase the city’s inventory to 2,700 guest rooms. The Nevada Chapter of the National Hemophilia Foundation held a successful holiday celebration in December at the Hilton Garden Inn, which has function space for up to 90 people.

A Lucky Streak

Wherever groups meet in Nevada, the Silver State deals a winning hand. Increasingly, new and improved options are incorporating outdoor spaces or experiences to take in the bigger view. For planners, all the options add up to valuable enticements—but the attendees will feel like the real lucky ones.