by Barbara Beckley | August 01, 2016

“Destinations of experiences and entertainment” is the new definition of gaming resorts, according to planners and casino executives alike. “Gaming is an added bonus, one of a variety of experiences that attracts groups to Las Vegas,” said Stephanie Glanzer, vice-president of sales for the city’s Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino. Chandra Allison, vice-president of sales for the Venetian and Palazzo hotels in Las Vegas, agreed. “Gaming is more an amenity now,” she said. “Demand has shifted toward meetings.”

Despite a de-emphasis on the gaming image, some planners believe that marketing the casino aspect is still the best way to attract a high attendance. That was the case for the University of Southern Mississippi, which recently held a regional meeting at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi. “This was the first time we met in a casino. We had a record-breaking number of attendees!”said Jamie Lott, the university’s project manager for events. “I believe the draw of the beach, combined with the thrill of the excitement on the casino floor drew in many who would not normally attend the conference. The casino had restaurants, entertainment and shopping, which eliminated the need for renting vehicles or using taxis.

As meetings skyrocket in importance to the gaming industry, resorts are taking the “all-under-one-roof” concept to delegate-pleasing extremes with a variety of unique event spaces, plans and amenities. In Las Vegas, the Mandalay Bay campus offers three hotels, 2.1 million square feet of meeting and exhibit space and an ever-changing kaleidoscope of creative venues. “Groups can party on the beach or meet in the Seascape Ballroom overlooking the sharks,” said Glanzer. Features include 3,000 remodeled guest rooms and suites at the Mandalay Bay Hotel, the South Convention Center’s new 69,713-square-foot Oceanside Ballroom, private use of the poker room for group tournaments and the Libertine Social restaurant, set to open this summer under the helm of Chef Shawn McClain.

Three miles north, at the connected Venetian and Palazzo hotels, “a convention that would normally be a citywide can be held in our one facility,” said Allison. “Ours is the largest integrated resort complex on the Strip, consisting of 7,000 suites and 2.25 million square feet of space in 242 configurable meeting rooms on five different levels.” The five levels, she said, offer smaller groups independence and flexibility as they can “own” a floor. An upcoming development that will be connected to the properties is also in the works: a 400,000-square-foot, 17,500-seat arena, a partnership venture of the Madison Square Garden Company and the Las Vegas Sands Corp. Plans include exclusive clubs and lounges for private events.

Also new on the Vegas scene is The Park, an outdoor dining and entertainment district on the Strip which opened in April between the New York-New York and Monte Carlo resorts and offers rentable space for small gatherings. It’s a gateway to the 20,000-seat T-Mobile Arena, which also debuted this spring.

The nearby Aria Resort & Casino is adding 200,000 square feet of flexible meeting space on four levels, increasing the property’s total event space to 500,000 square feet. The $154 million project is expected to be complete in 2018 and include breakout rooms and a glass-enclosed space with a rooftop patio for up to 2,000 people that affords views of the The Park and T-Mobile Arena.

Casino resorts along the Mississippi Gulf Coast are also improving their game to draw meeting groups with various appealing amenities designed to entertain. Last year the Island View Casino Resort in Gulfport completed a $58 million expansion project that introduced a 405-room hotel tower for a new total of 970 rooms and 14,000 square feet of meeting space. This is in addition to the hotel’s 600-person showroom, an 18-hole championship golf course, a spa and direct access to the beach.

It quickly attracted the Mississippi Credit Union Association. “The Island View allowed our attendees to enjoy a room on the beach and met our needs for excellent food choices and nightly entertainment,” said Tom McWilliams, the group’s senior vice-president.

The Scarlet Pearl Casino Resort in D’Iberville opened in December with 300 guest rooms and nearly 11,000 square feet of meeting space. And two years ago, the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Biloxi debuted its 154-room Platinum Tower. The property now offers a total of 479 guest rooms and 12 meeting venues.

The region’s largest meeting resort is Biloxi’s Beau Rivage. Its 50,000 square feet of flexible function space and Southern belle décor were deal-closers for the 2015 Southeast Regional IDeA meeting, sponsored by the University of Mississippi. “We had very specific needs in regards to rooms for meetings and poster sessions, and the Beau Rivage met this need,” said event-organizer Lott.

“We also had around 400 guests arriving from seven surrounding states and we wanted a place that showcased Mississippi. The Beau Rivage did a beautiful job,” said Lott. “The casino was a bonus, providing delegates with a way to relax and not have to search for entertainment elsewhere.”

The Mississippi Credit Union has held its annual meeting and convention at the Beau Rivage for years “and our attendance is always high,” reported McWilliams. “The beautiful Beau Rivage is currently the only in-state property large enough to hold all our events under one roof. The service, the food, the resort itself and the convention staff far exceed our expectations every year,” McWilliams said.

Does the gaming glitz get in the way of productivity? The Mandalay’s Glanzer doesn’t believe so. “As long as planners give attendees the right amount of free time, productivity is high,” she said. Planners must be happy with the results, seeing how many groups return with their conferences year after year; for example, the Mandalay Bay has a 70 percent group-repeat rate, and the Venetian and the Palazzo have 65-plus percent return rates with groups of 1,000 room nights or more. “People want to come to a gaming destination, so they attend the meetings to ensure their group will return,” Glazer said.