June 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: Being There - June 1998 Current Issue
June 1998
Being There

How to keep them in the meeting room and out of the casino

Betting on Meetings | Veiled Vegas | Joining the Game | -->Being There

For the first time, you've booked your group's annual meeting in a popular gaming destination and, wonder of wonders, pre-registration is up almost 50 percent over previous years - and the meeting is still six months away.

Clearly, the promise of 24-hour casinos, dazzling nighttime shows and lavish theme parks can be a powerful lure. Yet, consider this: You may get them there in droves, but can you keep your attendees inside the meeting room doors?

Following, seasoned planners share their tried-and-true tactics for generating their own brand of excitement to keep the group from straying.

Substance is everything
"The content of the meeting is the most important thing," says Pleasanton, Calif.-based Bo-Vonne Ochse, executive director and show administrator for the Northern California Bowling Proprietor's Association. "Find a topic that will keep them there and tie in the entire agenda."

The secret, believes Ochse, an 18-year veteran of casino-based meetings, is knowing what motivates your group and then packing your itinerary with strong speakers and great educational sessions that entice them to stay. "The strength of your program ultimately determines whether the attendee will sit in front of a slot machine or go to the meeting," she says.

A good tool for enticing attendees back into the meeting room after a break, according to Ochse, is to "dangle the candy, and leave them hanging." She advises structuring agendas with educational sessions divided into two parts: session one, which introduces an interesting subject, followed by a break; and then session two, which pulls attendees back in with a how-to conclusion. "If they want to find out how to make that knowledge work for them, then they have to come back," explains Ochse.

Similarly, be sure general sessions are compelling. "Speakers are critical. But you don't necessarily need the most expensive, big-name speaker you can find," says Ochse. "Get someone who speaks directly to your group's interest," she says.

And the winner is...
Who says the casino floor is the only place to win? Al Sardelich, annual meeting and special events coordinator with San Francisco-based Chevron Products Company, likes to entice attendees with big giveaways to keep them from straying.

"It absolutely irritates me when I walk through the casino and see our people there when I've paid $20,000 for a good guest speaker," says Sardelich.

"Great giveaways, where you absolutely have to be present to win, work," says Sardelich. In some cases, the freebies require participation in a game, such as the money tunnel. "I stick them in this glass-enclosed wind tunnel with money blowing all around. They have 15 to 20 seconds to catch what they can. People have a lot of fun just watching," he says. Sardelich recalls one happy attendee who thought he hadn't caught much until he found a $100 bill sticking to his collar.

Some of the prizes are true attention-getters; one year's big award was a giant tanker of gasoline.

If gaming motivates your attendees, consider giveaways they can use at the casino during designated free time. Ochse likes to offer prize money in the form of custom-printed casino dollars that will be accepted at the facility. Says Ochse, "They are there primarily for the casino, so why not make it work for you?"

Give them free time
Don't lead them into temptation without allowing for some time when it's okay to stray.

"Schedule time for gambling, especially in the evening," advises Dallas-based independent meeting planner Sherri Cook, CMP, owner of Sherri Cook & Associates. "And try to leave one evening absolutely free, because there might be shows they want to attend."

Cook schedules reception-only evenings that finish at 7:00 p.m., and suggests planners wrap up the final night banquet by 9:00 p.m. "It's no use wasting money on big entertainment or a band and lavish spreads," says Cook. "You will lose them to the casino, anyway, and you'll end up paying for things you don't make use of."

To get attendees to gather for even a few precious evening hours, offer something they won't find elsewhere. For a meeting later this year, Cook is plotting to have her group roast an unsuspecting attendee. "It's something new, and they will definitely be surprised and have a good time with this," she promises.

If you're nervous about losing your attendees the morning after a long night free, Larry Huttinger, director of D. Lawrence Planners, a meetings and expositions management company in Atlantic City, N.J., suggests allowing a chunk of free time in the early evening, say, between 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m., and then luring the group back with the promise of desert, coffee and a special private show. "You don't want to have every minute of your attendees' day taken up, but you also don't want to overdo the evening activities," advises Huttinger. "I also think it's important to build in non-alcoholic functions."

"Don't bother scheduling a fancy breakfast with pricey speakers," adds Sardelich. "You'll lose most people, especially if they spent a late night at the gaming tables."

Sardelich also says planners shouldn't rely on the meal itself to draw attendance. "There is a lot of cheap food at casino hotels. Your attendees will probably think, ÔIf I miss lunch it's okay; I can buy a hot dog and a beer for 49 cents.'" A better idea, he says, is to invest the bulk of the budget into a strong and compelling general session.

The meeting rooms are where?
A rule of site selecting at casino properties: Pay close attention to the location of the meeting rooms. If your attendees have to walk through the casino to get to the meeting, chances are you'll lose a few lesser-willed souls along the way.

"You don't want to have your attendees walk through the hoopla of the the hotel's casino and the entire shopping arcade to get to the meeting facility. That's a very big distraction and something I really take into account," says Maryta Montgomery, meetings and travel manager for Dallas-based The Southland Corporation, parent company of the 7-Eleven convenience store chain. She suggests asking the hotel for a well-detailed map, identifying all facility locations, to help you in your site selection.

To help keep attendees on a non-distracting route to the meeting area, include this map of the property in all registration packets, along with a clearly marked "preferred" route to seminar and function rooms. And once on site for the event, be sure to provide lots of visible signage. If attendees can't easily find the meeting, they may give up and head for a room they can easily locate - the gaming room.

Out of sight, out of mind
Too much of a good thing can be bad for meeting attendance. So, sometimes Chevron's Sardelich likes to just whisk his attendees away from it all. He recommends planners provide at least one off-site, non-casino function. Getting away from the glitz and the excitement can be a welcome respite, says Sardelich, especially for the non-gamblers in the group.

"Off-site functions allow everyone to get out and smell the fresh air," says Sardelich, who rented the MGM Grand Adventures Theme Park one evening for his group of several thousand. For smaller groups - or smaller budgets - Sardelich suggests throwing in a day pass to an area theme park and adding free time in the itinerary for attendees to take advantage of the savings. Says Sardelich, "It gives them something different to look forward to."

If you typically tie in a trade show to your meeting, Ochse suggests planners consider holding the event at a nearby off-site venue, such as a convention center, and busing attendees to and from the event. "When they have to go off property to attend the trade show, you stand a better chance of getting them on the trade show floor than if you stayed on property, especially if you advertise giving away lots of great prizes," says Ochse.

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