June 01, 2001
Meetings & Conventions - Beyond the Booth - June 2001

Current Issue
June 2001

Playing it Up

When meeting in a gaming town, look no further than the casino floor for an inspiring theme

By Marilee Crocker

  Developing a creative and effective theme can be one of a planner’s greatest challenges. But in cities like Las Vegas, Atlantic City or Reno, the theme is ready-made.

Call it what you will: Winning Strategies; Shake, Rattle and Roll; Betting on Success; Walk Away a Winner; Let the Good Times Roll; In It to Win It; Games People Play these are among the many theme tag lines gaming suggests.

With built-in props and an environment that’s all about winning, it is easy to integrate a gaming theme into the overall conference. For instance, a Rat Pack theme can use a Frank Sinatra look-alike to greet guests at the general session, or have other Rat Pack characters pop up at different points throughout the meeting, suggests Tami Hance, director of sales for Destinations by Design, a Las Vegas destination management company.

Or perhaps you’ll want to play off the film Oceans Eleven, a 1960 Rat Pack movie about casino heists that currently isbeing remade in a version due to debut in December.

Besides the element of entertainment, gaming suggests numerous metaphors that naturally support various meeting objectives. “Because of the elements of risk, challenge, winning and losing, you can end up with almost any reinforcement” for a meeting’s goals, observes Michael D. Young, CMP, president of Meeting Dimensions, a meeting design, management and production company in Pennington, N.J. Some examples:

Take a risk. The chance factor in gambling can be used to emphasize a nothing-ventured-nothing-gained message or to convey the point that individuals might need to take a risk to improve their job performance or even their lifestyle, Young says. Entrepreneurial skills and behaviors also can be reinforced with a gaming theme. “Entrepreneurs are very important in the corporate structure in this day and age,” says Young. “Such people typically are gamblers; they take a chance to get ahead. That can be demonstrated or enhanced in a gaming destination.”

Face challenges. If the organization is downsizing or going through difficult times, play up the challenge aspect of gaming, suggests Young. The overriding message: “The more skilled you are, the better chance you have at winning.”

Reward winners. For an incentive meeting, all the participants should be treated like “high rollers.”

All for one. Michele Redrow, president of Carson Group International, an event, destination and meeting management firm in Woodbury, N.J., suggests a “Games People Play” theme when the goal is to create camaraderie. She recommends creating teams representing a cross-section of management and staff, then opening the general session with team-building activities tied into gaming instruction. Other activities, including gambling tournaments and gaming-themed scavenger hunts, provide additional opportunities for teamwork. Consider a finale that plays on TV’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” with team captains on stage supported by team members using keypads.

Go wild. Says Redrow, “The Wild Wild West Casino at Bally’s Park Place in Atlantic City creates a spectacular opportunity for a wild theme anything from the typical Western to a jungle scenario with live animals. The theme could encourage attendees to let loose, forget about time.” A number of other gaming properties have specific themes planners can play up, rather than try to invent their own.

Ready-made themes
With their emphasis on theatricality, big production numbers and dramatic staging, gaming destinations offer a host of paraphernalia, special effects and visual images that help establish a gaming-related theme.

Invite fun. To set the stage at the outset, consider illustrating invitations and collateral materials with pictures of dice, gaming wheels and other gaming gear. Or take it further by including a set of dice with invitations. Young suggests creating a special set of playing cards that, when laid out, spell out the invitation.

Carry it through. Tami Hance recalls that one client used a showgirl leaning over dice that spelled Las Vegas as the central image in collateral materials. “Every time they sent out an invitation, the showgirl was there in a different color. And they used her throughout the entire meeting, so for the general session, I hired two [similarly dressed] showgirls to escort the VIPs in.” (Also consider that some participants might find this offensive.)

Give mad money. For incentive groups, registration packets might include poker chips whose dollar value is linked to each attendee’s individual level of achievement.

Dole out rewards. Martie Sparks, assistant vice president of convention services for MGM Grand in Las Vegas, suggests using chips during the meeting itself. “During a general session, the company president might pose a question to someone in the audience and throw a chip to them if they get the right answer,” she says. “It’s very high energy and interactive.”

Add props. Oversized craps tables and huge dice along with gold lamé backdrops, neon lights and other glitzy staging are readily available to replicate the excitement of the casino atmosphere in general sessions or receptions.

Get fancy with food. At breakfast, serve flapjacks but call them blackjacks; and order pastries in the shapes of spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs. Buffet tables can be decorated with gambling paraphernalia, such as chocolate coins stacked in coin racks at the dessert table. Serve hors d’oeuvres from oversized playing cards, and have crudités set on roulette wheels.

Tournament time
Gaming tournaments using phony money and staged in a hotel ballroom that’s been turned into a faux casino provide a lively way for attendees to try out their gambling skills in a nonthreatening environment. Players can be in it for themselves or work in teams.

No stakes. In the simplest tournaments, attendees each are given a fake $500 bill, which they exchange for poker chips at a teller’s cage before being let loose to play blackjack, craps, roulette and baccarat for a couple of hours in the ballroom casino. At the end of the designated time, winnings are tallied and the most successful gamblers earn prizes.

Bid and buy. To add another layer of excitement, consider holding an auction after the tournament, so players can use their “winnings” to bid on items ranging from show tickets to vacations.

Get real. When the meeting budget allows, team players can even be given real money and sent out onto the floor of the casino.

Give it back. Joanne Brooks, president of Creative Impact Group, a Deerfield, Ill.-based production and destination management company, suggests a tournament in which team winnings are translated to real dollars that the host company then donates to a favorite charity. “It would raise the team spirit because it would be for a purpose.”

Hit the streets. Another upbeat diversion is the Poker Run. In this rendition of the traditional scavenger hunt, attendees are divided into teams and given route maps directing them to locations around the hotel or around town to collect oversized playing cards. After gathering five such cards, participants reconvene, and the teams that put together the best poker hands win prizes. When the Association of Destination Management Executives met in Las Vegas a few years ago, attendees participated in a more traditional scavenger hunt that included lots of gaming clues and Las Vegas trivia.

Free for all
To generate excitement and recognize individuals for outstanding achievements, money machines glass booths fitted with air blowers that send dollar bills flying are a natural fit for the cash-crazed gaming environment.

Ready, set, grab. Some groups use the machines during a general session, when they’ll invite a top-performing sales person to the front of the room and put him or her into a contraption filled with bills in varying denominations. Once the air is turned on and the money is sent flying, the individual is given 30 seconds or so to grab as much cash as possible.

Reward roulette. Another gaming-related reward or recognition program is a Cash Bash or Cash Back game. This uses a “Wheel of Fortune”-type prop, with each segment of the wheel representing a dollar amount. Participants spin the wheel to win money that can be used for purchasing poker chips for play on the casino floor.

At the podium
One oft-cited benefit of meeting in gaming destinations is the availability of a broad array of star entertainers who can be hired at reasonable rates for private performances. Destination management companies and host hotels can be helpful sources. “We always have entertainers in-house,” says Sparks of MGM Grand. “Most are very receptive to swinging by a convention and putting in a short appearance, which is a cost savings. We have had entertainers like Rita Rudner and Don Rickles stop by and give a private half-hour performance.”

Expect exclusives. Because some contracts prohibit entertainers from doing private performances during the run of a show or only allow them to add performances on nights when the main show is not running, Joanne Brooks often looks for entertainers who aren’t playing in Las Vegas. “Los Angeles is very close, and there’s a lot of talent there, so I bring them in.” Another option, she says, is to arrange a buyout of a showroom or of a portion of the tickets.

Check the executive suite. Gaming destinations also are a great source of speakers. “You have the opportunity to tap into the marketing wisdom and creativity of the casino business,” says Young. “Casino executives are geniuses at marketing and selling their product.” If budget allows, Young suggests engaging prominent individuals like tycoon Donald Trump or entrepreneur and former Mirage Resorts chairman Steve Wynn. “These are very successful men who can a deliver a keynote presentation. They’re really icons of the gaming industry.”

Solicit suggestions. Sparks suggests turning to the meeting’s host hotel to find speakers who can talk about gaming and the casino industry. “The people who live and breathe gaming day in and day out are the most qualified,” she says. “Even our president, Bill Hornbuckle [also MGM Grand’s chief operating officer], as well as other MGM Grand executives, would consider speaking at a function. There’s a mystique about gaming. People want to hear about the inner workings how does the cage work; how does surveillance work; and, of course, which are the best games that pay off.”

Joanne Brooks
Joanne Brooks

Gaming themes are not always appropriate. Before taking a chance, make sure the group won’t feel skittish about attending an event that plays up the gambling angle.

“If you understand your audience, you can use the gaming theme to your advantage. But if you don’t, it can become a stigma,” says David Buck, director of sales and marketing for Meeting Dimensions, a meeting planning and production firm based in Pennington, N.J.

And think twice before hiring scantily clad Las Vegas showgirls to entertain a group; some members might be offended, says Buck.

If gaming is the theme, it’s important to include nongaming entertainment and activities as well, says Joanne Brooks, president of Creative Impact Group, a production and destination management company in Deerfield, Ill. “I’ve done casino parties where I’ve brought in sporting games, video games and carnival-type games, so those who weren’t really gamblers would have something else to do,” she says.

Consider hiring card sharks or magicians to walk around at parties and entertain guests who aren’t participating in the gaming action.

• M.C.

Michael D. YoungCelebrities and showgirls, gangsters and hoodlums, 1920s-style speakeasies and Hollywood film settings&These are the raw materials of theme parties that play off the gaming motif.

“We’ll do a speakeasy-style reception with a strong-arm doorman who requires guests to reveal a password to gain entry,” says Michael D. Young, CMP, president of Meeting Dimensions, based in Pennington, N.J. “Drinks are served out of coffee cups. There’s a cigarette girl, a Mae West type, maybe a gangster or two .”

Details change to reflect the destination. When Meeting Dimensions staged a reception at the Atlantic City Convention Center, it re-created a speakeasy with a New Jersey shore backdrop, complete with lifeguard stands, people dressed in old-fashioned striped bathing suits and other nostalgic props.

In Las Vegas, a Rat Pack party evokes Vegas circa 1960, when super-cool entertainers Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and their buddies were at the height of their game. “It’s classy. It’s hip. It’s cool as opposed to cheesy,” says Tami Hance, director of sales for Las Vegas-based Destinations by Design. Sleight-of-hand artists and cigarette girls move through the crowd, while a lounge band or torch singer provides musical entertainment. Sinatra, Davis and Martin look-alikes also can be hired for a 40-minute show.


Novices will feel more comfortable getting into the action if the meeting kicks off with an optional lesson. During the opening-night reception, have in-house dealers or teachers from gaming instruction companies coach attendees on how to play blackjack, roulette and craps, offering tips on increasing their odds.

Using fake money but regulation tables, the experience is designed both to be entertaining and to help participants overcome hesitations about trying their luck on the casino floor. “People who aren’t around gaming often are intimidated,” says Larry Huttinger, CMP, director of D. Lawrence Planners, a meetings and expositions management company in Atlantic City, N.J. “This way they learn the rules and regulations of the games in a fun environment. They can build their confidence in a festive way, then try it for real.”

Convention bureaus, destination management companies and hotel convention services managers should be able to provide referrals for local companies that provide lessons.

• M.C.

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