Printer Friendly

Roulette and roundtables: meeting in a gaming destination.

Does holding a convention in a gaming destination make a difference? Association executives have the answer--yes, and no.

If the U.S. hospitality industry offers any sure bet in the 1990s, the smart money is on gambling. Just as during the convention center boom of the 1980s, cities across the country are looking for an economic elixir, and this time they're staking their chips on legalized gambling.

Twenty years ago, gambling spread from Nevada to Atlantic City and then to the Caribbean. Now it's fast invading America's heartland. Quiet communities such as Aurora, Illinois; Davenport, Iowa; Biloxi, Mississippi; and Central City, Colorado, now resonate with the jingle of slot machines and the rattle of roulette. Even established convention destinations like New Orleans, St. Louis, and Kansas City, Missouri, have firm plans to open gambling operations within the next year or so, while officials from Chicago, Detroit, and other cities around the United States are discussing proposals for their own legalized gambling establishments.

Legalized gambling is on a winning streak, and association executives must now consider exactly how it will affect the planning and atmosphere of their meetings. If, for example, an association has booked New Orleans or Chicago in coming years, it may find a casino operating in the neighborhood by the time it convenes.

Associations that have used gaming destinations have generally positive experiences to report. Their comments provide valuable insight into what it's like to meet where gambling is legal and how gaming affects the event.

Gambling goes mainstream

Gambling has been widely accepted in its spread across the United States. No longer considered by most Americans to be a naughty jaunt in "Sin City," legalized gambling is now only one of many aspects considered by executives and their meeting planners when they choose a site.

Part of this acceptance may be rooted in recent efforts by gaming meccas such as Las Vegas and Reno to market themselves as family vacation destinations. The MGM Grand Hotel, Casino & Theme Park, in Las Vegas, for example, will debut in 1994 with a 33-acre theme park and a seven-story replica of the magical city of Oz. According to Al Luciano, eastern regional sales manager for the Reno/Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority, Reno is following suit with a 2,000-room vacation hotel opening in 1995; the hotel will have themed areas designed for family entertainment, but no meeting space.

Some groups, by their very nature and beliefs, do not appear to be good matches for gaming destination meetings--but predicting which groups avoid gambling is not necessarily easy. The National Lutheran Elementary School Principals, River Forest, Illinois, for example, recently held its annual conference of 300 delegates in Davenport, Iowa, in spite of the fact that the Quad Cities area offers Mississippi riverboat gambling cruises.

"Gambling was the subject of a couple of jokes, but it was not an issue in any way," says Richard Wenz, a Davenport principal who helped organize the conference. "Our church officially opposes gambling, so the gambling had nothing to do with our meeting. They came here at my invitation to see my school." Wenz adds that the group took a non-gaming cruise as one of its social events.

Other associations have no qualms at all about gambling. Pamela V. Fisher, director of meetings and conventions for the Electronic Industries Association, Washington, D.C., says, "I'm sure some associations may have a problem with the perception of a destination that offers gambling, but we have had no complaints." Fisher conducts about 350 meetings per year, including some in Las Vegas.

"There's a certain number that enjoy gaming and look forward to it," says E. John Johnson, senior vice president of the National Electric Sign Association, Alexandria, Virginia, which has conducted meetings in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and Nassau in the Bahamas. "Our membership doesn't look at it as going to Sin City, but rather a super destination with great attractions including gaming." Johnson's association had a highly successful 1992 annual convention and exposition in Las Vegas that attracted 11,655 delegates--a 51 percent increase over its 1991 conference in Miami.

"We've seen some people lose and certainly they were not happy about it, but we've seen some people win as well," says Johnson. "But most of them approach it from the standpoint that it's entertainment and they budget the amount they gamble."

"I haven't heard gaming as a moral issue in our association," says Bill Townsend, president of the Awards & Recognition Association (formerly the Trophy Dealers & Manufacturing Association), Chicago. "Atlantic City and Las Vegas probably have been two of our better show locations, and I don't think gaming has overshadowed any portion of our shows there because gaming is just not a big deal any more." Townsend asserts that Las Vegas is much more family-entertainment oriented than it was when he went there for conferences some 20 years ago.

At least one executive points out that people will always find something to complain about. "We have had complaints about going to a gambling destination, but you're going to get complaints about wherever you go, so you can't please everyone," says D. Alex Mills, vice president of marketing, membership, and meetings for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, Washington, D.C.

Mills's association held a conference in Reno last November that attracted 1,100 participants. "I mean, we had complaints about meeting in San Francisco and Phoenix a few years ago because of political stances. You can find fault with almost any major convention city." Mills adds that Reno was one of the association's best draws in recent years, despite the complaints.

Good rates, good attendance

Gambling by itself is not the top attraction for most associations. Instead, associations like the meetings-oriented infrastructure gambling has helped create. For destinations such as Las Vegas and Atlantic City, which have offered gambling for many years, such infrastructure is substantial. Both locations offer lavish and extensive entertainment, lodging, exposition space, and dining.

But for small to mid-sized cities that have only recently legalized limited gambling--for example, on riverboat cruises--the amount of hotel and exposition space has generally not caught up with increased visitor demand. This suggests that it could be many years before these gaming communities become significant meetings destinations.

Teri Wonderlich, director of marketing and convention sales for the Quad Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau, Rock Island, Illinois, says that some developers backed out of proposed hotel developments after the tourism boom created by being the first area to offer riverboat gambling (in April 1991) cooled down. However, she adds that several hotels and exposition facilities expanded and renovated after gambling was introduced, and she points out that the Quad Cities convention business is growing steadily.

For groups that have had successful meetings in Las Vegas and other well-established gambling centers, meeting there just makes good sense.

"The best aspect of meeting in Las Vegas is that it draws more people," says Mike Spear, vice president of administration for the National Propane Gas Association, Lisle, Illinois. "Historically, it is the highest attendance we have and it's not so much the gaming as it is the shows and entertainment. It's definitely the nonbusiness aspect of the city that attracts our members." Spear's association's national conference drew 2,300 to Las Vegas last May.

Spear also asserts that part of the attraction of Las Vegas is the reasonable hotel rates that can usually be secured for groups, along with generally lower rates for meetings-related services.

"Absolutely it lowers our cost and raises our revenues," says Spear about Las Vegas meetings. "We don't pay a rental fee for our exhibit space, and we do everywhere else we meet, and it's a fair-sized chunk. We don't get charged for carpeting the hall, like we do elsewhere, because the hall is already carpeted, and again, that's a fair-sized chunk of money. We also get lower room rates, although not that much lower, and that's attractive to our members and builds our attendance." One area that's not a money saver, however, is food; Spear says catering costs are comparable to other cities.

Mary Wallen, meetings manager for the American Animal Hospital Association, Denver, Colorado, says this about the group's annual management conference of 200 delegates: "Our feeling is that veterinarians like to gamble and socialize and have a couple of drinks and see a show, so Las Vegas works for us. It's easy to get into and fairly cheap, and our members can shop around if they don't want to stay at the headquarters hotel." She adds that flights usually are no problem no matter when you fly into Las Vegas, because the airlines usually drop the Saturday night stay-over restriction for discounted fares.

"It's not that we choose to meet in a destination because it has gaming," says John Johnson, of the National Electric Sign Association. "Las Vegas has so much in the form of entertainment, of which gaming is a part, and it has great restaurants and weather, an excellent convention center, and a full range of hotels." Johnson has another reason to love Las Vegas: His members enjoy seeing the city's famed neon signs because they're in the sign business themselves.

"With a 51 percent increase in attendance and a 13 percent increase in exhibitors during a difficult economy, we have to feel pretty good about our meeting," says Johnson. "And yes, we will go back," he says, adding that Atlantic City also has been an excellent draw for the association's eastern regional shows.

For Pam Fisher, room rates are key. "Frankly, our attendance is up and never down, and we can usually negotiate a better or higher-quality hotel for a lower rate," she says. "The hotels don't depend on hotel room rates or food and beverage revenues like hotels in other cities, since they have the casino revenues. Also, gambling is a nice diversion during a working meeting because our members can work from 9 to 5 and then go to the casinos at 5 or 6, be entertained for a couple of hours, and then go to bed."

Agenda agitation

While many association executives downplay gambling's impact, it can affect how much planning a meeting requires. Some association planners say that the entertainment lure creates a greater demand for free time, which can mean fewer planned social events and possibly a budget savings. But for associations that depend upon their social functions as important events to honor members, build camaraderie, and set a conference tone, a major gambling destination can cause all kinds of problems.

"It is very difficult to compete with the superstar entertainment if you want to do a dinner or something like that," says Johnson about meeting in Las Vegas. Other executives agree. "We hold our social events to a minimum because whatever we would do would be second best to the entertainment offered in the city," says Louis C. Bell, executive director of the Western Floor Covering Association, Anaheim, California, about the meetings and trade shows that he has held in Las Vegas and Reno, with attendance ranging from 600 to 25,000.

"Also, when we are in a gambling destination, we do morning sessions, have a luncheon, and then generally turn them loose." Bell usually has more sessions during the afternoon in a nongaming city.

"We have very few activities at night," says Townsend of the Awards & Recognition Association's annual conference and exposition, which draws several thousand people when it convenes in Las Vegas. "The fact that there is so much entertainment is what draws our people, and we don't want to try to compete with that." Fisher agrees: "The gambling and entertainment allow you to leave your people on their own a little more. You don't have to sponsor and pay for as many social events, so it helps the association save money," she says.

For all the temptations presented by gaming, several association executives assert that gambling is less of a distraction during the day than other activities. The fact that gambling and shows can be enjoyed during the evening seems to help keep attendees in sessions and on the trade show floor during the day.

"In Las Vegas, most of the entertainment is at night, and it doesn't seem to affect the trade show attendance," says Townsend. "Where we have a problem sometimes in Las Vegas is the 7:30 a.m. session, because of the nightlife."

"If anything was a distraction, it was a nice day," says Christine Dale, events coordinator for the AIDS program office of the American Psychiatric Association, Washington, D.C., about the 200-participant conference she had in San Juan recently. "I heard much more of 'I've got to get out to the beach or that great golf course I saw,' or 'I want to go to St. Croix or see the rain forest.' The entire infrastructure in Puerto Rico is not centered around gambling." Dale adds, however, that planners should not expect to find lower room rates in Puerto Rico because of gambling.

The weekend problem

Despite the positive aspects of meeting in major gaming destinations, the tourist crush on weekends can pose a problem. Associations that want to meet on weekends may find precious few hotel rooms available and encounter less-than-enthusiastic hoteliers who won't offer them the great rates they'd get in midweek. "You can't meet over a weekend in most gambling destinations, because they usually don't want your business |then~ and I understand that, because they don't need your business," says Pam Fisher.

"We always schedule a midweek conference in Las Vegas to avoid the tourist rush on weekends, while we use the weekends in other destinations. Our members don't mind it," says Mike Spear, referring to the 2,300-attendee National Propane Gas Association conference that convenes in Las Vegas about every four years. "The focus there is more on your convention than the tourists if you meet midweek, and I think midweek is advantageous for a number of reasons. For one thing, the check-in, check-out procedures on the weekends are horrendous."

"We've had hotels tell us that 'we want your business, but we don't want your room nights on Friday or Saturday,'" says Bill Townsend of the Awards & Recognition Association's conference, which traditionally has met on weekends, even in Las Vegas. "They want the gamers there on weekends because the association groups don't tend to be gaming focused. Friday and Saturday nights just don't seem to be available to convention groups in Las Vegas, especially when, like us, they like to meet in the winter, which is the peak." Townsend adds that Las Vegas weekend room rates are about double midweek rates, and he adds that it is becoming so difficult to find weekend rooms in Las Vegas that the association is considering moving off its weekend format when meeting there, even though many of its "mom and pop shop" members do not like to be out of the office too long.

"Last year, we met during President's Day weekend, which is one of |the hotel's~ busiest weekends, and we had one hotel |turn away~ over 100 of our delegates even though they had confirmed reservations," says Townsend. "If we stay in Las Vegas in winter, we're going to have to move off weekends even though it may negatively impact our attendance." He says that the association would rather meet midweek than move from Las Vegas; he also claims that the larger the event, the better chance you have of securing dates on weekends.

Mary Wallen says that even with her 200-attendee conference for the American Animal Hospital Association she has to be very flexible to find weekend hotel rooms in Las Vegas. Wallen pays higher room rates on weekends but doesn't mind because it draws a larger group. "We had been looking to book a November weekend meeting with two breakouts, and no hotel on The Strip could accommodate us. But since we really wanted to go to Las Vegas, we ended up booking a weekend in February," she says, adding that she has waited in line for check-in on weekends for more than an hour, even when checking in as late as 8 p.m.

Exactly how the new gaming destinations will work with associations on their events has yet to be seen. Major gambling operations in cities such as New Orleans and Chicago, which already have impressive meetings and entertainment infrastructures, warrant close attention. Second-tier cities may need to invest their gambling receipts in building the other facilities it takes to draw big conventions.

"I don't think Las Vegas will be replaced, at least not in our minds," says the National Electric Sign Association's Johnson. "New Orleans is going to be an interesting place to watch, however, because it's already known as a hospitality center and it has the French Quarter, the Southern charm, and all of the attractions."

"I do consider the availability of gaming as somewhat of a plus, just because Las Vegas is a big draw for us," says Spear. "We are scheduled in New Orleans in a few years, and it will have casino gambling by then, so it will be interesting to find out if people are attracted to the conference because of the entertainment or the gaming."

As gaming spreads, its effect on meetings will probably become diluted rather than stronger. For example, Las Vegas, which once focused only on gambling to attract visitors, is diversifying its recreation options to draw a broader range of tourists, including families. As gaming becomes taken for granted, other destinations will more than likely also find the need to offer recreation beyond the roulette tables.

Jeff Waddle is a free-lance writer who specializes in meetings and conventions. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Waddle, Jeff
Publication:Association Management
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Previous Article:Master communicators.
Next Article:Award-worthy education.

Related Articles
Betting on meetings.
Killer Weed.
Behind the PokerFace.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters