Las Vegas: Conventions and a Whole Lot More
Buffeted by the winds of war that have blown since Sept. 11 and losing much of its uniqueness in an America where casino gambling is fast becoming ubiquitous, Las Vegas continues to evolve toward a more diversified (and stratified) tourist appeal. The stratification is already evident in the advent of private, high-limit gambling salons, such as those recently rolled out at Caesars Palace and MGM Grand. But even as they gamble behind closed doors, the “whales” are not a numerous species.
Now the traditionally frugal, gambling-averse conventioneer is the happenin’ dude. Local cabbies may like to joke that COMDEX attendees arrive with one $20 bill and one clean shirt, and don’t change either. Still, if 120,000 hotel rooms are to be filled with regularity, local boosters need to lure a steady stream of convocations. To this end, the most significant development of late has not been a casino opening but the forward progress of Mandalay Bay’s $235 million, 1.8 million-square-foot convention center, slated for completion in January 2003. It will join a vastly augmented Las Vegas Convention Center as well as an expanded Venetian Resort Hotel & Casino. Completion of the latter’s on-again, off-again Phase IA, in addition to supplying 1,000 new hotel rooms, will push the Sands Expo Center’s convention space close to the 2 million-square-foot mark. The Venetian will finance the completion of Phase IA and its move into Macao (after other debts are retired) from a combination of an $850 million mortgage offering and $480 million in secured loans and credit.
With so much space on tap, the conventioneer becomes a priority, and the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority’s (LVCVA) Rob Powers said demand is “very, very strong. We have had to turn away business because we didn’t have space. Room availability, value, facility availability, staff, infrastructure and after-hours activities — all of those things have driven Las Vegas to the top of convention destinations in the United States, if not the world — and those things are constants.” The Venetian scored a coup on June 14 by announcing the booking of five major trade shows with an aggregate projected attendance of 56,000.
Powers allowed there was some short-term falloff in convention bookings after Sept. 11, mainly from organizers skittish about traveling and holding meetings in that anxiety-fraught climate. However, he said, much of the business was soon re-booked. “We had an automotive after-market products show here in November. The attendance was about 80,000 — virtually identical to the attendance of the same show in the year 2000.”
What has cut into expos such as COMDEX and the Consumer Electronics Show has been the ongoing process of mergers, consolidations and subsequent personnel layoffs. Fewer exhibitors equal fewer attendees. “Industries that have been hurt the last year have seen a concurrent decline in [corresponding] trade shows,” Powers observed.
Reno Expands Convention Offerings
In Reno, the refurbished and expanded Reno-Sparks Convention Center (RSCC) holds a grand opening on August 2 of its new facility, said to be more appealing than the bland offering of years past. “It was kind of a box,” conceded Ciara Coyle, publicist of the nearby Atlantis Casino Resort. “It’s gotten more definition, a lot more detail on the front. It looks like a modern convention center you might see in San Francisco or Los Angeles.”
With the tribal casinos of northern California eating into Reno’s drive-in and motor-coach gambling base, the city is positioning itself as an “adventure” destination, a Mecca for the extreme-sports crowd and as a bigger, better convention city.
The rehabbed RSCC offers 500,000 square feet of space at a $105 million price tag. But neither the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority (RSCVA) nor the city is stopping there. The latter has taken title to the National Bowling Stadium. After conversion of the stadium’s fourth floor and construction of an adjacent structure, the plan should yield another 180,000 feet of meeting area.
“Reno is losing ground in the leisure market. The RSCVA would admit that freely. It has efforts underway, but we’re in this interesting little period between bearing fruit and lost business. [The local market] is going to suffer some more,” commented Reno Gazette-Journal reporter John Stearns, who noted that capturing convention business is not going to be a slam dunk, given external competition.
The stadium alteration is partly the result of a lengthy push by the “Tri-Property” resort complex — Circus Circus, Silver Legacy and El Dorado — for a downtown-business magnet to help fill its 6,600-plus rooms. After a four-month tourney by the Women’s International Bowling Congress in January 2003, conversion of the bowling stadium begins in earnest, resulting in a space where bowling lanes can be pulled up and converted to exhibit floors, and vice versa, according to RSCVA spokeswoman Kristi Prentice.
What’s New in Shopping and Entertainment
Retail opportunities abound along the Strip, including the Venetian’s Grand Canal Shoppes and Aladdin’s Desert Passage, out to part tourists from their vacation bankrolls. Caesars is expanding the Forum Shops by an additional 200,000 square feet. The Fashion Show Mall, just down the street from the Forum Shops and across from Steve Wynn’s Le Reve property, is in the midst of a $350 million expansion that will double its size and transform 1,000 feet of frontage on Las Vegas Boulevard into a multi-media showcase to advertise the fashion shows and 300 shops within. Another shopping venue on the horizon is the $75 million, 100,000-square-foot retail bridge linking Mandalay Bay and the Luxor. The new center will house 33 stores, including Louis Vuitton and Fendi.
Las Vegas continues to look for more ways to shake things up along the Strip. To pull in the more prurient crowd, MGM Grand has “La Femme,” while Caesars has countered with the striptease artists at its “Shadow” bar. However, Caesars is also putting finishing touches on an attraction that, if early reports bear out, could lead to a redefinition of Las Vegas as an entertainment capital rather than a gambling venue.
The project in question is Caesars’ Colosseum, a $95 million rotunda housing a performing space custom-designed to showcase pop megastar Celine Dion in a production show by Franco Dragone (creator of such Steve Wynn-sponsored spectaculars as O). Dion will play 200 dates yearly and her recent sabbatical from performing has apparently done nothing to slacken her popularity. “We were planning to put tickets on sale in November for a show that begins on March 25, 2003,” reported Debbie Munch, corporate communications director for Park Place Entertainment (PPE), owner of Caesars. “Frankly, we’ve had so many calls and requests for ticket sales we accelerated and put the tickets on sale May 23. We’re finding out for ourselves how popular this woman is. We have people who call us to buy tickets first and then buy their airline tickets. They want to know they’ve got show tickets before they plan the trip, which is a backward business model for showroom bookings in this city,” Munch explained. “I wouldn’t call the Celine show equivalent to opening a new resort. That wouldn’t be fair. But just as opening a new resort can spur travel decisions, this Celine business model is one that is encouraging international travel and that’s wonderful. The city can richly benefit.”
Gaming Industry Seeks Diversity
GOLD – Gaming Organization for Leadership Diversity – began as a grassroots effort among gaming professionals dedicated to promoting diversification in gaming for women and minorities. It has grown into a recognized organization in support of diversity. The mission of GOLD is to establish an on-going forum that will encourage, support and facilitate the development and advancement of women and minorities holding management positions in gaming and related industries. It also aims to provide career, leadership and lifestyle improvements through education and networking.
“We’ve had tremendous support from the industry, and our database is over 300 strong at this point,” said Fran Inman, president of GOLD. “Incorporating in late 2001, the organization has representatives from the major gaming companies as well as vendors and suppliers to the industry.”
GOLD sponsors a quarterly luncheon, open to the public, featuring industry and government leaders who address the challenges and opportunities of promoting diversity in the workforce. Speakers in 2002 included Sarah Ralston, producer of LV Week on KVBC; and Lt. Governor Lorraine Hunt. The next luncheon will be scheduled in September during the World Gaming Congress.
“GOLD provides a unique opportunity for women and minorities in gaming and related fields to exchange ideas and develop forums to promote diversity in gaming,” said Suzanne Trout, co-chair of the organization’s marketing committee.
MGM MIRAGE launched a new Website in June – mgmmiragediversity.com – in an effort to bring more minority-owned, women-owned and disadvantaged enterprises into its vendor database for purchasing opportunities. The company’s purchasing departments nationwide use the vendor database to solicit for bids. An MGM MIRAGE press release stated the company’s goal is to have 7,500 companies in its database by the end of 2002. “In today’s fast-changing and increasingly diverse global society, corporate diversification has become more than just the right thing to do,” said Punam Mathur, vice president of corporate diversity for MGM MIRAGE. The Website is part of a comprehensive plan announced in fall 2001 to implement diversity in all aspects of the company’s operations.
“Many minority businesses are small or medium-sized and don’t have the capital or capacity to compete with larger firms,” said Rick Jones, vice president of purchasing for MGM MIRAGE. “When we explored our purchasing history, our statistics revealed that a relatively small percentage was spent with minority- and women-owned businesses. We want to increase our total business with these groups. But we’re not going to do business with a small company just because it’s a woman- or minority-owned business. We will continue to choose businesses that provide high-quality products, are cost-effective and deliver superior service.”
MGM MIRAGE officials are also facilitating joint ventures to allow minority vendors to become bigger and better suppliers of goods and services to the gaming industry. For example, MGM officials paired a restaurant supplier with a linen manufacturer, enabling the joint venture to win a linen supply contract for the company’s Beau Rivage property. Repeat business with small minority contractors on construction projects has allowed the contractors to increase their state licensing limits, augmenting their ability to secure and perform larger jobs.