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by Matt Alderton | March 01, 2016
Las Vegas has always been known for gambling. Twenty years ago, however, that's all it was known for. Today, the nation's top gaming destination is synonymous with a lot more. Thanks to residencies by performers like Celine Dion, Elton John, and Cher; attractions like Cirque du Soleil, the Stratosphere, and the Mandalay Bay Shark Reef Aquarium; and nightclubs like Hakkasan, Drai's, and Tao, Las Vegas is now just as famous for world-class entertainment as it is for slot machines and table games. For this reason, Sin City has become a city to look to for national trends in group amusement.

Perhaps the biggest of these trends is interactivity, according to Jaki Baskow, founder and CEO of Baskow & Associates, a Las Vegas-based event, meeting, and destination management company which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Meeting and incentive attendees don't just want entertainment, she says  --  increasingly, they want experiences.

"People don't just want to watch and listen. When they see a piece of entertainment, they want to be part of it," Baskow explains. "As a result, we're not just doing meetings anymore; now we're doing engaging meetings."

Whether you're meeting in Las Vegas or somewhere far, far away from it, Baskow's Vegas-inspired ideas will keep you on the cutting-edge of group entertainment with increased interactivity and engagement.

1. Go Behind the Scenes

Las Vegas is world-renowned for its live shows, many of which offer group tickets, buyouts, and even private performances. When you're sitting in the audience, your only choice is to watch the show; when you go on a backstage tour, on the other hand, you get to feel like you're actually part of it, according to Baskow. (Unfortunately, her favorite backstage tour -- the "Jubilee" All Access Backstage Walking Tour at Bally's Las Vegas -- recently closed, but there are still many other options to choose from.)

Blue Man Group offers a 90-minute "Behind the Blue" experience. Elton John's "The Million Dollar Piano" show has a "Behind the Piano" backstage tour experience. And Cirque du Soleil offers backstage experiences at each of its shows, including "O," "LOVE," and "KÀ." And just in case a tour isn't interactive enough, Cirque also offers custom workshops called "SPARK Sessions." Groups can choose either "Learning Sessions," during which participants learn how Cirque du Soleil maintains its creativity and innovation, or "Teambuilding Sessions," during which participants are tasked with creating their own performance with make-up, costuming, and props.

Outside of Las Vegas, contact local theater companies, performance groups, museums, and attractions to inquire about what backstage experiences and/or workshops they offer.

2. Take a Tour

"Backstage" isn't the only place groups can go on tours. Las Vegas is full of venues and attractions that offer immersive experiences for groups that want to explore and learn. Baskow, for example, often takes groups on a reality TV tour that includes lunch in between stops at the "Pawn Stars" (History Channel) pawn shop, the "Rick's Restorations" (History Channel) workshop, and the "Tanked" (Animal Planet) aquarium-building facility. Another popular tour venue is The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, which offers a guided walking tour that takes visitors through the center, highlighting its architectural accomplishments, artwork, and history. Both offer a unique opportunity to see Las Vegas from a different point of view.

Outside of Las Vegas: Seek out historical or pop culture landmarks in your destination and look for opportunities to show them to your group in an intimate and/or interactive way.

3. Leverage Local Talent

Speaking of reality TV, one of Baskow's go-to's for group entertainment is Dr. "Doc" Phineas Kaslte, a Las Vegas local who appears regularly on "Pawn Stars" as its antiquities expert. As it turns out, he's also a world-famous yoga master. For a fraction of the cost of a conventional celebrity, he often leads yoga stretch breaks during or after lunch at Baskow's meetings, where he also poses for pictures with attendees. His presence lends a fun "fame" factor while his instruction gives meetings a physical element that makes them feel more participatory.

Outside of Las Vegas: Look to the local entertainment, academic, or even fitness worlds for minor celebrities or experts who will be willing to not just appear at your meeting, but also interact with attendees, engage them in an activity, or perhaps even teach them a skill.

4. Get Out of Town, or on the Town

It's hard to be interactive in a static meeting room, so Baskow's clients often embrace a change of scenery. One group, for instance, recently planned a "Bad Boy's/Bad Girl's" incentive weekend that included desert rides in Army Jeeps and zip lining beside Lake Meade in nearby Boulder City, NV. Another group, meanwhile, took advantage of the revitalization of downtown Las Vegas by organizing a pub crawl up and down Fremont Street.

Outside of Las Vegas: Organize extracurricular outings that are experiential, active, and social. The entertainment shouldn't merely be something to watch; it should be something to talk about.


5. Engage the Audience

When she takes groups to see a Vegas show, Baskow often coordinates with the performer ahead of time to make sure her group will become part of the show. Her company's talent agency, for instance, represents Recycled Percussion, a band that plays "junk rock music" at The Quad Resort and Casino. When she has groups in their audience, Baskow arranges for the band to bring people on stage, give a group shout-out, etc., which makes attendees feel involved in the show. Magic acts also are good choices for planners who want a show that lends itself to more audience participation, Baskow says.

Outside of Las Vegas: Turn a keynote speech into a keynote conversation  --  a keynote address where the audience is not just a listener, but also an active participant. For example, consider a group like Broadway's Next Hit Musical, a Brooklyn, NY-based musical comedy improv troupe that recently announced a partnership with trivia production company TrivWorks. For events of up to 300, the groups stage several rounds of full-room pop culture-themed trivia. In between rounds, while score sheets are tabulated, improvisers from Broadway's Next Hit Musical perform spontaneous songs created on the spot based on made-up song titles suggested by audience members. The event culminates with an awards ceremony for the winning team, followed by an improvised closing number incorporating humorous moments from the evening.

6. Throw a Theme Party

Because it has attracted so many legendary entertainers over the decades, Las Vegas is home to a large community of celebrity impersonators who parody everyone from Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson to Frank Sinatra and Sean Connery (and even President Barack Obama). In that spirit, Baskow recently threw a music-themed party for one of her group clients featuring Another Journey, a tribute band dedicated to the classic rock band Journey. To make the event more interactive, however, she also invited attendees to get in on the fun by encouraging them to come dressed as their favorite rock star. At similar events in the past, she's even enrolled VIPs in a "rock camp" where they learn to play and sing from famous musicians, then perform as a band at the event's closing-night reception.

Outside of Las Vegas: Find ways for your attendees to be the entertainment. Costume parties and talent shows, for example, give attendees a chance to break away from "business as usual" to have fun and amuse each other. Think of it as "user-generated entertainment."