by Leo Jakobson | January 29, 2015
If there were any doubt that Las Vegas is back from the economic downturn, this should set it to rest: The "Entertainment Capital of the World" announced in mid-December that more than 40 million visitors came to the city in 2014, setting a new record.

"Las Vegas couldn't have reached this milestone without the continued investments of our resort partners," says Rossi Ralenkotter, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. "Ongoing developments in the destination, including new, renovated, and rebranded resort properties, exciting new attractions, world-class entertainment, incredible culinary offerings, and more are what keep first-time visitors and loyalists returning to Las Vegas time and time again."

That growth is reflected in the incentive and high-end meeting business, hoteliers say. During the downturn, "Las Vegas got hit harder than just anybody out there, and we've probably had the biggest rise back," says Eric Bello, vice president, sales, of Las Vegas Sands Corp., which owns AAA-Five-Diamond properties The Venetian Las Vegas and The Palazzo Las Vegas. He predicts 2015 will be a record-breaking year for groups.

Bello is not alone. "We have seen an increase in luxury meetings and incentive programs specifically at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas," says Kurt Wuebbenhorst, vice president of sales. "The Cosmopolitan entered the Las Vegas market to truly stand out in a sea of sameness. There are beautiful resorts up and down the Strip, but we strive to create something dynamic and unique. Our goal is to leave guests with stories worth telling, and feelings worth returning to, which aligns with this segment."

That trend extends to food-and-beverage budgets, a segment that saw substantial cutbacks during the downturn. "From a group room-night and a banquet revenue standpoint, we're up year-over-year about 20 percent," says Gus Tejada, director of marketing at the 424-room Four Seasons Hotel Las Vegas, the AAA-Five-Diamond hotel-within-a-hotel at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino.  

SLS Las Vegas, the Philippe Starck-designed luxury resort that opened in August, has "seen almost more business than we anticipated," from a group standpoint, says Robert Filipelli, executive director of sales. "We are really different, and people like the idea that they can have different but high end."

The Great Outdoors
The 550-foot-tall High Roller observation wheel is probably the most visible change to the city's skyline in the last few years -- especially at night when it is illuminated in shifting colors. However, the real sea change is what it represents: the move to bring people out of the hotels and into the open.

A decade ago that would have been considered heresy, and you can see it in the design of all but the newest resorts on the Strip. Most are built to funnel guests through the casinos, and few open onto the Strip without a long walk.

"Moving outside is so not Vegas," says Michael Dominguez, senior vice president of corporate sales for MGM Resorts International. "But 70 percent of our revenue stream is now non-gaming."

The High Roller's 28 glass-enclosed cabins each hold up to 40 passengers, and groups can arrange private cabins with drinks and hors d'oeuvres, present corporate branding or messages on the cabin video screens, and even illuminate the entire wheel in company colors. Unlike the London Eye and other observation wheels, the High Roller's cabins are on the exterior -- rotating on ball bearings rather than stuck hanging between two rims -- so nothing will impede the best views in town once it gets up high enough to clear the buildings.

The High Roller anchors the LINQ, Caesars Entertainment's new outdoor dining, nightlife, and entertainment district, which has plazas for outdoor entertainment as well as cafes spilling onto a New York-inspired streetscape. The LINQ is important enough to Caesars that one of its neighboring hotels, The Quad, is undergoing a major renovation after being rebranded as The LINQ Hotel & Casino.

Meanwhile, MGM Resorts International is working on The Park, an eight-acre outdoor dining, retail, and entertainment district which includes an open-air plaza with community spaces, dining options, and live entertainment such as musicians, artists, and street performers. It will connect MGM's Monte Carlo and New York-New York properties, as well as the 20,000-seat arena that the company is building.

Then there is MGM Resorts Village, a 15-acre entertainment and sports outdoor area that will expand to 33 acres this year, when it plays host to the Rock in Rio festival, which will bring 120 acts to the north end of the Strip in May. Plans call for a capacity of 85,000, six stages, and a VIP area with room for 4,000.

"I have to applaud Las Vegas; they have reinvented themselves again," says Scott Siewert, divisional vice president, sales, of Atlanta-based USMotivation. "They've changed the whole mindset of 'you've got to be in the casino.' They've got to appeal to a wider audience, to diversify. They want to get everybody there, whether they are a gambler, a shopper, whatever."

Of course, Dominguez points out that this is a process that has been going on for years with a strategic focus on fine dining, shows and headliners, and shopping along the Strip. Moving outside is just what's next, particularly with a younger, more active generation coming into the workforce. "Planners are trying to get outside without being at the pool," Dominguez says. "The idea is: How do we move people outside?"