Las Vegas may continue to bear the tagline “ground zero of the world economic crisis”, but it does so with the panache of a gambler who’s ever hopeful his luck will turn for the better. The financial crunch of 2008 brought the boom in tourism, property and employment to a grinding halt, and since then, recovery has been painfully slow with several multi-billion-dollar casino projects remaining in limbo, construction stalled and Nevada state – once the fastest growing job market – still leading America’s jobless derby.
Nevertheless, staff at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) are sporting broad grins these days. While last year’s visitor numbers hit 38.9 million, this year’s figure, according to Michael Goldsmith, the authority’s vice-president, international sales and marketing, “will be a record one at 40 million”.
Of last year’s figures, some 4.8 million visitors came expressly to attend a convention or exhibition, and this year, the numbers are bound to increase, Goldsmith says. His source for optimism stems from the fact that for the 18th consecutive year in 2011, Las Vegas continues to top Trade Show News Network’s list of largest events. It provided the platform for 55 of the 250 shows, far more than formidable competitors Orlando with 26 shows and Chicago with 21 shows.
Seven of the publication’s top 10 shows – ranked by the amount of floor space used – were held in the city, including the Association of Equipment Manufacturers’ triennial CONEXPO-CON/AGG, followed by the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES).
It is almost certain that Asian leisure travellers, particularly those who have visited the US on several occasions, have included Las Vegas in their itinerary. But that’s a different story where the incentive travel market is concerned. There are other issues.
The challenge starts with accessibility and logistics. “There aren’t a lot of direct flights from Asia to Las Vegas,” observes Gloria Lan, president of Tour America, a California-based inbound operator working with leading outbound and destination management companies in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines, among others. “Most of them arrive on the US West Coast, in San Francisco or Los Angeles. Then, you have to transfer the participants and their luggage onto another airline to get there.
“Organisers of a conference or incentive travel group have certain priorities when considering a destination to hold their event. This includes not having to split up their group on the connecting flight if it happens they can’t all be accommodated in the aircraft.” For now, only Korean Air flies non-stop between Seoul and Las Vegas, while the only Asian carrier to serve the city via Vancouver, Philippine Airlines, is dropping the route in December due to poor load factors (its new push onwards to Toronto is seen as a more lucrative option due to the sizeable Filipino community residing there).
Wanted: New image
Then, there’s Las Vegas’ image as the “gaming capital of the world”, which continues to stick in the public psyche – despite laudable attempts by the LVCVA to trumpet alternative pastimes both in the city and beyond, including culinary experiences by celebrity chefs, broadway and tailor-made-for-Las Vegas performances (there are seven resident Cirque de Soleil productions, with another based on the life and music of Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson, The Immortal, to open in 2013), scenic adventures to the Grand Canyon and a slew of national parks, among other activities.
Chris Zhang, director of Shanghai Mandarin Travel, believes this “casino town” impression presents a very real obstacle, deterring corporates (both local and multinational) from considering sending their staff there. “We in the industry know there is more to Las Vegas than gaming, but not everyone has that information. And it’s a sensitive issue when a company is deciding on a destination to hold an incentive, especially in China.
“So the tourism people really have a lot of work to do to promote Las Vegas. They can’t erase its gambling history overnight. There are still other destinations in the US that the Chinese are more familiar with and want to visit such as New York and Los Angeles.”
LVCVA executives are the first to admit they are making very tentative forays into the China market at the moment. Last year, it generated 188,000 visitors, while South Korea produced 132,000 visitors and Japan, 108,000 visitors.
Goldmith explains: “We’ve had a team in China since 2008 to market and promote Las Vegas. As with most US destinations, because the MOU [US-China Group Leisure Travel Memorandum of Understanding] was signed only that year, we are still in the infancy stage in terms of promoting ourselves to Chinese travellers.”
But since the US government relaxed restrictions on Chinese visa applications in January this year, Goldsmith reports that more than 1.34 million US visa applications had been processed by September, representing an 81 per cent jump over the past two years. Staff increases in US consular offices around the country also contributed to noticeable progress on this front.
Yama Gao, director, China Market, American International Travel Services (AITS), which has offices in San Francisco and Shanghai, echoes Goldsmith’s comments, saying that her company experienced minimal rejection rates for visa applications this year. Primarily a wholesaler, AITS has begun to offer incentive travel programmes, albeit on a small scale.
Last year, the company organised a three-day Las Vegas trip for 200 employees of Yofoto, a wellness products manufacturer. The itinerary combined a city experience and excursion to the Grand Canyon. A highlight was the “Oscar Night”, attended by top executives of LVCVA and former Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman, who, along with his wife Carolyn – now the mayor – rank as two of the city’s most colourful characters and long-time tourism pioneers. “Everyone got dressed up in formal wear. It was fun,” Gao recalls.
However, she continues to see the destination in the foreseeable future as part of a broader programme for Chinese incentive groups.
India, with its booming economy, is another rich potential mine of customers for Las Vegas business events planners, and their efforts are sure to fall on fertile ground. Birju Gariba, chief executive and executive director of Platinum World in Mumbai, remarks: “Vegas has always been an inspirational destination in the minds of Indians, and is even on the bucket list of places to visit before they die.
“Its lights, glitz and glamour, the variety of offerings, the blood rush it offers gamblers, the spectacular shows, the image of a place where even the most serious let their hair down – this all has appeal for our customers. Vegas and New York are warming up big time for our Indian corporates, and industries like banking, pharmaceuticals, real estate and consumer goods are now keenly looking at Vegas as one of the possible destinations for their next corporate event.” Las Vegas faces special challenges, largely brought about by a battered US economy that’s still trying to set itself on the road to real recovery. But taking all the odds into account, it’s betting that the next roll of the dice will be in its favour.
Las Vegas’s bright lights and gaming buzz can be irresistible, but there’s a different kind of action that plays out in the spectacular Southwest landscape surrounding the city.
Groups who make time to see the more natural side of Las Vegas won’t be disappointed, and usually come away with unique memories – and heaps of photos – of breathtakingly rugged mountains, red rock canyons and deep desert valleys. For adrenaline junkies, there is a slew of outdoor activities providing a sense of risk to rival any thrill found playing against a card dealer or “one-armed bandit”.
The Grand Canyon in western Arizona is a one-hour flight from Las Vegas. Over millions of years, the Colorado River carved this natural wonder deep into the landscape over a distance of 445km and in some places to a depth of 1.6km. Sightseeing air tours and ground tours depart from the city for half-day, full-day and overnight excursions.
Grand Canyon West is a destination owned and operated by the Hualapai Tribe on the Grand Canyon’s western rim. Guaranteed to create shivers (of the fun kind) is The Skywalk, the brainchild of Las Vegas-based businessman David Jin. The cantilevered glass walkway is suspended 1,216 metres above the canyon’s floor and extends 21 metres from the canyon’s rim, affording thrill-seekers with the appropriate gasps and squeals as they stare between their feet at the hair-raising drop.
Red Rock Canyon, 24km west of Las Vegas, boasts fantastical rock formations and atmospheric desert along a 910-metre escarpment produced by a thrust fault. It is open yearround and is very popular with hikers, bikers, joggers and rock climbers. Families of feral horses, wild burros, bighorn sheep, coyotes and a variety of desert plant flora call this starkly beautiful region home.
Death Valley in western California is a 40-minute plane ride away. Its claim to fame is that it’s the lowest elevation on the North American continent at 84.93 metres below sea level. Points of interest include Zabrieskie Point, 20 Mule Team Canyon and Scotty’s Castle.
Mt Charleston, 56km from Las Vegas and towering 3,632 metres above sea level, is much cooler than the desert temperatures of the city. This makes it the perfect environment for skiing, picnicking, hiking and horseback riding. Besides year-round hotel accommodation and tours, full-service camping is available from May through September.
Valley of Fire State Park comprises scenic landscape such as hidden canyons and stunning red rock formations. Petroglyphs and the remains of ancient native American civilisations are on display here. It is 88km northwest of Las Vegas and open year round.
Mojave National Preserve, 97km southwest of Las Vegas, is a sanctuary for one of the most diverse environments in the world and abounds with sand dunes, volcanic cinder cones, Joshua tree forests and soaring mountain peaks.
Zion National Park, 254km north of Las Vegas across the Utah border, is a popular winter ski resort; Zion Canyon is the most visited attraction, an amazing gorge hewn by the Virgin River into the red and white sandstone. The colourful walls, measuring 608 metres to 912 metres, loom high above the canyon floor.
Bryce Canyon is a much visited national park with rock formations with imaginative names such as Pink Cliffs, Silent City and Cathedral. It is 336km northeast of Las Vegas.
The Hoover Dam is a historic man-made engineering feat that tamed the Colorado River and created Lake Mead, North America’s largest artificial lake. Tours of the 220-metre-high and 200-metre-thick dam are available year round.
Lake Mead National Recreation Area offers outdoor enthusiasts year-round opportunities for swimming, water skiing, camping, boating, fishing and cruises, thanks to 880km of shoreline. It is 40km from Las Vegas at its closest point.
Boulder City, just 48km east of the Las Vegas Strip, was built in the 1930s for the families of Hoover Dam construction workers. It is the only Nevada city that does not allow gaming. Its historic Old Town district is home to many quaint shops, several featuring works by Native American jewellers.
Rhyolite is a well-preserved ghost town 193km north of Las Vegas, which bills itself as the “Gateway to Death Valley”. Highlights include the ruins of the Potter General Store, Newton’s Grille, a school, some major banks, a railroad depot and a house made entirely of bottles.
Bonnie Springs Ranch/Old Nevada, 32km west of Las Vegas and near Red Rock Canyon, started up in the 1840s as a cattle ranch and watering hole. Adjacent to the attraction is a re-creation of an Old West town where visitors can observe “gunfights”, go horseback riding, bring their kids to a petting zoo or hop on a mini-train. Open year round.
Spring Mountain State Park is a historic ranch site that provided a stopover for travellers on the Mormon and Spanish trails. One of its former owners was the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, who also helped transform Las Vegas from a dusty outpost to a billion-dollar leisure mecca.
Go to www.visitlasvegas.com for more information about all the scenic and man-made attractions listed.
New and notable
Las Vegas McCarran International Airport (www.mccarran.com) expanded in late June when it opened Terminal 3, featuring seven domestic and seven international gates. It can now handle 53 million passengers.
The National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement (www.themobmuseum.org) offers multiple perspectives on the unique impact of organised crime on Las Vegas and the US.
The Neon Museum (www.neonmuseum.org) aims to preserve an iconic aspect of Las Vegas’s vibrant past with its priceless collection of neon signs ranging from the 1940s to the present day.
The Smith Center for the Performing Arts (www.thesmithcenter.com) has become the bedrock of cultural life in Las Vegas since opening this year, blending performances by resident companies and first-run touring groups. It hosts the 2,050-seat Reynolds Hall and the Boman Pavilion.
Access: McCarran International Airport (www.mccarran.com) is located 24km from downtown Las Vegas and only 3.2km from the Las Vegas Strip. There are regular shuttle buses to both areas costing around US$7 to US$9 one way. Taxi fares to all major hotels cost from US$13 or more. The airport serves 30 airlines including all the major US international carriers, but only one from Asia – Korean Air (three times weekly), which now flies into Terminal 3. From Europe, British Airways, AirBerlin and Virgin Atlantic all fly to Vegas.
Climate: Blessed with an average of 300 days of sunshine a year, Las Vegas has a very arid climate and summer can be blazing hot, with temperatures in the high 30s and even over 40?C. The best times to visit are spring and autumn.
Visa: US visa regulations can be very complicated and vary greatly for different countries. Most nationalities require a visa to enter the US – check out www.usimmigrationsupport.org for details.
Language: English is of course spoken by all, but with the huge increase in immigrants from Central America Spanish is also widely used in Vegas.
THE VEGAS EDGE
Despite the strong association with gaming and hedonistic weekends, as well as a lack of direct international flights, business events keep taking place in Las Vegas. Here’s what established research outfit Exhibit Survey says about the destination after a recent survey of several international trade shows:
• Attendance increased an average of 15 per cent when shows rotate into Las Vegas.
• Attendance decreased an average of 6 per cent when shows rotated out of Las Vegas.
Fiction: Las Vegas convention delegates sneak away from meeting sessions.
Fact: Las Vegas trade show delegates spend more time on the show floor – 11 hours as compared with 5.9 to 9.5 hours in other cities.
Fiction: Las Vegas conventions do not attract “serious” delegates.
Fact: About 47 per cent of Las Vegas trade show attendees have the “final say” for buying decisions.
REFRESHING THE STRIP
Reinvention is the name of the game along Las Vegas’s iconic Strip, with constant change keeping visitor numbers robust, especially during cyclical bust times. Here are highlights of what the mega hotels are doing:
• Tropicana Las Vegas has completed a US$165 million Phase 1 makeover, which gives it a tropical island vibe.
• Bellagio has remodelled all 2,568 rooms in its main tower to create an elegant residential feel paired with state-of-the-art conveniences.
• Flamingo Las Vegas is nearly done with the refurbishment of its 2,307 hotel rooms. The transformation has imbued them with a more stylish and contemporary look.
• MGM Grand has recently rounded up a US$160 million remodelling of 3,570 Grand King and Queen guestrooms and 642 suites in the hotel’s main tower. It's now gearing up for the Hakkasan Las Vegas Restaurant and Nightclub, expected to raise the bar on local nightlife when it opens in 2013.
Las Vegas + Surrounds
• Group arrives in Las Vegas
• They go for an evening tour by bus, stopping by unique theme hotels such as the Luxor, the Bellagio for its famous Fountain Show, Conservatory and Botanical Garden, the Mirage’s Volcano Show, Treasure Island’s Sirens Show and the Fremont Experience in downtown Las Vegas.
• Full-day Grand Canyon Tour
Option 1 – by bus to the West Rim (Hualapai Reservations), including the Skywalk experience
Option 2 – by helicopter to the West Rim (Hualapai Reservations), including the Skywalk experience
Option 3 – by helicopter to the South Rim
• Attend a show in Las Vegas
• Full day free at leisure
Option 1 – Shopping at Premium Outlets
Option 2 – Try your luck at any of your favourite casinos.
• Half-day tour to Red Rock Canyon and the other half of the day at leisure with options such as golf, spa, shopping or visiting a casino.
Depart Las Vegas
Source: Chan Brothers Singapore
Margie T Logarta