Conventions find focus off the Strip

When video game artists emerged from darkened meeting rooms at a recent convention in Las Vegas, it was the sunlight pouring into the conference room — not the many martinis poured down their throats — that was responsible for overwhelming their tender, blinking eyes.

The 700 or so gamers were sequestered in the convention center at Red Rock Resort, a $1 billion hotel-casino more than 10 miles west of the Strip.

They peered through Red Rock Resort’s floor-to-ceiling windows at the reddened Aztec sandstone cliffs west of Las Vegas as opposed to the Strip’s landscape of concrete, crowds and chaos.

That’s exactly what Joseph Olin, the man in charge of keeping the gamers on task, envisioned when he moved the 7-year-old DICE Summit away from the Hard Rock Hotel, which is just off the Strip, to the upscale calm of Red Rock Resort.

"They have short attention spans," Olin said of the video game artists. That’s why Red Rock was a good fit for the group, which included creators and artists behind blockbuster video game titles like "World of Warcraft" and "Halo 3."

"They are responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars," Olin added. "People get distracted. The late-night party atmosphere would go into the next morning."

Communities outside Las Vegas have long used the lure of a calm, productive environment to position their properties as the anti-Strip to try to lure serenity-seeking professionals.

Locally, Station Casinos’ Green Valley Ranch Resort in Henderson and Red Rock Resort have joined JW Marriott Las Vegas as top off-Strip destinations for out-of-town companies to hold events.

Clients of Station’s upscale meeting properties include PepsiCo, Audi, Wells Fargo, American Express, Citibank and Microsoft Corp.

But there’s room for more. With conventions attracting about 6.2 million people to Las Vegas in 2007, there is opportunity to increase the off-Strip niche’s share of the pie, said Chuck Schwartz, chairman of Convexx, a convention production company in Las Vegas.

"Personally, I think there is a tremendous opportunity," said Schwartz, a veteran of the Las Vegas convention scene with major shows like the Specialty Equipment Market Association Show, which occupies about 1 million square feet at the Strip-centric Las Vegas Convention Center and Las Vegas Bike Fest at the Cashman Center near downtown.

"The Strip can be a turnoff to some meetings, particularly small ones, religious, medical," Schwartz said. "But Vegas isn’t a turnoff."

Clearly.

From 2001 to 2006, the number of convention visitors to Las Vegas increased from 5 million to 6.3 million. The amount they spent, not including gambling losses, increased from $5.8 billion to $8.2 billion, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

And from 2002 to 2006, the amount of available convention space in the Las Vegas area increased from 8.9 million to 9.5 million square feet.

The convention authority doesn’t categorize space by market niche, but its figures report the leading properties away from the resort corridor bounded by Sahara Avenue, Russell Road, Paradise Road and Valley View Boulevard are South Point, with 150,000 square feet; JW Marriott with 109,000; and Red Rock Resort with 70,000 — 94,000 including public space.

There is also an abundance of properties with a few hundred to more than 40,000 square feet.

In comparison, the area’s largest convention centers, such as the Las Vegas Convention Center, Sands Expo and Convention Center and Mandalay Bay Convention Center, have 2.2 million, 1.2 million and 1.7 million square feet, respectively.

The disparity between the Strip’s largest venues and those at off-Strip properties is important for event coordinators.

At a large venue such as Mandalay Bay, an event with several hundred people might be treated as filler between major conventions and trade shows.

In a smaller resort, even an upscale venue like Red Rock Resort, event attendees can get red-carpet treatment.

"They are a very big fish in a small pond," said Veronica Kistner, vice president of sales for Green Valley Ranch Resort and Red Rock Resort. "In a Strip property they might have several groups at one time."

The video gamers, for example, occupied the majority of Red Rock Resort’s rooms during their three-day event this month. At a larger Strip property they would fill a much smaller percentage of the room inventory.

Kistner said Station actively cultivated the off-Strip convention niche at Red Rock Resort based on what the company learned after it opened Green Valley Ranch Resort in 2001.

Green Valley opened with just 10,000 square feet of meeting space, it added 40,000 square feet in 2004 and 15,000 in 2006. Red Rock Resort opened with its full complement of meeting space.

"At that point you could see the direction the property was headed," Kistner said.

Red Rock Resort also included separate entrances for the convention center and made sure convention space was close to the hotel desk and towers.

The emphasis helps Red Rock Resort attract companies that might otherwise leave the Strip for non-Las Vegas venues and keep them in Las Vegas.

"If you are looking for a Scottsdale, (Ariz.), or Palm Desert, (Calif.), type of experience you can find that in Las Vegas," Kistner said.

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com or (702) 477-3861.

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