Vegas convention biz heads for cutting edge

The business travel market has always been important for Las Vegas. But with the 2008-09 downturn in convention bookings, it’s clear just how crucial meetings are for the local economy. Recently, MGM Resorts International began a few programs that help convention guests stay connected while they’re here.

Convention bookings have suffered more than leisure visits during the recession. From 2007 to 2009, the total number of visitors to Las Vegas dropped from 39.1 million to 36.3 million—a 7 percent decline. The total number of convention delegates, on the other hand, shrank from 6.2 million to 4.5 million—a drop of more than 27 percent.

The convention crisis means more than empty conference rooms. Convention visitors tend to outspend leisure travelers at restaurants and for rooms, so their absence has a disproportionately large impact on casino revenues—and casino employment.

Getting conventions to come back isn’t going to be easy, though both the Las Vegas Visitors and Convention Authority and several casinos are reporting more robust bookings next year. The challenge will be keeping these guests happy in Las Vegas, and increasingly, technology is helping to do that.

Several MGM Resorts International properties have released iPhone applications that let guests learn about amenities, view rooms, download gaming guides and in general use their mobile devices as virtual brochures. It’s a necessary move to a platform from which visitors are increasingly getting their information.

Convention guests, however, can use their iPhones to do much more than regular hotel guests. Groups can create passcode-protected pages that include news, meeting schedules, special offers for conference attendees, and more. Conference organizers can now continuously update their delegates in real time.

This is in keeping with national trends; convention centers from Boston to San Diego have been experimenting with apps to deliver news to attendees for about a year now. With so many choices available to visitors, it’s not surprising that Las Vegas resorts like those in the MGM family are doing the same.

A demo shows the capabilities: A wedding party can access a schedule of events (no more guessing where and when the wedding photos were being shot), view the guest list, read a short bio of the couple and even submit songs for the band to play at the reception.

“We think it’s a new way to get more productivity out of our convention sales teams, and get better responses from our convention guests,” says MGM executive vice president for sales and marketing Richard Harper, acknowledging that this is terra incognita for his company.

“We haven’t seen many folks doing anything quite like this in the convention space, and we saw this as an opportunity to get out in front of it, to build something meaningful that would improve the overall convention experience.”

He admits that the company is still finding its way. “It’s one more way we’re looking to provide something unique. And you don’t know if it will work if you don’t try it. We might make some mistakes along the way, but there’s a lot of potential there.”

Harper is enthused by the possibilities for better marketing to guests before—and, in real-time, during—their stay, and by the way that technology can overcome a problem many guests have: getting lost en route to their sessions.

“GPS is a great way to help people move around the property,” he says.

According to Harper, convention visitors with Blackberry and Android smart phones will be able to join in on the fun, starting in January. That will coincide with a rebound in convention visitation that he sees happening around that time, with his company forecasting “at least double-digit growth” in the number of convention guests compared to this year.

Yet it’s not all about technology. Harper believes that the human touch is essential to the convention hospitality business. “The last thing we want to do is become so automated that we lose touch with our guests,” he says, though he acknowledges that “if a customer finds a need for a technological solution that will increase their loyalty to us, we’d like to get behind it.”

As conventioneers become more reliant on mobile devices, the Strip’s casinos will be increasingly speaking to them there.

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