The Other Convention Business

Why reunions are important for the future of Las Vegas tourism

Family-friendly Las Vegas never went away—it just doesn’t get the same press as nightclub Las Vegas or tech-startup Las Vegas. For proof, look no further than the burgeoning business the city does in hosting family reunions.

Most reunions are small meetings—and they’re evidence of how versatile the meetings business is in Las Vegas, with events as large as the Consumer Electronics Show (which drew more than 152,000 attendees in January) and as small as a weekend escape for 15 far-flung cousins.

Reunions are a subset of what travel planners call the SMERF (social, military, educational, religious and fraternal groups) market. SMERF groups are different from the traditional conventioneers, which are usually travelers meeting primarily to do business (although they manage to squeeze some pleasure in as well). Generally, convention groups come to Las Vegas to sell something, to buy something, or to expand their professional development.

SMERF gatherings tend to be more intimate—usually with between a dozen and a few hundred attendees, and they don’t have the same business imperatives as typical conventions. This is a double-edged sword for hotels that host them: SMERF attendees are usually paying for their rooms, dining and entertainment out of their own pockets, so they are more sensitive to price than travelers on the company’s dime. But they have more free time to spend money while in town. They also attract guests at the margins of the traditional Vegas visitor demographic: the very young and the very old.

Most family reunions have a big dinner at their host hotel, a large group breakfast on their departure date and several outings that take place across the city. They also often reserve a hospitality room to gather in during their downtime. Small gatherings of this sort have become more important to Las Vegas since the Great Recession. With tighter corporate budgets putting a squeeze on the size and scope of bigger conventions—companies that once sent a half-dozen employees without blinking might now agonize over sending two—convention salespeople have had to become more creative in working with smaller groups.

The same factors that make Las Vegas a popular business destination—experienced customer service and a variety of activities at a broad range of price points—also make it friendly to reunions, says Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority communications director Dawn Christensen. Those activities—adult-playground lore notwithstanding—include plenty for both kids and adults, a competitive advantage that many other potential destinations don’t have.

Small hotels in particular see reunions as central to their strategy. The Tuscany Suites & Casino presents a case in point: With 716 suites and 37,000 square feet of meeting rooms, it isn’t in the running to host the kind of giant conventions that wind up at Aria (4,004 rooms and 300,000 square feet of convention space). But it can comfortably host a gathering of up to 1,200 people—and nearly all reunions, from the Jones family to State U, fall well under that threshold. “We love hosting reunions,” says Tuscany national sales manager Marlene Mahoney. “We’re easy to navigate, but we have plenty of room for groups to catch up and share memories.”

With SMERF groups making up between 15 and 20 percent of the Tuscany’s total bookings, the hotel has catering to them down to a science: Strong points for families include access to suites without going through the casino and the option of parking directly in front of the building (that’s a big plus for older visitors with mobility issues, who comprise a large proportion of both family and military reunion groups).

The growing popularity of so-called Sin City as a family-reunion destination speaks to the seemingly endless malleability of Las Vegas—and to the economic imperative to keep heads in beds. So while casual visitors used to Hangover-style antics might blanche at the thought of a wholesome family gathering on or near the Strip, those who know the city understand that it’s really business as usual.