Las Vegas Sun

December 14, 2017

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Unsung heroes: Convention specialists deserve honors

When it comes to convention commerce, Las Vegas is at the top of a short list of dynamo communities. With over 10 million square feet of prime meeting space within Sin City, 3.2 million of that is retained as inventory of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. The world’s Entertainment Capital is also a “Meetings Behemoth.”

The first 20 years of Las Vegas’ post-World War II history saw nonstop casino action as the magnet that lured mostly Los Angelinos to the gaming tables of a fast-growing number of hotel-casinos. Each had plentiful bars, a headliner showroom, cabaret lounge, buffet, coffee shop and steakhouse. Those loss-leader-amenities helped attract patrons to the resorts’ betting venues and slot parlors. But not a whit of resort space was dedicated to group functions except a singular room that housed weddings, reunions and various retirement or anniversary celebrations.

From those humble beginnings, how did such phenomenal growth come to be? What circumstances took Las Vegas from a pre-eminent leisure destination to a village where trade expositions, colloquiums and seminars now attract multiple millions of delegates?

Starting in 1965, astute casino operators recruited a cadre of nongaming hotel specialists — convention and catering tourism sales executives — some from marquee brands like the Waldorf-Astoria, various luxe Hilton properties and other lavish trade names throughout America. Those proven deal closers included Charlie Monahan, Tom Brown, Dick Thomas, Michael Gasta, Valerie Moon and Paul Spence.

Accomplished professionals all, they pitched to affinity groups that were the low-hanging fruit of conference prospects: labor unions. Las Vegas resorts were financed largely by Teamster pension funds, so rank-and file-workers representing metal, maritime, building and AFL trades, were more easily persuaded to arrange a meeting in Las Vegas than, let’s say, the American Association of School Librarians.

Las Vegas, at that time, was a tainted rascal in the minds of many citizens and the organizations to which they subscribed. Some professional societies even went so far as to establish bylaws that prohibited convening in Las Vegas. One such group, the National District Attorneys Association, had a bylaw that read, “The Association shall not hold a meeting outside of the United States or in the State of Nevada.”

It was in those circumstances that those sales executives reached out to elected officials, enlisting their support as members of the association to change attitudes. In the case of the National District Attorneys, the Las Vegas D.A., Bob Miller, was eager to assist. He petitioned the group and received approval to bring sales director Tom Brown of the Sands Resort & Casino to the lawyers’ upcoming board meeting in Williamsburg, Va. There, Brown brandished his hospitality skills before the conservative prosecutors. As an end cap to his efforts, not only was the bylaw removed, but Las Vegas was selected as the venue for the organization’s next annual meeting.

Next steps: the Western Governors’ Association, National Governors’ Association, National Association of Attorneys General, the National Associations of Lieutenant Governors and Secretaries of State and the National Council of State Legislators were wooed to choose Las Vegas as a meeting site in rotation with other “traditional” convention cities. The district attorneys’ reconsideration was used to underscore the productivity and practicality of Las Vegas meetings, the city bursting with distractions. Even the National Association of School Librarians hosted its first of many meetings there because of the sanction afforded Las Vegas by a growing number of respected professional organizations.

As Las Vegas became mainstream as a venue for exhibitions, assemblies and conventions, the plethora amenities the city offered (formerly called distractions), became selling points and effective tools to close a booking deal and provide enormously successful business meetings.

Few people realize the important role our sales gurus played in the development of a market segment that helped legitimize Las Vegas’ reputation and expand its customer base by multiple millions of consumers. Each one deserves a place in the Tourism Hall of Fame.

Thomas G. Tait is the former executive director of the Nevada Commission on Tourism.

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