Sunday, 29 March 2009

Las Vegas: A city of contradictions

I’ve been to Las Vegas a few times but never really scratched beneath the surface. After all, what could I expect to find? A lot of sand and the decaying corpse of Bugsy Siegel, the american gangster who convinced his mobster associates to build the Flamingo, the very first Vegas casino?

The Flamingo opened unfinished in 1946. Within two weeks, the gaming tables were $275,000 in the red and the operation collapsed in January 1947. On the night of 20 June, 1947, Siegel was assassinated in Beverly Hills. Bugsy Siegel was played by Warren Beatty in the 1991 film ‘Bugsy’ and his character has been the inspiration for, among others, Moe Greene in The Godfather.

On this trip however, I had more reason to look beyond the poker rooms and the sounds of the slots. I’d been assigned to write a business travel article on a city that President Obama had specifically warned bailed-out US corporate business not to visit on the taxpayers’ dime.

What I found after a ten-hour flight with eight UK corporate event buyers, was a city that’s been cut but not wounded.

Las Vegas is full of contradictions. Everyone from Wall Street to our limo driver has been speculating that MGM Mirage, the Strip’s biggest casino operator, could be facing a bankruptcy filing if it can’t renegotiate better repayment terms with its lenders covering some $7 billion in loans, and yet the company is forging ahead with the massive $9.1 billion CityCenter resort, due to open at the end of this year, next door from my suite at the Bellagio.

Hotel occupancy across Vegas is down, but compared with the rest of American C&I destinations, it’s still in pretty good shape.

Hoteliers queued up to tell me about their environmental policy (one even discussed it, with no sense of irony, as we stood on the balcony of a penthouse suite at night, gazing out across the cityscape, lit up 24 hours-a-day like a Christmas tree). And yet, every element of CityCenter has been carefully thought through from a sustainable perspective, from the use of reclaimed water to on-site power generation.

The city’s annual gambling revenue of $8.4 billion is exactly the same figure attributed to the economic impact that conventions contribute to the Las Vegas coffers. This has meant a rise in on-Strip properties such as the Palms and Mandalay Bay offering non-gaming outlets attached to the casino hotels and off-strip resorts such as Red Rock and Green Valley gaining increased prominence.

Again, the CityCenter project, located at the heart of casinoland will also feature luxury non-gaming hotels including Las Vegas’ first Mandarin Oriental and Vdara Hotel alongside Aria, a 61-story, 4,004-room gaming resort.

For me therefore, Las Vegas will always be a crazy place that has been responsible for some bizarre and monumental memories over the years. But the Nevada city in the desert is now gambling with creating a greener, more sustainable future with emphasis on a business offer that can be distanced from the casino experience.

The leaflets advertising girls delivered 24-hours a day are still distributed along the Strip like confetti but the marketing message ‘What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas’ has been replaced with a tourism strategy that now promotes the city as a short-break destination.

The message that the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority is now striving to get across is that it’s no longer just a city built on gambling losses and sin. Las Vegas is trying to secure its future by alerting winners to the fact that Vegas, now more than ever means business.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Nightmare on Tooley Street

An event which sees guests happily pay £60 a head to sit in complete darkness, in the cold dead of night with only make-your-own tea, coffee and biscuits for catering, would seem implausible. And yet, Ian Shillito has made a success of this same formula by adding one vital ingredient - the very real possibility of experiencing paranormal activity.

On Friday 13th, I joined the London Paranormal society as it staged A Nightmare on Tooley Street, the hunt for ghostly goings-on in the London Dungeon.

Ghost hunters from across the UK gathered at the museum of historical horror hoping to experience for themselves paranormal activity sometimes reported by attraction staff. Beyond the mutilated dummies, torture equipment and dark corridors are stories of children in the plague area, a silent figure appearing between the dummies in the mortuary or gliding around the Great Fire of London exhibit.

General poltergeist activity has been encountered when doors rattle, open and close, whilst knocks and raps are heard, especially in the Jack the Ripper area.

Armed only with my wits (somebody forgot to mention to bring a torch!), I accompanied Group A to its first hour-long vigil - a table tapping experiment in one of the Dungeon rooms.

My fellow ghost hunters and I joined our host around the table and delicately placed finger tips on the wooden surface whilst one of the London Paranormal team set up amplified microphones and room thermometers to check for sounds or changes in temperature.

I soon realised I wouldn’t be needing the torch after-all as guests were instructed to turn out the lights and our host began calling out for any spirits to come forward and make themselves known.

It didn’t take long for scrapes and knocks to start replying from the darkness. Suggestions from our host were greeted with agreement and confessions from around the table of feeling cold or touched.

One person to my left even came up with a name for the spirit as if she’d been psychically informed that he was called Mikey. I wondered if actually he was calling out my Twitter name (@mikeyfletch) as I’d been updating followers on the micro-blogging site as to the ghostly goings-on, but I decided to keep my thoughts to myself.

After an hour of standing in complete darkness, in the company of Mikey, who we established was a child because his little hands had been placed on the hips of our host, I had experienced tingles, shivers and a desire to find a toilet.

When we returned to the coffee area to prepare for the next vigil, other groups had witnessed moving tables and whispering voices. Something was definitely going on here - apparently we’d arrived during rush-hour for the ghost’s nightly commute around the venue.

I wanted to experience the moving table phenomenon for myself but first, my group would spend another two vigils sitting in complete darkness with the temperature dropping, this time experiencing nothing but the clairvoyant readings of Ian Shillito on my fellow guests as we awaited more ghostly activity.

On 17 February, 1941 the arches in which we were sat were being used as an air-raid shelter when they received a direct hit by a bombing raid, killing 68 local people. The bodies of two children were never recovered. Could one of these children have been Mikey?

To be honest, I was beginning to no longer care as tiredness and the cold began to take over. Perhaps sensing the growing apathy from our group, Shillito went off to check that the room with the wandering table was free for us to move into. This, I decided would be my final furore before I made my own ghostly exit. Unsurprisingly it did not disappoint.

The spirit with a penchant for interior design sent vibrations through the table and into my fingers before flipping one end and physically moving the entire table a good two-feet across the floor.

The showpiece concluded with two loud knocks on the wall directly behind where those ghost hunters not able to get a seat at the moving table were sitting. A very considerate spirit to ensure that everyone in the darkness could experience his presence.

I guess it's this table tipping experiment that has formed the basis for my conclusions. If you want to guarantee seeing the big five animals in the wild, go to the Masai Mara - it’s set up to ensure tourists get what they pay for. With a strong dose of suggestion provided by London Paranormal’s team, together with some unexplained goings on, a London Paranormal ghost hunt will also guarantee a successful night, but only for the avid believer.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Events 2012 & Beyond: Full conference report

The first official conference to focus on the opportunities for the events industry around the 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games took place at Earls Court's conference centre on the opening day of International Confex.

Events 2012 and Beyond was organised by Visit London and VisitBritain in conjunction with the Events 2012 Development Group, and produced by UBM Conferences.

Chaired by BBC Breakfast host Bill Turnbull, the day promised insight from key Olympic stakeholders and first-hand advice on the opportunities that 2012 will present to the UK events industry.

The enormity of the task ahead was outlined by Greater London Authority Director of Marketing Dan Ritterband. Drawing on his experiences of being in Beijing for the 2008 Olympic Games, he confessed that the Chinese missed a great opportunity to enhance the overall visitor experience and feel of the city. He then urged the UK events and hospitality industries to ensure all opportunities to maximise the visitor experience were seized upon.

"At this point in time London is ahead of the curve compared with past Olympic host cities. The logistics of holding the equivalent of 38 World Championships across 17 days are huge but for us, this is the opportunity to position London for the next 50 years. It's important that we improve our level of service, our professionalism and show our ability to put on big events," he explained. "We need visitors to have a fantastic experience whilst they're here. London should be a place they're going to want to come back to. We know that visitors love to come to London, and we need to raise our game on the business and events side of things as well. We need to get the message right and bring the whole city with us in the lead up to 2012."

Ritterband was the first to take to the stage after opening remarks from David Sharpe, Events 2012 Development Group Chair and Managing Director of the London Eye. Ritterband was also the first of several other speakers to urge the industry to sign up to the city's Fair Pricing and Practice Charter to ensure that unfair venue hire and supplier cost hikes do not feature in London's Olympic legacy.
"Any profiteering during the Games will be to the detriment of the city for the next 50 years because if people feel they've got stung in what they already perceive as a relatively expensive city, they're not going to want to come back," Ritterband said.

The first indication of the opportunities that will arise in the lead up to 2012 was outlined by Visit London Commercial Director David Hornby and VisitBritain's Head of Business Visits and Events Joss Croft.

Providing a sense a scale, Hornby stressed that the Games would be more digital than ever before and content would be broadcast across multiple platforms. This was later reiterated by Davies Tanner PR Managing Director Robert Wright in a session on how the media will change over the next four years.

Hornby then broke the Games down into numbers – 205 nations, 147 Paralympic teams, 10,250 athletes, 100 sponsors, 26 international federations, 560 domestic sporting bodies and 26 test events that will take place in the summer of 2011 and spring 2012.

Croft gave the statistics a wider context. "The Games are the world's longest commercial with the biggest global television audience of 4.7 billion viewers," he said. "The UK volunteer programme will start in 2010, the 2012 torch relay will take place solely in Britain, and we expect 34 official live sites around the country providing big screen Olympic viewing parties. We will welcome the world, engage the customer, extend our reach with new partnerships, win new business and leave a lasting legacy."

The plans for live sites were later outlined by Mike Gibbons of the London 2012 Organising Committee (LOCOG). Supporting Ritterband's earlier comments about Beijing, Gibbons told delegates that there had only been 17 screens around the Chinese city. "There will be 21 permanent big screens around the UK by April 2009 and more than 30 by 2012. It will be a ten-year legacy providing an interactive opportunity for brands and requiring content all year round," he said.

A real coup for the conference was securing two Olympic top sponsors to join two major Olympic agents in describing to delegates what their requirements and expectations of London 2012 will be.

Daryl Jelinek, General Manager, London 2012 Olympics for Coca-Cola and Barrie Howard, Vice-President Global Sponsorship, Olympic Office for Visa International shared the stage with SportsMark and Sportsworld Group UK.

Coca-cola recently extended its eight-year Olympic Top Sponsorship until 2020 and is already planning its London hospitality and events programme for around 8,800 guests.
Jelinek said, "We will use the Games to inspire change and our strategy will be based on sustainable activity. Venues and suppliers need to be 'gold medal' planning and putting standards in place that will align with sponsor's requirements on pricing, flexibility, quality and sustainable solutions."

Visa's Howard told delegates that the moment the torch relay begins in Britain, the Olympics will ignite and a raft of event activity will ensue. SportsMark Director Olympic Operations Walter Dobrowolski, who manages client programmes for Olympic Top sponsors concurred. He stressed that corporate guests will visit London for short day-long itineraries, whilst Sportsworld Group UK Director Len Olender urged delegates to be focused on relationship building for the next 18 months as his ticketing and tour operator wouldn't be ready to start purchasing until 2011.

Some Olympic contracts are ready to be awarded however. Mike Mulvey, Chief Executive of the London Business Network, which manages the website urged the events industry to use the portal as an official route to market. To date, 59,000 businesses have registered with and 18,000 of them are based in London.

One way suppliers can stand out when competing for Olympic work is to ensure full compliance with the sustainability guidelines published by LOCOG.

Head of Sustainability at LOCOG, David Stubbs told delegates that the 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games would be the most sustainable games to date and all venues, suppliers and event solution providers will have to demonstrate a high level of sustainable practices to win official contracts. "Sustainable and ethical sourcing of goods and services for 2012 will change event industry procurement forever by setting new standards," Stubbs said.

Mark England, Director of Olympic Operations for the British Olympics Association set out Team GB's medal aspirations to win 60 in 2012. Drawing on his experiences of Beijing he told delegates that all 205 nations and their Olympics Associations (NOC) will need to acclimatise before the Games. This will result in an influx of activity prior to 2012 with the NOCs gravitating towards their embassy locations in central London.

The rest of the day was made up of question and answer sessions in which the main concerns for delivering a successful Games were discussed. These are transport, pricing and security. On the issue of transport, Visit London's Hornby added, "There is some real ambition within Government bodies to use and maximise the river’s potential for transportation in the run up to 2012."

Towards the end, delegates were given a glimpse of future plans to bring other major sporting events to the UK. England 2018 Commercial and Marketing Director David Magliano presented England's World Cup bid and told the conference how we are better prepared and have learned lessons following the failed bid in 2001 to host the 2006 competition.

With Visit London's Hornby promising that the Events 2012 and Beyond conference would now be an annual, possibly bi-annual event staged during the next three and a half years, it is certain that the UK events industry will also be better prepared for what’s in store when the greatest show on earth comes to town.