A jackpot of authentic adventure
Few places in the U.S. are as anomalous as Nevada, and perhaps no more so than Las Vegas, which thrives on surprise. But look beyond Vegas, and the state of Nevada also defies expectations.
To start, many people have the misconception that Nevada is largely desert. While the Mojave Desert does claim most of the state’s southern region, the name Nevada means “snow covered” in Spanish and refers to the Nevada Sierra Mountain Range in the northern region, where peaks rise more than 13,000 feet from the Great Basin plains, and landscapes are lush with forests and valleys. Plus, the state oozes with history from early Anasazi and Southern Paiute Indian settlements to pioneer homesteaders of the Wild West.
“Las Vegas certainly has made Nevada a first-tier meetings destination, but there are amazing alternative choices beyond the city lights,” according to Chris Chrystal, spokeswoman for the Nevada Commission on Tourism. “Nevada’s mountainous high desert offers historic mining towns and ghost towns to explore, rides on 19th-century steam trains, thrilling white-water river rafting and kayaking, stage presentations in turn-of-the-century opera houses, and outdoor fun including golf, skiing, parasailing and riding ATVs. Nevada’s history is palpable and creates an unrivalled, uniquely American cultural dimension.”
Las Vegas au Naturel
While the many casino resorts possess lavish event facilities, meeting planners must constantly meet the growing demand for multisensory and indigenous experiences. So, for Las Vegas-centric gatherings, plan some activities beyond city limits to discover the majesty of the Mojave Desert. Here are a few destinations to consider:
• Valley of Fire State Park: Located about 54 miles northeast of The Strip, Valley of Fire State Park is like another planet, or at least the remnants of one that existed 600 years ago. Once part of a vast ocean teeming with life both in its waters and on its forested beaches, today that history is written in the abundance of red sandstone formations (many with 3,000-year-old Indian petroglyphs), as well as colorful limestone. The park has numerous trails and landmarks, most of which are conducive to day trips.
• Red Rock Canyon: This 195,000-acre park—only a 25-minute drive from downtown—is a favorite destination for hikers, bikers and climbers. Most visitors follow the cars on the one-way, 13-mile loop through the park, stopping off at the superb interpretive center. Watch for herds of mountain sheep and wild (often vicious) burros whose ancestors escaped from early Spanish visitors.
• Spring Mountain Ranch State Park: As the same loop circles back to the city, this historical ranch is a change of pace. Established in the early 1800s, it was used as a rest and supply stop by wagon trains. The ranch was farmed until 1967, when movie mogul and business tycoon Howard Hughes bought it.
• Hoover Dam/Lake Mead: Straddling the Arizona-Nevada border, 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas, Hoover Dam is one of the world’s seven man-made wonders. Group tours are easily arranged and include a descent into the heart of the dam, 53 stories below. Outside, a new bypass opened last October, which has helped ease crowds and provided more photo opps of the Colorado River and Lake Mead. As the largest man-made lake in the United States, it supplies water to 18 million people in the Southwest. Extending 100 miles, with 550 miles of shoreline and secluded coves, the lake offers diverse fishing, canoeing, water skiing and house boating. For both attractions, contact the Lake Mead National Recreation Area for tours and information.
• Black Canyon Rafting: Trips begin at the foot of the monolithic Hoover Dam, with an awe-inspiring perspective of the dam’s 247-square-mile surface. The 30-passenger motorized crafts then cruise down the Colorado River, running through easy rapids between canyon walls towering some 2,000 feet up into the sky. Three hours later, rafting ends at Willow Beach Harbor, a backwater marina for fishermen and the transfer point for buses back to Las Vegas, 40 minutes away. Make connections here to travel farther downriver to Lake Mohave, where house boats and smaller craft can be rented at Cottonwood Cove Marina.
Beyond Las Vegas
As a state that’s always pushing the boundaries of expectation, there’s a world of out-of-the-ordinary activities for meeting planners to consider.
Often called the “diamond in the desert,” Henderson is southeast of Las Vegas, and is Nevada’s second-largest city. With 4,000 hotel rooms, 250,000 sq. ft. of hotel conference space and a 10,000-square-foot convention center (currently being refurbished), Henderson has developed a substantial meetings market. Properties include the Sunset Station Hotel & Casino and Green Valley Ranch Resort & Spa. In addition, it has the largest amphitheater in the state, and two enormous shaded outdoor patios at 4,000 sq. ft. and 22,000 sq. ft., respectively. Add the 30-acre, indoor-outdoor Clark County Heritage Museum into the mix, and this city becomes a serious contender as a second-tier meetings destination. To sweeten the pot? Free, self-guided tours of the Ethel M Chocolate Factory come with melt-in-your-mouth samples, and its four-acre Botanical Cactus Garden is an unusual venue for off-sites of up to 250 guests.
Laughlin, Primm & Mesquite
Just 90 miles south of Vegas is the town of Laughlin. Nevada’s third-largest gaming center, it has big-city amenities with the beauty and recreation of the Colorado River. There’s year-round activity, such as dinner cruises, scenic tours, water taxis, fishing and golf at the area’s six championship greens.
“With nine hotels making up nearly 11,000 [guest] rooms, Laughlin has a long-time reputation for providing consistently good value both for its conference facilities and recreational amenities, as do Primm and Mesquite,” says Meg McDaniel, senior manager regional sales, extended destinations, Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority. “Even through the recession, each community has continued to invest in keeping its product fresh.”
Examples of this investment include the debut of a 27,000-square-foot event center, The E Center, at Laughlin’s Edgewater Casino Resort; renovations of guest rooms and meeting space at the Eureka Casino Resort in Mesquite; and the total remodel of all four floors at the Primm Valley Resort & Casino, part of Terrible’s Primm Valley Casino Resorts.
Pony Express Territory
Cutting a swath through central Nevada, from the Utah border to California, Highway 50, dubbed the Loneliest Road in America, roughly follows the route that was blazed by dozens of brave young riders of the Pony Express in the 1860s. Although the lonely factor has diminished in recent years, the drive along this stretch of the country still delivers intensely surrealistic landscapes: deep blue skies, jagged stone towers and a bone-white desert floor. Highway 50 is also the main thoroughfare to Nevada’s historical roots, where the Wild West earned its spurs.
Ely’s out-of-the-way location, halfway between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, has kept this destination below the radar. But that’s about to change. Round-trip air service from Las Vegas began in May, so for groups of up to 200 or so, Ely becomes a viable option for an authentic, one-of-a-kind experience.
The Bristlecone Convention Center and surrounding brand hotels can host groups, as can the historic Hotel Nevada, which, when originally built in 1928, was the tallest building in the state. Meanwhile, the surrounding landscapes of the Great Basin National Park translate into hiking trails and the Lehman Caves and Garnet Hill, where visitors can mine for garnets, free of charge.
The Nevada Northern Railway is Ely’s biggest draw. Started up around 1905, the railway spans approximately 60 acres, with tracks and original buildings that the Smithsonian describes as “the best…bar none” of all historic, preserved railroads in the country. Plus, the ability to rent a steam locomotive through the America’s Wild West is hard to beat.
As one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 12 Distinctive Destinations, Virginia City’s Western ambience is one of the most nontraditional venues in Nevada. And it’s as Western as it gets.
“In this economy, I think a destination plays a pivotal role in adding sizzle to an event, and can really help to refresh [the energy] in a company,” says Susan Sutton, executive director, Virginia City Convention & Tourism Authority.
Sabrina Mercadante, who helped plan the 2010 annual convention of the International Institute of Municipal Clerks, agrees. With 1,000 delegates, the conference was in Reno, from which they made several excursions. “Virginia City is a marvelous experience not only for its historical elements, but also because everyone in the city gets involved,” Mercadante says. “We worked with a local event planner who looked after all the logistics, whether it was organizing a mock gun fight, a trolley tour or stage coach rides. He even created a special barbecue menu that all the restaurants served, so that no one attendee got something that another did not.”
According to Mercadante, the locals went all out. “They wore period costume, kept their shops open late and really made us welcome. There aren’t many places where you feel that you’ve rented the entire town. But that’s Virginia City, and I would do it again there in a minute,” she says.
Lying at the edge of the region’s prettiest valleys is Carson City. As the state’s capital, the city has a grander feel, albeit still evocative of the Old West. It starts with the circa-1869 silver cupola atop the Capitol Building and includes the Carson City Mint, now the Nevada State Museum, and the Brewery Arts Center, the historic home of the Tahoe Beer Company. This is railroad country: The Nevada State Railroad Museum makes for a terrific reception venue amid its five steam locomotives, restored coaches and freight cars. As home base to the Virginia & Truckee Railroad Company, here’s where to arrange day rail-trips to Virginia City, as well as group charters.
Carson Valley & Genoa
Nourished by the Carson River and its tributaries, the Carson Valley was an oasis to trail-weary travelers, and many chose to settle here rather than push on through the Nevada Sierras to California’s promises of gold. Today, Genoa appears much as it did in that era, with plenty of 19th-century buildings offering intriguing, touch-the-history venues. These include Mormon Station State Historic Park, the Courthouse Museum and the Genoa Town Hall. The valley itself is an alternative adventure playground to Reno and Lake Tahoe. It’s where to find the Divine Nine championship golf courses.
Sharing the Nevada/California border, Lake Tahoe has always been a favored destination, mostly because it’s a four-season locale that combines the spectacular natural beauty of a national forest (and Nevada State Park) with upscale amenities, gaming and top-notch accommodations. Tahoe is largely about outdoor activities. In winter, that means skiing, snowboarding and horse-drawn sleighs. In summer, there’s hiking, golfing and cruising aboard the M.S. Dixie II paddle wheeler. Brand hotels are numerous and, on the North Shore alone, encompass approximately 7,000 hotel rooms and 200,000 sq. ft. of event space. The Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort Spa and Casino is one of the most popular venues, with 422 newly upgraded guest rooms and 80,000 sq. ft. of function space. On the busier South Shore, both Harveys and Harrah’s are finishing up significant guest-room and conference-area upgrades. Other new developments include the opening of Heavenly Mountain’s first on-mountain lodge in more than 20 years, featuring indoor/outdoor seating for up to 500 people. For more intimate meetings, try the Thunderbird Lodge, built in the 1930s.
As a first-class, second-tier meetings destination, Reno has two distinct advantages over its glitzy rival down south: Overall costs can be up to 30% less, and the diversity of four-season activity is enviable.
In addition to the Reno-Sparks Convention Center and its 565,000 sq. ft. of flexible space, signature venues include the National Bowling Stadium, with its 78 championship lanes; The National Automobile Museum, with its more than 220 vintage and collectible automobiles; and the Nevada Museum of Art, with its stunning rooftop patio overlooking the Nevada Sierras.
Small groups, however, might prefer either the Sierra Arts Gallery, the Magic Underground located beneath the Pioneer Center for Performing Arts or the Lake Mansion, an 1877 venue that is listed on both the state and national registers of historic places.
Meeting venues include iconic properties such as Peppermill Resort Spa Casino, Harrah’s and the tri-property group comprising the Eldorado, Silver Legacy and Circus Circus, all of which have conference services. In April, the Siena Reno reopened after a winter makeover and is now a 200-room, Four-Star boutique experience that can accommodate up to 500 for events. And later this year, the Comm Row hotel will have completed its internal transformation of the former Fitzgerald Hotel to deliver a 60,000-square-foot complex, complete with the world’s tallest climbing wall, which rises almost 200 feet.
Northern Nevada is a land rich in the legends, lore and customs of the Old West and promotes itself as “beyond the sage, sand and scrub...resides the soul of a bygone era.” Ranches proliferate in the foothills, and the Ruby Mountains are not just ore-laden, but abundant with streams and springs.
As the nation’s largest gold producer, Elko’s mining prosperity has grown into a meeting destination of choice for many regional groups. With more than 2,300 guest rooms citywide (conference hotels include the 90-room Hilton Garden Inn, the 222-room Red Lion Hotel & Casino and the soon-to-debut, 84-suite TownPlace Suites Marriott), Elko can cater to various budgets. In addition, the Elko Convention Center has 11,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and a 923-seat auditorium, while unique venues such as the Western Folklife Center and the new, $14 million California National Historic Trail Interpretive Center add a cultural dimension.
But, for the Oregon-California Trails Association, Elko’s proximity to the historic trail was not the only factor for choosing the city to host its 400-person annual convention last year. “The price was more than competitive, the hospitality superb and the standard of professionalism the finest I have encountered,” says Jan Peterson, convention chair.
That’s a sentiment that seems to express a lot of what Nevada is all about.
In spite of down economies, nothing seems to stop Nevada from renovating, expanding, and opening new properties and attractions. Here’s a sample:
- Located on the site of the former Ritz-Carlton, Dolce Hotels & Resorts opened Ravella at Lake Las Vegas in February. The entire place exudes a contemporary ambience, from its redesigned lobby to the dining and spa concepts. It offers 349 guest rooms and 39,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, a good portion of which is an outdoor pavilion and patio with stunning lakeside views. Of the 13 meeting rooms, the largest is 11,813 sq. ft.
- With more than 10 million sq. ft. of meeting space in the neighborhood, opening MEET Las Vegas last March was a gutsy move by CEO Dan Maddux. But as with all things Las Vegas, the 30,000-square-foot, three-story venue and outdoor pavilion, it is designed to have virtually unlimited flexibility. MEET caters to capacities of up to 2,000 people; two floors are a blank canvas, providing expedient move-in and tear-downs because the rigging and technology infrastructure are fixed elements; the third floor features meeting rooms and multimedia training areas that include two computer classrooms with 48 work stations.
- No slouch when it comes to opening new properties and improving its infrastructure, Reno is full of news. In south Reno, a 135-room Hilton Garden Inn recently opened on a 2.5-acre site. The property offers a 24-hour business center, a restaurant and 1,920 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space. And directly adjacent to the airport is the new $15 million Hyatt Place at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, a 127-suite hotel. Its 1,800 sq. ft. of meeting space features floor-to-ceiling windows and can be divided into two sections.
- Also in Reno, the $18 million Nevada Discovery Museum is scheduled to open in fall 2011. This hands-on family-friendly museum, located in the former Reno City Hall, features everything from space and science to art and archeology, all with a Northern Nevada angle. The museum will be available for private events.
- Opening June 1 in Elko is the $6 million TownePlace Suites Marriott, which will provide 84 extended-stay hotel rooms; a small meeting room (for 12–15 people) is also available.
- Las Vegas McCarran International Airport is within a 30-minute drive of downtown Las Vegas. Shuttles are numerous, but taxis are by far the fastest and most efficient transport.
- Reno-Tahoe International Airport is conveniently located in downtown Reno, within a 10-minute cab or limo ride of all the major hotels in the area.
If you’re considering Nevada for your next event, be sure to check out these top-notch suppliers: