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September 20, 2014

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Southwest Airlines, IBM move ahead with Vegas events

LVCVA says examples show city isn’t bad for business

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Leila Navidi

Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly takes in the Fremont Street Experience this month during a party for airline employees that drew more than 6,000 people.

Two major companies are going forward with corporate gatherings in Las Vegas next week and likely will become testimonials in the city’s bid to get business travel back on track.

Southwest Airlines will bring an estimated 8,000 employees to downtown Las Vegas on May 8 for its annual Spirit Day celebration and IBM Corp. is expected to draw 6,000 technology professionals to the Venetian for its Impact 2009 Smart SOA conference May 3-8.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority has been enthusiastically boosting both gatherings and likely will point to them as examples of respected companies that are defying conventional wisdom that meeting in Las Vegas during the down economy is a bad business decision.

The LVCVA has joined other tourism organizations attempting to reverse a trend set in motion when President Obama chided corporations for spending taxpayer bailout money for frivolous expenses.

Since the fourth quarter of 2008, more than 400 business meetings have been canceled in Las Vegas, but the LVCVA did not determine whether the cancellations were the result of the critical remarks or the foundering economy.

While many viewed Obama’s remarks as a well-deserved scolding of companies that misused government funds, the fact that he used Las Vegas to illustrate his point resulted in cancellations in Southern Nevada by company executives that feared their images would be tarnished by going to a city that also touts itself as a place for fun.

And Southwest’s event will be all about fun.

Spirit Day is an employee party and a part of Southwest’s culture initiated in the 1990s by former company president and corporate secretary Colleen Barrett.

Nearly a quarter of Dallas-based Southwest’s employees systemwide will gather in a roped-off section of the Fremont Street Experience for an evening of food, drinks and reminiscing. Southwest CEO Gary Kelly is also expected to address employees.

“There’s very little in terms of a program, but it’s the company’s way of celebrating and thanking employees who want to reconnect with each other,” said Ginger Hardage, senior vice president of culture and communications.

Hardage said the airline chooses a location for its annual party based in part on how many employees live in the area.

Southwest has more than 2,300 employees in Las Vegas and because it’s the busiest city in the airline’s system there are 230 daily flights into McCarran International Airport giving good access to employees from around the country, many of whom will fly standby to get here.

Sponsors are paying for party expenses and employees who stay overnight will be responsible for their own lodging, Hardage said. But one of the sponsors is the Golden Nugget, owned by another Texas company, Landry’s Restaurants Inc., which is offering good room rates for the Southwest contingent.

Other sponsors include the Fremont Street Experience, which will show a special Southwest program on the light canopy, Anheuser Busch, Coca Cola, Dr Pepper-Snapple, Monster, Celebrity Coaches, McCarran and the LVCVA.

Because the sponsors are picking up the tab for most of the party expenses, employees are paying for their own hotel rooms and people who attend have to do it on their own time or get a vacation day, Hardage said there isn’t a concern that shareholders would frown on having a company party in Las Vegas.

“Companies have to ask themselves whether they are going to continue to have some of their company events,” Hardage said. “I think (shareholders) would heartily endorse a company that wants to thank its employees. Look at what families do. Just because you’re in a difficult time, you’re not going to cancel Thanksgiving or Christmas.”

Hardage said employee participants also are being asked to bring a canned good to the party so that the company can make a donation to the food bank at Las Vegas’ Three Square organization.

The IBM event at the Venetian is a whole different animal.

While the event will have its share of fun and entertainment – comedian-actor-writer-producer Billy Crystal is keynoting the opening day and Huey Lewis & The News is giving a private show – most of the five-day meeting is about business.

Smart SOA (for “service oriented attitude”) is an educational gathering about IBM business products. It will include hundreds of presentations on various aspects of enhancing business communication with technology. The event will take registrations up to the opening day of the event.

It’s the second straight year IBM has staged the event in Las Vegas. Last year, the event was at the MGM Grand. IBM officials say it probably will be back next year as well.

While the event has a select audience, the LVCVA has to be pleased with IBM’s justification for having the event in Las Vegas because they mirror all the bullet points the LVCVA used in its arguments for why the city is ideal for corporate meetings.

The IBM Web site for the Impact 2009 Smart SOA event includes a detailed explanation of why the company opted to have its event in Las Vegas.

“With a lot of the negative publicity around events in Las Vegas, we wanted to address these issues and tell you ‘Why Las Vegas’ from a business perspective,” the Web site says.

“We look into several locations every year and here are some of the top reasons we choose Las Vegas to host our most important SOA event of the year.

* Accommodations: The city invested billions of dollars to build facilities and meeting space to fill its 140,000 hotel rooms on weekdays with corporate travelers, marketing itself as the most affordable and accessible destination. We can all fit under ONE roof saving on transportation costs and saving attendees time to get to an event!

* Air Service: With more than 900 flights per day and non-stop service from 130-plus U.S. cities, Las Vegas is easy on your time and budget.

* Customer Service: With more than 233,000 resort industry employees, Las Vegas will provide the best convention experience in the world. They get it.

“Las Vegas has become the only place in the U.S. with sufficient flight connections, exhibition and meeting space, hotel rooms and dining and entertainment options to accommodate the biggest industry events. Businesses need to continue conducting business events, Las Vegas makes it an easy, affordable place to do so even in this economy.”

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