Fueled by a building wave, Las Vegas is taking off. With the openings of Stratosphere, Monte Carlo, and New York-New York, gamblers, conventioneers, vacationers, incentive winners, and everyone else who rolls into this southern Nevada mecca will have more than 100,000 hotel rooms from which to choose by the end of the year. And construction continues. Bellagio, Las Vegas's biggest construction project, is a 3,000-room, 37-story resort and casino orchestrated by Mirage Resorts' gaming entrepreneur Steve Wynn. Construction has begun on a 122-acre site at the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Flamingo Road, directly across from Caesars Palace. At a projected cost of $1.25 billion, Wynn claims he will have "the most captivating hotel in the world" when it opens in 1998.

And even though Bally's Entertainment Corporation was just purchased this summer by Hilton Hotel Corporation, plans are moving ahead for Paris, a new Bally's hotel and casino, marked by a 540-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower. The $500 million property will be next to Bally's Las Vegas on the Strip, with 3,220 guest rooms. It is expected to open in mid-1998.

With the opening of the Fremont Street Experience, 1996 also marks the beginning of the revitalization of downtown Las Vegas. The open-air mall spans four downtown blocks. Its 90-foot-high canopy and nightly computerized light shows are helping to fuel a resurgence in business from the increased flow of visitors through the pedestrian mall. The $70 million project was a joint public-private partnership between the city and ten downtown resorts.

With all these new projects, Las Vegas hotel rooms can be one of the best buys in the country, but their availability is another question. When the big conventions are in town (such as Comdex, which brings in well over 100,000 delegates) rooms are either priced sky-high or cannot be found at all. One should always check ahead with the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority for a convention schedule. Meetings and incentives are always welcome in Las Vegas, but they are only a small portion of all the business that flows through the city. The Nevada Commission on Tourism reports that Las Vegas visitors topped 29 million in 1995, and of that, just 2.9 million were delegates attending one of the 2,826 conventions held last year.

Hotel News * The Stratosphere Hotel & Casino opened at the north end of the Strip in April with its landmark, 1,149-foot Stratosphere Tower, the tallest building west of the Mississippi. The hotel now has 1,500 rooms, including 120 "high roller" suites, but Grand Casinos, owners of the $550 million complex, plans to add another 1,000 rooms and an 80,000-square-foot outdoor pool and recreation area by 1997, as well as an additional 1,500 rooms by 1998. Plans are also under way for a $35 million aquarium attraction where guests will walk through a tunnel surrounded by water filled with exotic fish. Stratosphere offers three function rooms on the 101st floor in the tower, 809 feet above the ground, providing spectacular views. With an average size of 1,000 square feet, the rooms can accommodate small meetings, receptions, and sit-down dinners.

* The $344 million Monte Carlo Resort and Casino opened in June at the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Tropicana. A joint venture of Circus Circus Enterprises Inc. and Mirage Resorts Inc., Monte Carlo has 3,014-rooms, including 256 suites. Modeled after the Place du Casino in Monte Carlo, Monaco, The Monte Carlo takes an elegant approach to hotel design, with a simplified layout, an easy-to-navigate casino, and its own microbrewery. It is designed with fanciful arches, marble floors, fountains, gas-lit promenades, and a Gothic-style glass and marble registration area overlooking a waterpark. The property offers 16,000 square feet of meeting space as well as a 90,000-square-foot casino, a 22,000-square-foot shopping area, and a pool area with waterfalls, children's pool, wave pool, and "river ride."

* Rounding out this year's building boom is the upcoming New York-New York Hotel & Casino, a joint venture between MGM Grand Inc. and Primadonna Resorts Inc. Scheduled to open in December, the property's showy New York skyline (including a roller coaster) is rapidly going up at the corner of Tropicana and Las Vegas Boulevard, just across from the MGM Grand. At a cost of about $460 million, the new hotel re-creates 12 New York skyscrapers on a one-third scale. The Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and the Municipal Building are among the 12 adjoining towers that will house 2,035 rooms and suites. Look for a scaled-down replica of the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge that will serve as the entrance.

* The venerable Sands Hotel and Casino, home of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and the Rat Pack during their reign in the 1950s, has closed its doors forever. The hotel will be demolished this fall to make way for a $1.5 billion, 6,000-room hotel and casino. Sheldon G. Adelson, who purchased the Sands in 1989, says the new resort will have a 200,000-square-foot casino, 150 stores, 30 restaurants, and a spa, as well as a 400,000-square-foot meeting and exhibit complex. The Sands Expo Center will continue to operate during the construction project, which should be completed in 1998.

* Hilton Hotel Corporation has reportedly paid $3 billion to purchase Bally's Entertainment Corporation, making Hilton the largest gaming company in the world. In the deal, Hilton will acquire the two Bally's properties in Atlantic City and will take control of Bally's Las Vegas and the proposed $500 million Paris hotel and casino project on the Vegas Strip. The project is expected to feature a 36-story, 3,220-room hotel and casino with a 540-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower, and to open in 1998.

* Bellagio, a 3,000-room, 37-story resort hotel and casino, orchestrated by Mirage Resorts' gaming entrepreneur Steve Wynn, has begun construction on 122 acres across from Caesars Palace. The $1.25 billion project, slated to open in 1998, is designed as an Italian village, featuring a 12-acre lake and gardens. Its $70 million showroom will be home to the popular Cirque du Soleil production.

* In late June, Caesars Palace added a new attraction of interest to incentive planners. Caesars Magical Empire melds dining and entertainment in a Disneyesque medieval magical ambience, with dark corridors, intimate dining rooms, and a seven-story central courtyard called the Sanctum Secorum, with wizards and flaming fountains.

* The Golden Nugget, a downtown Mirage Resorts property, has secured options on the Pioneer Club, home of the famous Vegas Vic neon cowboy. The old club casino, which closed in June after operating for half a century, may become part of the Nugget if negotiations are successful.

* In March, Circus Circus Enterprises Inc. secured $1.5 billion from a consortium of 26 domestic and foreign banks, the largest credit agreement between a bank and a gaming company in history. The gaming company, which just opened the new Monte Carlo, has announced it is adding 1,950 rooms to the pyramid-shaped Luxor and 1,000 rooms to Circus Circus this year.

* Harrah's Las Vegas has embarked on a $150 renovation and expansion project that will feature a European-style facade to replace the old riverboat motif. The project includes a new 35-story, 671-room tower with 28 suites, raising its room count to 2,334 rooms and 62 suites in four towers. The project is scheduled to be completed by 1997.

* The MGM Grand Hotel & Casino, the largest hotel in the world, has started a $250 million renovation and design change which will take 30 months to complete. The lion on the Strip will be replaced by a liquid-gold color lion rising six stories. The entertainment gateway area, now known as Emerald City, will make way for theme restaurants and a nightclub. The hotel's food court will become a retail, restaurant, and nightclub complex. The hotel also plans to build a 300,000-square-foot convention center designed as an indoor-outdoor attraction.

* The Clark County Commission has given the go-ahead for a $600 million renovation and expansion of the Aladdin Hotel. Plans call for two new room towers for a total of 2,600 rooms, adding 100,000 square feet of convention space, and enlarging the casino to more than 100,000 square feet.

* Planet Hollywood International and ITT Corporation have announced plans to build an $830 million, 3,200-room hotel and casino on a 34-acre site adjacent to the Desert Inn Hotel, a Sheraton-ITT Corporation property. The new Las Vegas Planet Hollywood property is scheduled to open in 1998 with a 100,000-square-foot casino.

* Hyatt Hotels Corporation has entered the Vegas market with a proposed 500-room hotel and golf course at Lake Las Vegas in Henderson. The project, scheduled to be completed in 1998, will feature a luxury hotel amidst a $4 billion planned community designed around the man-made lake.

* Four Seasons Regent Hotels and Resorts has signed an agreement to operate an as-yet-unnamed, 400-room, nongaming hotel on the Strip. When completed in 1998, the Four Seasons will be the Strip's only nongaming hotel.

* A 300-room hotel casino operated by the largest casino operator in Switzerland is planned to open in 1998 in Summerlin northwest of Las Vegas. The six-story hotel, backed by Switzerland's Seven Circle Gaming Corp., will include a conference center, restaurants, casino, and health spa.

Tax and Money Matters Visitors to Las Vegas pay an 8 percent hotel tax and 7 percent sales tax (which does not apply to hotel rates). Hotel taxes in downtown Vegas (which includes Fremont, but not the Strip), however, have been raised to 9 percent to help pay for the renovation project known as the Fremont Street Experience. Entertainment doesn't come cheap either. If you book your group for a show, you'll pay a 17 percent tax on your tickets (ten percent entertainment tax and 7 percent sales tax).

And taxes on rental cars can be even steeper. Be prepared to see as much as 21 percent added to your final bill (7 percent sales tax, 7 percent use tax, and 7 percent airport tax).

How's the Weather? Las Vegas has the least precipitation (4.19 inches annually) and the lowest relative humidity (29 percent) of any major metropolitan area in the U.S. And there's no doubt about it, it can get hot. Because it is situated in the Mojave Desert, Las Vegas has summer temperatures that range from the low 80s to highs well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, with the average hovering around 92. During the winter months in Las Vegas, daytime temperatures average around 60 degrees.

Since the advent of air-conditioning, nobody really pays much attention to Las Vegas weather. In fact, even in the summer, many people pack a sweater to wear inside the air conditioned resorts and showrooms.

Getting There McCarren International Airport, just a mile from the Strip, averages 840 flights a day from around the U.S., Canada, and Europe, earning it a ranking as one of the ten busiest airports in the world. Recent projects include a new 6,000-space parking garage to be completed in November, and a lobby expansion that will add 25 new ticket counters by 1997.

A total of 63 air carriers serve Vegas, including 27 commercial airlines, 31 charter airlines, four commuter airlines, and a helicopter service. The latest route additions include America West flights to San Antonio, Miami, Detroit, Vancouver, and Newark, NJ. United Airlines has also inaugurated service between Las Vegas and Washington, DC.

Venue Menu The sky's the limit when you throw a party in Vegas. Jaki Baskow, owner of Baskow & Associates, Ltd., a Las Vegas destination management company, recommends an Elvis Lives! night at Hartland Mansion, home of Presley. Or for spouse groups, a "What's My Line" fashion show at the Stardust showroom, where guests try to guess the occupation of real Las Vegas career women.

John Miller, director of special events for USA Hosts in Las Vegas, says one of his biggest incentive successes was a Big Band theme party at McCarren Airport. The party was held out on the flight line among several vintage aircraft. "We had to get special permission for that one," he says, "but the guests loved it."

Miller's also proud of a theme party he threw in the "bone yard" of the Young Electric Sign Company, the company famous for designing and making many of the famous neon signs that light up the Strip. "We cleared a space in the middle of this sign junkyard, put up a clear-span tent, and lit the periphery with fixed-up old neon signs that we found lying around. That was a big hit."

And then there are the shows. Planners can negotiate block rates for many of the big productions: the Rockettes at the Flamingo Hilton, the Folies Bergeres at the Tropicana, Siegfried & Roy at the Mirage, Cirque du Soleil at Treasure Island, and Magical Empire at Caesars Palace.

Meetings executives can run into challenges in Las Vegas not normally encountered elsewhere. When Bonnie Beattie, manager of meetings and conventions with Equitable Life of Iowa in Des Moines, began negotiating for a group of 350 agents and their families for a May 1995 program, she was a little taken aback.

"I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised," she said, "but I found the hotels there are not really geared to accommodate small incentives. They're serious about taking care of their gamblers first. The hotels were simply not interested in providing us with their large suites. They were reserved for high-rollers, and they were not for sale to groups like us. I had to struggle to get what we needed. I think the big Las Vegas hotels are more used to handling the really big conventions than the smaller incentive like us."

In the end, however, Beattie calls her trip a success. "We even won a little money on the craps table," she laughs. "Las Vegas was very popular with our members. We had about 60 children under the age of 18 who went along with their parents. They had a good time at the hotel's theme park."

David Vanselow, vice president of communications for The Franklin in Springfield, IL, encountered a problem of a different nature when he took a 30-person incentive group to an off-Strip, nongaming hotel.

"These people were winners of a special incentive contest and were from mixed backgrounds. Some of them were nongamblers, so we thought it best to take them to an environment where they would be more comfortable. In retrospect, I think I would have taken them right to the Strip," he laughs, "since a lot of the nongamblers found out they enjoyed it more in the Strip hotels. Some of them discovered they enjoyed gambling after all."

FOR MORE INFORMATION Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority 3150 Paradise Road Las Vegas, NV 89109 (702) 892-0711 Fax: (702) 892-2824