Meeting planners normally stymied when trying to book an event in Las Vegas might find hotels a little more approachable these days.

Visitor counts to the city, like most U.S. destinations, plunged during the last four months of 2001, making it the first year since the early 1980s that Las Vegas hosted fewer visitors. Lower occupancies have caused up to 15,000 tourism-related layoffs since September 11. Those empty hotel rooms have opened windows for meeting planners.

For hotels like the Mirage, which routinely turn away hundreds of group business leads a year, the slide in leisure travelers to Las Vegas has altered the rules. "Where we'd typically say 'this is not a great piece of business,' now we might take it," says Gail Fitzgerald, vice president of hotel marketing and sales for the hotel.

Richard Harper, vice president of sales at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, echoes that attitude. "Before, we had very set parameters for what kinds of business we looked at. Now we're more flexible," he says. His staff is looking for a way to fit smaller groups that might have been rejected in the past into the schedule, for example.

Normally, Las Vegas hotels covet individual travelers over groups, since vacationers are more likely to spend their time spending money in the casinos. On weekends, hotels tend to be filled with leisure travelers, so it can be nearly impossible to plan events then. So, despite the perception that Las Vegas is devoted to the conventioneer, groups represent only about 15% of hotels' business.

Groups, however, are returning to Las Vegas faster than individual travelers. "The meetings business booking pace has completely recovered," says Nancy Murphy, director of sales for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA). "It fell off only during September, then it came right back in October." Citywide promotions have helped bring bookings back and kept attendance for both corporate and association conventions strong across the board, with the exception of technology companies and events with a strong international element. The huge International Consumer Electronics Show in January, for example, saw only a minor dip in attendance.

Additional new or planned convention space is exerting pressure on the city to get group business on the books as well. The Las Vegas Convention Center debuted a $170-million, 1.3 million square-foot expansion in January, and the Mirage added a 90,000 square-foot events center Last April. In addition, Mandalay Bay will open a 1.8 million square-foot convention center in January 2003.

Murphy says the new space is creating opportunity for the city to grab even more convention business. Already, the convention center is booked to about 66% of its capacity for the next five years.

All these factors are contributing to changes in the way meetings are booked in Las Vegas. Forecasting is increasingly difficult, Fitzgerald says, in part because of shorter lead times for corporate meetings. "We just booked a meeting with 800 rooms less than 45 days out for Kia Motors," she says. In recent years, that contract would have been signed nine months to a year in advance.

And hotels are revisiting assumptions about the potential spending profiles of groups approaching them. Medical companies and associations have never been considered likely gamblers, but two recent groups at the MGM Grand surprised Harper with their gaming enthusiasm. Now, he says, he's actively pursuing them. --Megan Rowe