For the folks at Providian Agency Group, it was hard to reconcile the messages: On the one hand its agent demographics are solidly Bible-belt conservative, yet since the mid-1980s, meeting evaluation forms that asked agents where they wanted to go for an incentive program came back every year with Las Vegas among the top four or five sites. "We stayed away for many years worrying that a gambling destination would out-and-out offend many of our agents," says Lisa Windhorst, manager of meeting planning and incentives at Providian in Louisville. "But we kept reading about the changes taking place, and finally in 1995 decided to do a site inspection."

When Jim Ising, Providian Agency Group's second vice president incentives and communications, headed out on the inspection, he hadn't been to Las Vegas since 1982. "It was like night and day. The thing I was impressed with is that it appeals to a wide range of interests. It's an event just to walk down the Strip."

Providian will run its first full-scale gaming destination incentive meeting in June, bringing 800 qualifiers, spouses, and guests to Caesars Palace. The entire group will be there for three nights, a smaller Leaders Club for five nights, and the 60 top-tier Pinnacle Club qualifiers and guests for seven. The feedback from agents has been positive, and Windhorst has had fun planning a program with highlights that include an evening at Caesars new Magical Empire dinner attraction and, for the top tier, a flight over the Grand Canyon and lunch on the canyon rim.

Links and Chains There are many stories like Providian's out there, and Jim Lauster's heard lots of them. Lauster, sales executive with the Las Vegas Convention/Visitors Authority, works with many of the incentive groups that come to his town and he's delighted at the product he now has to offer. "For years the insurance industry avoided Las Vegas because of the image factor, and for years all we had was gaming. But now that we have a new product, all that's changing," he says.

"As gaming has spread around the country, it's become a very acceptable form of entertainment, and we have a greater appeal to middle America and the high-end incentives," says Lauster. "We're now more full service, and [the increase in] golf is a major, major change for us. Ten to 15 years ago, there were only three or four courses open to meeting groups; now there are more than a dozen. The increases we see in the insurance market seem to correlate directly to the rise of our golf product."

And the insurance market, Lauster believes, will also be drawn as the major hotel chains finally begin to build and acquire properties in the Las Vegas market. For insurance planners, who often have strong relationships with the chains' national sales offices, the name recognition will, Lauster feels, "give Las Vegas validity in the high-end market."

While Hilton has been a Las Vegas mainstay for years, the new chain players include ITT Sheraton, Hyatt, Four Seasons, and Ritz-Carlton. ITT Sheraton joined the scene a year and a half ago with the purchase of Caesars Palace, and the company also has plans to build a 3,200-room hotel in partnership with Planet Hollywood International (if it fends off the hostile takeover bid being waged by Hilton at press time).

Hyatt will enter the market next year with the opening of its 500-room hotel and golf course on man-made Lake Las Vegas, north of the city. Also in 1998, Four Seasons will open a 400-room nongaming hotel on the Strip in conjunction with Circus Circus Enterprises. Ritz-Carlton will manage a new 526-room property opening in the first quarter of 1999. Located 20 minutes northwest of the city, The Ritz-Carlton Las Vegas Resort at Mountain Spa will have 36,000 square feet of meeting space, as well as a 40,000-square-foot casino and a 27,000-square-foot spa.

Do That Again Stephen A. Wynn, chief executive of Mirage Resorts, who has been credited with helping change the Las Vegas image from gambling city to entertainment resort, says he will do the same in Atlantic City. He plans to begin by building the 2,000-room Beau Rivage Casino Resort, a $600 million complex in the marina district, near Harrah's and Trump Castle casinos.

Among the other new operators getting a foot in Atlantic City over the next few years are Circus Circus Enterprises, which will build next door to the Beau Rivage with a $600 million, 2,000-room casino property; MGM Grand, proposing a $700 million, 2,500-room casino resort; ITT Sheraton, with 1,000 rooms; and Sun International Resorts, with 2,000 rooms.

The bar has been raised, and many of the existing resorts are improving to meet the new standards. For example, TropWorld Casino and Entertainment resort has spent $100 million to expand and is now called the Tropicana Casino and Resort, and at Caesars Atlantic City, a $280 million renovation that will bring the room count to 1,130 by October is now under way.

Donald Trump, not one to be outdone, has plans for his properties: a new 1,500-room tower at Trump's Castle and an 802-room expansion at the Taj Mahal Casino Resort.

Overall, a reported $7 billion is being spent on development throughout Atlantic City-this seaside city's biggest expansion since gambling was legalized in 1978. Casino hotel rooms are expected to triple from approximately 9,000 to more than 27,000 by the end of 1999, and the 13 casinos that are already here will hardly be recognizable as they also update and expand.

More Meetings, More Wow One of the major catalysts for this building boom is the new $268 million Atlantic City Convention Center, which is scheduled to open in May of this year. The center will have 45 meeting rooms totaling 109,100 square feet and will be connected to a new 500-room hotel managed by Doubletree Hotels.

Like Las Vegas, which has expanded its appeal beyond the gaming crowd, Atlantic City's anticipation of an improved convention business is pushing entrepreneurs to create new temptations. Atlantic City's Boardwalk, the country's oldest, is still lined with saltwater taffy stands, tarot card readers, and kitschy souvenir shops, but today they are joined by the Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood. On the Boardwalk, north of the Showboat, an upscale shopping mall is proposed that will feature 80 stores including Polo and Nike, movie theaters, a skating rink, and theme restaurants. Construction is slated to begin by July.

Other new attractions on the Boardwalk include the Warner Brothers Studio Store and the restored Steel Pier amusement center. The Official All-Star Cafe, owned by celebrity athletes, will open at Trump Taj Mahal in March. The Rain Forest Cafe, featuring a jungle setting with animals, trees, caves, and a large aquarium, will open in the spring.

"Atlantic City is one of the only places in New Jersey that our agents like to go," says Chuck Riso, sales administration manager, Allstate Insurance, based in Bridgewater, NJ. "Winning the award to be there is the motivating incentive, and Atlantic City is just the frosting on the cake. There is so much to do there. Our group enjoys the shows, gambling, and playing golf."

This year, the new Greater Atlantic City Golf Association has come to the fore in promoting golf. With eight member courses and 26 hotels providing a variety of golf packages, the association is committed to making golf a year-round attraction for visitors to the Jersey shore. There's even a toll-free reservation system (800-GOLF-222) that provides one-stop service for meeting planners.

Always Something New Growth and change are coming fast for both Atlantic City and Las Vegas, and that's part of the incentive appeal, says Robin Williamson, manager of sales promotions and incentive planning for Pioneer Financial Services in Schaumburg, IL. "Groups want to go back and see the hotels they saw being built when they were there." Williamson has taken three groups of top producers (25 to 60 attendees each) to Las Vegas in the past year and raves about the convention services department at her most recent host hotel, The Mirage.

She'll meet again in the gaming capital ("It's drawing everyone now. It's a hot incentive destination!"), but she points out that many of the reasons for choosing Las Vegas now are the same as those that brought her there in the first place. "It's got the best value for the dollar; the weather's mild. It's an adult playground."

Consider These Other Gaming Possibilities.... Quad Cities: Comprising Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa, and Moline, East Moline, and Rock Island in Illinois, the Quad Cities unveiled riverboat gaming in 1991 with the debut of the President Riverboat Casino, an elegant National Historic Landmark with 794 slot machines and 53 gaming tables. The area has two other riverboats. Jumer's Casino Rock Island at the Boatworks is a 200-foot red, white, and blue paddle wheeler with 600 gaming positions, which is part of a floating complex of attractions. The largest riverboat casino on the Mississippi, Lady Luck Casino Bettendorf offers 750 slot machines and 45 gaming tables.

Mississippi: Land-based casinos were introduced about four-and-a-half years ago along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which runs from Bay St. Louis to Biloxi, MS. There are now 11 casinos with more planned, including the Imperial Palace, under construction with plans for 1,050 guest rooms, 20,500 square feet of meeting space, and a 24-hour, three-level casino; Beau Rivage, Mirage Resorts' $475 million, 1,800-room luxury resort and casino; and a 1,250 - room Circus Circus property. Highlights of the current inventory include Mississippi's first casino, the Isle of Capri; Boomtown Casino; and Grand Casino Biloxi, which bills itself as the largest floating casino in the world.

New Orleans: In and around the city, four riverboat casinos evoke a bygone era: the Flamingo Casino New Orleans, docked adjacent to the New Orleans Hilton Riverside and within walking distance of the French Quarter; Boomtown Belle Casino, docked in Jefferson Parish, a suburb of New Orleans; Treasure Chest, in the suburb of Kenner; and Bally's Casino Lakeshore, just minutes from downtown.

Montreal: Built on the site of the former French Pavilion from Expo '67, the Casino de Montreal opened in 1993. By June 1995, it had expanded to encompass the Quebec Pavilion because attendance figures were double original projections. The casino is one of the ten largest in the world when ranked by the amount of gaming equipment on hand: It features 2,700 slot machines and 105 gaming tables, as well as several restaurants and bars.