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Not many meetings-friendly destinations can say they were as cool 50 years ago as they are today.
But Las Vegas, whose list of throwbacks include everything from Frank Sinatra to fabulous neon signs, celebrates its earlier days and invites planners to combine those yesteryear treasures with the present-day, ever-evolving amenities that make it an international meetings hot spot.
Following are some great ideas for including memorable retro experiences in your next Vegas group itinerary.
A Vegas Icon
Jubilee at Bally’s Las Vegas is a fantastic representation of old-school entertainment, as it’s the only show in town where attendees will see classic, iconic showgirls presented in the true Las Vegas style of opulence and glamour, according to Diane Palm, assistant company manager for Jubilee.
“Jubilee is the real deal: gorgeous feathers, miles of rhinestones and the largest cast of singers and dancers, all onstage,” she says, explaining that one of the show’s highlights is the grand finale staircase number that evokes the splendor of the Ziegfeld Follies.
Palm adds that behind-the-scenes tours led by a current Jubilee cast performer are available for groups.
“The second half of the tour has the guide transform herself into a showgirl, complete with a demonstration of makeup application,” Palm says. “It’s a stunning transformation when the tour guide reappears in one of the grand finale costumes.”
After the approximately 1.5-hour tour, showgirls are happy to pose for photos with attendees.
Molly Vincent, vice president at DMC, A Vegas Expression (702.614.1112), adds that visiting the Las Vegas sign for a group photo alongside showgirls hired via local companies such as Farrington Entertainment and Productions (702.362.3000) is always a hit with groups.
Testing, One, Two
The National Atomic Testing Museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute, provides a glimpse into the history of nuclear tests in the Nevada desert.
“The first tests at the Nevada Test Site were ‘atmospheric,’ meaning bombs were detonated above ground,” says Kathleen Frantz, the museum’s development director. “The tests created a tourism boom for the nearby town of Las Vegas.”
She explains that between 1950 and 1960, the area’s population grew from 24,000 to 64,000, and tourists from all over the country came to watch the huge mushroom clouds on the horizon to the northwest of Las Vegas.
“While doing this, tourists would drink ‘atomic cocktails,’ and as the tourist industry grew around watching the atomic bomb tests, mushroom clouds appeared on souvenirs, becoming an important part of popular culture,” Frantz says, adding that at one time the mushroom cloud was a motif on the Las Vegas city seal.
Today, visitors can experience the thrill of an above-ground atomic bomb test in the museum’s Ground Zero Theater, and docent-guided group tours for up to 40 people are available.
On-site amenities for group gatherings include an auditorium, lobby and reception area, catering kitchen, audiovisual capabilities and a gift shop.
Gone are the good old days of catching a live performance by a group of the hippest entertainers to ever grace a stage, unless you book an evening with The Rat Pack is Back!, a show that transports guests to the Copa Room at the Sands Hotel, dating to 1962.
“The Rat Pack is Back! has all the elements of the most famous retro Vegas show ever: The drinking, smoking, costumes, lingo, and of course, the music,” says the show’s general manager, Rick Kanfer, explaining that the comedy of Joey Bishop warms up the crowd before the wonderful music of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin.
Kanfer adds that the show is available for private events and is often customized to meet planners’ needs, including incorporating the company’s executives or product, and shortening the standard 90-minute performance or reducing the orchestra size to accommodate time and budget constraints.
While The Rat Pack is Back! travels, its home base is the 800-seat Crown Room at the Rio Hotel and Casino.
“We can provide greeters to direct the crowd, as well as photographers to snap guests with the cast for a memorable souvenir,” Kanfer says.
Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe are among the often-impersonated old-school celebrities in Las Vegas, according to A Vegas Expression’s Vincent, who says these beloved stars can spice up tours and other group events.
“Having Elvis kick off your general session and having the CEO come out dressed as Elvis is always a big hit,” she says, explaining that local DMCs like hers, as well as team-building companies, are available to facilitate. “During a city tour you can have Elvis hijack the bus and start singing.”
The fun ideas are endless, Vincent says, also recommending scavenger hunts complete with visits by impersonators and clues that get groups in a nostalgic state of mind.
According to Lynne Tinker, spokeswoman of Event Inventors, a creative team-building and corporate event company, one of the particularly retro Vegas clues used on a scavenger hunt leads participants to find out which hotel opened on New Year’s Eve 1946 with a giant pink neon sign and replicas of pink flamingos on the lawn.
Bright Lights, Big City
The Neon Museum boasts a collection of classic neon and other signs from old Las Vegas hotels and attractions.
Several “galleries” of restored signs are placed as public art throughout downtown Las Vegas, but the core of the museum collection features about 80 unrestored signs in its Boneyard, including those from the Stardust, Golden Nugget and Desert Inn.
“The Boneyard is all outdoors and quite intimate, with the feeling of a small historic park or a collection of monoliths from popular culture,” says the museum’s COO, Danielle Kelly. “I think the attraction to the Boneyard lay in its universality; everyone has an experience of Las Vegas as it relates to these icons of its past. It transcends nationality and age.”
The Boneyard is available for private viewing with an advance appointment.
Scheduled to open this summer, the historic La Concha Motel lobby is being rehabilitated to function as the visitor center for the Neon Museum.
There are several restaurants in Las Vegas that have been around for 20 to 30 years, where meeting attendees will find “great food at old school prices,” says A Vegas Expression’s Vincent.
“So many restaurants here, often affiliated with celebrity chef names, are overpriced,” she says. “There are long-established restaurants that aren’t new and hip, but they have the same great food.”
Among the options are The Steakhouse at Circus Circus, which takes reservations for up to 20 people and has a menu featuring mesquite-grilled steaks, prime rib, lobster and crab legs; Hugo’s Cellar, which welcomes groups of up to 14 people and offers seafood, rack of lamb and other dishes; and Fireside Lounge at the Peppermill (702.735.4177, which accommodates private company parties and boasts specialty cocktails from an exotic drink menu.
Sopranos Do Vegas
The Mob Museum, the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement opens this month in the old courthouse where Estes Kefauver held his hearings to expose organized crime.
“The appeal of gangsters, organized crime and law enforcement has long been an irresistible attraction of popular culture, film and fiction,” says Maria Sawyer, the museum’s sales manager, explaining that these themes are the focus of the museum.
Group tours and activities are available, and staff can create team-building activities like “the lineup,” Sawyer says, adding that during a gathering guests can “shoot” a simulated Tommy gun and listen to real FBI surveillance tapes on wiretapping equipment.
“The historic courtroom at the center of the museum is a perfect backdrop for an elegant sit-down dinner for groups up to 120, while the building’s entry, lined with the original post office boxes, creates a unique and historic setting that will fuel interesting conversation at any cocktail party,” Sawyer says, adding that the multipurpose room or the third-floor boardroom are well-suited for lunch and a lecture.
Fremont Street, the original Strip of Las Vegas, is “the” place to take a retro walk or tour in Sin City.
Starting in the early 1900s, people came here to gamble. Today, Fremont Street remains bustling with entertainment options and many of the city’s original hotels are still open, including El Cortez and the Golden Nugget.
“Contrary to popular belief about Bugsy Siegel starting it all in 1946, downtown was pioneering gambling 40 years before Bugsy opened the Flamingo,” says Shaughn Daily, tour manager at OnBoard Tours. “Seeing Fremont either during the day or at night is the best part of Las Vegas—most do not know it still exists.”
OnBoard Tours, which can accommodate groups of up to several hundred people, can create custom tours and itineraries facilitated by a knowledgeable guide.
A visit to Binion’s, where the World Series of Poker began, is among the tour stops attendees would enjoy.
The next time freelancer Carolyn Blackburn is in town she’d like an Elvis impersonator to take her on a stroll down Fremont Street, all the while singing Viva Las Vegas and other oldies but goodies.