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My abiding memory of Las Vegas rotates around Moon Civetz’s company, Maverick Aviation Group. It was during the last Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) Invitational in 1995 when the IRF was still the Site Foundation and I was on the Site Board. Site CEO Brenda Anderson had persuaded me to accompany her on a helicopter ride to the Grand Canyon. I desperately wanted to see the Grand Canyon but I was terrified of helicopters. Not of crashing, mind you, but of getting sick!

Following the early AM health and safety briefing we got strapped in, put our headphones on and headed skywards with Weezer’s 2001 single “Island in the Sun” cranked up to eleven on the Captain’s ipod. A great mix-tape and a really engaging dialogue with the captain postponed the puke and I enjoyed God’s perspective on the Las Vegas strip, the Hoover Dam and the majestic Grand Canyon.

Since then I’ve been back to Vegas many times and I’ve witnessed the constant self interrogation and attendant re-creation that are part of the DNA of this extraordinary city. This was touched on by my old buddy Jim Feldman during a very Feldmanesque opening address to the Educational Session of the IRF which was back in Vegas again in 2011 at the spanking new Aria Resort. Feldman used Vegas as a living, breathing metaphor for change and innovation – when a resort, hotel or show has run its course in Las Vegas, he said, they “blow it up”. In true Feldman fashion he illustrated this nugget of wisdom with youtube footage of the Stardust exploding in 2007 We watched as Feldman stood there, between two bikini clad show-girls, buttoned up and besuited, without any sense of irony. The point was patently obvious: if we are to survive in this brand new economic paradigm then we must be ruthless, like Las Vegas, and get rid of our baggage, rooting out the old ways of doing business. We must also have Feldman’s brazen audaciousness, strike a pose and put ourselves out there!

This IRF Event definitely put itself out there, moving way beyond its comfort zone. Long known as a great golf and booze event guaranteed to attract even the most jaded and fatigued buyer, this year’s Invitational added significant and serious ingredients to this basic mix and served up an experience of both substance and sparkle. The substance was in evidence from the outset as IRF President Jeff Broudy worked the Registration Suite and turned the customary “grin and grip” into a compelling briefing on the extensive research conducted by the IRF. If he eyeballed you, you were dead meat for at least 15 mins! The latest research was formally presented during 3 educational sessions over the first 2 days. Again new formats were deployed including a truly engaging and interactive “Open Space” session where we wandered from station to station, like travel agents at a buffet, taking in whatever topic, theme or discussion took our fancy. It was a pedagogical smorgasbord and it worked beautifully. Another novel initiative in 2011 was the wonderful CSR Programme, sponsored by Cindy of the Monaco Tourist Office and former IRF President Ira Almeas of Impact4Good.

For some reason, at one point in the afternoon, I was the only person on Planet IRF interested in Social Media. This afforded me a great opportunity to catch up with my old buddy Sam Stanton from Sam’s company has been adding immense value to live events for some years now with their really excellent photographic and video montages. These motivational products provide great visual summaries of group travel experiences as well as the perfect take home gift for attendees. Now Sam is using digital on-line technology to socialise events and to deepen levels of personal engagement for all attendees. Before and during the event Sam captured and broadcast event related content providing a continuous, dynamic commentary from attendees on the unfolding proceedings. Top of the tweeters, was, of course, the ineluctable April Mescher of web portal ZipSetGo – be sure to go on line on Thursdays and join the vibrant community conversation on #TNI.

New technology was deployed for the Silent Auction too with really positive outcomes. Mike Vinup from IML Event Technology gave us micro-chip credit cards pre-loaded with our data and hand held devises which allowed us to record our bids on the auction items. All bids were relayed to plasma screens so you could see clearly where you stood in the process. This approach eliminated the usual “hovering” over sign up sheets and left no ambiguity as to the auction item winner. Mike also provided interactive technology which allowed us to vote during the educational sessions and transmit comments by text to the screen. But lest you think this IRF event was really an MPI event in disguise, if all of this relates to the substance, now allow me comment on the sparkle!

The golf, particularly on day two, was a wonderfully sparkling experience with a lot more Bloody Marys consumed on the tee boxes than balls that stayed in play! It was a great opportunity to get re-acquainted with some amazing incentive products and, as always, some tee box sponsors really went the extra mile – Shawn and Lio from Bahamas DMC Cacique International , for example, served cocktails and cigars on trendy sofas while Shiela Kyle from the Mandalay Bay created an amazing display of colourful candy in huge flower vases. Bear’s Best was a compilation album of Golf holes, a “Best of the Eagles” where the songs were signature holes taken from the immense design portfolio and repertoire of Jack Nicklaus. Built into the side of a mountain the magnificence of the golf track was juxtaposed by the awesomeness of the million dollar private homes which punctuated the course. This was Art for Art’s sake and caused me to shank more than one drive as my eye focused on some pretty cool suburban architecture.

And this brings me to Aria, our host resort for the IRF Invitational. This is truly the “new Vegas” where cringingly crude pastiche is replaced by confident, world class design. Aria is part of MGM Mirage’s high profile multi-billion dollar mixed-use development called “CityCenter” which also includes Mandarin Oriental, Vdara, Crystals, the retail and entertainment facility and Veer Towers which are residential. It’s an unapologetically contemporary, enduring landmark development with green credentials to beat the band and stunning creative installation art that surprises, delights and challenges the viewer. If sometimes Vegas is accused of “lowest common denominator” appeal then City Center blows this assumption skywards. Here we have sophistication, discernment and a genuine pursuit of the aesthetic.

The networking events, hosted at The Cosmopolitan, The Wynn/Encore and The Venetian / The Palazzo were lively, vibrant affairs, as we have come to expect. Post event pursuits included my Ovation colleague Maeve O Connor, along with many usual suspects (and that includes you, Terry Manion!) taking over the duelling pianos at New York, New York. Again, as we have come to expect. I loved the appearance of The Bumbys at The Wynn / Encore. Hidden behind dark glasses and face scarves, the two of them spent over 3 hours on old brother typewriters banging out “fair and honest appraisal of your appearance”. It became a huge talking point at the event as we all eagerly compared our descriptions. The Bumbys were brought to us courtesy of Destinations by Design.

So a new Vegas is emerging along with a new business paradigm for the Meetings and Incentive industry. And we need to adapt, like Vegas, to a rapidly changing environment to ensure we stay relevant. But if I learned one thing from my journey skywards with Maverick it’s this: no matter how high we raise the towers of Vegas, they’ll still be tiny when compared to the majesty of God’s artistry at the Grand Canyon.

Padraic Gilligan is Managing Director of Ovation Global DMC –

Thanks Lisa and Chris of The Opus Group for pulling the IRF Event together. Big respect!


4 thoughts on “The all-new Las Vegas

  1. Alynne Hanford says:

    Outstanding article and well written! I was there and still delighted reliving this excellent event thanks to your engaging descritions 🙂
    Thank you for this fabulous write-up.

  2. Thank you so much for the shout out!! It was great to be able to spend time with you and our industry friends! IRF is such an amazing outlet to talk shop with people who understand your language! The ZipSetGo crew also invites everyone w/ and interest in travel to participant in Travelers Night In or #TNI to share their #tips and destination recommendations w/ our global audience! New week we will be hosting a LIVE tweet up in Cancun w/ travel bloggers – so watch the twitter feed for some great insights into the hotel and destination.

  3. Caren Bigelow says:

    Wonderful article! I couldn’t agree with you more.

  4. Rodger Stotz says:

    I could not have written better – great summary on the Invitational. The educational-research aspect of the event has been growing each year for the past five years due to feedback form the attendees and an increasing research agenda. This blend of destination familiarization, networking, research and education is one example of how our industry is adapting to the “new normal.”
    We all know the need to continually “add value” for our clients – and this event is working hard to meet this expectation in today’s time constrained, focused environment.
    Thanks for highlighting your experience and sharing your insights!

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