Dunder Mifflin has the Dundees, the film industry has the Oscars, and music has the Grammys. Welcome to the first annual METS awards, that is, the Meeting, Expo, and Trade Show awards, with contestants judged by yours truly. As a business owner in Las Vegas—(cue Bruce Buffer voice: the UNDISPUTED expo and trade show capital of the woooorld)—I’ve decided to recognize the best trade show and expo venues that really stand out.
Since I’ve worked in and navigated both front-of-house (where customers are) and back-of-house (where only staff goes) in all of them, I’ve seen it all and I have a few recommendations.
Here are my picks for the top five with handy pro and con charts for quick feature comparisons.
The MGM Grand Conference Center was built in 1996 as a total destination resort and park, and back then it truly was grand. The 2017 renovation increased the original 380,000 square feet of convention space to 850,000. But the expansion didn’t include enough upgrades to the technology. As a result, despite its immense size, this trade show and expo venue makes using the latest tech a challenge, so tech-heavy shows typically migrate elsewhere.
Speaking of size, you’ll see throughout my assessment that a venue is dinged if the attendees have to park far away or walk several city blocks to return to their hotel rooms. MGM has both working against it. It is, however, convenient in other ways. It’s the closest large venue to the airport, and the monorail is a bonus for getting to other venues during shows like CES. For those setting up infrastructure, plan ahead for working like T-1’s and DS3’s are still a thing.
The granddaddy of them all—and getting bigger. The Las Vegas Convention Center has more than 2.4 million square feet of expo space and is the largest single-level convention center in the world. If you like the neon stylings of the Las Vegas airport terminal C, you’ll love the LVCC (the “the convention center” to the locals).
The convention center is built like a casino: no windows, no clocks, and hard-to-find exits. Another negative is the fact that there are no rooms attached to the LVCC. In addition, with all that space for people, well, you get a lot of people. With 25,000 of your closest friends hunting food and coffee, plan on long waits at the corn dog place and Starbucks.
That said, I have to credit the Las Vegas Convention Center with helping to usher in the idea of large citywide conventions. LVCC really put Las Vegas on the map as a trade show mecca.
The LVCC recently began a multi-year expansion. Unlike MGM, they included a $30 million information technology and wireless upgrade as part of the $890 million project price tag. This is in addition to Elon Musk’s People Mover that will operate far underground.
All of this means that the LVCC will continue to be a very competitive trade show and expo venue for years to come—not to mention pretty darn cool, even 40 feet under.
At one million square feet (not including the Events Center), Mandalay Bay Convention Center is one of the largest privately owned and operated convention centers in the world. It is at the south end of the MGM-owned properties of Excalibur, Luxor, Mandalay Bay, Delano, and the Four Seasons.
Much of the convention center overlooks the Mandalay Bay pool, which is fun for when you need a break from meetings or want to watch the wave pool during a conference call. When it was built in 2003, fiber optic, wireless, and ethernet were all well into their prime, which created a much-improved experience for tech companies to showcase their wares. Because of its size and technical capability, many Silicon Valley and Seattle tech companies hold their meetings at Mandalay Bay.
As it is another MGM property, I’m guessing the same design group OK’d the long walk to the convention center and the distant placement of all the restaurants and clubs. Mandalay Bay does, however, at least have a parking garage down by the convention center. The convention spaces are stacked over five main floors, which means you may need to take three or four escalators to a meeting. The inadequate number of elevators often leaves physically challenged people waiting behind long lines of escalator-capable people tired of going up and down escalators to their meeting rooms.
Boy oh boy, do I love Aria Convention center. It’s cool, it’s hip, and they have all the latest tech. I also appreciate their staff, who do all they can to ensure you have a great meeting and experience. Part of the CityCenter project, nestled between Vdara and Aria is their all-glass, super light and bright convention space. At 300,000 square feet, it is the smallest of our METS award winners but they seem to be doing everything right.
Do you want to shut off the house wireless in three areas? No problem. You want fiber drops to all of your equipment, even in the middle of floors? You got it. You want 10Gb handoffs? Simple. Plus, everything is so new and clean and nice. Parking is right below you and the 16 restaurants and 10 clubs include some of the highest-rated dining options in the world. They’ve also figured out how to move people up, down, and around without it feeling crowded or deserted.
Sands Expo is not the largest or the newest tradeshow and expo venue, but it deserves the top spot on this year’s METS list for several reasons. Sands Expo introduced the idea of being a fully-integrated resort and convention experience, meaning they can handle your entire event experience under one roof. For example, you could book out the entire club or restaurant and connect that experience to your booth or meeting room. Or, you could include a hospitality suite with food and beverage service, as well as break out rooms next to the show floor. And there are five Starbucks locations close to the convention floor.
The other thing that makes the Sands special is that they’ve been doing their darndest to keep up with cutting-edge technical requirements: everything from load-in to fiber placement and wireless deployments. If they can do it, they will. That approach really stands out when compared with spaces that seem to make the simplest things difficult (looking at you, McCormick Center and Anaheim Convention Center).
The Sands Expo teams treat you like they really want you there and are endlessly accommodating. It doesn’t hurt that the Expo, the Venetian, and the Palazzo are nice, too, like 5-star nice. The restaurants are some of the very best in Las Vegas, which means also the very best in the world.