What happens in Vegas is strictly business ... and the rest

With a capacity of 7000 people, you've got to be fairly game to run an open bar at one of Vegas's biggest nightclubs, Hakkasan. But at 9.50pm, the young executive in charge of the convention opening party didn't seem all that worried. In fact, he was riding high on his own generosity.

"Welcome you to this year's conference" he slurred, fist-pumping as the crowd roared in acknowledgement of his inebriation.

"I hope you're all having a good time, because this party is f--king expensive".

The crowd cheers, his microphone is ripped away by someone more senior, the lights go down and the volume goes up. For another 10 minutes, the dance floor heaves, people gyrate on table tops and conference delegates - their plastic lanyards in glaring contrast to their little black dresses and designer shirts - elbow into the six-deep throng at the bar, drinking the free booze like they were in a desert oasis.

But while Cinderella had until midnight, the convention crew only makes it to 10pm. As the club opens to the public, security start to toss coats, bags and wallets to the grubby floor. The cash bar opens, and the conference crowd vanishes in pursuit of the free drinks out on the gaming floor.

The appeal of Vegas

Of the 42 million visitors who flock to Las Vegas every year, over five million are there for a convention. The appeal of Vegas is that it is easy: with more hotel rooms, exhibition space and airline connections than pretty much any other destination in the US (and, possibly, the world) it hosts more than 22,000 meetings each year.

And people just like Vegas. According to Vegasmeansbusiness.com, conferences and conventions with rotating locations see an 8 per cent jump in attendance when the convention is held in Las Vegas.

I was no stranger, but this was my first time there as a conference delegate, attending an arts convention held at the MGM Grand. However, before I even got there, I'd made my first rookie mistake: staying across the road from the conference at Excalibur, in a room that cost five times less than what it cost to stay on site.

Casinos in Vegas are like black stars, their convention space and hotel rooms tucked in the far reaches of the hotel complex. While my husband and I didn't require the assistance of an EPIRB to walk the three kilometres to the convention area "just across the road", there were times when we had to retrace our steps through the gaming area, bickering about how we veered left towards the Michelin-starred restaurant when we should have gone right towards the fast food court.


Come for the business, stay for the bright lights

Having started a new business, we had come for the educational classes at the conference and maybe to talk to a few vendors. But on the showroom floor, the salesmen were slick and the deals were like flashing lights. Like a fool I was parted with my money, dazzled by 50 per cent off specials and spin-a-wheel prizes and the promise of free samples.

According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor Authority, people spend up to 11 hours on the show floor. We spent more than 14, leaving each morning at 7.30am before collapsing back in our room at 11pm each night, pockets full of business cards of the names of people I couldn't recall and companies I'm not sure I'd ever work with.

In a haze of exhaustion, the overpriced and foul-tasting Starbucks was our only option each morning, but along with the indignity of drinking Starbucks there was the hundred-person queue. However, salvation was at hand on the showroom floor; the smartest exhibitor had hired a barista and a proper Italian coffee machine. We made a point of sitting down with that rep over double espressos to chat about his product: every single morning.

At night the goodies were harder to swing. Quickly I discovered the conferences were all about the private parties: the lavish client experiences including Elvis impersonators, showgirls, show tickets and private dinners where wine flowed, deals were made, and a lucky few brag about it on Instagram.

The brink of cult worship

Even more intriguing were the VIPs and guest speakers. In the US, industry influencers achieve a type of celebrity status that teeters on the brink of cult worship. If you weren't in the industry, these everyday Joes would be just another chum in economy hogging the seat rest. But each day I'd watch attendees blindly rush their idol for a selfie (or strangely, a hug) before mumbling thanks and immediately posting their "awesome" "OMG" encounter to social media.

And yet by the third day, even I wasn't immune to the cult of celebrity. In the bowels of an exhibition space so big that it could double as a disaster relief centre, I found myself chanting "Screw 'em!" with the crowd as the industry's 'bad boy' tore up the business cards of those who hadn't bothered to show up for the daily prize draw, tossing them in the air like confetti.

As the days laboured on I began to not care what I spent on food and coffee, just as long as I got it fast. And thus I was living up to my potential as a Vegas convention delegate: I was staying longer than the average tourist, and spending a hell of a lot more cash.

There's a big difference between travelling for work and being on vacation, but in Sin City, the line between business and pleasure was always going to blur. So as the convention packed up, we went all-out: moving our flights back, checking into a posh hotel, hitting the tables and tipping our Sin City business experience a little bit more towards the pursuit of pleasure.

Five tips to surviving your first conference:

1. Spend the extra money and stay on site.

2. Book a table for lunches and dinners to avoid crowds.

3. Budget ahead if you're purchasing show specials from vendors.

4. Attend educational seminars

5. Follow up on all the leads you make and people you meet.

The writer travelled with the assistance of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor Authority (LVCVA)