The optimism is overflowing among those who want to see Las Vegas and Reno quickly return to the high-flying days before the COVID-19 shutdown.
“We’re taking the right steps to bring meetings and conventions back, and are seeing progress regarding those events,” says Steve Hill, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) CEO and president. “[In mid-November] we welcomed Mecum Auctions back to the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC). Additionally, the state plans to allow up to 50% capacity in venues beginning January 1, 2021. We know it will take time for the meetings and conventions industry to rebound, and there will be virtual and hybrid events in our future for some time, but we know Las Vegas is moving in the right direction to successfully bring back business.”
Hill isn’t alone in his optimism. Many planners, DMCs and hoteliers are on the same page. The experts see in-person meetings returning to Las Vegas in 2021, whether fully live or as part of a hybrid event, with Q3 and Q4 especially promising. “Anecdotally,” says John Schreiber, CEM, VP of business sales, LVCVA, “we’re hearing that our partners expect a busy year in 2021, especially in the second half of the year.”
Meanwhile, Las Vegas is working toward some critical goals. “We’ve been focused on meeting challenges in a steady and measured way to help business visitors confidently return to travel,” Schreiber says. “This summer, the LVCC was awarded GBAC Star accreditation, considered the gold standard for safe facilities, and our partners have held mock events to prepare and demonstrate how we will bring meetings back responsibly. [In late summer, early fall], International Market Centers (IMC) successfully adapted the Summer 2020 Las Vegas Market into a hybrid event. Additionally, the LVCC is in the RFP process now for a permanent live broadcast studio to be installed at the facility in the coming months with the LVCVA Board of Directors’ approval.”
Infrastructure Already In Place
In many ways, Las Vegas is uniquely positioned to meet COVID-19 challenges thanks to its infrastructure and because it’s always been in a perpetual state of change. “Las Vegas is constantly evolving to feature the latest and greatest in hospitality industry offerings, so we have a built-in ability to adapt and embrace change,” Schreiber says. “We also have more hotel rooms, and more meetings and exhibition space than any other U.S. destination, which will be helpful with social distancing recommendations.” Schreiber says the city is fortunate that many major developments have continued despite the pandemic.
“We also have the benefit of some of the brightest, most professional operators in the industry here in Las Vegas, and these groups are working together with state and local health officials to determine, share and implement best practices,” he says. “The world’s eyes are on Las Vegas, so it’s a place that companies want to be to showcase their newest tech, especially in the hospitality industry.” The city’s customer-centric attitude is another plus. “Las Vegas has a history of adapting to customer concerns,” Schreiber adds. “So it’s really important that planners engage with their counterparts at the resorts transparently to find solutions to any concerns regarding RFPs, bookings and more.”
All that notwithstanding, history tells us that a return to where things were pre-pandemic is likely a few years away. Lisa Messina, VP of sales, Caesars Entertainment, says, “We know from experience that when there’s a big downturn, such as the recession of 2008 and COVID in 2020, it typically takes three to five years for customers to reach pre-downturn attendance. We know from experience that we’re facing some challenging years. But we also know from experience that we’ll eventually get back to where we were.”
Attendance is a significant part of the equation. “For 2022,” Messina notes, “We’ve so far had no cancellations tied to COVID, and our books are very strong. However, I anticipate that the pickup will not be at 2019 levels. I think about 60% of the 2021 meetings will happen and 40% will cancel or push to a later date. The programs that run will be smaller in size,” she continues. “Basically, what I’ve been seeing is attendance at 30% to 50% less depending on the number of international attendees. If there’s a significant international component, it’s about 50% less. In 2021, customers may actualize 50% to 70% of 2019 attendance. By 2022, they’ll see about 60% to 80% of 2019 attendance, and by 2023, it will be 70% to 90%.”
Messina also thinks there will be a virtual component at almost all meetings, “unless for proprietary or legal reasons they can’t livestream,” she says. “Virtual extensions of live meetings are here to stay, although they’ll never replace face-to-face meetings.”
When considering the challenges facing hoteliers right now, Messina says the problem isn’t so much convincing planners to meet in person; it’s that “organizational leaders and employees may not yet be comfortable attending a meeting. Planners then have to decide if it’s financially feasible to conduct a program with just 50% of normal attendees.”
One hurdle is getting customers on the road so they can personally see and experience the latest protocols and processes in action. Messina encourages planners to go to any event, even if it’s a colleague’s event and not their own, to see exactly how hotel check-in is being handled, how food service works, etc. “At Caesars, we want to figure out a way to help planners experience all of this firsthand, because we believe that when they see the protocols and they themselves feel safe, that will give them the confidence to convey that to their leadership,” she says. “And if their organization is perhaps highly risk averse, they can say, ‘Here are all the things that are already being done according to that state’s laws, but we may want to add even more.’ One group, for example, added thermal scanners, and that was at their own expense, of course.”
Reno Attractive for Small Meetings
Messina sees secondary markets as desirable right now, and that’s good news for Reno, where Caesars’ three-hotel property, THE ROW — which consists of Eldorado Resort Casino Reno, Circus Circus Reno Hotel Casino and Silver Legacy Resort Casino — is continuing to do well. “In Reno and Tahoe, our books remain strong and will continue to remain strong. We do smaller meetings in those areas so customers are legally able to meet at their full capacity, which is very different than what happens with bigger meetings in Las Vegas where groups must be split up among different rooms,” she says. “The airports are also smaller, and transport between the airport and hotels is short. Right now, customers like the idea of going to secondary markets such as Reno and Tahoe in part because there’s a perception that smaller cities are safer.”
But, she points out that the reality is that, even if you’re going to a small market, you’re using the same planes and arriving at airports and hotels that have identical state protocols, and procedures, as larger cities in those states, so the experience is in many ways exactly the same. “What we want to show customers is that if we can provide a safe meeting experience in Reno, we can safely scale that up and do it in Las Vegas as well,” she says.
Caesars, Messina notes, is in a good position in both cities. “Reno is known as the ‘Biggest Little City in the World.’ If a customer wants to be in a smaller city, we can do that. Our three hotels are all connected. If you want to minimize risk to the largest extent, you can stay inside and still have access to 28 restaurants. If you want to go out, there’s so much within walking distance.”
But, Messina says, in Las Vegas, we can create a bubble around your group, which we recently did for one group that met at CAESARS FORUM and stayed at Harrah’s Las Vegas. Access from one to the other is by our hotel connector, which isn’t accessible to the public.”
The planner for that group, which met in Las Vegas during the fall, was J.J. Wills, senior vice president, marketing programs and business development, ConferenceDirect. Half of ConferenceDirect clients are associations, and Wills already has associations meeting in Las Vegas in 2021. She and her group of 130 in-person and 250 virtual attendees benefitted from getting that important firsthand look at the actual experience. “We wanted our associates to experience the facility so they could talk to clients with authority about it; we wanted them to experience the protocols and processes so they’d know exactly what that’s like and be able to communicate that a safe in-person meeting is possible,” Wills says.
She thinks a majority of 2021 events will be a hybrid model “to give attendees a voice as to what they want to do,” but says safe, in-person meetings can be done. “Having just done it, I know it’s possible, and it’s actually a far more controlled environment than going to the grocery store, which we all do.”
CAESARS FORUM opened in early spring, but closed almost immediately when the rest of the country shut down. Caesars opened it for Wills’ group, and it’s now available to book. Wills was impressed with the location, which she calls “not only functional and efficient, but gorgeous, with tons of natural light and beautiful décor and artwork.”
From flights to F&B, Wills says the October experience was a positive. “Southwest was really good. Everyone stayed seated before the flight and we were called up in groups of 10 rather than standing in lines of 60 as usual. Middle seats were open and everyone wore masks. The airports were good as well. There just aren’t as many people traveling, but there were markers on the floors to help with distancing when we did have to be in line and everyone seemed aware of the protocols.”
As for transfers, Las Vegas DMC Imprint Group arranged individual sedans and sprinter vans outfitted with dividers that hold eight, but transported just three or four at a time for this event. One reception was held on the plaza, and Wills says it not only met all city and state guidelines, but was beautiful and engaging as well. Tables, 72-inch rounds, were placed 8 feet apart and set for just four attendees. Current guidelines in Las Vegas require that everyone be seated for food, even an hors d’oeuvres-type reception. Caesars staff came up with the idea of plated hors d’oeuvres, three or four types on a domed plate served to guests at their seats. When a plate was empty, servers brought another.
Guests could move around to talk to others as long as they had masks on and remained socially distanced, but couldn’t take food or drink with them. When they wanted to eat, they returned to their tables. “It went really well,” Wills says, “and it was far more engaging than I thought it would be. We wanted to create an engaging reception so we had activities, photo ops and entertainment. I worried that people would just sit and we’d miss out on networking and energy, but that didn’t happen. It was a beautiful, fun event while still minding all of the protocols. I think it helped that we had high-energy music and entertainment.”
In general, Wills sees hotels and CVBs working together to bring meetings back. She says she’s seen zero-attrition offers, flexibility with cancellations and force majeure clauses, etc. “It changes from destination to destination and hotel to hotel, and some issues are out of everyone’s control,” she notes. “But the goal is to get things moving again. Industry wide, it feels like everyone’s pulling together to make that happen.”
Her advice to planners is to collaborate with venues and hotels, and have an open dialogue. “Really lean on them as they’re the ones on the ground and will be able to come up with ideas and solutions. And over communicate with stakeholders and attendees as to why you’re meeting, what the goals are and what to expect,” she says. “We could have done more on that — what would be different, what it would be like when attendees arrived, etc. With associations in particular, meetings tend to be familiarly the same. But meetings will be different from what attendees know and expect. The more you can help them wrap their mind around that, the better.”
No Destination Offers More
For all the changes COVID has created, it’s also important to remember that many things remain the same, including what Las Vegas offers groups. “Las Vegas is among the top meeting destinations for association groups for a multitude of reasons,” says Patty Kindness, director of sales for DMC PRA Las Vegas. “There’s the obvious ones like our wide variety of accommodations, new and diverse venue options and unparalleled hospitality and meeting services. But associations thrive on getting together as many members as possible to network and exchange ideas. Not only does Las Vegas have the space they need to do that, there’s historically an average attendance bump of 8% when associations meet in Las Vegas versus other destinations. In this market, associations need every advantage they can get, and that’s a big one.”
Kindness also points to what’s familiar in Las Vegas, including quick airport transfers, multiple daily nonstop flights from cities far and wide, great weather and all there is to do in close proximity to hotels and convention facilities. But some things are new, too. “AREA15 recently opened its doors and is quickly making a name for itself here in Las Vegas,” she says. “It’s an immersive playground all rolled into a vast and vibrant event space. Tenants like Meow Wolf, opening early next year; Haley’s Comet zip line and Particle Quest AR Experience open up many opportunities for association participants to experience this uniquely interactive venue. And with the opening of Allegiant stadium, the ‘wow’ experience bar just got significantly higher in Las Vegas.”
Kindness also points to the ongoing expansion work, including the LVCC West Hall expansion set to wrap up at the end of this year and Resorts World Las Vegas, scheduled for completion next summer. Of course, health and safety remain primary concerns. PRA has an entire task force dedicated to that. “Protocols were designed to follow strict guidelines and the company has established a supplier-certification process to ensure we work with partners willing to commit to our standards.”
Other venues newly opened or coming online soon for attendees include Circa Las Vegas, which opened in late October, and Virgin Hotels Las Vegas, set to open at the beginning of next year.
Like Wills, Kindness says it’s more important than ever for planners to lean into their destination partnerships “to work toward a safe, successful and memorable experience for your association participants. The hospitality community is ready and willing to help you navigate this environment and support your goals with their expertise along the way.” One example: If an in-person site visit isn’t an option, planners should know that partners within the Las Vegas community can provide an immersive virtual site inspection that “engages all the senses.”
Challenges to Overcome
Joshua Jones, regional president, DMCP, Hosts Las Vegas, agrees that there are challenges to getting back to in-person meetings, but, like Hill and others, he remains hopeful. “Currently, the biggest impediment to booking meetings is the unknown of when the crisis will end, and companies are in many different places related to that. We’re hearing from some clients that they won’t hold face-to-face meetings and events until there’s a vaccine. Others are waiting for more available testing, and some are looking at the potential economy of holding a meeting during a pandemic.”
Additionally, Jones says, “Some companies have suffered significant economic damage and simply can’t commit to dates or sign contracts with hotels, DMCs or any suppliers in the chain until there’s more comfort and confidence in the safety of holding a live event. Everyone is assessing risk right now.” But, he adds, “There are risks in not holding those live events as well. Real business gets done, strong business relationships are formed, attendees are motivated and important objectives are met at a live conference. Face-to-face meetings are an important business driver.”
Jones says Hosts Global has been part of a collaborative effort with key industry leaders in transportation, event design, F&B and more to talk about how to safely return to live events. “Following each ‘talk’, Hosts rolled out a checklist of safety protocols executed across all destinations and services to make planners and guests feel confident returning to meetings and events. I’m grateful,” Jones adds, “to be an event professional in Las Vegas, where we have leaders like MGM Resorts International, Wynn/Encore, the LVCVA and really the entire event community all engaged in developing comprehensive programs to welcome guests back safely.”
As for what keeps him hopeful, Jones says, “I’m most hopeful that people are really craving the face-to-face experience. The pent-up demand for travel and being part of what live events accomplish is extraordinary. We all have such fatigue of being behind the computer screen, and I think planners and suppliers alike have a new or renewed perspective and appreciation for being in the hospitality industry. What we do is special, it’s meaningful and motivational, and can change outcomes in a positive way. We are truly fortunate to create great experiences for people.”
In the end, Las Vegas’ ability to thrive in spite of the pandemic and to continue to be one of the most dynamic and popular meeting destinations in the world may have more to do with its people than with anything it builds — however over-the-top amazing a structure may be.
“We were hit incredibly hard in Las Vegas during this pandemic, and we’re ready to get meetings and conventions back in our great city,” Jones says. “The entire community has really worked well together to ensure that we’re all aligned in creating a safe journey for attendees from the first moment they arrive in our wonderful city.” | AC&F |