Nevada’s travel and tourism industry employs one-third of the state’s population. From hospitality to gaming and from the “What happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” campaign to Northern Nevada being America’s Adventure Place, the Silver State has been promoted as a world class destination. At the same time, “diversify” has become the State’s battle cry over and over, with warnings that Nevada can’t exist on only gaming, tourism and mining. Even so, mining is one of the few industries that remained strong through the economic recession and travel and tourism in Southern Nevada is contributing strongly to Nevada’s economic recovery.
Come One, Come All
In January, President Obama laid out the National Travel & Tourism Strategy to lure visitors to the U.S., hoping to capitalize on the world travel market and create new jobs in our country by increasing international travel. Nevada is looking to do its part, happy to greet both foreign and domestic visitors.
The recession coupled with higher airfares and the fluctuating (often rising) price of gasoline caused a significant drop in visitors to the Silver State in 2008, followed by new lows in 2009. But in 2010 visitors started returning, driving in more often than flying, but staying about as long as they had in 2007, before the downturn.
“We’ve shown many signs of recovery,” said Cathy Tull, senior vice president of marketing, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA). “There were increases in average daily room rate numbers in 2011, 38.9 million visitors in 2011, and that’s comparable with 2007 levels in Vegas, and the industry itself created 15,000 new jobs since late 2009.”
“I think the current status of tourism in Northern Nevada is OK, with brighter prospects on the horizon,” said Christopher Baum, president and CEO, Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority (RSCVA). “From a national perspective, people are traveling in bigger numbers and as we do a better job of defining who we are and what makes us unique, we’ll be able to tap into that willingness to travel and bring in a lot of people who haven’t been here for a while, as well as people who are new to the region.”
Toward that end RSCVA launched a new campaign in Northern California in March, expected to generate considerable buzz. The campaign asks, “What’s your passion?” It implies that whatever visitors want to do, Northern Nevada can deliver.
According to information compiled by the research department of Nevada Commission on Tourism, third quarter 2011 saw 13,737,106 visitors coming to Nevada, a 2.6 percent change for the good, up from the statewide total in 2010 for third quarter, 13,390,647. Broken down by region, 10,057,451 of those visitors were in Clark County, and 1,260,884 in Washoe County, with the remaining 1,594,793 visitors checking out Nevada’s rural attractions. In case that sounds like rural counties are discounted, total overall travel spending in rural counties in 2010 was $2,332 million, down from 2007’s $2,707 million but up from the 2009 low of $2,142 million.
The number of visitors to Clark County in 2011 made the year second only to 2007 in visitor volume (in 2007 Las Vegas played host to some 39.2 million visitors). Weekend occupancy for 2011 in Southern Nevada was nearly 90 percent, according to LVCVA.
A year-long survey of visitors to the Reno/Tahoe area (conducted by EMC Research, Inc., for RSCVA), revealed most visitors spent $614 per person per day. Those who visited for gaming spent more – $1,046 daily. Additionally, 81 percent had favorable experiences and 72 percent wanted to come back. The majority came for vacations, and they drove to their destination.
But Northern Nevada isn’t bouncing back to 2007 levels of travel and tourism. Baum doesn’t expect the Reno/Lake Tahoe area to see gaming return to what it was. With the change in gaming laws across the country and the number of Indian gaming casinos that visitors from California pass on their way to Nevada, gaming is something that will happen once visitors are here, not something with which to lure them.
“If we offer them gaming when they’ve got gaming closer to home, that’s not a very compelling pitch,” Baum said.
What the area does have to offer is a unique combination of resort amenities in a mix that’s hard to find anywhere else in the country – a wide array of special events, world-class sporting opportunities and breathtaking natural scenery paired with great spas, restaurants, nightspots and casinos.
As a destination, the Reno/Tahoe area has traditionally attracted drive-to tourism; 39 percent of the area visitors came from California.
Southern Nevada hasn’t traditionally had as much drive-to traffic as the Reno/Tahoe area, but drive-to visitation in Las Vegas has reached its highest levels in the last five years, according to Jan Jones, senior vice president, Caesar’s Entertainment. “Part of the reason could be that flights have gotten very expensive and a lot of the air carriers have reduced the number of flights. But overall, people are still coming to the city, they’re coming in high numbers, and we’re seeing stabilization.”
Despite the cost of flying and the increased drive-to traffic, McCarran International Airport saw a 4.3 percent increase in 2011, with slightly fewer than 41.5 million passengers. Reno/Tahoe International Airport saw a one percent change for the good with 1,037,228 passengers third quarter 2011.
Conventions, Meetings and Midweek Room Rates
Conventions and meetings introduce new visitors to Nevada year round, and as much as Nevada loves conventions, convention organizers need to love Nevada. When proposing meetings, conferences and conventions, organizers need to know what’s in the area for members to do during their down times. Giving convention members great things to do during their time off means many of them return for fun.
“Many times a convention is the first time someone has come to Las Vegas,” said Tull. “Then they come back as a leisure traveler.”
Las Vegas played host to 19,000 conventions in 2011, 6 percent more events than in 2010, bringing in almost 5 million visitors. “In 2012 we’ve already seen record attendance for shows and large conventions, so conventions are already showing good numbers this year,” said Tull.
Weekends fill hotels with leisure travelers, Jones said. The way to maintain high occupancy during midweek is to ensure there are enough conventions and meetings in town. “That’s where the partnership with the Convention Authority has been incredibly successful – Las Vegas remains the number one convention city because everything is centrally located and there’s so much for their members to do when they’re not meeting.”
Las Vegas reported a citywide occupancy rate of 84 percent even during 2010 as the city was host to 8.8 percent more business travelers (LVCVA). Average daily room rate in 2012 is up 13 percent in Southern Nevada from 2009’s lows, but not back to 2007 levels.
Keeping convention and event organizers happy is as important as bringing them to Nevada in the first place. In Southern Nevada Jones says it’s imperative a new arena is built in the next two to three years. The current major arenas in the area are the Thomas & Mack Center at UNLV and the Mandalay Bay Events Center, both more than 20 years old and not capable of being retrofitted. “They could never accommodate NBA or national sports, even though the leagues have now signaled they’d be open to moving teams here if we had a facility,” said Jones.
National Finals Rodeo and Country Music Awards, both held in Southern Nevada, have indicated they may pack up and leave if Las Vegas doesn’t provide a state-of-the-art facility.
RSCVA under Baum’s leadership made a big commitment to the convention market in 2012, pursuing a strategic partnership with American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) which the RSCVA board of directors unanimously approved.
“Going forward we’re going to move from being a very low profile player in the convention field to being a very high profile player with a lot of territory – both marketing-wise but also literally – at the trade show for all the people who plan and approve conventions in the country,” said Baum.
ASAE is where CEOs and executive directors responsible for deciding where future conventions are held congregate. The new partnership with RSCVA means Northern Nevada gets to move from bit player to star. Becoming a more aggressive player in the convention market means Reno can fill 3,000 rooms a night with conventions, a big impact on area business. Increasing occupancy spreads the goodness around, said Baum, because hotels that had occupancy suddenly fill up and other hotels participate in the windfall.
“It’s a good thing for the marketplace to have that kind of pressure put on it by the convention market and it does good things in terms of getting rates higher and giving all hotels an increased ability to participate and increased levels of occupancy,” said Baum.
And with the new “What’s Your Passion?” campaign, hopefully some business and convention travelers will come back as leisure travelers, bringing friends and family for Northern Nevada adventures.
Northern Nevada Attractions
There aren’t a lot of new attractions going on in Northern Nevada. Instead, what the area is bringing to light is the area itself: the beauty of alpine lakes less than an hour from high desert and the outdoor activities available.
“There’s a market out there for what we have to offer, we just have to do a more compelling job of getting our message across and when that happens, Reno will become a bigger player in the bottom line for the state of Nevada,” said Baum.
While there aren’t a lot of new attractions, Northern Nevada does offer world-class shopping experiences from Scheels All Sports to Cabela’s, which are considered destination shopping – there aren’t that many of the stores in the country. The region also boasts new and upscale shopping experiences at area malls like Legends at the Sparks Marina.
Southern Nevada Attractions
Southern Nevada has something for everybody. Indoor, outdoor or up in the sky, there’s something to do all the time in the city that never sleeps.
For those visitors not afraid of heights, the sky’s the limit in Las Vegas, or at least it will be. Slated to open July 4, 2013, the SkyVue Wheel will carry 40 gondolas with 20 to 25 passengers per car up and over the Las Vegas skyline. Being created by Compass Investments, SkyVue is a 500-foot-tall observation Ferris wheel. For comparison, the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino is 450 feet high. The Wheel will be 50 feet higher, and just as wide as the casino. “It’s a massive structure,” said developer Howard Bulloch, Compass Investments.
The project, which is under construction across from the Mandalay Bay, will also include 200,000-square-feet of retail and restaurant space encompassing a total of 39.5 acres. During the construction phase, the Wheel is expected to employ 700 construction workers and, once open, more than 500 permanent employers in the retail component. Las Vegas-based Ledcor Construction is the contractor behind the SkyVue Wheel.
In addition to planning for new projects, many Southern Nevada casinos took advantage of the lower visitor numbers in 2009 and 2010 to renovate and upgrade their properties, according to Tull. MGM Grand, Wynn Las Vegas and Bellagio gave their rooms new looks, while the Venetian is renovating its casino floor.
A day in Southern Nevada can encompass everything from 3,000-year-old petroglyphs at the Valley of Fire to a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon or skiing in the Spring Mountains to the nightlife on the strip. For the visitor who doesn’t know just what to do, LVCVA offers online build-it-yourself itinerary tools.
“For a lot of international travelers, Las Vegas is a gateway to the national parks, so they’ll fly into Las Vegas and go to the Grand Canyon or Red Rock and move on to Southern California and then fly out of Vegas,” said Tull.
Skiing and snowboarding are very popular in Southern Nevada, creating a regional destination draw from the southwestern United States and, strangely, from Hawaii. The Spring Mountains are a destination for skiers taking an annual ski trip, according to Kevin Stickelman, president, Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard Resort.
“It’s the novelty of being able to come to Las Vegas and ski,” said Stickelman. After all, there’s world class nightlife and accommodations, restaurants and shows all located 45 minutes from the ski resort. Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard Resort is 17 miles north of the Strip and 6,600 feet higher in elevation than the Strip’s 2,000 feet. The Spring Mountains National Recreation Area is a small island of mountains in the midst of the Mojave that captures storms coming off the Sierra and heading east. “It’s almost an accident these are located in the middle of the desert this close to Las Vegas,” said Stickelman.
Year-over-year growth for the Resort has been dramatic, said Stickelman, with growth in both season pass-holders and destination guests purchasing lift tickets.
Looking to the Future
LVCVA is anticipating more visitors in 2012, projecting upwards of 40 million visitors in Southern Nevada this year. “We know the spend continues to be off,” said Tull. “Consumers are spending differently but we do think we’re going to break [previous] visitation levels.” As a destination, Las Vegas has experienced 22 consecutive months of growth in visitation, despite the economic downturn.
“Spending by core gaming customers hasn’t yet returned to pre-recession levels, but with Las Vegas visitation increasing and several important U.S. economic indicators trending positively, we’re cautiously optimistic that these customers will be spending more with us in Las Vegas in 2012,” said Jones.
“We need to remember that tourism continues to lead the destination in the recovery,” said Tull. “The tourism sector has added 15,000 jobs and employs about a third of the population. Tourism is leading the pack in recovery, and that’s a good thing for the tourism side of things.”
“I believe this is a destination whose time is about to come in its new iteration,” said Baum. “The old gaming model of the past, it will never be that way again, and we need to find the new solution going forward. Our diversity, what we have to offer, makes us extremely competitive. We have a varied product and can really be proud of what we have to offer. If we can market it successfully, we can really be successful. We don’t need to create more products, we just need to make sure people understand the product we have right now.”