Convention and meeting planners choose locations and venues, take into account where their attendees are traveling from and how, determine necessary meeting and exhibition space and hotel rooms – and arrange for coffee.
Coffee is important. Conventions thrive on coffee, served during events, before and after meetings and at meals, which also figure into the costs. Because coffee is integral to meetings, conventions and trade shows, some destinations charge more than $100 a gallon.
Nevada facilities can supply coffee at less than $40 a gallon and provide savings of 25 percent on food and beverage costs, and that’s just the beginning of the reasons to plan conventions in the Silver State.
The Destination State
Destinations don’t stay destinations in the convention world. Just because a meeting, convention or trade show has always come to a specific destination doesn’t mean that destination can rest on its laurels. Most conventions don’t go back to the same city year after year; most rotate through destinations and if a location is fortunate and hosted a successful event, every five to 10 years that event may return.
In July, for example, LVCVA bid for the International Council of Shopping Centers show. The event has been held in Las Vegas for years, and the region should win the bid, but the convention industry is competitive. Recently Vegas came close to losing the National Finals Rodeo, an event that has been in Las Vegas for years. Negotiations allowed the city to secure the event for the next 10 years. “It’s a very competitive business; making sure we’re supplying what our customers need, both in experience and technology, and the space. You can be the destination [for an event] for 10 to 20 years but it’s not something you own,” said Cathy Tull, senior vice president, marketing, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA).
Sixty-three percent of the new business the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority (RSCVA) sales team booked in fiscal year 13-14 is new business. “Not too many years ago 60 percent of our business was repeat business,” said Christopher Baum, president and CEO of the RSCVA. “Much as we love our return customers, for a destination to grow you need new business.” Those first time, or first time in a long time, events are starting to come into the area, and are what the region needs in order to make certain the destination gets its fair share – or more than its fair share – of meeting and convention business.
Room to Grow
In order to host conventions and trade shows, destinations have to have the space available. The Reno-Sparks Convention Center offers 381,000-square-feet of exhibition space in five contiguous exhibition halls, 30,000-square-feet in the ballroom, and 53 meeting rooms. The Peppermill features a 62,000-square-foot ballroom and the Grand Sierra has 200,000-square-feet of meeting and convention space on property. Where many destinations expect planners to utilize a convention or events center in conjunction with hotels in the area, in Reno the event can be held on hotel property, at the convention center, or both.
In Las Vegas, just like business, convention and meeting space is expanding. In 2013, the city hosted 22,027 meetings, conventions and trade shows, with the top three largest being International CES, CONEXPO-CON/AGG and Automotive Aftermarket Industry week.
Currently there’s some 10.8 million square feet of meeting and exhibit space in Southern Nevada and 150,000 hotel rooms. One of the unique advantages in Las Vegas is the number of convention centers – the region boasts three of the largest in the country; the Sands Expo, the Las Vegas Convention Center and the Mandalay Bay, where a $66 million expansion should boost the space from the seventh largest to the fifth largest in the country as 350,000-square-feet of convention and exhibit space is added. The space will encompass 2 million square feet after the expansion and still fall behind the Sands Expo and Las Vegas Convention Center.
In order to hold onto the advantages conferred by size, the Las Vegas Convention Center is expanding, planning for the Global Business District, a $2.5 billion project that includes a revamped convention center, a designated World Trade Center and a new multi-modal transportation system.
“The expansion has several components and includes expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center and includes a look at the neighboring areas to the Convention Center District,” said Tull. In part’ the plans are taking into account making the Convention Center/Global Business District area a distinct district in and of itself, so people will know they’ve arrived at the destination. Another component to the expansion includes a new transportation system within the Convention Center core.
“The expansion also includes a World Trade Center designation, with the intent of bringing more international business into Las Vegas,” said Tull.
There will also be more space for outdoor meetings. “Because of the great weather we have in Nevada as a whole and Southern Nevada in particular, we’re able to do a lot of shows that have outside exhibits like the helicopter show and CONEXPO that have a lot of outside exhibit area. Some of what we need is additional space for those shows to be able to grow,” said Tull.
“We’re really taking the next step and making sure we’re competitive for the next 20 years, so of course we’re adding technology upgrades and additional space. We know from some of our largest trade shows they want more space, so this is an effort to provide them with that,” she added.
An Industry in Flux
The recession hit hard all across Nevada and the convention industry is recovering more slowly than business and leisure travel, the other two legs of the travel industry tripod.
There’s a certain logic to business travel recovering before convention and meeting travel, said Baum. A business traveler is probably meeting with customers, attending sales or operational meetings. There’s only so long that can be delayed and eventually the travel is going to happen. But planning a sales meeting for a company with poor sales might mean waiting until the travel expense can be justified. Or maybe where five people used to attend a specific convention, the company now sends one. So the convention industry continues sluggishly, slow to add new events.
That being said, RSCVA just finished the last fiscal year in June having added 49 percent more business for the future years than it did a year ago, a significant uptick in the amount of confirmed business with signed contracts.
Tull recently attended the U.S. Travel Association board meeting where representatives from destinations across the country meet, and that the general feeling is that the conventions industry is back on track. “People are having meetings, they’re having trade shows. We just had our strongest June ever and the meetings side citywide is up 4.5 percent, which equates to 3 million delegates. We’re doing well and nationally other destinations also seem to be doing well. It seems like we’re in a good spot.”
A good enough spot that Las Vegas, which has been the number one trade show destination for 20 years running, according to Trade Show News Network, hosted 53 of the 250 top trade shows in 2013, with increased attendance at most. In fact, when a trade show announces Vegas is the venue, attendance goes up by an average of 8 percent.
Advertising Gets Creative
LVCVA is putting that message – come here for your convention or trade show and attendance will increase – in writing, and in neon. A new advertising campaign capitalizes on Vegas’ energy and entertainment along with the business expertise – Las Vegas makes every meeting exciting, ads read, showing invented names for meetings most would consider dull, done up in neon lights.
An aggressive RSCVA advertising campaign puts Northern Nevada’s message into the top trade magazines read by association executives and meeting planners in the front few pages of the magazine – or not at all.
The idea that Vegas makes everything exciting is a far cry from the recent trend of meeting planners shying away from any venue perceived as “fun.”
“During the recession there was the whole conversation about corporate meetings coming to places that were considered fun, and it became taboo for a while to go anywhere with a beach or somewhere like Las Vegas,” said Tull.
In fact, during the recession the What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas campaign changed to Vegas Means Business. But hosting trade shows and conventions is more than just fun and games. “This industry creates jobs and adds to the local economy,” said Tull. The convention industry supports 61,000 jobs in Southern Nevada.
Conventions heading to Las Vegas for the first time in 2014 include the American Library Association annual conference and exhibition, American Wind Energy Association’s WINDPOWER and Solar Power International. The three new events should generate nearly $63 million in local economic impact and bring in 50,000 visitors. Seventy new conventions with attendances of under 500 are slated to bring in another 100,000 visitors. Conventions are heading for fun climates again.
The anti-fun trend evolved from a fear of making one’s boss look bad by booking an event into a vacation destination and is especially true for government agencies. Because of the recent caution associated with more glamorous locales, planners sometimes choose less flashy destinations for events, even if they’re more expensive.
“Even if you can get a world class hotel at a lower room rate and lower food and beverage cost in Reno, you’re better off going to a more expensive city that nobody will give you any flack over,” said Baum of some planner’s perceptions of the industry. And while that would seem to be the problem of the event planners and the attendees who end up somewhere else, there’s the fact that Reno used to get more than 50,000 room nights a year of government meeting business and now are down to less than 10,000.
“That was a big loss for this destination,” said Baum. Northern Nevada has great value and great facilities available below market rate which was great for government meetings where attendees were on per diem. The same meetings held in Atlanta or Cleveland cost more taxpayer dollars, but are scrutinized far less.
Nevada Commission on Tourism (NCOT) works with convention authorities to sell Nevada destinations to the rest of the world. NCOT’s role is to provide branding for the state as a whole, to research trends and reach out to niche marketing trends like student and religious travel groups.
“We’re also looking at the international piece,” said Claudia Vecchio, director, NCOT. Commission members meet with delegates from everywhere from China to Canada, trying to entice international events to look at Nevada venues. They’ve also spoken with MICE – Meetings Incentives Conferences and Exhibitions, an industry driven by expanding globalization of the conventions and trade shows industry.
Future events heading for Northern Nevada include Vision Global, a marketing group that booked 5,000 room nights in September, Abbey Carpet is headed to Reno for an annual meeting taking up 3,580 room nights in February 2015 and the Gold Wing Road Riders Association is riding in on their Honda motorcycles to take 4,500 rooms in June 2015.
Even with slow recovery, Nevada’s convention industry looks strong. “I’d say we turned the corner a few years ago when we started shouting with a much more compelling story at a much louder volume to people who decide where conventions and meetings are held,” said Baum.
RSCVA made three primary pushes: the aggressive advertising campaigns in top trade magazines, more creative involvement and presence in trade shows (just look for the orange polo shirts) and by signing on as a top tier sponsor of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE). RSCVA is now an ASAE strategic partner like Marriott Hotels and the country of Mexico, staff has VIP access to events and there’s a new conference in the works: Next Gen, which will meet in Reno.
Northern Nevada’s convention industry is still reeling from the loss of the Safari Club International Convention. The success of the convention held in Reno for many years meant it outgrew the venue. With attendees coming from Johannesburg, London and Tokyo, getting to Reno meant three flights. Getting to Las Vegas might mean only one. With 920 flights going into McCarran International Airport daily, Reno couldn’t compete. Still, the Safari Club Convention remains in Nevada, and Reno’s got the new Dynamic Communities software users conference from Florida booking 7,000 room nights.
Reno doesn’t lose many bookings once they’re scheduled. Looking at RSCVA’s sales team’s 153,000 definite room nights in 13-14, only a few hundred were canceled. The Reno area is unusual, too, in that for a community with a population of 400,000 the Reno-Lake Tahoe area offers more than half a million square feet of convention and exhibition space, along with nine hotels with 800 to 2,000 rooms each. The exact number of conventions and meetings coming to Northern Nevada is hard to track because hotel properties have their own sales teams booking events.
North or South?
So does a convention or meeting planner look to the bright lights of Vegas or the natural wonder of Reno-Lake Tahoe? Depends on what they’re looking for. The two ends of the state are so vastly different they appeal to different demographics and end up not being in competition. Soon the Las Vegas World Trade Center will add incentive for international conventions to come to Nevada, and NCOT continues to market Nevada to international groups and to business and convention travelers who want to bring spouses with them and add a couple leisure days at one end or the other of their stay.
“The hope is that through conveying the overarching corporate brand of Nevada as a compelling, exciting, fun destination, that we can help sell the state so when meeting planners go to Reno or Las Vegas. They go in with an idea of what they can get from the state of Nevada,” said Vecchio. “The hope is we can help present this overarching brand of Nevada for individual destinations.”