Some of the top trade shows and conventions in the country happen in Nevada. With an economy that relies on and excels at hospitality and tourism, it’s a good mix. In 2019 there were an estimated 43 million visitors to southern Nevada, with 6.6 million there to attend a meeting or convention. The economic impact of the industry was $11.4 billion.
“As much as people think of Las Vegas as a leisure destination, meetings and conventions are a pretty significant portion of what we do here,” said Brian Yost, COO, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA). “We have three of the top 10 largest convention centers in the nation when you look at exhibit space here. We rely very heavily on our 14 million-square-feet of meeting and exhibit space and we’re anxious for [conventions] to get back.”
The numbers aren’t all in for 2020, but only during the first three months were meetings and conventions anywhere near normal levels. After that, the pandemic changed all the rules.
“The challenge is there’s no playbook for this, it’s something we’ve all had to adjust to,” said Charles Harris, CEO, Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority (RSCVA). “We want to be sure when we’re hosting events that we’re following guidelines safely, providing proper resources, and ultimately we do want to get back to where we were. The question is without a playbook and without having gone through this before, we just don’t know what the roadmap looks like to take us back to where we were.”
On May 1, responsibility for overseeing COVID health and safety regulations transitioned from the state to local municipalities. The industry-wide hope is guidelines capping attendance at 50 percent of published fire code occupancy numbers will be raised because COVID vaccinations are well underway, safety guidelines are in place and positivity rates are decreasing.
“Part of the challenge is waiting for restrictions to ease up to where we can house a convention for 5,000 people,” said Patrick Flynn, executive director, Hotel & Sales, Peppermill Reno. “That’s just one hurdle.” An even bigger hurdle is that some conventions cycle through venues, so when they finish one event, they’re already planning the next two- or three-year’s worth of locations. If northern Nevada’s turn comes along in a pandemic year, the state misses out. In 2020, a lot of groups were unable to wait for restrictions to relax and venues to be able to accommodate them. They moved their events to other states.
More than just large-scale event venues like convention centers were hurt by COVID restrictions. Event planners and caterers lost clients and events. Smaller businesses were hurt when client organizers wanted deposits returned.
Corporate events make up the bulk of business for Divine Events and Catering. Pre-COVID the company averaged 1,500 events annually with average attendance around 75 to 100 people. After the shutdown, when clients wanted their deposits back, Pam Howatt, owner, worked with most to extend deposits out indefinitely. One client with a particularly large deposit initially wanted it returned, before they changed their minds.
“They said we don’t want the money back, go do something good for your community,” Howatt said. So, they did. They used the money to feed people who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, provided food through The Shade Tree and fed National Guardsmen working 14-to-16-hour days doing COVID testing.
Larger companies found themselves rescheduling larger events. MGM Resorts worked to keep communications open with groups that had planned events for their venues.
“We were probably communicating with our customers even more than preCOVID because we were adjusting, rescheduling, looking at what things would look like in the future,” said Stephanie Glazner, chief sales officer, MGM Resorts. Some events have been rescheduled multiple times, from spring to fall in 2020, to spring 2021 and on to late summer or early fall.
As events continued to be canceled or postponed, it helped the industry and economy to have a core of recurring annual, biannual and triennial trade shows, exhibitions and conventions that are held in Nevada. Las Vegas hosts 48 of the largest shows held in the country, according to Trade Show News Network. But even that didn’t stop 2020 from being a hard year for the industry.
As the second year of the COVID pandemic is underway, pent-up demand for in-person events is fueling interest. There are shows scheduled in southern Nevada at the beginning of this month, when COVID restrictions will be overseen by local municipalities. Events are perhaps smaller than they would have been if we weren’t emerging from a pandemic, Yost said, but there’s still strong interest fueled by people who want to get away from online conferencing platforms.
Social events have rebounded faster than corporate. “The last year stayed very consistent and strong,” said Kasha Mackelprang, head of sales/catering, Station Casinos, Red Rock. “Social business is still very active, whether that’s short-term weddings or weddings that got re-booked because of the pandemic.” The casino reopened on June 4; it hosted the first wedding June 6.
MGM Resort in Las Vegas has hosted more than 300 events since June, all while carefully orchestrating everything from how groups are scheduled to how they’re seated to separate entrances and exits to rooms.
In February, the industry began seeing the emergence of corporate businesses returning and an increase of events slated for 2021, ‘22 and ‘23. “We’re eager to see that corporate business returning. We now know there is a demand and that feels very exciting that it’s coming back,” said Mackelprang.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel, said Flynn. “Vaccination is moving groups into the next comfort level where they’re comfortable enough to start planning something for summer or early fall, early winter. [We] definitely feel the uptick in groups across the board, whether its social or convention type groups, they’re feeling better in general. Marry that with the lesser restrictions and there’s a lot of optimism in the market.”
Back to Business
Before there was optimism, and with no events being held, event planners scrambled for work in 2020.
Divine Events and Catering revamped. “We did 15 years’ worth of projects in three months,” Howatt said. They created and priced new menus, re-branded and redecorated. It was fun, Howatt said, but by July they’d dropped from 70 employees to six, and in July the company did zero business. Taking on available work, they made and delivered boxed lunches for a local manufacturer. Another catering company signed a contract to provide meals for a local hospital, and another built a food manufacturing facility.
One of the biggest changes facing events planners across the board is with food and beverage service. Buffets have been revamped with plexiglass shields to separate guests and food, and chefs to plate individual portions. There are no beverage stations. Some services use prepackaged portions, which raises costs for the packaging and for extra serving staff.
MGM usually hosts events from 10 people to 75,000 at the Mandalay Bay property. The capacity as of mid-April was 1,000. While observing new food and beverage guidelines, they’re remaining sustainable. “It’s important to MGM Resorts that we’re still using recyclable and sustainable products as we’re doing prepackaged items,” said Glazner.
Over the past 14 months of the pandemic, Zoom fatigue became a “thing”, a term that includes all online meeting platforms. But online video conferencing turned out to be one way for event organizers to be inclusive when dealing with limited capacity for in-person events. When a venue is capped at 50 attendees and an event usually hosts 250, hybrid events allow organizers to stream to the other 200. Ambitious hybrid events have included meals delivered to virtual attendees to round out events. Some organizers arrange for interactive participation for off-property guests.
Hybrid events have met with mixed success. Keynote speeches and educational breakout sessions are well received. But when it comes to actual products, and presenting those products, people want to be there.
“The tactile experience of seeing, feeling, touching, smelling the new products, the new services, it’s difficult to replicate that online,” said Yost. “Our clients are telling us their clients who are the exhibitors are yearning to be back in front of their clients who are the attendees who ultimately represent people to whom the products and services are distributed.”
Virtual trade shows have been attempted. SEMA, the Specialty Equipment Manufacturer’s Association, and CES, the annual technology trade show held in Vegas, found keynotes and education fared well online, but new product launches and presentations couldn’t get traction. “Folks missed the hands-on, let me see that part and figure out how I can sell it,” said Yost.
The Peppermill hosted one completely virtual trade show, with stage and lights and a professional backdrop. It reached additional segments of membership but highlighted the need for at least hybrid events.
“The advent of using technology has certainly been a positive as people have adjusted,” said Harris. Using technology to create hybrid events was already occurring; COVID sped the process up considerably. “But ultimately the positive will be having people come back together and meet in person because all of us, all business is based on relationships. Any industry, any business, is based on personal relationships. That’s most effective when done face to face.”
Does that mean Nevada’s meetings and conventions industry has a chance to return to normal? Probably. Groups are scheduling for future events– with a twist.
“Trade shows will have not only all the standard health and safety protocols, but things like one-way aisles and plexiglass in booths to separate the exhibitor from the attendees,” said Glazner. Coffee breaks will be longer, giving hotel staff time to sanitize rooms.
The numbers of events in the planning phase are back up to 2019 levels, said Glazner. “Groups are signing up for the future just as they did in March 2020. So, people are confident that we will eventually get back to that.”
Not every aspect of COVID restrictions turned out negative. During the first three months of the shutdown in 2020, Howatt and her staff did their re-branding.
At the MGM, there was the time, and the need, to institute contactless checkin and make other technology upgrades. “It’s allowed us to speed up things we [already] knew we wanted,” said Glazner. The advent of COVID meant new technology was activated. There was time to try it out. There was time to look at operations and determine how to make them better.
At Station Casino Red Rock, Mackelprang and her staff learned after years of routines becoming the only way to do things that it’s possible to change on a dime. “It’s definitely COVID-related. We learned it’s definitely possible to make a change within five days of a program happening. We realized we do have that flexibility.”
Mid-pandemic might seem like an odd time to launch a new events venue, but there’s a new one in southern Nevada. AREA15 is an experimental entertainment outlet roughly a mile off the Strip. Comprised of bars, restaurants, inhouse catering, art museums and event space, it’s bright, kinetic and unique. The venue not only opened during the pandemic, but it also embraced it by turning health department restrictions into high tech wonders. There’s an AI-driven thermal scanner that unobtrusively screens guests’ temperatures. There’s also an AI that can detect the absence of a mask or social distancing.
“Our bookings reflect the larger Las Vegas events industry, with a mix of corporate bookings, private parties, as well as outdoor festivals,” said CEO Winston Fisher. AREA15 offers unique indoor and outdoor venues, and in-house catering.
Planning for the Future
People want to experience events face to face. But there will always be compromised segments of society unable to participate any other way than virtually. “I think the virtual aspect of events will be here for the foreseeable future,” said Mackelprang.
Hybrid events may not be the preference, but there’s a significant advantage to virtual attendance for some social events.
“We do a lot of destination weddings here at Station Casino in Red Rock,” said Mackelprang. “I think the hybrid component will absolutely stay in place for big destination weddings that don’t have the means to bring the entire family to Las Vegas.”
“We’re definitely seeing a comeback since restrictions lifted,” said Howatt. “In the last three to four weeks we’ve had 52 different requests for proposals. In normal life that would have been normal. In COVID life it’s, ‘Where did this all come from? It’s fabulous!’ We’re seeing some rebound. We haven’t seen so much business comeback yet, but we’ve seen a whole bunch of baby showers and engagement parties.”
And some of Howatt’s clients who host events during CES in January are making plans for 2022. “What we’re seeing? Everybody wants to get back to business.”
When it comes to planning meetings and conventions, from 10 people to 75,000, “Everybody’s circumstances are different. Every company’s culture is different. And now we incorporate all those things into planning,” said Mackelprang. “In the past it was really about the event. Now it’s about how company [planners] feel about meeting live and in person and not excluding segments. In the past we would have said there was only one way to do things. Now we have this whole new approach that it really is about the inclusive guest experience. We’re able to make those changes happen much quicker and still provide an exceptional experience.”