Occasionally, a restaurant chain such as Papa John’s or Panda Express comes calling for space to sell its food at the Thomas &Mack Center.
Joe Carter, the center’s food and beverage director, always has the same response.
“No thank you,” he politely says.
UNLV is doing just fine running its own food and beverage operations at the on-campus arena and at Sam Boyd Stadium, 7 miles down the road.
In fact, it’s been two decades since UNLV parted ways with its last private food and beverage contractor, formerly Volume Services, and took over operations.
It’s paid off.
UNLV generates $12 million in annual sales at the Thomas &Mack and Sam Boyd, netting a $5 million profit.
If UNLV were to hire a private company to run the operations, the university would lose about $850,000 a year in revenue, Carter said.
University officials also would lose flexibility over the menu and give up control over concession stand hours, Carter said. He said that when Volume Services ran food and beverage, the company would not open some concessions because they didn’t want to pay staff for smaller events.
“There were battles. Outside (companies) try to do things to minimize expenses,” Carter said. “Once you make the deal, they run it.”
About half of major university arenas across the country run their food and beverage operations, and half are run by outside companies, said Theresa Traulsen, executive director for the 65-member National Association of Collegiate Concessionaires.
Even with a $5 million annual profit, UNLV’s operations are seeking more moneymaking sources at the Thomas &Mack. An ongoing $47 million renovation project will increase points of sale along the concourse from 60 to 80. New offerings will include two grill stations, giving the arena one for each of four quadrants, Carter said.
Per capita spending is about $10 per person at the arena, Carter said.
Potential arena food and drink improvements are based on two questions, he said: Do people want it? Will it create sales?
By the look of a packed Coors bar area during a recent UNLV basketball game, it appears customers want enhanced ambiance and sales are increasing. Last year the bar area was upgraded by removing a wall to allow a view of the Strip and adding three tables that rent for $400 a night — a popular option during the National Finals Rodeo.
The remodel helped “make it into something that’s usable and aesthetic,” Carter said.
Then, there’s the Crown Club, where six months ago glass was removed to give the seating area a more open feel.
And a few weeks ago, the arena initiated the sale of local craft beer.
“These areas are open to anybody with a ticket and who can find a seat and be there,” Carter said. “We try to create a vibe where people want to hang out.”
Although the Thomas &Mack is a university facility, 80 percent of arena food and beverage revenue comes from nonuniversity events, Carter said.
One major moneymaker, NFR, will be in Las Vegas for another 10 years after the event’s sanctioning body, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, and the event’s local organizer, Las Vegas Events, ended some high-stakes negotiations with a new deal.
Carter said the NFR, which sells out Thomas &Mack for 10 nights every December, accounts for about 15 percent of annual food and beverage sales.
The university’s $47 million improvement project comes at a crucial time because Thomas &Mack will have a new competitor in two years — the $350 million, 19,500-seat MGM Resorts International-AEG arena being developed behind New York-New York on the Strip. The PRCA and Las Vegas Events are allowed to explore moving the NFR to the new arena after it opens on the north side of Tropicana Avenue near Frank Sinatra Drive in 2016.
For now, Thomas &Mack officials are working on their own improvements, which include constantly evaluating ways to more more dollars from concession sales.
“We always reassess assumptions,” Carter said. “We will try things until we find the right fit.”
Sports venues are a hot topic in Las Vegas these days, and issues related to stadium and arena projects will be the subject of the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s monthly Hashtags &Headlines luncheon at 11:30 a.m. Monday at Texas Station.
Contact reporter Alan Snel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-5273. Follow @BicycleManSnel on Twitter.