Construction trade show returns to Vegas after shortened 2020 run
Three years ago, ConExpo-Con/Agg was the last trade show at the Las Vegas Convention Center for several months.
The construction trade show ConExpo-Con/Agg draws more than 100,000 attendees when it’s held every three years in Las Vegas. But during its last arrival in March 2020, it was hardly the center of attention.
The five-day trade show took place at a time when it was still unclear how severely COVID-19 would impact the region, and it closed a day early, citing then-President Donald Trump’s travel restrictions. Less than two weeks later, then-Gov. Steve Sisolak announced the temporary closure of nonessential Nevada businesses, including the state’s 440 licensed casinos.
The closure made ConExpo-Con/Agg the last trade show at the Las Vegas Convention Center for several months.
Scott Rassett, who attended the 2020 show, said he and his group returned home a couple of days earlier than they had expected. He recalled the mood at the convention was “concerned and concerning.”
“It was a time in Las Vegas where you would be talking to associates and you would hear of another restaurant that closed because COVID was discovered there,” Rassett, now CEO of Brecksville, Ohio-based Anyseals Inc., said.
ConExpo-Con/Agg is returning Tuesday to the Convention Center, and its arrival brings back an era of strong visitation among the convention and meeting industry that Las Vegas was experiencing before the pandemic. The Association of Equipment Manufacturers, the show’s organizer, said it anticipates the same level of attendance as its 2020 event, which saw 130,000 attendees, and it will have a larger footprint at 2.8 million net square feet.
It’s an encouraging sign to industry watchers who say that the Strip is turning a corner on pandemic-related setbacks and that it may be a new chapter of Vegas’ economic story.
Rassett thinks the 2023 show offers a better sense of getting back to a valued event, where thousands of partners and competitors meet. It could even help broker deals.
“Frankly, we were able to schedule far more interactions this year than we had historically,” he said. “I would think that the opportunities for business this year may be improved over past years because of that sense of getting back to it.”
‘A surreal experience’
The convention industry was doing well before the pandemic hit — 2019 brought in the highest number of convention visitors on record at 6.65 million, about 15 percent of total visitation. January 2020 had a nearly 5 percent increase in convention attendance compared with the same period in 2019, according to data from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
Those metrics are especially important to the local economy because business travelers tend to spend more than leisure travelers, and they fill rooms midweek, Jeremy Aguero, principal at Las Vegas-based research firm Applied Analysis, said.
“They punch above their weight,” Aguero said. “They’re closer to 20 percent in terms of what that spend profile looks like.”
Convention postponements, cancellations and a shutdown order proved to be a massive hit to the region, he said.
An Applied Analysis report from late March 2020 estimated that the impact of meeting and convention cancellations in March and April that year was expected to cost the region $2 billion in economic activity.
After ConExpo-Con/Agg, no other conventions were held in 2020 because of the restrictions on gathering sizes, but the Convention Center hosted a limited Mecum Auctions event in November 2020 with 1,000 people spread over four rooms.
The convention industry saw shows return in the second half of 2021 and through most of 2022, with muted attendance as restrictions ebbed and flowed as well as COVID-19 case numbers. By 2022, total convention attendance was 4.9 million, up 126.2 percent from the previous year but down 24.9 percent from the 2019 peak.
For ConExpo-Con/Agg, a 2023 return was always on the calendar, show director Dana Wuesthoff said.
Primary concerns during the three-year planning cycle were focused on the hospitality and exhibition-related services industries, she said, but they were eased through continued discussions.
“2020 was a surreal experience,” Wuesthoff said. “I feel like for us all and for 2023, we’re just really excited to be back in Las Vegas and bigger than we were even then.”
The fact that show producers were still eager to have a presence in Vegas when it reopened was encouraging, LVCVA Senior Vice President of Communications Lori Nelson-Kraft said.
“It was a real show of confidence that the value of meeting in person was understood and that virtual forums were a great temporary solution but that nothing replaced the value of being able to meet a network and get deals done in person,” she said.
No more pre-pandemic comparisons
Nowadays, business leaders speak bullishly about Southern Nevada’s economy, buoyed in part by the return of the convention and event calendar.
Nelson-Kraft said the Convention Center has 54 shows scheduled this year at its venue with an estimated 1.3 million attendees.
Meanwhile, some resort executives said during fourth-quarter earnings calls that the convention business is returning. Both MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment Inc. said they expect record hotel revenues for March thanks to the several conventions and live events. New additions to the calendar, such as the Formula One Las Vegas Grand Prix in November and the 2024 Super Bowl months later, are expected to add to revenues..
In January, overall visitor volume came 4 percent shy of 2019’s volume, while convention attendance was still about 25 percent down, according to the LVCVA.
Aguero suspects a full recovery for the sector will take another year. But he and other industry members are hesitant to compare metrics with 2019. While some indicators like convention attendance are lagging, others, like average daily room rate and gaming revenue, show new strengths as both business and leisure travelers changed their spending patterns after the pandemic.
“When you think about our tourism industry more broadly, we were doing pretty terrific prior to the pandemic. The recovery over the preceding 10 years, in terms of the economic downturn (of the Great Recession), was relatively steady and consistent,” Aguero said. “When you think about where we are now, it is very different. But I would argue it’s pretty strong now as well. From that perspective, we have to be really careful about comparing who we were in 2019.”
Rassett of Anyseals said he hopes the deals done at this year’s ConExpo-Con/Agg can address problems such as supply chain issues by connecting with manufacturers and suppliers from Southeast Asia, who may not have made it in 2020 because of the pandemic.
“From a supply chain standpoint, I think there’s a lot of eagerness to see people they haven’t seen,” Rassett said. “We have dinner plans every night. We’ve got opportunities to see suppliers and customers in one setting, one venue, one city every three years.”
More construction at LVCC
After the show ends Saturday, the display of construction equipment will be replaced by working construction crews.
The LVCVA will start two years of construction on its approximately $600 million renovation project of the Convention Center.
North, Central and South halls will receive upgrades similar to the $1 billion West Hall, which opened in 2021.
South Hall’s east lobby, near the Convention Center Loop station, will be upgraded this year. In 2024, work will start to renovate the North Hall’s meeting rooms, main lobby and connector as well as the Central Hall main lobby. In 2025, Central Hall will temporarily close for renovations on its connector to South Hall — creating an air-conditioned option.
It will remain open throughout the year while construction work is done around pre-planned trade shows such as the Specialty Equipment Market Association automotive aftermarket show in October and January 2024’s tech show CES.
“Our building customers, they lease out the Convention Center years in advance, so we work very closely with them and our construction partners to develop a calendar that allows for the least disruption or to mitigate any impact to those shows,” Nelson-Kraft said.
McKenna Ross is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @mckenna_ross_ on Twitter.