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Could pandemic permanently change Las Vegas convention industry?

Updated June 29, 2020 - 11:40 am

At a typical Las Vegas MoneyShow conference in 2019, TastyTrade’s CEO would draw in about 500 people to a room as a speaker. This year, attendance at the trade show nearly doubled.

The only difference? MoneyShows are now online-only.

After dozens of Las Vegas trade shows and conventions had to be postponed or canceled because of COVID-19, organizers have started offering virtual events in their place.

Various organizers and attendees say in-person meetings are irreplaceable, but some experts say the pandemic is sure to change the future of Las Vegas’ $10.5 billion convention industry and make it difficult to match pre-covid attendance levels.

“The nature of the convention business, especially in Las Vegas, is going to be permanently changed,” economist John Restrepo of RCG Economics said.

Moving toward virtual events

The pandemic has made the 2020 convention industry “a wash,” according to Cheryl Butler-Adams, a furloughed senior international corporate travel counselor with BCD Travel.

“You can write off this year,” she said. “Conferences, meetings are going to turn into Zoom meetings or whatever they can do electronically now. There’s going to be a lot of corporate travel that doesn’t get done.”

MoneyShow is one conference that fits the bill. It postponed its May Las Vegas conference to later this year and hosted its first large-scale virtual event last month.

The three-day virtual show began May 11 and aired 65 presentations to more than 13,200 investors and traders. Its in-person shows, meanwhile, typically brought in roughly 5,000 people.

MoneyShow President Aaron West expects online attendance to grow even more as the company continues to push virtual events.

“It’s a really great resource for people to come in for free and watch,” West said. “It gives us an opportunity to get to a much, much larger audience. We’ve got this great content — let’s share it with as many people as we can.”

Ann Marie Cumming, senior vice president of communications for the National Association of Broadcasters, said online events provide access and convenience, both of which are “desperately needed at a time like this.”

Value of in-person events

While the trade show industry sees potential in online-only events, it’s unlikely they will fully replace in-person conventions.

TastyTrade’s Chief Marketing Officer Michelle Moore said virtual events are cheaper and often draw larger crowds, but they’re still no match to face-to-face interactions from the company, which produces original programming focusing on financial information, investment strategies, options trading and the stock market.

“We use these as a way to stay in communication (with customers),” Moore said. “We will always keep in-person events, but what we’ll do going forward is tie in more virtual events.”

MoneyShow said it doesn’t plan to cut its face-to-face conferences — they’re “way too valuable,” West said — but virtual events have cemented a permanent spot in the company’s lineup.

“It’s a great way to supplement your annual calendar,” West said. “Instead of eight conferences a year, we’re now going to be doing 12. Four of those just happen to be online.”

Cumming said the NAB show is already planning its next in-person event in Las Vegas in April 2021.

“There’s no substitute for the in-person experience that live trade shows offer,” she said. “It’s hard to replicate the experience of seeing, feeling and operating a professional camera, microphone or other professional audio or video equipment.”

Various conventions are already gearing up to return to Las Vegas. MoneyShow plans to host a conference at Bally’s and Paris Las Vegas starting Aug. 16 with a limited audience, and Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority spokeswoman Lori Nelson-Kraft said the organization has a “strong convention calendar over the next year.”

Nelson-Kraft said hosting trade shows and meetings are an integral part of filling Las Vegas rooms midweek, when leisure travelers are less likely to visit.

Las Vegas’ convention and meeting segment had a $10.5 billion economic impact in 2018, according to a 2019 report from the LVCVA.

Las Vegas has “more convention space than anywhere else for a reason … they’re very profitable for us, in terms of visitor profiles,” Applied Analysis economist Jeremy Aguero said. “They stay longer. They come on weekdays. They have a tendency to spend more. … They’re a critical component of our overall business model.”

But the convention industry’s rebound is expected to lag behind leisure travel’s, Aguero said.

He expects Las Vegas’ convention and meetings industry to recover within the next 18 to 36 months but said fewer air travel options will make its recovery sluggish.

“It’s lagging somewhere between six and 12 months behind leisure visitation,” Aguero said.

Industry’s recovery

Josh Swissman, founding partner of The Strategy Organization in Las Vegas, said he’s “bullish” that the convention and trade show business will make full recovery in Las Vegas in the long-term.

“There is nothing that can take the place of physically attending a convention,” he said. “Networking, in-person product demos and impromptu breakout face-to-face meetings are important parts of the convention experience that have not translated well in the digital convention ecosystem.”

Some Las Vegas resorts are already looking to grow their meeting and convention footprint.

On June 18, Strip property Sahara Las Vegas announced that it would team up with group sales organization Teneo Hospitality Group to expand its meetings and conventions business. A company statement said the property’s boutique size makes it an “ideal selection” for planners adapting to a post-COVID-19 world.

But Restrepo believes it will take a lot for the industry to get back to pre-COVID levels as operators look to cut costs following the most recent financial downturn.

“There will still be conventions, I think. The biggest ones here in Las Vegas. But maybe companies don’t send as many people,” he said, adding that social distancing guidelines aren’t going away any time soon.

Others, like Swissman, said changes brought out during the pandemic will serve to benefit the local convention and meetings business in the long run, as organizers work to implement new technology and health and safety measures.

“For instance, attendees will be able to participate in future large-scale conventions either in person or virtually, allowing more flexibility and pricing options,” he said. “I also think it will be more acceptable and commonplace for speakers to present virtually in the future.”

Even if the Las Vegas’ convention industry does make major changes after COVID-19, Restrepo said it’ll be able to weather the storm.

“If we can convince people Las Vegas is the safest destination to visit, we should be able to come out of this better than some other communities,” Restrepo said. “But it’s going to be a long haul.”

Contact Bailey Schulz at bschulz@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0233. Follow @bailey_schulz on Twitter.

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