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Las Vegas convention vendors lose business amid coronavirus scare

Updated March 14, 2020 - 9:05 pm

Jesse Jenkins, an audio and video engineer who helps set up displays for major conventions in Las Vegas, hasn’t seen work this scarce since the Great Recession.

While he usually has work scheduled six weeks in advance, he has no jobs lined up after his work at the ConExpo-Con/Ag construction equipment show wraps up Tuesday at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

He’s not alone. Jenkins, the second vice president of entertainment industry workers union IATSE Local 720, said he has seen other members struggle to find work as conventions continue to alter or cancel plans amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Other convention vendors are facing similar challenges.

“Our work is looking pretty bleak the next two months,” Jenkins said. “It’s scary.”

Industry ‘will be hurting’

The members of IATSE Local 720 are those who work behind the scenes at trade shows in Clark County, making sure things run smoothly by controlling audio and visual effects, setting up monitors, LED walls, and more.

Jenkins said they started losing work about two weeks ago; the 1,700-member union has seen 19 major trade shows canceled or postponed across the county in April or May from the coronavirus outbreak.

Even those that haven’t canceled — like ConExpo — have had exhibitors pull out, which can result in the on-call, hourly union members losing days of work.

“We’ve had 100-by-100-foot booths load in the show and then decide to cancel and leave,” Jenkins said. “The next couple months, my membership will be hurting.”

A dip in convention visitation could be felt throughout the valley. According to data from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, conventions brought in 6.5 million people to Las Vegas in 2018, directly supporting roughly 45,000 jobs, $2 billion in wages and $6.6 billion in direct economic impact.

Noelle Haddad-McCann, president of TNG Models, has started to see the effects from canceled jobs over the past couple weeks.

The modeling and talent agency books models for shoots, events and trade shows in Las Vegas and surrounding cities. Last week, the agency lost three bookings for events that were postponed, including ShopTalk at Mandalay Bay. There were also smaller photo shoots with traveling photographers that were canceled, she said.

New convention bookings in the near-term don’t look promising. Haddad-McCann said the agency usually gets between 10 and 15 inquiries on a typical Monday morning, but phone lines this Monday had slowed down.

“It seems like everything is just on pause,” she said. “Companies are hesitant to contract new deals because nobody knows how this virus will affect our city over the next 4-12 weeks. … We’ve already seen a large decrease in new booking inquiries over the last week. It feels like nobody’s coming to Vegas.”

On-site massage service providers are also taking a hit amid the outbreak. While March is one of the busiest times of the year for Las Vegas-based Professional Massage Inc., Vice President Tori Sadiki said the company’s massage therapists are starting to notice business slowing down.

“We’ve seen a small decrease over what we’d typically have this time a year,” she said. “It’s hard to tell because it’s a busy time for us anyway.”

The company’s 500 or so workers have been affected by four convention cancellations or postponements. And tourists’ concerns about skin-to-skin contact during the outbreak has led to a slight dip in business.

“It doesn’t seem like a mass scare or something constantly happening, but there definitely are remarks and some people that are taking that step of caution (and not getting a massage),” Sadiki said.

In the meantime, Sadiki said massage therapists are being extra diligent when cleaning. Workers are making sure customers notice their usual sanitation efforts — wiping down chairs between massages — to put them at ease and now are both sanitizing and washing their hands between each session.

“Being in the health care field, it’s our responsibility to not contribute to the spread of germs,” she said.

‘So many people’ affected

Sadiki is confident there will be continued business in the long term: The company is looking to hire for the World Series of Poker, which kicks off in May.

For massage therapists who were scheduled to work at canceled events, Sadiki said the company can send them out to other locations for work, such as Fashion Show mall or another resort.

But other jobs aren’t so flexible.

Jenkins said that while he doesn’t expect the slowdown in business will last long, he would encourage members to start saving money as the local convention business’ future remains hazy.

Haddad-McCann said she is hoping business picks up again soon but said she’s not sure how long the effects of the virus will last.

The agency has a financial reserve set aside for economic threats — a lesson learned during the Great Recession — but Haddad-McCann said the models will need to start saving their money if work continues to slow down.

“Most of our models have other jobs, too, so hopefully that will help them,” she said. “It’s really scary — conventions are a huge part of our local economy. There are so many people involved that can be affected.”

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

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