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MGM Resorts, Wynn share plans to bring back conventions amid pandemic

Updated September 29, 2020 - 11:08 am

At least two Las Vegas casino operators are turning to rapid COVID-19 testing to kickstart the return of meetings and conventions.

MGM Resorts International unveiled its new Convene with Confidence plan Tuesday morning, which is meant to reintroduce these events to the company’s U.S. properties safely using tools like rapid, on-site COVID-19 testing. Later Tuesday, Wynn Resorts Ltd. said it would also deploy the use of rapid coronavirus tests later this year.

The company announcements came the same day Gov. Steve Sisolak said Nevada venues could hold small-scale conventions once again. Organizers can apply to host as many as 1,000 attendees, as long as people are separated into groups of no more than 250 at a time in areas such as banquet halls.

If successful, these companies’ plans could be a major step in Las Vegas hotel and convention industries’ recovery.

“For all the operators on the Strip, (group business) is everything,” said Josh Swissman, founding partner of The Strategy Organization, a Las Vegas gaming and hospitality consulting firm. “Over the last decade-plus, the city and the Strip operators have spent so much time and energy growing their convention and group business, and they’ve been successful at it. … (And) it literally went down to zero.”

Company plans

MGM’s convention plan will offer virtual, hybrid and in-person events. Those that include in-person meetings will have the option to use rapid testing and touchless kiosks to screen guests before they enter an MGM venue.

“MGM Resorts and others are trying to really look at each resort experience or each service we provide and find a way forward,” said Atif Rafiq, MGM’s president of commercial and growth. “This is another indication of Las Vegas trying to lead.”

The same technology was used in the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs in Toronto and Edmonton, which wrapped up Monday without any reported coronavirus cases.

“That alone validates the system they were using,” Swissman said. “If it worked for the NHL, it has a good chance of working for MGM Resorts.”

Rafiq said internal pilot testing already is in place, and the company is having discussions with customers who are interested in piloting the plan within the next few weeks.

A Tuesday statement from Wynn Resorts said the company is set to launch a lab inside the Wynn Convention Center expansion in the fourth quarter that would deploy thousands of rapid COVID-19 tests daily “at a fraction of the current cost.”

The company said it has been working with the University Medical Center, Georgetown University and leading labs in California and New York to study rapid testing technology that can check thousands of people for COVID-19 in a matter of hours with at least a 99 percent accuracy rate. “Upon opening, the program’s plans will be made available publicly, allowing other businesses to adopt or customize the program to their needs,” the statement said. “Highly accurate testing, produced at scale, will allow Wynn Las Vegas to get back to presenting the entertainment, experiences, nightlife and conventions we are known for.”

Las Vegas Sands Corp. said it is ready to safely welcome back conventioneers.

“Our resort — from the suites of our hotel towers to the meeting space of the Congress Center and Sands Expo Convention Center— is ready for meetings and conventions to return safely,” said Chandra Allison, The Venetian Resort and Sands Expo’s senior vice president of sales. “We are encouraged as this announcement (from Sisolak) marks a first in a series of steps to open our city for meetings, conventions and tradeshows.”

Michael Massari, Caesars Entertainment Inc.’s chief sales officer, said the company is thankful Sisolak relaxed the state’s restrictions on conferences and conventions.

“This is just the first step as we simultaneously allow for larger meetings and assure that Las Vegas is not only the best city to gather in but also the safest,” Massari said.

A ‘meaningful part’ of Vegas visitation

Las Vegas has seen a construction boom in recent years in order to further expand convention opportunities.

Several companies were set to expand or renovate more than 2 million square feet of meeting space combined in 2020, according to a January report from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

MGM alone saw its convention business more than double over the last 10 years, according to Rafiq.

Operators’ focus on the industry made sense, given conventions’ lucrative nature. The LVCVA found convention attendance hit a record 6.6 million in 2019, with the average attendee spending 18 percent more than leisure visitors per trip. Total spending by convention attendees had a $6.6 billion economic output last year.

But that revenue driver bottomed out in recent months, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Between April and July, the LVCVA reported zero conventions in Las Vegas, as some organizations postponed events and others moved them to states with more lax capacity restrictions.

The drop in midweek events damaged many resorts’ bottom lines. Midweek occupancy in Las Vegas went from 83.8 percent in January to 36.9 percent in July, according to the LVCVA.

“We’re not under any illusion that we’ll be back to normal business volumes as it relates to convention and meeting spaces any time soon. But we’re eager to get going, to stimulate that,” Rafiq said. “It’s a very meaningful part of Las Vegas visitation.”

It’s also a meaningful part of the city’s workforce. In 2019, convention visitor spending directly supported an estimated 43,500 jobs, according to the LVCVA.

“Catering and convention service teams represent a significant portion of the workforce” in Las Vegas, Swissman said. “(Bringing the industry back) will get revenue generating again, and it puts those team members back to work.”

Brendan Bussmann, director of government affairs for Global Market Advisors LLC, called group business the “bread and butter” of Las Vegas’ economy. He believes that without detailed safety plans in place, it will be hard for Las Vegas to wrangle those events back to the city.

“They may have a good experience somewhere else, or they may have a better deal (in another city),” he said. “It’s unfortunate to see some of these shows, small and large, leave.”

In a Tuesday press conference, Sisolak urged associations and groups considering taking conventions and events elsewhere to remain in Nevada, promising that the updated capacity requirements are “only the first step” in the state’s efforts to return to a new normal.

“As you plan your next corporate meeting or convention, I know you may be considering locations in other states who have recently announced a complete lifting of all restrictions,” he said. “You deserve better than they are giving you. … We will be the safest destination to bring your employees, customers and families.”

LVCVA President and CEO Steve Hill said the state’s new capacity restrictions are a “great first step” for the state’s local meeting and convention industries.

“We encourage everyone who visits, works or lives in Las Vegas to continue taking all the necessary safety and health precautions to allow us to quickly and fully reopen the destination,” he said.

Swissman said it’ll take time before Las Vegas’ convention industry is able to fully recover. Even with the relaxed guidelines, major conventions — which can have enormous economic impact on Las Vegas — are still waiting on the sidelines.

“We’re not out of the woods, but this is a nice step,” he said.

The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson.

Contact Bailey Schulz at bschulz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @bailey_schulz on Twitter.

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