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Return of Las Vegas conventions stays cloudy, some hope for mid-2021

In November 2019, eight conventions brought in more than 90,000 people to Las Vegas. This month, there was just one event with more than 250 attendees held at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Casino executives and experts have stressed that Las Vegas’ recovery relies on the return of conventions, but it’s unclear when that will happen. Some hold hope for the second half of 2021, while others are bracing for a slower recovery.

Factors like COVID-19 case counts or capacity restrictions could make or break convention plans. Cases in Nevada have been trending upward since mid-September, and the state set a record Friday for new COVID-19 cases reported in a single day, at 1,857. On Tuesday, Gov. Steve Sisolak urged Nevadans to stay at home as much as possible the next two weeks so he would not “be forced to take stronger action.”

“We could get into 2021 and into 2022 before we see normalcy in visitor numbers and convention numbers,” said John Restrepo of RCG Economics. “We won’t get back to pre-COVID numbers until the first quarter of 2022, in my opinion.”

Hope for 2021

According to a list compiled by the LVCVA, there are 36 events on the convention calendar in the first half of 2021.

Spokespeople or websites for all but three of the events listed through June say they are still on.

Champs Trade Show coordinator Hap Kent said dates are booked for March, but whether the show comes to fruition “all depends on what happens in Las Vegas.”

Kent said the business-to-business smoke shop industry trade show — which typically draws 1,200 to 2,500 people to Las Vegas — has been able to host successful events in other states with health and safety measures, including social distancing, screening and personal protective equipment.

He said it will be up to the show’s owner on whether Las Vegas’ capacity restrictions will allow enough attendees in the doors to make a Las Vegas show worth it.

“It’s got to make financial sense for the buyer to be able to see a lot of exhibitors, and the vendor to make sure there’s enough buyers that come to the show,” Kent said.

MGM Resorts International, which released a plan to help revive its convention industry in September, hopes it can start bringing back conventions and large group events early next year, according to CEO Bill Hornbuckle.

In the second half of 2021 and beyond, “when people are confident they can meet, they will come,” Hornbuckle said during an October earnings call, referencing group business. “Beyond ‘22, we feel strong; ‘21 will be the year of — let’s see how this plays itself out.”

Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chief Operating Officer Robert Goldstein said during an October earnings call that there is demand for large shows as early as the first quarter of 2021, but “major impediments” such as capacity restrictions could force organizers to postpone. He doesn’t expect business to ramp up until the second half of the year.

During a Nov. 5 earnings call, Caesars Entertainment Inc. CEO Tom Reeg said the company has “record business” on its books in the second half of 2021 and beyond.

Colin Mansfield, a director of the U.S. corporate finance group for credit rating and research agency Fitch Rating, doesn’t see event planners confidently booking large-scale conventions until mid-2021 “at the earliest.”

“Event planners and attendees need to be able to plan several months or years out and have the confidence that they are not endangering the event attendees,” which would requite minimal COVID levels or a widely available vaccine, Mansfield said.

On Monday, pharmaceutical company Pfizer released data saying its vaccine may be 90 percent effective at preventing COVID-19. It’s unlikely a vaccine will arrive before the end of the year, and limited initial supplies will be rationed.

Faint revival

In September, Sisolak eased Nevada’s event capacity restrictions, and raised the gathering limit for indoor and outdoor events from 50 to 250 people. Events can apply to host up to 1,000 attendees, though, by submitting plans at least 10 days in advance and keeping conventiongoers in separate groups of no more than 250 people.

As of Friday, 21 events have submitted large event plans for approval to the Clark County Recovery Organization Enforcement Workgroup.

The list of event submissions provided by Clark County doesn’t include details such as the date or the anticipated size of the events. Clark County spokesman Erik Pappa declined to provide the details as they are subject to change.

Only four pending or approved events are on or near the Strip, and none clearly align with the group business industry. They include a half-marathon in Laughlin and a two-day event from Mecum Auctions, the first event at the Las Vegas Convention Center since March. The collectible car auction ran Friday and Saturday, and attendance was limited to buyers and sellers only.

In October, the governor said he planned to loosen restrictions further in the new year by increasing convention capacity to 50 percent starting Jan. 1.

With COVID-19 cases trending upward in Nevada, it’s unclear if Sisolak will follow through on those plans. A spokesperson for the governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The Southern Nevada Health District is not recommending the approval of large gatherings, a spokeswoman said Friday. Though gatherings with 250 people or fewer don’t require review, the health district recommends gatherings be limited to no more than 50 people.

Three of the 21 gathering plans have been approved, as of Friday. One has been denied, one canceled by the event planner, and 14 are pending. Two others did not need state approval: One was under 250 people, the other event was completed before the start of the approval process.

“Las Vegas faces a challenging road to recovery that will likely not be linear,” Mansfield said. “It will include fits and starts similar to other heavily impacted sectors, depending on how local health situations evolve.”

The 21 events don’t measure up to major Las Vegas conventions like the 175,000 attendee-strong CES, but Virginia Valentine, president of the Nevada Resort Association, said they’re an important first step to helping the city prepare for the larger conventions booking in 2021.

While the health and safety protocols at smaller events probably differ from those at major conventions, Valentine said the initial, smaller gatherings can show the larger, more lucrative conventions what Las Vegas venues can offer.

“These smaller events are important to demonstrate that we can do it safely,” she said.

She added that the NRA’s members are working with medical experts and public health authorities to form additional mitigation measures that would allow large gatherings to continue.

“With testing capacity significantly increased, the additional contact tracing personnel in place and the continued utilization of the COVID Trace app, the community has many more tools on hand today than eight months ago which should help us improve the current situation,” Valentine said.

Necessity of group business

The return of group business events is essential for Southern Nevada’s economic recovery.

An October report from Mansfield and other Fitch analysts said the Strip is expected to experience the slowest recovery compared with other gaming markets, given its reliance on inbound visitation, air capacity and conventions. A full recovery to pre-pandemic levels isn’t expected until 2024, according to the report.

Restrepo of RCG Economics said he’s not sure when, or if, Las Vegas’ convention business will ever meet pre-COVID levels.

Virtual conventions have picked up in recent months out of necessity. Now that consumers are used to these online or hybrid events, Restrepo said they could be here to stay.

“There may be permanent changes (to the convention industry), even with a vaccine,” he said.

Sands COO Goldstein said in last month’s earnings call that Las Vegas will always be the most important convention and group meeting market in the country, but the industry won’t rebound until airlift picks back up, capacity restrictions are eased and more consumers become willing to travel.

“We’ve got to see group (business) come back,” Goldstein said during the call. “I think that there’s going to be demand, but we’ve got to change some things structurally to get people in the buildings.”

MGM CEO Hornbuckle said last month that the company continues to struggle filling rooms midweek without conventions and warned that certain amenities, hotel towers and brands could shut down again during the slower holiday season.

Earlier this month, Park MGM revealed that it would close its hotel midweek, citing a lack of conventions and major meetings.

Conventions with thousands of attendees are not feasible at this time, but Las Vegas is seeing a growing number of group events fewer than 250 people.

MGM held its largest conference since March in late October, when roughly 200 people gathered at Bellagio for the National Credit Union Collections Alliance’s annual meeting. The event was organized under MGM’s Convene with Confidence plan and used rapid on-site COVID-19 tests to create a bubble for attendees, according to a statement from MGM.

Other companies, including Wynn Resorts Ltd. and Sands have also released plans on how to manage group business amid the pandemic, both of which include rapid COVID-19 tests.

In a Nov. 2 statement, MGM’s vice president of administration, John Flynn, called October’s event “a huge deal.”

“Finally, after eight months, we were able to bring a large conference back to Bellagio, here in Las Vegas,” he said. “We’re going to build on this and keep going.”

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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