The Informa Markets’ World of Concrete trade show, held in June 2021, marked not only the debut of the Las Vegas Convention Center’s dazzling West Hall but was the first sign that business travel to the city could recover after the worst of the pandemic.
Postponed from January of that year, it was the first large-scale convention held in Las Vegas in more than 15 months. In January 2022, the CES technology show, which drew 45,000 attendees, cemented the city’s place atop meeting planners’ lists even amid concerns about the omicron variant.
The show returned to Vegas this January, drawing 115,000, including a third from beyond U.S. borders.
Through May of this year, Las Vegas has welcomed 2.7 million convention attendees, putting it on track to surpass 5 million meeting attendees who came to town in 2022, the first full calendar year after most pandemic-related restrictions on travel and large gatherings had ended.
And growth is in sight: Last year, the city’s convention center secured 14 new shows to take place this fall through 2029, including Nike in 2024, Fabtech in 2026 and Money 20/20, which is scheduled annually from 2027 through 2029.
Las Vegas perennially ranks among the country’s top cities for convention business, and it already has more than 15 million square feet of meetings and exhibit space. But a lot more is coming. The Fontainebleau Las Vegas is set to open 550,000 square feet on the north Strip, and the Durango Resort & Casino will cut the ribbon on 20,000 square feet of space just west of the city later this year.
Work still needs to be done, especially internationally, to achieve the city’s record 6.6 million convention attendance set in 2019. But a steady upward trajectory has been encouraging to Lisa Messina, chief sales officer for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA).
“For the most part, Covid is in the rearview mirror,” she said, adding that convention business through May had rebounded to within 10 percentage points of prepandemic levels. “That’s the best and closest we’ve been to our pre-Covid volume of convention attendees since 2019.”
The pandemic, she said, reminded local businesses and employees of the value of the convention business to the city. In 2022, convention visitor spending directly supported an estimated 38,000 jobs, according to the LVCVA.
And companies that now have more employees working from home and in hybrid workspaces increasingly see the value of in-person meetings for team-building, training and overall connections, Messina said. “They started to not only feel safer but use the meeting and convention as a way to supplement the lack of in-office meetings,” she added.
Coming out of the pandemic, however, many companies are sending fewer employees to those meetings. The LVCVA itself hosted 56 trade shows and events with 900,000 attendees at the convention center last year: In 2019, the convention center hosted 54 events with 1.3 million attendees.
“That’s a little bit tied to cost, because the cost to do a convention has gone up,” Messina said. “Once prices start to settle down a little bit, you’ll see more people coming back, because the interest is definitely there.”
Slow visa processing times is contributing to the lag in international business, primarily from Asia and India, Messina said. The U.S. Travel Association reported in May that wait times to obtain an interview for a visa in some of the top inbound markets were still at more than 600 days.
New spaces, advanced technology
The ability to craft diverse experiences under one roof was paramount in designing the Fontainebleau, opening in December near the convention center’s West Hall, said the resort’s COO Colleen Birch.
Many of the 57 meetings and breakout rooms in the Fontainebleau’s five-level meetings tower will include natural light and indoor-outdoor spaces, perks not often found in older venues. Its 105,000-square-foot main ballroom will be the second-largest pillarless venue in the market. Two freight elevators on either side of the cavernous room make logistics easier, Birch said.
“For large-scale meetings, there’s no issue with the ingress and egress for a planner as they’re moving in or moving out,” she said. “We could have one group loading out on one side and then another group loading in on the other side. That allows us to be efficient and not fight with that vertical transportation that a lot of resorts are stuck with.”
The property’s 11,440-square-foot Moonstone Event Center has accordion doors to open onto a terrace when weather permits. The 25,000-square-foot Meridian Garden is also available for meetings.
“It feels very comfortable and residential, and we’ve got some seating configurations in the public spaces that allow you to drop in and sit down and take a meeting,” Birch said. “We want people to feel comfortable while they’re in the space. The color palette is very refreshing and pretty consistent with the rest of the resort.”
The Fontainebleau “aims to bring the trendy Miami vibe to the Las Vegas Strip and boasts an impressive setup,” said Linda McNairy, global vice president, Strategic Meetings, American Express Global Business Travel (GBT), No. 3 on Travel Weekly’s 2023 Power List. “After conducting extensive site visits, we are eager to secure bookings for our clients at this five-star venue, which promises to be a remarkable addition to the business travel landscape in Las Vegas.”
In September, the highly anticipated Sphere is slated to open, offering another high-profile way for companies to flaunt their brand — on its massive LED exterior as well as inside, which has a standing capacity of 20,000.
“Large-scale, global suppliers can utilize it to launch products. They can create unique experiences for training, education and recognition,” Messina said of the space, which will be attached to the Venetian Expo via covered walkway. “It’ll be costly. But it’ll provide an experience unlike any other. So when you think about trying to differentiate your product in a highly competitive space, [Sphere] is a way that corporations will be able to do that.”
The new spaces come two years after the 2021 addition of the 1.4-million-square-foot West Hall to the convention center, growing it to 4.6 million square feet and making it the country’s second-largest. Renovations to older halls are underway for the next two years.
They also come on the heels of Resorts World Las Vegas, which in June 2021 became the first property to open on the Strip in more than 10 years; it has 350,000 square feet of meetings and banquet space, including 50 meetings rooms, six ballrooms and a 100,000-square-foot events center.
A 90-foot LED wall, digital pillars and dynamic wayfinding symbolize Resorts World’s commitment to technology.
“Technology always continues to change at an amazing pace,” said Jason Glascock, vice president of sales for Resorts World. “What was cutting edge in 2020 will be outdated and need to be reinvented by the time phase two happens. All facilities need to continue to stay focused on the future and not become complacent when it comes to technology.”
The virtues of Vegas
Among the attributes that makes Las Vegas attractive to meetings planners is that while the cities it competes with most for that business, such as Orlando and Chicago, also have large convention centers, Sin City’s 150,000 hotel rooms are the most in the country.
Its shows, restaurants and other attractions also give it an edge.
“Las Vegas is known for new attractions and concepts like Resorts World and the Sphere, keeping the city as a must-see destination,” said Roger Hale, president and CEO of Adtrav Travel Management, No. 23 on this year’s Power List, adding that while Orlando is also a reliable contender, it is “not particularly known for its dining options or entertainment for adults, as it caters more to vacationing families.”
From Messina’s perspective, the Strip’s intrinsic appeal makes booking decisions easier. Meetings and events held in Las Vegas historically yield a 9% increase in attendance versus any other destination, she said.
It’s “what [Vegas has] after 5 o’clock. When you’re done being focused in the meeting space … you’ve got the largest sports and entertainment capital in the world, where a planner doesn’t have to worry about programming. There’s literally something for everybody.”
Some companies say they piggyback their own meetings onto industrywide gatherings because Las Vegas is a favorite, and individuals opt to come early or stay beyond their business duties.
“Most of our industry conferences are booked in Las Vegas, so speaking from an attendee viewpoint, we find the Vegas experience ever-changing,” Hale said. “Las Vegas continues to reinvent itself with new options to dazzle and excite in big ways.”
GBT’s McNairy said the city’s versatile event spaces also make it an ideal choice for hosting large meetings and conferences.
“While the perception of it solely being a ‘party’ city has diminished, it still holds its reputation as a vibrant and enjoyable location for conducting business,” she said, adding that excellent flight connections also are an advantage.
According to Cirium flight schedule data, Las Vegas in July alone had weekly service from 147 airports globally. And Harry Reid Airport is less than a 15-minute drive from most convention spaces in the four-mile-long resort corridor.
While McNairy said Las Vegas is “the perfect backdrop for well-organized and impactful business events” and lauded the city’s “unique charm” for smaller and intimate groups, she also noted its challenges, particularly for large group transfers.
“The city’s infrastructure, characterized by long walking distances and slow traffic, can occasionally result in longer travel times for such groups,” she said.
One effort to address the Strip’s frequently clogged traffic and to reduce walking times is the Vegas Loop, Elon Musk’s tunnel system to carry passengers via Tesla cars. An option at the convention center since 2021, it is expanding throughout the Strip, downtown, Allegiant Stadium and the airport with 81 planned stations and is itself becoming another of the city’s singular attractions.
McNairy said there were other challenges in contract negotiations.
“Unlike some other destinations, hotels and suppliers in Las Vegas may not offer as much flexibility on their contracting terms,” she said. “For instance, many venues in Las Vegas prefer not to accept outside addenda, and they might be less willing to modify their deposit or cancellation terms for larger groups.”
She also advises clients to be nimble when booking. “As the demand rises rapidly, we caution our clients that available rooms and event spaces may be booked quickly after the site availability report is presented,” she said. “It is crucial for clients to be prepared to make swift decisions or consider alternative cities to secure their desired accommodations.”
And while the destination continues to evolve and elevate its attendee experience, especially its sophisticated food and beverage scene, it comes with a price.
“While Las Vegas was previously perceived as a more affordable meeting option, the venue rates have adjusted to the current market demand, and it is no longer the lower-cost solution it once was,” McNairy said.
Adtrav’s Hale also said that Las Vegas has become a more expensive destination.
“Smaller groups may find it challenging with so many options and higher price points,” he said. “But with the proper planning and hotel, there’s something for all types of corporate events.”
And with so many choices competing for meetings planners’ attention, Sphere is yet another example of innovation that fosters the city’s continuing popularity as a business travel destination.
“Since emerging from the Covid pause, Las Vegas has exhibited remarkable resilience and adaptability to meet the evolving needs of business travel in the new world,” McNairy said. “One of Las Vegas’ standout features is its ability to constantly evolve, leading to the creation of novel and distinctive venues for attendees to experience.”