Las Vegas Leadership Forum: Growth after building boom

By Damon Hodge
The halcyon days when the opening of multibillion-dollar megaresorts was a common occurrence might be gone, 2012 Las Vegas Leadership Forum panelbut speakers at Travel Weekly's annual Las Vegas Leadership Forum said billions invested in hotel renovations, casino upgrades, cultural amenities and a new airport terminal are driving upticks in visitation and gaming revenue.

The scores of travel industry leaders, including hoteliers, travel agents, marketers and local tourism officials who gathered at the Mandalay Bay earlier this month also heard how tech innovations, travel trends and coherent, measurable social media plans can help companies, such as hoteliers and gaming firms, build brand value and boost clientele.

The encouraging news about the city's continuing economic rebound was backed by statistics.

Through July 2012, year-over-year visitation increased 1.9%, with 23.4 million travelers coming to the city. Gaming revenue in Clark County rose 28%, to $867 million, in a month-to-month comparison with July 2011. Though occupancy dipped .5% for first six months of the year, the average daily room rate jumped 4.3%, to $110.04, in comparison to the same time last year.

Cathy Tull, senior vice president of marketing for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), said conventions are helping power the resurgence. Las Vegas remains the nation's top convention destination: Last year, the city hosted 4.9 million convention-goers and 19,000 meetings, generating $6.3 billion in economic impact.

To lure even more conventions, the LVCVA is scouting meetings held in competing cities and investing in its own infrastructure. Upgrades to its 3.2 million-square-foot convention center include enhanced wireless capability as well as new paint, carpet and other aesthetic improvements. Future plans include improving access roads into the facility and addressing concerns about safety.

"Our last significant enhancement occurred 11 years ago, so we want to improve the look and feel of the convention center and elevate its image to match the brand of Las Vegas," said Tull, adding that the LVCVA planned to revisit an $890 million master improvement plan that was shelved in 2008.

The LVCVA also reapportioned $300 million in hotel room taxes to improve highway mobility through a 5.5-mile stretch near the resort corridor. The project is designed to make it easier for inbound travelers from Southern California and Arizona to access the Strip.

2012 Las Vegas Leadership Forum Cathy Tull"People love Las Vegas, and they're willing to spend money in Las Vegas because of all the amenities we have to offer," Tull said, noting plans to build a medical tourism industry and ongoing marketing efforts.

The LVCVA is currently test-marketing ads for its fall campaign. "We're constantly talking to our customers about what we can do to improve their experience," she said.

Tull said the new $2.4 billion Terminal 3 at McCarran Airport will go a long way toward improving the air travel experience, particularly for international tourists who have long complained about interminable wait times in customs at Terminal 2.

"Terminal 3 is the terminal our visitors expect," Tull said.

The 28-lane Customs and Border Protection area can process 2,000 international passengers an hour, compared with 800 people an hour at Terminal 2. Terminal 3 opened at a fortuitous time for Las Vegas, as tourism officials aggressively push to boost international travel from 18% to 30% of all visitors by 2020.

2012 Las Vegas Leadership Forum Matt BaileyMcCarran's international passenger count has grown 38% since 2007 to 2.6 million visitors, a number the LVCVA aims to boost by targeting growth markets (the BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China) as well as main and primary markets (Canada, Mexico, the U.K., Australia, South Korea, Japan and the European Union).

One way to get those travelers here, according to Matt Bailey, president of Site Logic, an online marketing consultancy, is by developing a complementary social media strategy for your business.

Step one includes understanding who you are, or "developing your narrative."

"People identify with characters in marketing more so than they do with the brand," Bailey said. "Social media was not made for marketers. It was made for people to gather, meet and interact. So how can we use it? You have to find out what medium is best for your message. You have to understand the medium. Videos on YouTube are perceived differently than tweets."

2012 Las Vegas Leadership Forum Tom CintorinoBlogs generate more visits and search engine queries than websites; email use is popular and its use is increasing because it's relevant, timely and personal and YouTube offers portable reach and multiple presentation formats and is the world's second-largest engine and third-largest website, Bailey said.

Pinterest is proving very popular, he added, while LinkedIn has the most affluent membership, Twitter provides immediate user feedback and Facebook is favored by users seeking self-expression, human connection and entertainment.

"You need to have a social media strategy," Bailey said. "You don't have to do everything, but you need to do something extraordinarily well. You need to create a long-term social media plan. You need to create a daily content plan. You need to develop a publishing schedule for content. And you need to measure the effectiveness of these plans."

Tom Cintorino, executive vice president of digital media for Northstar Travel Media, Travel Weekly's parent company, encouraged participants to mine social media for information that will strengthen customer service and invest in reputation management systems that enable them to protect their online brands.

2012 Las Vegas Leadership Forum Bruce Rosard"Social media is the fourth-biggest risk to business, and rating and review sites are the sixth-biggest risk to business," according to a report from Deloitte and Forbes Insights, Cintorino said. "You need to drill down to the positive and negative comments and react accordingly."

Bruce Rosard, vice president of sales and marketing for PhoCusWright, also a Northstar company, queried participants on the mobile devices they use and the browsers they favor.

"According to Google, phones and tablets are expected to overtake [personal computers] as the most common Web device for research and bookings in 2013," Rosard said. "Mobile browsing of travel sites grew from 10% to 20% from January 2011 to January 2012. According to an Expedia.com study of app users, in Las Vegas, 32% of bookings that occurred within a 24-hour period were booked from mobile devices."

In other words: If your company doesn't have a mobile device strategy, get one. Fast.

In a question-and-answer session with Travel Weekly Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann, Mark Travel Corp. Executive Vice President Ray Snisky said Las Vegas remains a top-notch value proposition.

2012 Las Vegas Leadership Forum attendeesThe quality of off-Strip resorts has improved, the nightclub and daylife (pool) markets are ripe for growth and the city continues to invest in itself.

The $42 million National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, aka the Mob Museum, opened downtown in February, followed a month later by the $470 million Smith Center for the Performing Arts, about a mile away.

Since the recession began in late 2007, properties both on and off the Strip have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in renovations and expansions, including the Tropicana ($165 million), MGM Grand ($120 million), Golden Nugget ($150 million), Treasure Island ($92 million), the Plaza ($35 million), El Cortez ($20 million), D Las Vegas ($15 million) and the Golden Gate ($12 million).

Construction is currently under way on the $200 million, 500-foot Skyvue observation wheel across the street from Mandalay Bay and on Caesars Entertainment's $550 million Linq, a shopping, dining and entertainment district on the Strip anchored by a 550-foot observation wheel. Last year, Caesars borrowed $850 million to build Linq and finish its $1 billion Octavius Tower.

2012 Las Vegas Leadership Forum Arnie Weissmann Ray SniskySaid Snisky, "Las Vegas is not shy about investing and revitalizing its products."

Weissmann also conducted an onstage focus group with three travel agents at the beginning of their careers: Jason Coleman of Jason Coleman Inc. in Los Angeles, meetings site selection specialist Brian Harris of Destination Site Selection in Aspen, Colo.; and Ashley Grush, social media and travel coordinator of Plaza Travel in Encino, Calif.

Coleman said he outsources administrative tasks to contractors in the Philippines whom he has never actually met. Harris spoke about how his pared-down organization focuses only on what he loves to do, site selection, and leaves the actual details and meeting operations to others.

Grush discussed the challenges and opportunities of establishing a social media program within a large, traditional organization and the importance of having agents blog about their recent trips.
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