Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

A year ago, there was much consternation and hand-wringing over the future of trade shows and conventions in Las Vegas.

As other cities made gains, long-standing Vegas conventions started to look to other sites, and the region's existing spaces appeared increasingly inadequate to handle growth. There were doubts that Las Vegas could hold onto its crown as the No. 1 trade show destination in the country.

Now, with fresh data showing strong growth and a significant step forward in a long-planned expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center, the outlook is brighter.

Through May of this year, more than 3 million people have visited Las Vegas for a meeting or convention, a 12% increase over the same period in 2015. The good news continued into June, when 466,000 visitors came for conventions, a 30% increase over June 2015, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA). The rise in June included InfoComm, a communications show that alternates its convention between Orlando and Las Vegas each year, which set records for attendance, exhibitors and exhibit space.

For the 22nd year in a row Las Vegas maintained its title as the top convention destination in 2015, according to the Trade Show News Network, hosting 54 of the top 250 trade shows in the country measured by net square footage. The next busiest cities were Orlando, with 24 of the top shows, and New York and Chicago with 21 shows each.

The largest trade show in the country, the Consumer Technology Association's CES show, welcomed more than 170,000 attendees in 2015 and 2016. Yet the fact that the association chose to cap the total attendees for 2016 after the record 2015 crowds was an indicator of Las Vegas' need to expand its infrastructure.

While numbers are strong now, there is always concern about conventions leaving for the newest, shiniest, most advanced and spacious venues. In late 2015 the Las Vegas Review-Journal's Richard Velotta reported several large conventions that made their home in Vegas for years were starting to look elsewhere, including the Men's Apparel Guild in California, the National Association of Broadcasters and the International Council of Shopping Centers. While Las Vegas has three of the top 15 largest convention spaces in the U.S. (the Las Vegas Convention Center, Sands Expo and Convention Center and the Mandalay Bay Convention Center), the largest conferences have grown weary of splitting up their events on various sites and are looking for spaces large enough to accommodate their entire program.

The LVCVA has been working on an expansion master plan for years, now dubbed the Las Vegas Convention Center District. The idea of major expansion of the convention space met with some local opposition, including from the Sands Corp., a direct competitor with its own convention facilities.

The project calls for an additional 600,000 square feet of space at the convention center, and the LVCVA claims the added capacity could attract 69 new events worth $4 billion in economic impact during a 10-year period.

The LVCVA's plans took a major step forward in July, though, when the Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee signed off on an increase in the room tax rate to help raise the funds for the $1.4 billion project.

The plan includes expanding and improving the existing Las Vegas Convention Center and possibly building new facilities on the site of the recently imploded Riviera, which the LVCVA purchased in February 2015 for $182 million. The tax increase must be approved by the Nevada legislature, but the Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee was formed by Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval for the purpose of identifying projects that will keep Las Vegas a top tourist destination, and the convention center expansion appears to be a top priority.

The moves are soothing music to the ears of the Consumer Technology Association.

"There's a lot of other things as part of this plan which are really valuable, when you're talking about, for example, not just raw exhibit space but up-to-date conference facilities that allow you to do things for exhibitions and conferences that we've come to expect around the country," Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, told Vegas Inc. in July after the tourism infrastructure committee's recommendation.

"It's very important to those who produce events that you can have a high-tech look and feel about them. So it meets a lot of concerns and objectives and allows us to grow in a way which makes sense in Las Vegas."

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