With several highly anticipated projects set to open, Las Vegas went into 2020 "on a real roll," said Steve Hill, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA).
Covid-19 brought visitation to a halt in March, with the Strip gradually reopening since June. Hill spoke to Travel Weekly last month about what the city's tourism industry continues to face. The conversation was edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: Mecum Auctions, a vintage car sale on Nov. 13 to 14, was the first event at the Las Vegas Convention Center since March. How did it go?
A: It went really well. We limited attendance to 1,000 and had to divide those into groups of 250. From the feedback I got, they were really happy. We certainly had [government health] officials come and inspect the process. They were very happy with what they saw.
Q: What metric about Las Vegas stands out since reopening?
A: [Those staying in hotels] are gambling more. We have run typically about $215 per room night. Right now, we're in the $350 range. I've never seen it that high. It's partially because locals are a bigger percentage of the people in casinos, and the drive market is a bigger percentage. And there are fewer things to do with the budget that you have when you come to town. So, gaming has been a big reason that people come back and one of the big attractions for all who are here. That's helped the properties pretty significantly and also helps our state because that's how the state taxes that industry.
Q: What has changed about LVCVA's messaging during the pandemic?
A: We've got the Vegas Smart campaign that encourages everybody in town, whether they're visitors or citizens or employees, to do everything that they can do, which is pretty simple. It's "please wear masks, please socially distance, please wash your hands," those kinds of things, so that we can stay open and continue to expand what we have to offer.
We've also found that it's important to communicate pretty clearly to visitors and potential guests regarding what the status of the city is right now, what steps are being taken to keep them safe and then what to expect once they come. What levels of entertainment are open and what aren't. What there is here to do versus what is not open right now. [We're] providing information on a more real-time basis and not just promoting the broad variety of what we typically have that's always open.
Q: What aspect of Vegas has been degraded so badly that it's hard to see a return as we're talking?
A: Buffets are probably not going to be in high demand, either from the properties or from visitors. It's a combination of the health aspects of a buffet as well as the financial aspects of a buffet. Places with crowds: It's going to take a vaccine to get back to the same density of people, whether that's concerts, nightclubs, day clubs, sporting events or, really, on the casino floor.
Vegas will push hard to help make that happen to the extent that we have any influence or control on that. Because it's a lot of what Las Vegas is built around. Those events are what create the energy for big groups. It's a great place to come for a romantic weekend, but it's hard to fill 150,000 rooms with people coming for romantic weekends.
So, we're going to need those industries to come back and, and I'm confident that we will get beyond the virus. And when we do, those industries will all come back. Some of the players in those industries may not make it through the entire cycle and emerge on the other end. But if they don't, others pick up and fill in.
Q: What's been your lowest point personally this year?
A: The first week or two [in March], I would wake up in the morning and be all excited about everything Las Vegas has got coming. We have so many great things going on. And about five seconds into that feeling, "Oh, yeah, that's right, we're shut down." It took a little while. It was such a shock. That was hard to get used to.
The worst was when we had to furlough 80% of [the LVCVA's] workforce. You know the pain that those people who aren't going to have a job for a while are going to feel. We did most all of it in one day. It was a tough couple of weeks leading up to that and certainly a really bad day when we had to do it.
Q: Has the reported success rates of the vaccines sparked optimism about the path forward?
A: The timing of getting down that path, I guess, is still somewhat questionable. Civilization has been through things like this in the past and emerged from it. And we are a lot smarter now than we ever have been. I've always felt like, this is awful, but it's at some level temporary. So that optimism has never really gone away.
Certainly, the vaccine announcements have been great. It was a very odd dichotomy to have that really good news on the vaccine side while we are going through such a surge not only here but everywhere, because the health of Las Vegas's economy is rooted in the health of every place our visitors come from. You see what's happening across the country and across the globe. It means times are going to be tough. We're going to have to be really diligent for a number of months more.
Q: What's unique about Vegas that will fuel its comeback?
A: Las Vegas went into the pandemic on a real roll. We had set records for room tax generated [number of rooms, occupancy rate and room rates] in seven of the 10 previous months prior to March. The demand for Vegas is there. There's really no place like Las Vegas. It's so convenient! You can maybe find each one of [its offerings] someplace else, but you can't find the breadth of its offerings anyplace else and certainly not any place within a two-and-a-half-mile radius of the center of the Strip.
No other place is built like Vegas to host visitors. It is not that people don't want to come to Vegas; there are just some who can't right now, some who don't feel comfortable right now. And that's certainly understandable. But it's not a lack of demand in any way, shape or form.
We are in the process and started to really complete the building of the next era of Las Vegas. In addition to Circa, Resorts World, Virgin Hotels Las Vegas, we've got about 3.5 million more square feet of meeting and exhibition space [on the way], adding to the 11.5 million square feet we had prior to that building wave. No city comes close to that level of meeting space. [Allegiant] Stadium is open, which will be a big part of Las Vegas' comeback. Sports generally will be a big part of Las Vegas' comeback. And the MSG Sphere is continuing to be built and looks like that'll be open in 2023 at this point. That's going to be an entertainment venue unlike anything else in the world.
Those types of additions to everything that Las Vegas already had, I think, make Vegas' comeback certain and quick.