Like the sunlight that makes its way through the translucent roof of the new Allegiant Stadium, the post-pandemic view of the future of Las Vegas remains diffused, lacking the bright dazzle of optimism for a quick recovery but also absent the dark shadows of pessimism.
There’s a lot riding on the city reviving quickly. In Allegiant Stadium, built just west of the Strip at a cost of $1.8 billion (and partially financed by a hotel room tax), the National Football League’s Raiders completed their inaugural season in front of 65,000 empty seats. Downtown, a massive sports book and 777 more rooms were added to the city’s inventory when the Circa Resort & Casino opened in October. And the $4.3 billion, 3,500-room Resorts World is on pace to open this summer, giving a boost to the long-stagnant north Strip area.
But concerns about a speedy recovery extend beyond new construction. Las Vegas’ 14 million square feet of meetings and exhibition space (including more than 2 million added in 2020) stand mostly empty. Massive nightclubs, for decades teeming with throngs of young people dancing and drinking, are dormant. Showrooms that feature Vegas’ legendary productions and personalities are now limited to 50 people or 25% of fire code occupancy, whichever is less. Uncertainty riddles the city’s restaurants, also limited to 25% capacity, and once ubiquitous buffets are more difficult to find.
Under the same capacity restrictions, casinos hum 24/7, but many hotel rooms go offline midweek for lack of demand. Virgin Hotels Las Vegas, an ambitious re-imagining of the former Hard Rock, delayed its scheduled opening this month because of the fluid Covid-19 situation.
Few fireworks illuminated the skies above the Las Vegas Strip to chase away the calamitous 2020 and welcome the new year because of concerns about large gatherings.
Vegas has endured dark times before. The MGM Grand fire, which killed 87 on Nov. 21, 1980, shook visitors’ confidence in high-rise safety. The 9/11 attacks, the Great Recession and the Oct. 1, 2017, mass shooting into an outdoor concert all had severe economic effects on the city.
How has Las Vegas adapted, and what may be the pandemic’s lasting consequences?
HEALTH, SAFETY AND MESSAGING
“9/11 changed us, the Great Recession changed us,” said Michael Green, a history professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). “But this is unique. We don’t know how long the vaccinations will take to reach enough of the population or how the treatments will work. Or, for that matter, whether those who already are being stupid in their unwillingness to wear a mask or socially distance will get vaccinated. I do think Las Vegas will have to emphasize safety. And that is comparable to what happened after [the] Oct. 1 [mass shooting].”
During the Strip’s shutdown from March through June, resorts announced enhanced health and safety measures, now routinely updated and promoted on websites. The largest companies with the most resources are implementing plans for rapid, on-site Covid-19 testing in convention “bubbles” similar to the ones created by the National Hockey League in Toronto and in Edmonton, Alberta, and by the National Basketball Association in Orlando.
“We’ve learned that the health of visitors is going to matter more than it has in the past,” said Steve Hill, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA). “We’ve all learned more about ventilation systems, filters and airflow. Making sure it’s a healthy environment will stick even after this particular virus is gone. It’ll make environments and a lot of places much healthier.”
Beyond the primary goal of educating resort employees and guests about health and safety measures, Hill says the LVCVA’s messaging emphasizes more real-time information. The status of properties, amenities and attractions is communicated more than big themes such as “What happens here, stays here” or its successor, “What happens here, only happens here,” which was introduced just before the pandemic’s outset.
“Vegas’ brand is at stake,” Hill said. “We need to live that. We need to communicate that. And that’s a part of what we’re balancing. Health and safety messaging is front and center as we’re in the middle of this crisis. And as the virus recedes and vaccines [eventually] put this in our rearview mirror, we will move back toward more typical Vegas messaging and advertising.”
TECHNOLOGY AND AUTOMATION
The pandemic has undoubtedly accelerated the pace of technology, and guest acceptance of new policies and procedures is going to be important, says Don Voss, vice president of hotel sales and marketing at Treasure Island Hotel & Casino, which, generally speaking, attracts an older demographic.
“[Guests are] more than willing to embrace technology advancements, whether for different payment methods, using text messages for communication or QR code menus,” Voss said. “They’re looking for ways to use technologies to make their lives more convenient or more efficient or to avoid close contact with other people.”
Scott Sibella, president of Resorts World, which will be the first new resort to open on the Strip in more than a decade, is installing state-of-the-art technology in preparation for Day 1.
“Resorts World Las Vegas has a natural advantage, creating a new resort experience, chock-full of new and innovative technology and advancements that didn’t exist 10 years ago,” Sibella said. “Our team is working diligently to review every touchpoint across the resort through a new lens that is hyperfocused on sanitation and safety.”
Air quality is the priority, he says, but Resorts World will feature additional tech-driven guest enhancements.
“We want to go beyond mobile check-in and digital keys, which, of course, we’ll have,” Sibella said. “We’re looking at mobile-driven technology like contactless ticketing and food-delivery services as well as technology like an AI-powered digital assistant that allows us to seamlessly communicate with our guests, not only throughout their stay but [beginning] before they arrive.”
The pandemic created a “stress test” among resorts similar to what banks faced during the 2008 financial crisis, the LVCVA’s Hill says. He pointed out the current slowdown has driven businesses to reevaluate utilization of their space and all aspects of their operations for efficiencies and potential innovation.
Providing an example of the spirit of the edict “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” Leith Martin, executive director of the Troesh Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at UNLV, said that “you consolidated customer service groups that you knew should have been consolidated three years ago, but you just didn’t do it because you didn’t have time.”
But Martin said he believes the pandemic also “started to speed the move toward automation. Which also means there will be fewer people employed.”
Among the challenges that industry professionals are hoping technology will address is how to convey the communal excitement and atmosphere — formerly found in casinos, theaters and arenas — during a time when people may want to experience Vegas’ flair and offerings in relative isolation.
“You get a rush from shooting the dice at the craps table surrounded by other people. [But] a lot of people who just sit at the slot machine or video poker machine are [also] very happy. How do we get them here, and also the person who wants to be surrounded by other people? That’s problematic,” said Green, the UNLV historian.
One strategy may be through immersive and attractive enhancements to hotel rooms, including access to sports and entertainment that guests can’t get at home, Green says.
Aggressive options for families and small groups to remain in minibubbles should be pursued, says Alan Feldman, a casino industry veteran who is now a distinguished fellow in responsible gaming for the International Gaming Institute at UNLV. “Bring 10 friends. You guys are the bubble. You can create your own itinerary. You’ll have your space at the pool. You’ll have your tables at the restaurants. You’ll have your seating area at a show. And that may involve rethinking how you do seating at shows,” Feldman said.
He recalled several entertainment companies pitching different innovative experience-based ideas over the last couple of decades, which may have involved audience members walking or moving through something, but the concepts were considered too unproven and risky in an entertainment landscape that was already thriving.
Green said a full return to the theming (Luxor, Excalibur, New York-New York) of past decades is unlikely. More diversified ownership may result in increasing distinction among hotel-casinos, and a new kind of resort profile may emerge: Celebrities, who have become closely identified with restaurants and nightclub events, could leave their imprint on entire resorts.
“The power of personality in Las Vegas has always been a huge part of what makes the city special,” Feldman said. “It’s a matter of how that gets expressed on any given property. It isn’t always the owner. Steve Wynn was larger than life, and [Circa’s] Derek Stevens is now larger than life. But I would defy you to tell me the name of the owner of the Sands when the Rat Pack was there. It doesn’t matter, because the Rat Pack was there. Very few people remember who owned the International (now the Westgate) when Elvis was there. Because it was Elvis.”
THE VEGAS ETHOS
It’s true that entertainers — from Liberace to Frank Sinatra, Siegfried & Roy to Celine Dion — have defined Las Vegas’ image as much as its gold-standard casinos, ingenious branding campaigns, desert climate and convenient airport.
But its indefatigable tradition of tearing down and building up has played an essential role in the Strip’s evolution, and observers agree that, once again, this ingrained behavior will be a key component as the destination emerges from 2020’s depths.
“Las Vegas has a unique entrepreneurial spirit in its ability to manage or take risks,” Troesh Center’s director Martin said. “That’s borne itself out over the last 30 or 40 years. It reinvents itself often. When it began, it was gaming-only and really cheap food. And then it created [nightclubs and day clubs that have millions of dollars in revenue] and some of the best food on the planet. The entertainment went through the roof, and it wasn’t the old Vegas entertainment.”
Sibella is confident that Resorts World and other new offerings will drive visitation now and into the future. “If there is one thing this pandemic has taught us, it’s that we need to be able to adapt to our circumstances,” he said. “I have seen this city come back better than it was before after the most trying times, and I have no doubt we will see that again. This is a town full of innovators and entrepreneurs, and we are glad to be among them, bringing new and different experiences that add to the allure of Las Vegas.”
“The Vegas experience is still unique in the world,” Feldman said. “Here is a place where, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there is something going on, something exciting, something that’s fun, something that’s interesting and energizing. That hasn’t changed. It’s gotten a little bit quiet, but compared to most other cities, we’re still having a pretty good party here.”