Las Vegas is famous for its magic acts and currently, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city is bracing for its new trick: Magically making meetings materialize.
The city was on a roll until last winter, expecting a record year beating the 42.5 million visitor numbers of 2019. Then COVID-19 hit and the people disappeared. Visitor counts went down to 12.7 million as of August from 28.4 million for the same months in 2019. Hotel occupancy vanished by more than 50 percent.
For a city built for and based on attracting tourism from far and wide, these numbers did not sit well. But the city is also based on brilliant pivots and bellwether reinventions that shape trends and headline the news. The pandemic, while a formidable challenge, may just be another era for Las Vegas. This is a city that rose from the dust and has lived to face down organized and disorganized crime, recessions, inflations, mass shootings, wars, sell-offs and buy-ups, droughts and a climate that could welcome the devil. But every time, it comes out on top.
Bringing back business travelers and meetings attendees may be the neon gaming mecca’s best bet amid the rabid unpredictability of the coronavirus culprit. It’s a big job and many destinations are competing to do this. But they do not have the buying power and fleet-footed visionaries available to create meaningful moves. Las Vegas does. The city that turned dining into celebrity chef entertainment and hotels into monuments of architectural imagination has yet more cards to turn and rabbits to pull out of thin air.
As some casino resorts are scaling back operating hours, closing off guestrooms, and imposing limitations on admission into public spaces – unprecedented in a 24-hour town with no casino clocks – MGM Resorts is saying “bring it on,” when it comes to meetings, and putting in cutting edge solutions to ensure health safety for all participants.
MGM’s Magic Moment
In a dramatic move that even David Copperfield would envy, MGM Resorts International, which owns and operates ten properties and entertainment venues along the Las Vegas Strip alone, is partnering with Cue Health of San Diego to make testing of guests quick and accurate so that meetings attendees can convene with confidence, knowing the people around them are not carrying coronavirus.
The testing manufacturer, backed by Johnson & Johnson, enables conference participants to register their information at a phalanx of kiosks manned by trained attendants. They receive a quick nasal swab at the bottom of the nostril, have that specimen placed in a single-use cartridge that is processed professionally on site, and have their result within 20 minutes. The result will be posted in the attendee’s meeting profile. The palm-sized portable test kit is designed to detect the ribonucleic acid (RNA) of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
The exclusive partnership between Cue Health and MGM Resorts extends beyond the meeting rooms to the airport through a layered partnership between MGM and CLEAR, the private “fast-line” answer to long security queues at US airports. The partnership is part of MGM’s “Convene with Confidence” plan, a seven-point safety program that includes the option for syncing test outcomes with CLEAR, in the event a negative COVID test result is necessary to board a plane, as several US and international destinations have required in recent months.
The system is in beta testing now and MGM officials expect to have the procedure available by the end of the year for the meetings scheduled in coming months. Accuracy of the tests skews to what is returned in PCR tests, which take several days to process at present. The Department of Health and Human Services has been working with Cue Health based on preliminary data from an independent study – as yet unpublished – of the test’s accuracy administered by the Mayo Clinic. Cue is scaling up for demand with a goal of manufacturing 100,000 test kits per day, following a $481 million investment from the federal government.
MGM Resorts hopes this new process will build additional confidence with local and state officials as the city continues to welcome back meetings. Currently, only 1,000 attendees are allowed in a meeting and that number is divided into 250 people per room that are socially distanced and masked, and does not allow for crossing between designated spaces.
“We had our first pilot group last week. It operated at full testing capacity for their 145 attendees,” said Stephanie Glanzer, chief sales officer and senior vice president at MGM Resorts International. “The ‘Convene with Confidence’ program starts with planning, and planners are having to think through these things differently now – extra time for coffee breaks to sanitize the meeting rooms or how the breaking up for tracks and switching rooms will work. F&B is done differently now, so we have to walk our groups through that and still provide for that wow factor. And then there are all the contact areas: check in, getting to the guestrooms to getting to the meetings areas and meandering through those spaces.”
Beyond that, there’s the question of what types of meetings are being planned, as conditions change, rules change, protocols change and businesses needs change. To that end, MGM is now seeing a lot of short term meetings in play, especially with smaller groups and groups that have not met before.
“We are trending higher on the radar of associations or small gatherings that need exhibitors and buyers to meet. Large corporations are not taking chances on large events or dealing with travel bans,” said Glanzer.
Manifesting the Vision
The pandemic has hit Las Vegas’s robust meetings industry particularly hard this year as the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority puts the finishing sheen on the new $980 million West Hall expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center. The LVCC is currently one of the largest convention centers in the world with 1,940,631 square feet of exhibit space, and the expansion brings an added 1.4 million square feet including 600,000 square feet of new, mostly column-free space, a 14,000 square-foot outdoor terrace for receptions with up to 2,000 attendees, and a grand atrium indulging the city’s abundant natural light.
Everything is tech-forward for the new center as Las Vegas annually hosts the Consumer Electronics Show, the world’s largest such gathering. Exhibitors and attendees will now have the benefit of more than 500 “floor boxes” for power hookups, 5G wireless service throughout, and “blazing fast” Internet connections. The show typically brings in 4,400 exhibitors and 170,000 visitors for several days of showcasing in January but the CES 2021 event has been cancelled, leaving a huge dent citywide. Of the 42 million visitors to Las Vegas in 2019, 6.6 million of them were there for a meeting or conference.
“We are seeing smaller meetings now but lots of activity in the works for future years, including 2021,” said John Schreiber, vice president of business sales for the LVCVA. “We have health and safety protocols for attendees and for organizers to determine who is responsible for what. We recently launched our Meet Smart, Vegas Smart campaign to remind visitors to be responsible and safe while in the destination. We also were the first in Nevada to receive the Global Biorisk Advisory Council STAR facility accreditation (GBAC STAR), which took a lot of effort, and we are committed to maintaining that certification.”
When all is completed, the newly-minted convention complex will include an expanded transit system built by the Boring Company, an Elon Musk firm. The tunnel system will transport passengers between convention center venues in electric-powered Tesla shuttles. The system will be ready to roll by year’s end with three stops and stations at the LVCC. But the city is taking the pandemic slowdown to look at greatly expanding these plans in a move spearheaded by Musk’s company. They now call for creating “The Vegas Loop,” which is intended to take those driverless Tesla transports from the southern Strip reaches of Allegiant Stadium to the northside corridors of Downtown Las Vegas.
Keeping It Green
Wynn Las Vegas is also trying to win their meetings clients back. The gaming and hospitality company opened its new energy-efficient 430,000-square-foot meeting and convention expansion just as the virus hit and the city shut down. With it, Wynn and Encore event clients have 560,000 rentable square feet of flexible space.
The two-level expansion comes with the panorama of the resort’s new 18-hole championship golf course, and is powered by 100 percent renewable energy sourced and delivered from the company’s off-site solar facility as well as on-site rooftop solar panels – all an industry first for a gaming operator in Nevada. When completed, the Tesla vehicles will also connect seamlessly to the Wynn’s meeting spaces as an added convenience for LVCC attendees.
“The architecture, design and spectacular views create an event experience unlike anything else in Vegas,” said Chris Flatt, EVP of hotel sales at Wynn Las Vegas.
Wynn also revived its Lake of Dreams attraction in October. The outdoor spectacle, in redesign for two years, shows a dazzling combination of immersive lighting effects, water, music and puppetry. The attraction happens outdoors and is suited for a safe, socially distanced experience. The company developed a safety plan with the help of Georgetown and Johns Hopkins Universities to ensure testing of guests and employees and expects to come up with its own system of rapid testing.
However, while Las Vegas is lifting heaven and earth to get back to some kind of normalcy after reopening in June, some of those efforts are seeing set-backs as COVID-19 cases spike and the country prepares for a long winter. At the end of October, some casino resorts announced curtailment of operating hours due to lower demand.
What to Watch
Yet at the same time, new Las Vegas properties are launching or preparing for grand openings and others are changing in theme.
Circa, a new 777-room property in the Downtown area of Las Vegas, became the first ground-up hotel to be built in the city’s downtown area in some 40 years. It’s an adults-only complex with a pool spread that allows for guests to watch sporting events on big screens while working on their tans.
The Cromwell, a Strip property that is part of the Caesars Entertainment portfolio, also re-opened recently as an adults-only property. Further south on the Strip, Park MGM and the connected Nomad Hotel, both became non-smoking properties.
The coming months will also see the opening of the new Virgin Hotel & Casino in January, as a design-intensive rebranding of the former Hard Rock Hotel makes its debut; and Resorts World will bring a gleaming glass tower and 3,500 new rooms to Las Vegas at its mid-Strip location where the old Stardust Hotel once sat. It will incorporate a resort-within-a-resort concept with the introduction of Crockfords Las Vegas, part of LXR Hotels & Resorts that is Hilton’s newest luxury brand.
To keep visitors – be they business or leisure – entertained during these COVID months, MGM brought back the great Las Vegas show in November – seven shows to be exact, on stages at MGM Grand, Luxor and Excalibur. David Copperfield is among them and may find a way to make coronavirus disappear.
This initial phase of entertainment allows for a maximum audience of 250 guests, physically distanced at six feet between parties and a minimum of 25 feet from on-stage performers.
All restaurants in Las Vegas have been allowed to open at 50 percent capacity as of press time. However, the fabulous Las Vegas buffet is limping along at some casinos, and, as such, is no longer the self-serve free-for-all of yore.
Las Vegas expert David Yeskel, known as “The Las Vegas Guru,” believes the city – and its signature buffets – will come through the crisis to indulge another day with endless shrimp and limitless slices of road beef.
“I like to think that Vegas has always been the most innovative tourist destination on Earth, and it will find a way back – probably before other sectors of the industry,” Yeskel said in an interview with CNN. “It will lead the way.”
LVCVA’s John Schreiber concurs. “The venerable Las Vegas Vacation has only changed in a slight ways: Small groups, masks and safety protocols. All the restaurants are open, hotels can accommodate as many guests as they want, shows are opening and we are trying to make it a place to visit and relax,” says Schreiber. “Ever the optimist, I believe that this time next year the city will be bigger and greater than ever with so much learned from the pandemic. Some of those protocols will stay and the best practices are making us a tighter group, I think. We have our foot on the gas pedal with the new Allegiant Stadium, the Sphere attraction, Resorts World and Circa,” he stresses.
“Las Vegas is still one of greatest places in the world to visit and experience.”