Reno Gazette Journal: January 23 2023.
Nevada casinos are raking in more money than ever.
And while the number of visitors landing in Las Vegas remains behind peak levels recorded pre-pandemic, that number is ticking upward.
Shows are back. Conventions are back. And as far as Las Vegas tourism authorities are concerned, the pandemic is a thing of the past. But the Las Vegas of today remains in transition between then and now — in the middle of a reinvention that aims to shift its reputation from a desert city of sin to a global center of sports.
The NHL, NFL and WNBA have already settled into town. F1 is on the way, and an MLB franchise may be poised to relocate there soon. All the while, the powers that be are trying to figure out a way to retrieve international travelers that have yet to fully return. And sports may be part of the solution.
To get a sense of where Las Vegas tourism stands heading into 2023, the RGJ connected with someone who would know: Steve Hill, CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the government agency tasked with getting people to the glittering tourism mecca.
Here's what he had to say about everything from the lack of international travel from Asia, the state of conventions and the role of sports in the future of Las Vegas. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
On possible challenges to the Las Vegas tourism industry in 2023: There are some potential headwinds, but so far the headwinds are there and we are just flying through them, and they’re not bothering us a whole lot. The tourism and hospitality industry nationally has done well despite concerns about a recession and inflation and things like that. The other couple (challenges) are the full recovery of international travel, particularly from Asia. And the war in Eastern Europe is generally a global concern — and those kinds of concerns aren’t helpful. All of those things reaching a conclusion, which will happen at some point, provides more opportunity going forward.
On getting back to pre-pandemic visitor numbers: Vegas recovered back to a very healthy situation really quickly. From a visitation and occupancy standpoint, it’s not quite what it was in 2019, but it’s within 10 percent. After that, it becomes an incremental process. If you do the math on this right now, most of that is the lack of international visitation — largely from Asia. We’ve recovered now maybe about 80 percent of our international visitation. A lot of those international visitors are also our meeting and trade show visitors. They play a big role in filling rooms midweek. We’re roughly full on weekends. We still have some work to do in the midweeks.
On the state of tourism and conventions after COVID-19: We’re so far past COVID as a concern. It’s really not affecting much of anything in Las Vegas at this point. The first citywide show we had was World of Concrete in June of 2021, so it’s been 20 months since that show took place. Over that period of time, everything has gone back to normal. Individual shows are probably on average about 80 or 85 percent of what they were from a size standpoint. People have gotten more comfortable with Zoom and Teams calls, but I think it has more to do with companies realizing, "Hey, we can save a little money" after having been through a pandemic. What CEOs of companies around the country whose companies participate in these trade shows are telling us is, "Yes, we think we’re going to be at 85 or 90 percent of the size they used to be." That is turning out to be what we’re seeing.
On sports becoming the center of the Las Vegas experience: Sports is going to be at the center, along with the other great things that Las Vegas has to offer, going forward. We are going to be a center of the sports world. Vegas has drawn a lot of attention from some pretty interesting teams and leagues and events because of the success of the Golden Knights and the Raiders and the Aces and UFC. They have shown what the combination of sports and Las Vegas makes possible. It makes selling Las Vegas and sports a very easy thing.
On the evolution of the identity of Las Vegas: We talk a lot in Vegas about Las Vegas reinventing itself. And I think we’ve gotten to the point where we are just adding great things and not necessarily jettisoning the great culinary scene or the great shopping or gaming or all the things that Vegas has become known for. But sports has really expanded the brand.
On sports changing the reputation of Las Vegas: I hear this internationally when I travel about the old, stereotypical view of Las Vegas — that the further away you get, the more likely that stereotypical view of Las Vegas is going to be held. Sports — Formula 1 and the NFL in particular, because they are such global sports at this point — have started to really change how our international visitors view Las Vegas. And domestically, it’s just one really big, great thing to add to what Las Vegas has been. There is no city that is built in a better way for sports. The game in Philadelphia or Miami or Indianapolis can be a great game, but the experience around the game is so much different than it is in any other place in the world. Everything is walkable, you can have a great meal, you can go to a show, you can do anything you want around the game, where in most places you’re in traffic both before and after the game. And that has been a tremendous draw for the city.
Jim Hepple is an Assistant Professor at the University of Aruba and is Managing Director of Tourism Analytics.