Thousands of people will descend next week on Las Vegas, a city synonymous with hedonistic excess, to watch cement dry.
It is almost 40 years since Steve Hill attended his first World of Concrete event, but he has never been more excited about a trade show than this one. It is not just the prospect of seeing the latest mixer trucks or watching concrete finishing competitions; it is that WOC 2021 will mark the return of conventions to a city whose economy depends on them and an industry struggling to replicate their attractions online.
After decades in the ready-mix concrete industry, Hill is now chief executive of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor Authority, the body tasked with attracting visitors to the Nevada gambling hub and the owner of the convention centre that will host the Informa-run show.
Last year, as coronavirus shuttered casinos and exhibition halls, the total number of visitors to Las Vegas dropped by 55 per cent to 19m. But while occupancy on the Strip has doubled since January to two-thirds of the usual level, the LVCVA has recorded the number of convention goers at zero or “not available” every month since April last year.
That is about to change. Las Vegas removed restrictions on large gatherings on June 1, and with more than 40 per cent of the US population fully vaccinated, events organisers who have spent the past 14 months struggling with online conferences are feeling confident enough to resume in-person trade shows.
“The recovery has happened more quickly than we would have thought or even hoped,” Hill says. With few international visitors flying into Las Vegas and the event delayed to the construction industry’s busiest time of year, attendance at WOC 2021 will almost certainly be below the usual 60,000 people, but it will be an important first show in a pipeline Hill describes as surprisingly strong.
After the Las Vegas Convention Center used the pandemic downtime to complete a $989m extension, Hill’s venue now has more square footage leased than ever for the year from July 1. Events planned range from the Nightclub and Bar Show at the end of this month to the Water Quality Association’s convention in July.
Each one will matter to Nevada, which estimates that conventions contribute $11.5bn in a normal year to a state with a gross domestic product of about $178bn, and to its best-known city, where April’s 9 per cent unemployment rate was second only to Los Angeles out of 50 large metropolitan areas.
Pre-pandemic, Las Vegas could count on leisure travellers to take occupancy at its casinos above 95 per cent most weekends, but relied on convention-goers to keep its 150,000 hotel rooms full on weekdays.
Hervé Sedky, chief executive of the events group Emerald, has 21 events planned for August, almost all of them in Las Vegas.* Ranging from Pizza Expo to the Antique Jewelry and Watch Show, they will make for the highest number of events in the company’s history, he says, although attendees are running at just a third to a half of their pre-pandemic level.
Las Vegas has followed the lead of Florida and Texas, “which really never completely closed”, Sedky observes, and its reopening has encouraged other cities such as Chicago and New York to follow.
Manhattan’s Javits Center, which bills itself as the busiest convention centre in the US, was converted to a field hospital for Covid-19 patients last spring and has more recently been the city’s biggest vaccination site. By August, however, it plans to return to hosting events.
Cities’ eagerness to reopen to trade shows reflects their need to stimulate economies knocked sideways by the pandemic, Sedky argues. “Eighty-plus per cent of [our] customers are small businesses . . . Not having a trade show is really problematic for them. As we’re thinking about reopening the economy, it’s important for these businesses to start doing business again,” he says.
Organisers such as Informa and Emerald moved many of their events online last year to try to keep that business alive, but “virtual exhibitions are honestly not yielding the kind of value our customers are looking for”, Sedky admits.
The virtual shows’ informative content has been relatively well received, he says, but “the part about replicating the trade show floor online is not working. It’s terrible.”
Emerald dipped its toe back in the waters of in-person events in January, with a show in Orlando, Florida, for the surfing industry. Attendance was roughly half what it had been before Covid-19, but exhibitors gave it glowing reviews, reporting that it brought in significant orders.
The 3,500 buyers who showed up “were not as happy”, Sedky admits: “Their complaint was there was not enough to see.”
Such experiments have allowed the industry to hone the safety protocols that will reassure guests still nervous about the risk of infection.
Surf Expo had Plexiglas screens at booths, a no-handshake policy and health and safety “ambassadors” enforcing a zero-tolerance face mask policy, Sedky recalls: “We had three people debating whether to wear the mask: we threw them out.”
Hill’s venue has similarly introduced contactless registration and will be doing food presentation differently, he says, although several nearby casinos have restarted the buffets which are synonymous with Vegas. World of Concrete 2021 will not be demanding proof of vaccination from its attendees, however.
The pandemic hammered the finances of many of the industry’s largest companies. Events revenues at RELX, the owner of Reed Exhibitions, plunged from £1.3bn to £362m last year.
But Reed said last month that the vast majority of its customers had rolled their 2020 bookings over into 2021, and in March it attracted almost 3,000 buyers and 170 exhibitors to its Jewelers International Showcase in Miami Beach — 10 per cent above normal levels.
One pattern emerging already is that travel restrictions mean that domestic shows in the US and elsewhere are doing better than those which depend on international visitors.
That dynamic is also driving a faster recovery in the Las Vegas tourism business, Hill says: with so few Americans flying abroad, more of them are taking breaks in Las Vegas. The number of visitors driving to the city to gamble, rather than flying, is now above where it was in 2019, he notes.
With unemployment still so high in a city disproportionately dependent on visitors, Las Vegas is now stepping up efforts to draw more of them back by advertising the risqué escapism with which the city has long teased gamblers and conference-goers alike.
A new ad campaign running on television stations across the US euphemistically invites visitors to embrace “the adult freedom that only Las Vegas has to offer”.
*This article has been amended to correct the number of events that Emerald has planned for August.