Real progress on pandemic as trade shows reopen in person

Thousands of people will descend on Las Vegas next week, a city of hedonistic excess, to watch the cement dry.

It’s been almost 40 years since Steve Hill attended his first World of Concrete event, but he’s never been more excited about a trade show than this. It’s not just the prospect of seeing the latest mixer trucks or attending concrete finishing competitions; It’s that WOC 2021 will mark the return of conventions to a city whose economy depends on it and an industry struggling to replicate their attractions online.

After decades in the ready-mixed concrete industry, Hill is now Managing Director of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor Authority, the organization responsible for attracting visitors to the Nevada Gaming Center and the owner of the center. congresses that will host the show organized by Informa. .

Last year, as the coronavirus closed casinos and showrooms, the total number of visitors to Las Vegas fell 55% to 19 million. But while the occupancy rate on the Strip has doubled since January to reach two-thirds of the usual level, the LVCVA has recorded the number of convention attendees at zero or “not available” every month since April of the year. last.

It’s about to change. Las Vegas removed restrictions on large gatherings on June 1, and with over 40% of the U.S. population fully vaccinated, event planners who have spent the past 14 months struggling with online conferences feel confident enough to resume trade shows in person.

“The recovery has happened faster than we thought or even hoped,” Hill said. With few international visitors arriving in Las Vegas and the event postponed to the construction industry’s busiest time of year, WOC 2021 attendance will almost certainly be below the usual 60,000, but it will be. an important first show in a pipeline that Hill describes as surprisingly strong.

After the Las Vegas Convention Center used the pandemic downtime to complete a $ 989 million expansion, the Hill site now has more square footage rented than ever for the year starting July 1. the Water Quality Association’s convention in July.

Each will count for Nevada, which estimates that the conventions contribute $ 11.5 billion in a normal year to a state with a gross domestic product of about $ 178 billion, and its best-known city, where the 9% unemployment rate in April was second only in Los Angeles over 50 major metropolitan areas.

Line graph of the unemployment rate (%) showing that the Las Vegas labor market has been hit hard by the pandemic

Before the pandemic, Las Vegas could count on vacationers to fill its casinos more than 95% on most weekends, but relied on conventioneers to keep its 150,000 hotel rooms full on weekdays.

Hervé Sedky, Managing Director of Emerald Events Group, has 90 events planned for August, almost all of them in Las Vegas. Ranging from Pizza Expo to the Antique Jewelry and Watch Show, they will represent the most events in the company’s history, he says, though attendees only run a third or half of their time. pre-pandemic level.

Las Vegas has followed the lead of Florida and Texas, “which really never completely shut down,” Sedky observes, and its reopening has encouraged other cities like Chicago and New York to follow suit.

Manhattan’s Javits Center, which bills itself as the busiest convention center in the United States, was converted into a field hospital for Covid-19 patients last spring and was most recently the largest vaccination site from the city. By August, however, he plans to return to organizing events.

Cities’ eagerness to reopen to trade shows reflects their need to boost economies shattered by the pandemic, Sedky argues. “More than eighty percent of [our] clients are small businesses. . . Not having a trade show is really problematic for them. As we reflect on reopening the economy, it is important that these companies start doing business again, ”he said.

Hosts such as Informa and Emerald moved many of their events online last year to try and keep this business alive, but “honestly, virtual exhibits don’t deliver the kind of value our clients are looking for,” admits Sedky .

The informational content of the virtual lounges has been relatively well received, he says, but “the part about replicating the online lounge is not working. It’s terrible. ”

Emerald dipped his toe in the waters of in-person events in January, with a show in Orlando, Florida for the surf industry. Attendance was roughly half of what it was before Covid-19, but exhibitors have given it rave reviews, signaling that it has recorded significant orders.

The 3,500 buyers who showed up “weren’t so happy,” Sedky admits: “Their complaint was that there wasn’t enough to see.

Such experiences have enabled the industry to refine security protocols that will reassure customers still concerned about the risk of infection.

Surf Expo had plexiglass screens on the stands, a no-handshake policy, and health and safety “ambassadors” enforcing a zero-tolerance face mask policy, Sedky recalls: “We had three people who debated whether to wear the mask: we threw them away.

Hill’s venue has also introduced contactless check-in and will present food differently, he says, although several nearby casinos have restarted the buffets that are synonymous with Vegas. However, World of Concrete 2021 will not require proof of vaccination from its participants.

The pandemic has taken a toll on the finances of many of the industry’s biggest companies. Events revenue for RELX, owner of Reed Exhibitions, rose from £ 1.3bn to £ 362m last year.

But Roseau mentionned last month, the vast majority of its customers had postponed their reservations from 2020 to 2021, and in March it attracted nearly 3,000 buyers and 170 exhibitors to its Jewelers International Showcase in Miami Beach – 10% above levels normal.

One pattern that is already emerging is that travel restrictions mean that domestic shows in the United States and elsewhere are doing better than those that rely on international visitors.

This dynamic is also leading to a faster recovery in tourism activity in Las Vegas, Hill said: With so few Americans traveling abroad, more are taking breaks in Las Vegas. The number of visitors who come to town to play, rather than fly, is now higher than 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 attract more visitors by advertising the risky escape with which the city has long teased gamers and speakers.

A new ad campaign airing on television stations across the United States euphemistically invites visitors to embrace “the adult freedom that only Las Vegas has to offer.”

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About Douglas Mackenzie

Douglas Mackenzie

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