By Aara Ramesh
As of June 1, downtown Vegas is completely open for the first time in over twelve months and the buzz is almost palpable. Already, live music has returned to the Strip. Casinos are taking down plexiglass dividers and are no longer requiring masks or physical distancing for those who have been fully vaccinated. There is an air of excitement and pent-up energy, with visitors and residents alike looking to burn off the stress and anxiety that the pandemic had prompted.
In the latest sign of a strong recovery, late last week it was announced that the Global Gaming Expo (G2E) will take place in Las Vegas this October. The event, which was held virtually last year, will bring together thousands of commercial and tribal gaming stakeholders from across the world at the Sands Expo & Convention Center. When asked, the industry was clear — it had to be Vegas.
The recovery has been in the works for a few months now, chugging along at a slow but steady pace. On the governor’s orders, casinos were closed for 11 weeks from March 2020 on, as officials raced to contain the spread of the virus and as Americans balked at the idea of traveling. Even after that, the opening was gradual, with capacity restrictions and safety protocols put in place. But things started to pick up speed earlier this year.
For two consecutive months now, Vegas has received more than 2 million visitors, with the airport reporting increased foot traffic as well. Spring Break and March Madness drew even more crowds. But everyone’s eyes seemed to be on Memorial Day weekend, which was when things really shifted into full gear.
Pools were full, casinos were rocking and tourists were out and about in full force, and that was before all restrictions were lifted. The CEO of MGM, the largest of the Strip’s casino operators, said that the group’s hotel rooms on the Strip hit a 90% occupancy rate during Memorial Day weekend. He said the “propensity to gamble is higher than we’ve ever seen,” adding that Vegas is “on fire” and “back with a vengeance.”
According to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), air traveler volumes across the country over Memorial Day weekend hit its highest level in more than a year, with an average of 1.78 million people being screened between Friday, May 28, and Monday, May 31.
And now things look to be even more on the up-and-up. Hotels in Vegas are now at 80% capacity during the weekends and at 50% on most other days. In a familiar and oddly welcome sign, the roads are congested again, with traffic coming to a complete halt for two straight weekends now, even as temperatures in the state soar.
After being out of action for over a year, the Las Vegas Monorail is back online. The route is vital to tourism, running from the airport to the north end of the Strip, and stopping at the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) on the way. The resumption of the service could not come at a better time, with a delayed convention season just kicking off.
There are a slew of events slated to take place in Vegas over the coming months, ones that stakeholders are hopeful will draw crowds. One of the biggest days of the summer is likely to be the Fourth of July, with seven resorts on the Strip planning fireworks shows. In October, North America’s largest electronic dance music festival, Electric Daisy Carnival, will be coming to Vegas to celebrate its 25th year.
Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment’s (WWE) biggest summer blockbuster— the SummerSlam — will be held at the Allegiant Stadium from August 21 onwards. If the venue sells out, there could be over 70,000 people in attendance. That same night, two of boxing’s biggest names, Manny Pacquiao and Errol Spence Jr., will go head to head in a highly anticipated match-up.
The owner of the Downtown Las Vegas Events Center said that the next seven months are set to be the busiest the Center has ever been. “I think we have 12 or 13 straight weekends with multi-day events in late summer through the fall,” he added. The Venetian is reporting that it has sold out its convention space for the rest of the year and is seeing the kind of business that was typical for this time of year before the pandemic.
Casinos, resorts and hotels in the Valley have been hard at work to prepare their properties for the expected flood of visitors. The 1.4 million-square-foot west wing of the LVCC just underwent a transformation worth nearly $1 billion, in anticipation of returning crowds. The Strat is targeting the return of live entertainment, having spent over $100 million on renovations.
This supply-side excitement is likely to be met with a commensurate response on the demand side. The CDC has advised that only fully vaccinated people should travel completely unencumbered, and people are taking them up on that offer, as can be seen from the TSA’s data above. The latest figures say that approximately 41.9% of the American population is fully vaccinated and the drive to boost that number before July 4 is ongoing.
The one sign that Las Vegas is waiting for, however, is the return of conventions, which some say would bode well for the country’s overall economic recovery. Trade shows and gatherings support more than 40,000 direct and indirect jobs in the area, per officials. In 2017 alone, conventions added almost $6 billion to the city’s economic output. To get weekday rates of occupancy back to normal, experts say, the city needs business travel and conventions to make a strong comeback.
Tomorrow, June 8, the World of Concrete exhibition kicks off at the LVCC. It is the first major trade show to return to the city since the pandemic, and is expected to be the impetus for the return of convention and event traffic in the city. The show usually draws 60,000 people, though those numbers are understandably expected to be slightly different this year. And with G2E dates being announced and other events being scheduled, the Valley seems to be well on track for a busy second half of 2021.
And it could not come at a better time. April’s unemployment numbers in the Las Vegas Valley seem discouraging at first glance, coming in at 9% (slightly up from March’s 8.8%). But employers are on a hiring spree. They are hosting numerous job fairs and are vying for the top talent. Competition is stiff as workers look for higher wages, especially with the pandemic still being a cause for concern and with a lack of childcare/adult care options available to them.
But companies are stepping forward, offering benefits, bonuses and hourly wages well above the minimum (sometimes as high as $20). Greg Carlin, CEO of Rush Street Gaming, said in a statement that “paying a living wage is more than a recruitment strategy — it’s the right thing to do.” His group is offering non-tipped workers at Rivers Casinos nationwide an hourly wage of $15, which rises to $25 in effective terms once benefits are taken into consideration.
All the signs seem to point that Vegas is raring to go!