Circa’s Derek Stevens optimistic about football season as resort opens meeting and convention space

August 23, 2022 12:31 AM
  • Buck Wargo, CDC Gaming Reports
August 23, 2022 12:31 AM
  • Buck Wargo, CDC Gaming Reports

Circa Las Vegas owner Derek Stevens painted a positive picture for the downtown resort, reporting he’s seeing increased hotel bookings to mark the start of football season.

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Circa Convention Space/Photo Buck Wargo, CDC Gaming Reports

Stevens’ optimism contrasts his June appearance before the Nevada Gaming Commission, when he said his three downtown properties were starting to see an impact from inflation, with fewer ATM withdrawals and reduced spending. He’d previously admitted those same concerns to a national audience on CNBC.

Stevens spoke to the media Monday while giving a tour of Circa’s newly completed 35,000 square feet of meeting and convention space on the third floor of the resort that opened in October 2020. He said he’s “happy with how we have developed” as the two-year anniversary approaches.

“Late spring and through the summer, it got a little slower than we’d hoped, certainly slower on weekdays,” Stevens said. “I’m really excited about the bookings we’re seeing for September, October, and November. Every resort has its niche. Due to the fact that we’re a very sports-oriented property (with its sportsbook and Circa Swim), getting the college and pro football seasons going and baseball playoffs (has helped with bookings).”

“From the summer perspective, we were a little slower,” Stevens said. “The other thing coming out of the pandemic was that downtown’s numbers were far elevated. Maybe downtown had more people come, but it doesn’t have as many hotel rooms. With more international travelers, that’s where properties with a lot of hotel rooms (on the Strip) are getting the benefit.”

Stevens said the opening of the meeting space allows Circa to use its full assets to advantage; there’s demand for more high-quality meeting space in Las Vegas. He cited investments by MGM, Caesars Entertainment with the opening of its Forum convention center, and others trying to lure groups that haven’t come to Las Vegas before.

“We think it will provide us with a boost in weekday traffic,” Stevens said. “The key is how it impacts business on Mondays through Thursdays. Our hotel people and restaurateurs are excited about this. The one thing that conventions do is help blend the demand from the weekend to get through the week and the next weekend.”

When they designed Circa five to six years ago, Stevens said they thought downtown needed higher-end hotel rooms and more meeting space. The third-floor space was designed with assistance from the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority, he said. It will have 13 separate rooms, but several can be combined to provide a ballroom and conference setting.

“This meeting space was always part of phase two of Circa,” Stevens said. “We’re bringing meeting space with the best audio-visual technology you can put out there. The sound system, televisions, drop-down projectors, and LED boards – we wanted to bring high-tech to the meeting space area.”

Circa started booking events a year ago. An event-planner gathering will take place on Thursday and a football preview seminar on Saturday features betting experts and former NFL players. The first large trade event will be a cryptocurrency conference in October.

“We’re opening up earlier than we thought, so our (convention) bookings start kicking in at the end of September,” Stevens said. “When we were building this, we had to be careful with the supply-chain issues on when we could open.”

Sasha Lee, Circa’s director of sales, said they’re targeting corporations, associations, and governments for bookings. Circa’s space is different from others; it’s also targeting sports-watching groups and activating a satellite sportsbook for Super Bowl and March Madness, she said.

“Our niche is groups of 100 to 800 people,” Lee said. “It can be challenging for them to find a location on the Strip, because those properties want 1,000 people-plus. We’re trying to take market share from the Strip. Sometimes those groups can feel like small fish in a very large pond on the Strip. Here, they can own the entire convention space and it can be all on one level. We’re a very intimate boutique property.”

Lee said so far, about 80% of the bookings are from outside the market, while 20% are local groups and companies ranging from education to real estate.

Circa will comprise about one-sixth of downtown convention space that encompasses 200,000 square feet. The Downtown Grand has 46,600 square feet, while the Golden Nugget has 40,000 square feet, according to the LVCVA.

Lori Nelson-Kraft, the LVCVA’s senior vice president of communications, called it “an incredible investment” by Circa to open the convention and meeting space. Downtown resorts haven’t traditionally had a lot of meeting space, she said.

“We think it’s tremendous that there’s 35,000 extra square feet in the destination and especially downtown,” Nelson-Kraft said. “That Sunday through Thursday business is a critical part of the tourism strategy and an incredibly smart move by Derek and his team.”

When customers come to Las Vegas, whether it’s a small meeting or large trade show, there are facilities “that speak to them” and having intimate space is “a real win for downtown” and allows properties to grow that Sunday through Thursday business, Nelson-Kraft said.

In the most recent numbers, the LVCVA reported June convention attendance was 469,100, up from 197,200 in June 2021. It was 514,000 in June 2019, the LVCVA reported.

The national sentiment is that it will take until 2024 for the convention industry to fully recover, but Nelson-Kraft said Las Vegas leisure travel recovered more quickly than others and she hopes it’s the same for the meeting and convention industry as well.

“We’re about two-thirds recovered in overall attendance of business travelers,” Nelson-Kraft said. “Here at the Convention Center, we’re looking at how much leasable space you have and how many shows are coming, but from a tourism standpoint, we’re just not looking for the shows to return, we’re looking for their exhibitors and attendees to return as well.”

The LVCVA has 89 shows on the books in 2022 and hosted 85 shows in 2019. With every passing month, they see an increase with exhibitors and attendees, Nelson-Kraft said. The LVCVA signed agreements with 20 new trade shows over the next 10 years and five existing shows that have extended their stays.

“We’re still in the early stages of recovering international tourism and some of our largest trade shows with that international visitor and exhibitor returning – that’s what we’re looking forward to next,” Nelson-Kraft said.

Las Vegas as a meeting and convention destination is number one for shows in North America. It hosts 42 of the largest trade shows. Chicago and Orlando are in the upper teens, Nelson-Kraft said.

Traditionally, meeting and convention customers spend more than tourists. They do business and have networking and entertainment, Nelson-Kraft said. Exhibitors also use local businesses to help them with their events, she said.

“This is a key part of what keeps Las Vegas tourism going and why over the past few years, you’ve seen the total meeting and convention square footage grow from 11 million square to 14 million square feet,” Nelson-Kraft said. “Different venues throughout the destination have recognized the opportunity to host more trade shows and meetings and conventions. Circa is a great example of that and Las Vegas as a whole has really invested in making this a meeting and convention destination. It shows in the investment everyone put into it and not just here at the Convention Center.”

Casino consultant Josh Swissman, founder of The Strategy Organization, said everything he hears from the resort industry is that advance bookings for conventions in Las Vegas look healthy going forward. Operators like MGM say their future bookings are outpacing 2019 at this point.

“That’s a sign that the recovery is well underway,” Swissman said of an industry that relies on long lead times. “I don’t think anybody thought we’d be two-thirds of where we were before the pandemic. I think it is a great indicator that bolsters the short-term and long-term convention business.”

The LVCVA opened its new West Hall in June 2021 and its board has approved a $600 million renovation of the existing campus in 2024 and 2025.