Convention capital Las Vegas returning to pre-pandemic attendance

January 4, 2023 9:11 PM
Photo: Shutterstock
  • Buck Wargo, CDC Gaming Reports
January 4, 2023 9:11 PM
  • Buck Wargo, CDC Gaming Reports

As CES gets under way in Las Vegas, the head of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority predicts convention business in 2023 will return to pre-COVID levels and surpass eight million by 2026.

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During a press conference, LVCVA President and CEO Steve Hill said 2019’s attendance of 6.64 is the 2023 target and he believes it can happen by the end of the year.

“There is a pretty good possibility that we will get back to the number of attendees for meetings and events that we had pre-COVID,” Hill said. “COVID is pretty much in our rear-view mirror and we’re back to fairly normal.”

The return of conventions and meetings, along with international travel, is considered one of the last remaining hurdles that Las Vegas needs to overcome in order to fully return to where it was pre-pandemic.

Las Vegas is on track to reach or surpass five million conventiongoers in 2022 once the final numbers are calculated later this month. That would be about 1.5 million to 1.6 million visitors below where it was in 2019.

Still, that’s quite a comeback for the Las Vegas convention industry, which shuttered in March 2020 and hosted only 1.7 million attendees in 2020 and 2.2 million in 2021. The larger shows didn’t return until the summer of 2021, but the numbers have grown steadily since then.

Hill noted some headwinds. Las Vegas relies on the tech industry, particularly for corporate events at the resort properties, and tech has been having a tough time recently, as reflected in the stock market. The industry is cost conscious and that’s had some effect on attendance.

“What we did do during the pandemic was add 3.5 million square feet of meeting space to the destination. A 100% recovery to the attendance we had in 2019 is a stop along the way,” Hill said. “Our goal by the time we get to 2026 is 8.3 million meeting attendees in Las Vegas. While we plan to recover to the 6.6 million mark, we have another 1.7 million growth capacity over the next couple of years as we sell into the bigger spaces. We think we can get to that.”

A handful of new trade shows coming to Las Vegas in 2023 will bring in about 80,000 visitors, Hill said. That includes Ideate Expo in May, GSE Expo in September, and Aqua Live and HLTH in October. The International Builders Show returns from Orlando at the end of January, while CON AGG/Expo returns in March.

The convention industry is more significant for Las Vegas than other destinations, because it relies on that business midweek to bolster hotel occupancy and fill 150,000 rooms. Some 16% of the 42.5 million visitors in Las Vegas in 2019 were conventiongoers. It fell to 7% in 2021 and went back up to 13% in 2022 in numbers available through November.

Pre-COVID, the LVCVA estimated that the average convention visitor spent about $970 per trip, roughly 22% more than the $792 average per trip of a leisure visitor.

“When someone’s company is paying for their travel to Las Vegas and their room and meals, they have more money in their pocket to spend while they’re here,” Hill said. “They’re also spending more money than the leisure traveler mid-week, so it’s a valuable piece of business for Las Vegas. Once we’re back to full occupancy in meeting and convention space, we’ll be completely recovered in Las Vegas.”

Convention visitors boost overall hotel occupancy, which for the first 11 months of 2022 was 79.2% compared to 66.3% in 2021. It was 89.2% through 11 months of 2019.

Bolstered by conventions, hotel occupancy in October set the highest mark since November 2019 at 87.7%. Midweek occupancy in October reached 85.1%, the highest since 87.1% in October 2019. October visitation overall nearly matched 2019 levels.

“The meeting industry is so important to Las Vegas,” Hill said. “Without the meeting industry, the Strip wouldn’t look like the Strip. You couldn’t afford to build the fantastic properties here without 88% occupancy and $130-plus a night in room rates. When you look at other destinations across the United States and the world, you see high occupancy on the weekends when leisure travelers are coming, but during the week it drops down to the 60s. That meeting industry fills the week up and allows the occupancy rates to be so high and almost unmatched anywhere else in the United States. It’s critical to get this industry fully recovered and 2023 looks like the year it’s going to take place.”

Las Vegas has nearly 15 million square feet of convention space, including 2.5 million at the expanded Convention Center, where 54 shows are expected in 2023, accounting for 1.3 million visitors. The LVCVA opened its new West Hall in June 2021 and its board approved $600 million to renovate the three other halls in 2024 and 2025.

About 100,000 people are expected at CES, previously known as the Consumer Electronics Show. That’s up from 45,000 in 2022 after the 2021 show was canceled. Some 180,000 people attended in 2019 prior to the pandemic.

CES will welcome attendees from 147 countries; foreign visitors are expected to account for up to 35% of the total, Hill said. About 3,000 visitors will come from China. According to Hill, it’s important to have international travelers back, even though the numbers aren’t as high as in the past.

“Having CES at basically full strength is a great thing in and of itself and means an awful lot to the city this week, but it’s also a morale booster for the whole year,” Hill said. “What a great way to get started in 2023.”