Former Las Vegas mayor talks Las Vegas reopening and what success looks like going forward

May 2, 2020 9:40 PM
  • Buck Wargo, CDC Gaming Reports
May 2, 2020 9:40 PM
  • Buck Wargo, CDC Gaming Reports

Former Las Vegas mayor and Caesars Entertainment board member Jan Jones Blackhurst said the region’s casino industry won’t return to normal from the COVID-19 shutdown until the end of 2022 and warned that the city’s hospitality industry must revert back to its value roots by eliminating resort and parking fees.

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Jones Blackhurst, a former Caesars executive vice president of government relations and corporate responsibility, said that she wasn’t speaking on behalf of Caesars in what was billed as a fireside chat at the SBC Digital Summit. She’s the chief executive in residence at the UNLV International Gaming Institute, a member of the Nevada Resort Association board of directors and a member of the Las Vegas Stadium Authority.

Jones Blackhurst said once state economies reopen, local casinos and riverboat casinos to which people can drive and feel most comfortable will bounce back first.

“Las Vegas absolutely comes back, but it’s going to be a little bit slower, because we’re used to entertaining such massive groups of people and meetings and conventions are such a big piece of that hospitality offering,” Jones Blackhurst said, “We’re going to have to work to make sure that not only do our people coming to conventions feel safe, but their businesses will send them. I think the tribes will come back more quickly, because they’re in areas where people know where they are, have a lot of hospitality offerings and it’s a drivable distance.”

Las Vegas will follow, but the industry here will need to be more thoughtful, because it’s more dependent on airlines. Jones Blackhurst asked when do the airlines come back and when does air traffic return to what it was before COVID-19.

“Right now, there’s no longer a direct flight from New York to Las Vegas,” Jones Blackhurst said. “I think 20 percent of our visitation has been international, so we need to work on making those travelers not only have the ability to come back, but feel comfortable to come back. I say that in my crystal ball Las Vegas in 2022 feels like Las Vegas all over again.”

Jones Blackhurst said that now more than ever, Las Vegas needs to look at a solution to hospitality from many perspectives to get it right. If it looks to the future more than the way it has for the past decade, “we’re going to run into real problems.” She cited the importance of “deep hospitality,” being sensitive to who your customers are and meeting their broad needs from language to understanding the experience they’re seeking.

“Going forward, that’s going to be the key to our revitalization,” Jones Blackhurst said. “We’ve always been a wonderful hospitality city, but we’ll have to find a way to deepen that hospitality, while still offering protection that in some ways can seem like barriers. How do you move around those barriers and turn them into something that makes people welcome, comforted and want to come back?”

Jones Blackhurst said Las Vegas has to be deliberate, not only in how it looks as a city, but how individual operators look at it as well.

“It’s going to be a long climb back to where we were just two months ago,” Jones Blackhurst said. “I think we have to find a way for all of the health care (precautions) we have to have in place not to turn into barriers to people believing they can come to Las Vegas and have a good time.”

Las Vegas has always been about the experience, Jones Blackhurst said. It’s a fun place where for two or three days, you can enjoy who you are and who your partners and friends are. That is true for conventions too, she said.

Las Vegas has been able to reinvent itself multiple times, like “the last outpost of Western Civilization,” and will do so again. But when asked about resort and parking fees, she said, “My personal opinion is that they (need to be eliminated). I’m not speaking for the industry.”

The resort fees charged by resorts have come under criticism for gouging customers at more than $50 a day in some cases. For Las Vegas residents and those driving to resorts, paying $12 to $15 for parking to gamble or eat at a restaurant is considered over the top.

“I think as we reemerge and we’re really trying to come back to Las Vegas, part of that hospitality experience might have to go back 40 years ago. One of the reasons people came back then is they saw Las Vegas as this tremendous value. You weren’t going to pay parking fees and resort fees. I’m just not sure that, in this new world, you can lead with that.”

Jones Blackhurst said no one knows the impact of social distancing on shows and restaurants, clubs and pools — and that’s why Las Vegas has to reimagine hospitality.

“We have to really start thinking—we’re a hospitality city and how we can still keep the energy, fun and excitement and safety,” Jones Blackhurst said. “We have to get the greatest minds like when we reimagined the Fremont Street Experience. Who would have thought you could build an almost entire inside casino experience with a light show to bring people to downtown.”

Jones Blackhurst said online gaming could be a “robust piece of the industry comeback,” noting that it’s exploding in states where it’s available during the shutdown.