NIGA Tradeshow: One of the industry’s best events ever

NIGA Tradeshow: One of the industry’s best events ever

  • Buddy Frank
July 23, 2021 6:06 PM
  • Buddy Frank
  • Other

The 2021 National Indian Gaming Association’s Conference and Tradeshow in Las Vegas this week was one of the industry’s best events ever. Not because of the venue, the agenda, or the attendance. It was simply the first mass gathering of gaming pros, tribal leaders, and vendors in almost two years. And it felt good.

Greeting old friends is always a highlight of these events, yet it was a bit awkward this year. The crowd seemed to be evenly split between elbow swipes, fist bumps, and handshakes as everyone seemed uncertain as to the proper (and safe) protocol. Handshakes also felt good, but strangely left you wanting to find a bottle of sanitizer.

Local health officials also seemed confused. On Monday, the first day of the conference, the county commissioners reversed their earlier policy and mandated that all indoor employees must wear masks. For the conference, attendees were exempt and on the honor system to wear one if they were unvaccinated.

I’d estimate that about 30% of the total crowd at NIGA wore masks, with a slightly higher percentage during breaks between conference sessions. Most of the vendors at the tradeshow tried to meet the county’s mask order, but many gave up when customers struggled to hear the details of the latest sales pitch or an explanation of a new bonus round.

Caesars Forum was a completely new convention venue for the NIGA event. In fact, it was a completely new venue for everyone. Laborers were still putting final touches on the building as the show got underway. The carpets, walls, and facilities are architecturally beautiful. The best way to tell the age of any venue is to look at the treads on the escalators. At the Forum, they’re spotless. The stair ribs are not even shiny yet from wear, and the valleys between them are pristine aluminum. That’s a sure sign that they were virgin.

The Forum’s attached parking garage is still under construction. Attendees had to park at Harrah’s Las Vegas or the Linq properties. Why not park at Caesars Palace? Indeed, about 85% of all attendees first parked at Caesars and made their way up to the third-floor convention center, only to learn that the Caesars Forum Convention Center isn’t at Caesars. Nor is it anywhere near the Caesars Forum Shops. The new venue is across the Las Vegas Strip and behind the High Roller observation wheel.

The registration process seemed slow on Tuesday with long lines, but went smoothly on other days. Interestingly, the show entrance was a long way from the registration area, with the main-entrance hallway splitting the floor in half. It was IGT/Aristocrat on one side and Scientific Games/Everi on the other.

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We’ll have to wait for the final attendance numbers from NIGA officials. In my estimation, the conference sessions on Tuesday seemed to rival pre-pandemic levels; most sessions were filled to overflowing. However, it looked as though the tradeshow was between 70% to 80% of normal.

Perhaps surprisingly, there were more new vendors than I’ve seen in recent years. That was balanced by smaller booths from the big players and some missing participants from previous years. A few chose to skip the event. ACS had a small office space adjacent to the show floor for its table-game products and Konami hosted customers at Resorts World, where many of its games are demoing on the live floor (some of them were premiering there).

Off the record, a vendor or two mentioned that they had to make commitments to NIGA for this tradeshow months earlier, when the status of COVID was still undecided. That surely hurt NIGA promoters from securing more, and larger, booth commitments.

NIGA has always been a great show from my perspective. It is a bit more relaxed than G2E. If you’re serious about examining products in detail, the shorter tradeshow session on Thursday is ideal (10 a.m. to 3 p.m.). Most tribal leaders, who began their stay on Sunday, have already departed. Attendance on the last day is always light. The vendors themselves start to wander and examine competitors. It’s a great time to hear feedback on industry trends and really examine games, get solid demos, and refine your purchase lists.

In addition to being the first post-pandemic in-person gathering, it was also time to take stock of some of the industry impacts. The casino world has always been fluid, but 2020 was exceptionally dynamic. Scores of executives, game designers, and sales folks have switched jobs. Some returned to previous employers; others found new roles after years in one place. As has been reported for several months, one of the biggest shifts was the departure of Matt Wilson and Jamie Odell, jumping from Aristocrat to Scientific Games. That set off a wave of other moves across the industry, as the two executives got others to follow them.

As far as new vendors go, there seemed to be an explosion of products specializing in cleanliness (understandable), e-cash solutions, and analytics (why now?). NIGA always has a great selection of vendors selling Native American crafts and jewelry and this year was no exception (they should open this part of the show to the general public on Friday).

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The keynote luncheon on Tuesday at the Forum Convention Center was very good with fine food and excellent service. That was refreshing, since much of Las Vegas is still suffering from a shortage of good help, particularly in food service.

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One last related highlight of the show for non-locals was the chance to visit the first new major properties to open in Las Vegas in more than a decade: downtown’s Circa and the new Resorts World on the north Strip. They are very different, but both are spectacular and should be on everyone must-see list.

Interestingly, the NIGA Tradeshow and Convention will not be returning to Las Vegas or Albuquerque or San Diego next year. The 2022 event will be held at the Anaheim Convention Center in southern California on April 19 through 22.

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