Meetings, conventions and exhibitions bring 6.6 million people to Las Vegas each year. They generate $10.5 billion dollars in economic activity and more than 65,000 jobs.
Yet every day brings news of another event cancelled due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. At the Las Vegas Convention Center, the International Wireless Communications Expo, a 185,000 square-foot show that draws 12,000 attendees, is the most recent to be postponed.
How are the people who work in this industry coping — and preparing for — the expected rise in COVID-19 cases?
The director of Conexpo/Con-Agg, a 2.8 MILLION square-foot show that draws 128,000 visitors, talked to KNPR about that event, which opens today in Las Vegas. And trade show industry insiders, both local and national, add a broader perspective.
“Some of our international attendance has been impacted by the COVID-19 due to the travel restrictions and the spread of the virus," said Dana Wuesthoff, director of the show, "We’re here to accommodate any registration cancellations for individuals impacted by those travel bans.”
She said her show is using common-sense precautions like putting out more hand sanitizer stations, reminding people to wash their hands, scheduling more frequent cleaning of common areas, and handing out buttons that tell people not to shake hands.
Wuesthoff said they're also going through more detailed plans with their first aid provider, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor Authority, and the Southern Nevada Health District.
Despite the concerns, Wuesthoff said she is very confident about the show and all the work that has gone into making it a safe and successful experience for exhibitors and attendees.
“The bottom-line key take away is the safety and health of all of your participants, yourself, your staff, your vendors, your partners, everyone that always has to be number one, top of mind priorities," she said.
Gabrielle Weiss is the editor-in-chief of Trade Show Executive, a magazine covering the trade show industry. She said everyone she has talked to is very focused on making sure their shows go off without a hitch.
“All of the venues we’re in contact with certainly have preparedness plans and are working closely with the CDC, WHO and our planners and local authorities to make sure that all the guidelines are being followed and heightened cleaning protocols are being used at many of the shows to ensure everybody’s safety," she said.
Weiss said she doesn't have a solid number for the percentage of shows that have cancelled because the numbers are changing daily. But she does note that the shows that are cancelling are those with a large global contingency or they have met with rampant concerns from board members and attendees.
She noted that every county in the country is impacted by the trade show industry in some way or another.
“If we have a major disruption in that U.S. supply chain whether its décor, logistical transportation, getting exhibits to and from and the type of work that goes into that, all the way to your marketing and communications programming, including maybe even the coverage of it. I think it is far-reaching,” she said.
Cathy Breden is the executive vice president and COO of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events. She said during the 2002 recession and SARs outbreak, which happened at the same time, the industry saw a double hit but it did recover.
She said it is too early to know if the industry is going to see the same double hit this time around but when her group releases the numbers in a few months they'll have an idea.
"We do see that the impact is going to be substantial. We certainly don’t know what’s going to happen with the economy in the long term or even in the short term but we do see the exhibition industry as being very resilient,” she said.
The drop in convention business is already having an impact on Rhiannon Andersen's business. She is the co-owner and chief marketing officer for Steelhead Productions.
“What we’re looking at is a spring that is very, very uncertain," Andersen said, "Our executive leadership team met on Thursday and we reduced our annual revenue projections by about 35 percent and because of that had to make some really swift decisions in regards to our employees, and unfortunately, we laid off about 25 percent of our workforce.”
She said the rest of the industry is in the same situation, trying every day to react swiftly to a rapidly changing situation.
Andersen said she has had exhibitors decide the day before a show is supposed to start to pull out and she's had entire shows cancel.
“Our intention is to work as well as we can with everybody collaboratively and handle it on a case by case basis,” she said.
Weiss said the industry is a community with people who have build relationships over decades.
Andersen agreed and that is why her company is trying to approach the situation with compassion and understanding.
Breden said there are show organizers she has talked to who are not comfortable and are cancelling and others who are going forward until a government official tells them they must call it off.
“The shows are going to still be held. I just think in the short term that there is a lot of unknown and a lot of uncertainty about what’s going to happen,” she said.
KNPR News contacted the LVCVA but they declined to be part of the discussion. They sent a statement that said in part:
At this time, the LVCVA and our resort partners continue to monitor COVID-19 and coordinate with health officials. The only formal tracking we have that would relate to the overall impact of COVID-19 is the monthly visitation numbers generated through our research department. While we recently published January’s numbers, these numbers do not distinguish between domestic and international visitors, nor do they indicate convention attendance. Those numbers are garnered annually.
At this time, the Las Vegas Convention Center has not received any show cancellations.
Dana Wuesthoff, show director, Conexpo/Con-Agg; Gabrielle Weiss, editor-in-chief, Trade Show Executive; Cathy Breden, executive vice president and COO, International Association of Exhibitions and Events; Rhiannon Andersen, co-owner and Chief Marketing Officer, Steelhead Productions
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