Tourism, the bread and butter of Nevada, is not exactly booming lately. Visitation is way down, shows are difficult to stage, and conventions are not allowed.
Also, there’s talk of properties being up for sale.
The pandemic has already radically altered the Strip experience.
“As a whole, I would say it has changed mightily, but in different degrees, in different places," said Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor. "Some places are extremely diligent in their protocols and what they’re doing, all the testing at the door, all the demands that masks be on at all times — to use a word, I would call it militant in some places.”
Curtis said at some places customers get a stern warning if they don't immediately put their mask up after taking a drink, while other places don't say much.
Overall, though, the experience is much different.
“It’s a diminished experience that bothers people,” Curtis said.
In addition, he added, the usual energy of a Strip resort filled with people ready to have a good time is gone because of the lack of crowds.
Mike PeQueen, a managing director and partner of Hightower Advisors, a financial services company that focuses on local gaming companies, said the resorts performing to their capabilities under unprecedented circumstances.
“I think the Strip operators have been smart and have done all that they can in what is a terrible situation," he said. "They’ve realized that their job here is to keep the properties open, the brands in peoples’ minds, and be ready for when the vaccine comes.”
PeQueen said Las Vegas' problem isn't the mask and social distancing restrictions that are in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus — it's that only a small number of people are willing to get on an airplane and fly here.
Curtis agreed. He said many of his readers say they want to come to Las Vegas, but they don't want to get on an airplane right now.
PeQueen said Wall Street is not expecting Las Vegas resorts to make money this year, but keeping the doors open is important. Even though Gov. Steve Sisolak has asked people to stay home, he doesn't expect another large scale lockdown of the city will happen.
“I think we learned that broad-based shutdowns are like a sledgehammer, and you want to be more surgical and isolate activities that are more likely to lead to infections,” he said.
He also doesn't think the news about Sheldon Adelson selling his Las Vegas casinos should be seen as a commentary on the future of the city and the Strip.
PeQueen noted that Las Vegas Sands Corporation only gets about 15 percent of its revenue from its Las Vegas casinos. The properties making the most money for the company are in Asia. He said it may be that Adelson wants to focus more on those resorts.
In addition, the company's Las Vegas properties are heavily dependent on conventions, which PeQueen worries will take longer to return.
Josh Swissman is also concerned. He's a founding partner of the Strategy Organization, a tourism consulting firm.
“I think you’ll see some of the transient or free, independent travelers booking trips to come to Las Vegas that will return relatively quickly once a vaccine is out there and widely available and accepted,” he said.
However, his bigger concern is that large conventions won't reemerge anytime soon because they take a long time to design, organize and execute.
“As the group business returns, we need to think about how it evolves from the return of smaller, more closely held groups first and then into bigger, large scale meetings and ultimately back to what we typically called city-wide conventions,” he said.
Despite his concerns, Swissman believes large-scale events like the National Finals Rodeo, Electric Daisy Carnival and others will come roaring back when they're able to.
The biggest turning point for the entire travel sector, from couples looking for a getaway to large conventions drawing in thousands of business people, is likely a vaccine.
“The vaccine is going to be like a bullet-proof vest to a lot of people," Curtis said. "Once they’ve got the vaccine, they’re going to go, ‘Okay, all bets are off’ – or on, in our case. I think you’re going to see it go much more back toward normalcy at that point. I just think it’s huge for Las Vegas when that happens.”
PeQueen agreed. He noted there is never a silver bullet for any problem, but a vaccine is about as close to one for this problem as we can get.
"It is an enormous step forward. If we’re running at roughly 50 or 60 percent of normal now, this could get us back up to 80, 85 to 90 percent, something like that, if it is widely accepted by the second or third quarter of 2021.”
However, PeQueen added that one of the biggest hurdles will be getting people to accept the vaccine.
If that does happen, Robert Lang, a professor of public policy at UNLV, expects a quick turnaround for the city.
“It’s like a godsend and the reason is that’s really the barrier that people have to get past, which is the confidence that they can go out in public,” he said.
The reason for that turnaround, Lang explained, is that Las Vegas is the ultimate "third place." Most Americans have two main places they go: home and work.
Now that those two are the same thing in many instances, Lang expects more people to look for that third place to go - when they can.
“Homes are up. Work is down, meaning office space is down. Some forms of retail are down, and then, third places are way up. And Vegas is the big third place,” he said.
Lang expects the pent-up demand to drive a Las Vegas comeback that shocks people.
He is also more bullish about conventions because so many people have been working remotely for so many months that companies will want to get their workforce together.
Swissman said a recent survey he conducted found 50 percent of respondents would be happy to come to Las Vegas right now and adjust some of their regular activities like wearing a mask and social distancing. Another 25 percent said they would be happy to return after a vaccine and another 12 percent would be happy to return 12 months after a vaccine.
He said those numbers show why so many people are optimistic about the return of the Las Vegas Strip.
Robert Lang, Professor of Public Policy, UNLV; Mike PeQueen, Managing Director and Partner, HighTower Las Vegas; Josh Swissman, Founding Partner, The Strategy Organization; Anthony Curtis, Publisher, Las Vegas Advisor
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