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Las Vegas convention numbers have almost returned to pre-pandemic levels

Crowds enter the convention floor at the start of the the CES tech show Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024, in Las Vegas.
John Locher
Crowds enter the convention floor at the start of the the CES tech show Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024, in Las Vegas.

The lifeblood of Nevada’s economy is tourism, and a big chunk of that comes from conventions.

How much, exactly? Here are some numbers from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which promotes the city to the outside world: 41 million people visited Las Vegas in 2023, according to the LVCVA. Of those 41 million, nearly 6 million came to participate in conventions. It’s a high number, but it’s not the highest.

In 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic began, LVCVA counted 6.7 million convention attendees, the highest number they’d ever recorded. But in 2020, as the nation struggled to figure out how to do business during a pandemic, convention attendance fell to 1.7 million. The industry has been clawing its way back ever since.

Cathy Breden, CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, says her organization's most recent research, the CEIR Index, indicates that, in 2023, the business-to-business exhibition industry was down around 11 percent compared to 2019. That's in line with the LVCVA's numbers, which show the industry is at about 90 percent of its pre-pandemic performance.

"One of the things we are seeing is that the quarter-over-quarter performance is getting much better," Breden said, adding that the square footage of exhibitions and attendance have almost returned to pre-pandemic levels. "All-in-all, I think that we have some good news."

CEIR does not track city- or state-specific numbers but Las Vegas' performance tends to mirror that of the nation overall.

Breden noted that the conventions from different sectors also have been recovering at different rates, with the transportation industry being an example of one that has bounced back and communications/information technology one that hasn't. "Some of the sectors, like consumer goods, retail — those sectors have been in what we call a long-term downturn," she said. "Those are the ones that were greatly impacted by the Amazons and online retailing, and things like that. ... So it, again, is just a matter of what's going on in the economy at large."

Jeff Pressman, president and CEO of Las Vegas-based ConvExx, described the city as "the king of the hill" when it comes to U.S. conventions. The city dominates, he said, "when it comes to servicing and producing large trade shows, the network of labor, and the partnerships [with] the resorts, the whole resort corridor, and the convention centers really serve an amazing platform for trade shows."

He added that the city has nearly four million square feet of exhibit space in its three main convention centers (Las Vegas, Mandalay Bay, and Sands), and around 100,000 hotel rooms. "No other city has that," he said.

Pressman said his company has the good fortune of working primarily with exhibitions whose buyers like to physically see and touch the products before they buy them for retail. That has kept his business robust. One example is the Shooting, Hunting, and Outdoor Trade, or "SHOT," Show, which, Pressman said, has grown from 650,000 square feet in 2019 to 800,000 square feet in 2022.

A challenge for show producers such as Pressman has been costs — notably that of labor. "Essentially, we're building a city in a week, and then tearing it down in two days," he said. "So ,in order to build that city, it takes thousands of people to put together the convention center." He added that the other costs for producing a show, such as utilities and audiovisual, have also been increasing, along with hotel rates. Show organizers have to pass these costs along to the companies that pay to exhibit in trade shows, and some are beginning to push back.

One solution he offered was for destinations and venues to work with both convention organizers and contractors on ways to keep costs down.

Kimberly Hardcastle-Geddes, president and chief marketing strategist for MDG, a Freeman Company, believes the convention and exhibition industry needs to evolve to capture future generations of attendees and exhibitors.

"Our future is really riding on millennials and Gen Z and, specifically, their willingness to continue to be a part of events, to keep coming to our events, and really in our ability as an industry to adapt to meet their expectations to make sure that they do," Hardcastle-Geddes said.

She said these groups love live events, but they want something different from them than what has happened in the past. "They sort of consider it a given that DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) and sustainability should be kind of table-stakes at events," she said. "So they're very much willing to continue coming, but they behave differently, and they want different things."

As for industries whose b-to-b events will or won't return to pre-COVID sizes, she said, "I know this is a trite little saying, but at Freeman, we say, 'If you can do it on Zoom, then don't do it in a room.' So, things that can do online, those aren't necessarily the things we're going to continue to invest in. But what we are going to be seeing more investment in are things that are more experiential, more hands-on."

Guests: Kimberly Hardcastle-Geddes, president and chief marketing strategist, MDG; Cathy Breden, CEO, Center for Exhibition Industry Research; Jeff Pressman, president and CEO, ConvExx

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.