Don't ask Chris Meyer about 2009. He's done talking about it. "I never thought I would have to engage the press as much as I did," says Meyer, CEM, CMP, vice president of sales, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, who was quoted in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and many other national publications last year, telling the story of Las Vegas as a destination for serious meetings business.
At the height of the public and media criticism of what were often labeled "boondoggles," Meyer found himself trying to keep it simple. So he started talking about job fairs. "Every community has a job fair," he says. And the connection would be made. People would stop and think, "Oh, the meetings industry does that. Why are we attacking you?"
As we move into 2010, Meyer sees client concerns about perception decreasing but not disappearing. The bigger story, though, is how great a value Las Vegas has become. "If you aren't booking Las Vegas, you are paying too much for your meeting," Meyer says.
Anyone who has received promotional e-mails from Las Vegas properties recently would have to take him at his word. The city's average daily room rate through November 2009 was $93, down 23 percent from the previous year and lower than the country's overall average, which came in at $97.50 for 2009. Other statistics just released show passenger traffic into McCarran International Airport down 8.2 percent in 2009 from 2008, which was down 7.7 percent from 2007, when the airport hit its all-time high for passengers, logging 47.7 million people coming through.
Despite the depressed visitor rate, Las Vegas keeps on building, and therefore continues to present an incredible range of hotel choices. Some high-profile projects have crashed, most notably the Fontainebleau Las Vegas, which is apparently getting back on track under new owner Carl Icahn. But others have moved ahead, including the wildly ambitious $8.5 billion CityCenter complex, which added 5,800 high-end rooms in three hotels—Aria Resort & Casino, Vdara Resort & Spa, and Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas—in December. A fourth hotel at the complex, the Harmon, is expected to open later this year.
Recent additions outside CityCenter include a 1,200-room tower at Planet Hollywood, which opened in December, along with the second of two new towers at the Hard Rock Hotel, which add 850 rooms.
"Demand is coming back," Meyer says. "2011 looks great. Our lead volume is increasing and the quality of business is increasing. It isn't where we want it to be, but it isn't 2009."
And as Vegas goes, so goes the country, Meyer believes. "We will be a leading indicator for the health of our industry. You will see things percolating here before they start percolating in other cities. Las Vegas is a good barometer for what's happening in our world." And if the week of January 18 is any indication, things are definitely looking up.
More than 115,000 meeting attendees were in Vegas: 60,000 at the National Association of Homebuilders show; 42,000 at the Shooting, Hunting, and Outdoor but that's another story) and 12,500 at the Promotional Products Association International show. "We're the busiest business destination on the planet this week," Meyer quipped.(minus the 22 who were arrested in an FBI bribery sting operation—
And he's keeping his eye on customers, and finding new ways to show and tell them about Las Vegas. After a huge push to go out and visit corporate and association planners (Meyer and his team logged 3,500 face-to-face sales calls in 2009), he discovered that a large number of potential clients hadn't been to Las Vegas in several years. To remedy that, Meyer launched a "reverse sales mission" to get them on planes headed to the desert. The visits are midweek, highly structured, and business-oriented. "Our goal is 100 visits in 100 days through the end of February," he says.
Las Vegas marked a brutal 13.1 percent unemployment rate in December, a testament to the suffering construction and travel industries. One bright spot, though, was the opening of CityCenter, which hired 12,000 workers for its two resorts and shopping center, all of which opened in December. Seeing the project through required a fair amount of faith and strength on the part of owner MGM Mirage.
"Only eight months ago, things were still uncertain," CityCenter President and Chief Operating Officer Bill McBeath told 1,800 attendees gathered for the HelmsBriscoe Annual Business Conference January 19–22 at Aria Resort & Casino at CityCenter. "As the great recession froze capital markets and financial companies disappeared, we were committed to an $8.5 billion project." And though lenders got skittish, McBeath says, "we believed in CityCenter, in Las Vegas, and in the meetings and hospitality industry. People have to travel. People have to have meetings. As some of our peers succumbed and pressures on us increased, we remained committed."
Group bookings, which got off to a good start two years ago, quickly dried up in the downturn, says Gail Fitzgerald, vice president, hotel sales and marketing, Aria Resort & Casino. "We were being sued by Dubai World [a financial partner in the project], and we were on the front page of the Wall Street Journal for all the wrong reasons." Then the Fontainebleau Las Vegas declared bankruptcy, which Fitzgerald saw as the last straw for planners. "Meeting business came to a halt," she says. "People were afraid. They would not book an unopened hotel. But once we committed to opening December 16, we never moved off that date."
Now, five weeks after opening, "lead volume is through the roof," Fitzgerald says. "Some of my convention services managers are doing four or five site inspections a day." Fitzgerald has business on the books for 2010—in fact, she notes, "last week I booked a 100-room group for next week. So if you have a meeting, you need to call us!"
The property offers 300,000 square feet of meeting space on three floors, all of it next to a 40-foot wall of glass that lets in natural light and looks out onto a garden, the resort pool, and mountains in the distance. In the design phase of the project, says Fitzgerald, "we looked at every other property in Las Vegas and talked to everyone about their meeting space to find out what worked and what didn't, so we could do better." From freight elevators to meeting planner offices directly behind registration desks, all the experience of the city's meeting hotels went into Aria's design.
Read more about the property's innovative design in a reporter's notebook article about Aria.