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Some Disquiet Seeps into Las Vegas Trade Show Scene

By Benjamin Spillman, Las Vegas Review-JournalMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

Nov. 24, 2006 - One of the country's top trade shows could leave Las Vegas if hotel and other service problems continue to plague the event.

Disputes over hotel bookings and perceived overcharging prompted the operator of the ABC Kids Expo to tell a trade show industry magazine the event is unappreciated, although it drew nearly 9,000 people to Las Vegas from Sept. 10-13.

The comments appeared in Tradeshow Week and bring to light complaints about Las Vegas shared by some convention and expo managers in recent years. Others have raved about Las Vegas, and occupancy rates above 90 percent in the city's hotels suggest most visitors don't mind inconveniences.

"We have come to feel we are not appreciated," Larry Schur, president and chief operating officer of show producer All Baby & Child told the magazine.

The ABC Kids Expo was No. 1 on the 2005 list of the magazine's fastest-growing trade shows. In 2006 the publication ranked it 143 on its list of the top 200 shows in the nation. Based on the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority's estimate of expenditures by trade show delegates an event that draws 9,000 people generates nearly $13.8 million in spending.

During a follow-up interview, Schur said the main problem was with one of the hotels for the 2006 show, the Renaissance Las Vegas, which he said was inflexible while dealing with simple requests and tried to add unjustified charges to the bill.

"There seems to be an attitude, kind of a take-it-or-leave-it attitude," Schur said of the hotel experience. "It is just inflexibility to do certain things that we want to do."

Schur said the hotel limited the number of rooms he could book for the show, prompting him to turn people away months before the event. But at the end of the show, hotel workers, using a different method to count room nights, said the show didn't fulfill its promised booking and presented a bill for the unused nights, he said.

"We could have taken the whole hotel but they wouldn't give it to us," he said.

Schur said hotel workers also denied a request to streamline the event for delegates by setting up a registration table in the lobby.

The hotel suggested show organizers book additional rooms for registration tables at a cost of $5,000 per day, Schur said.

Tom Xavier, general manager of the hotel, said conference registration in the lobby can be problematic if there is more than one event going on at the same time.

"When we have several groups in, you can end up with several desks," Xavier said.

And he said the it was reasonable for the hotel to suggest that conference organizers rent a meeting room.

Xavier said he will check hotel records to clarify the discrepancy over the number of room nights. He said the hotel wouldn't have intentionally overcharged the conference organizers.

"I personally will go back through and make sure that wasn't the case," Xavier said.

Asked whether he would consider moving the show to another city after its contract with the Las Vegas Convention Center expires in 2009, Schur said: "Possibly. We haven't decided what we are going to do yet.

"There are facilities across the country that could handle our show, but still not that many," he added.

Keeping trade show organizers happy is important because conventions are a multibillion-dollar pillar for the local economy, generating $4.8 billion in non-gaming revenue during the first six months of this year alone.

One trade show visitor is worth $1,531 to the local economy even before he or she places a bet. They rent rooms, eat in restaurants, tip servers and valets and, if they like it, return as leisure travelers.

The money at stake means competition is intense between communities that have invested heavily in facilities and marketing.

And Las Vegas is positioned atop the heap. Three of the 10 largest convention centers in the country are in Las Vegas. In terms of square footage rented, Las Vegas is No. 1 among host cities for Tradeshow Week 200 events with 34 percent of the business. Orlando is second with 11 percent, said Heidi Genoist, senior editor with Tradeshow Week.

"Yes the competition is quite stiff. But Las Vegas does very well," Genoist said.

But room rates have risen almost 17 percent this year and show managers have also complained about transportation problems on and around the Strip, Genoist said.

"That is the single biggest complaint I hear all the time," Genoist said of traffic congestion. "And I think the hotel community does need to start thinking about rates."

Hotel problems aren't the only challenges the ABC show has faced in Las Vegas.

In 2004, it was disrupted when the Las Vegas Monorail broke down.

"We specifically booked some of those hotels because they were on the monorail stop," Schur said.

That same year a strike had pickets shouting down convention attendees, Schur said.

"We were being yelled at all the time by the picketers. We were chased. Our staff was chased in the hotel, down the halls," he said.

Despite the problems, show organizers said 2006 was the most successful event since it was founded in 2002 and they expect even more bookings next year.

Chuck Schwartz, who has produced trade shows in Las Vegas for 25 years, said he thinks the ABC experience is an exception and atypical for groups coming to the city.

Schwartz is chairman of the Las Vegas firm ConvExx, which produces the Specialty Equipment Market Association car parts convention that draws about 120,000 delegates.

"I can say that I don't have any of the negative experience (Schur) has," he said.

Schwartz said he thinks show managers have successfully bargained for good room rates despite mergers in the hotel industry.

"We thought this was going to be a tough year. It turns out it wasn't a tough year," he said.

And congestion, although an inconvenience, is a result of the city's success in hosting events. The city's reputation also means trade shows in Las Vegas have high turnouts, he said.

"The city is so hot right now," he said. "Having a show in Las Vegas is going to be your best show."

It's unlikely another American city would knock Las Vegas from its perch as the No. 1 convention city, Genoist said.

But increasing competition means every dissatisfied customer in Las Vegas is more likely to be targeted by another destination.

"No destination can be complacent," she said.

AVERAGE DAILY ROOM RATE IN TOP DESTINATIONS:

--New York City: $212

--Oahu, Hawaii: $140

--Miami: $128

--San Francisco: $125

--LA/Long Beach, Calif.: $104

--Las Vegas: $103

--Orlando, Fla.: $92

--Top 25 market average: $109

SOURCE: Smith Travel Research/Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority

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To see more of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.lvrj.com.

Copyright (c) 2006, Las Vegas Review-Journal

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