|By Richard N. Velotta, Las Vegas
SunMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jan. 30, 2012--Once in a while, Chris Meyer sees a few familiar faces from out of town hanging around trade shows at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
They're here to steal his business.
"Yeah, I'll see people from Orlando and Chicago in here," said Meyer, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority's vice president of sales. "They're usually talking with show managers, making a pitch to give them a try."
The pitches haven't been too successful so far, as Las Vegas continues to dominate as a site for conventions. Industry associations report that the city hosts the highest percentage of the nation's top 200 trade shows and exhibitions.
The 2012 forecast from Meyer and others familiar with the trade show industry is that Las Vegas won't lose any ground, either.
"It's looking really, really good this year," said Eric Bello, vice president of sales for Las Vegas Sands, the parent company of the Venetian and Palazzo hotels and the Sands Expo and Convention Center. "The trade shows and large corporate meetings are off to a fine start.
"April is stellar. May is stellar. I have to temper my excitement a little bit because we have to get through July and August, which are still a little soft."
Even September has a few gaps, which Bello attributed to the observance of Labor Day and major Jewish holidays falling relatively early on the calendar. But for the most part, meetings and conventions will be key to driving visitor volume in 2012.
"We're seeing increasing strength in the meetings and conventions sectors," said Alan Feldman, a spokesman for MGM Resorts International, which hosts large trade shows at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center and smaller gatherings at Aria, the MGM Grand, Bellagio and the Mirage.
"Not only are meeting bookings up, but the number of room (bookings) are up and room cancellations are down, all of which is good," Feldman said. "It's a sign that business is getting back to business across the country."
Feldman said another telltale sign that the economy is picking up is that conventioneers are staying longer after their meetings.
"Future bookings are looking good, and we're seeing strength in numbers (of bookings) and in room rates," Feldman said. "This renewed strength in all these areas has been consistent for three to four quarters."
In the first 11 months of 2011, attendees of conventions and meetings represented more than 13.1 percent of the city's tourist visitation. In 2010, it was just under 12 percent.
In the first 11 months of last year, the city played host to 17,756 conventions, trade shows, meetings and conferences, a 4.6 percent increase over the first 11 months of 2010. Attendance was up 9.2 percent to 4.7 million people.
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The International Consumer Electronics Show got 2012 rolling, drawing more than 140,000 attendees for what will be the largest show of the year.
The year starts strong, with six of the city's top 10 shows by attendance being staged in the first quarter. Besides CES:
--The Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show -- or SHOT Show, as it's commonly known -- brought 45,000 delegates to Las Vegas from Jan. 17-20.
--The World of Concrete drew 50,000 attendees from Jan. 23-26.
--The World Market Center, expected to draw 50,000 people, is scheduled this week through Feb. 3.
--The spring version of one of Las Vegas' most enduring shows, MAGIC International, a major fashion exhibition, is here Feb. 13-15. The event is expected to attract 75,000 people.
--ASD Las Vegas, the spring Retail Merchandise Trade Show, closes out the quarter March 25-28. Organizers say about 41,000 attendees will be on hand.
Meyer says that even though Las Vegas won't see the massive ConExpo-Con/Ag construction show this spring because it only meets once every three years, 2012 is shaping up to be extremely lucrative, thanks to a handful of new events and a major exhibition staged once every four years.
"Typically, we're jammed for the first six months of the year," Meyer said. "The first quarter is great, but this year I don't see things falling off until late June."
Bello said this year's SHOT Show produced phenomenal results for the Sands properties.
"The last time they were here, they didn't sell out," Bello said. "But this year, they were up approximately 18 percent. Our retail outlets did extremely well, and we set records for in-suite dining."
Bello said CES also was great for his company.
"The Tuesday and Wednesday of the show were the fifth and sixth best room days in our history," he said.
Bello said the Venetian and Palazzo had 100 percent occupancy during CES. Because high demand drives room rates higher, the two properties saw a staggering $4 million a night in room revenue for the 7,100-suite property.
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In past years, convention calendars filled quickly. But when the economy went south, some meeting planners canceled shows and weren't as quick to rebook. The pattern now is that some shows are scheduled and planned as little as two months in advance, Meyer said.
One of the reasons for last-minute meeting bookings is that corporate budgets are firmed at the end of the year, and show organizers and companies scramble for space in January to take advantage while budgets are fat.
That's why it was critical for the city to make a favorable impression from CES -- to win over meeting planners who were considering Las Vegas, Orlando, Chicago and a handful of other venue sites and were in town during that show.
The city's convention facility capacity gives it an edge on late bookings, since there are several venues in the city that can handle shows large and small. The Las Vegas Convention Center, the Sands Expo Center and the Mandalay Bay Convention Center are among the 10 largest convention centers in the country.
While the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority scouts for shows it wants to bring to the city, convention business and sales staffs from resorts are doing their own prospecting. A key sector in which several resorts have found success is in corporate meetings.
Local properties have targeted health care, financial services and information technology corporate gatherings.
When President Barack Obama made remarks that discouraged some companies from conducting their events in Las Vegas, financial services and insurance company corporate meetings were affected most.
In 2009, officials estimated that 402 meetings that had been scheduled in Las Vegas were canceled, though it was unclear at the time whether the development was due to the economy or the president's comments.
But Meyer said most of the companies that canceled their Las Vegas reservations had come back, although he didn't estimate a percentage of returning shows. He named financial services and insurance broker MetLife as one of the returning companies.
"Most of the companies that exhibited bad behavior during a time when politicians were running to the microphone to criticize business travel have returned in full force to the destination," Meyer said in an email. "In fact, we just hosted MetLife. If you remember, the financial services sector was certainly the target for much of the political rhetoric."
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While Meyer is always keeping an eye on competitors in his building, he eagerly promotes Las Vegas' unparalleled value.
"The value proposition for Las Vegas is stronger than ever," he said. "We don't hesitate to mention that you can get more bang for the buck here. We've got accommodations from the five-star level to the budget level."
That value proposition is bringing some significant new shows to the city.
One of the big additions will be the Healthcare Information Management Systems Society annual conference and exhibition, a 30,000-delegate show scheduled Feb. 20-24 at the Sands Expo Center.
Show organizers cited high costs in 2009 when they fled Chicago, their traditional meeting location. The loss of the show spurred Illinois lawmakers to pass legislation designed to cut costs for show producers. Last year, organizers said they'd move the show back to Chicago in 2015 and 2019.
But Las Vegas has it for now, and it may be hard for organizers to go back to Chicago full-time if the show produces the kind of results most shows experience here. Shows that rotate through Las Vegas normally get their best attendance here, often by as much as 10 percent more, because of the city's many amenities.
"Medical shows and information technology have become really important for us," Bello said. "Nearly 60 percent of our corporate meetings -- sales and marketing conferences, developer meetings, user conferences -- are done by IT companies. And we're getting close to pre-2008 levels."
Another addition to the convention calendar is the 2012 Golf Industry Show, which will feature partners from several associations meeting at the same time at the Las Vegas Convention Center. An estimated 20,000 people will attend the show Feb. 24 through March 3.
While it's an off year for the ConExpo, a major quadrennial show -- MineExpo 2012 -- will be here Sept. 24-26. Featuring some of the largest machines built, the show is expected to bring 37,000 attendees to the Convention Center.
While pure happenstance makes odd-numbered years better for Las Vegas in terms of rotation -- shows that move back and forth between one or more cities -- 2012 will bring back two substantial shows.
The Institute of Food Technologists will be held June 26-28, and the 2012 Specialty Graphics Annual National Convention is here Oct. 18-20. The shows are expected to attract 22,000 and 23,000 attendees, respectively, and both will be held at the Convention Center.
Besides CES, only one other show is expected to bring in more than 100,000 people. Automotive Aftermarket Industry Week will occur Oct. 30 to Nov. 4, and the LVCVA is forecasting 115,000 for that event at the Convention Center and the Sands Expo Center.
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