When Jill Yank arrived in Las Vegas from her home of Newport Beach, California, on Memorial Day, she wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Yank’s last trip to Las Vegas in October 2020 had left her disappointed. Though casinos had been open for several months by that point, the visit didn’t offer the usual escape she had come to cherish during her three-plus decades of traveling to Las Vegas.
Yank checked in to Caesars Palace the night of May 31, mere hours before the Strip would formally return to 100%capacity for the first time since the start of the Covid-19pandemic. Yank was quickly immersed in a different world than the one she’d left in southern California. Hundreds of guests streamed through the hotel lobby, while the casino’s poker room was packed to the brim. Even open slot machines were hard to come by.
“Everybody was just out in droves again and it was extremely crowded,” says Yank, a real estate professional. “I was kind of shocked to see people running around again. It was so crowded and not a care in the world. You don’t know who’s vaccinated and who isn’t. It just seemed like nobody really cared, like life is back to normal.”
Memorial Day weekend was a significant barometer for Las Vegas tourism, but July and August are when the region could begin to see demand that reflects pre-pandemic times. The opening of Resorts World Las Vegas, plus the debut of the Las Vegas Convention Center’s West Hall and the Boring Company’s underground tunnel, will give tourists plenty of new things to visit on arrival. Plus, the return of large conventions and mass entertainment events all but ensure the region will see sustained travel throughout the summer months. The reopening of Las Vegas is also testing the relationship between employers and the tens of thousands of hospitality workers who make the city tick. Nevada lawmakers recently passed a Right to Return law that gives workers laid off during the pandemic the right to return to their jobs beginning July 1. Approximately 50% of the 60,000 Culinary Union members were still out of work by mid-June, for instance.
Local and state leaders appropriately timed Las Vegas’ reopening with the larger economic recovery of the United States. As millions of people received their vaccinations this spring, Las Vegas became a de-facto destination for Americans antsy to move around freely and let go of Covid worries. By the second week of May, casino operators began receiving the green light to return to full capacity and remove social distancing measures, including mask wearing, as long as their workforce was 80% vaccinated. Nearly every major Strip casino was approved for full capacity ahead of the June 1 full reopening deadline.
The first weeks of June marked several significant milestones. World of Concrete, which kicked off June 7, ended a 15-month convention drought. The convention coincided with the long-awaited debut of the Las Vegas Convention Center’s West Hall, a 1.4 million square-foot space that came with a $1bn price tag. Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak and Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority president Steve Hill were among the dignitaries on hand for a ceremonial ribbon-cutting.
Construction on the West Hall began in September 2018 and its opening was delayed six months. The building includes600,000 square feet of exhibition space and 328,000 square feet of column-free space, the largest column-free exhibition space in North America, according to the LVCVA. Samsung also developed a 10,000-square-foot digital screen displayed in an open-air atrium, which is the largest digital experience in a convention center in the country. Exhibition planner Informa Markets, which put on WOC, already has 10 additional events planned at the West Hall by the end of the year.
“We are thrilled to be returning to the live event format, especially in the home of the exhibitions industry in the US – Las Vegas,” said Nancy Walsh, president, North America at Informa Markets. “There is an unparalleled magic about in-person connection, from sharing laughs with old friends, creating new ones, learning from industry experts, and seeing and feeling the latest products and innovations.”
Elon Musk’s The Boring Co. debuted its LVCC Loop at WOC as well. The underground tunnel carries passengers across a 200-acrecampus via Tesla vehicles. The transportation system covers 1.7 miles, using two tunnels and three stations, two of which are surface and one 40 feet subsurface. The Loop transports riders in less than two minutes, saving visitors as much as a 20-minute walk. The system cost $52.5m to build, and there are plans to expand to Downtown, the Strip and Allegiant Stadium.
The Caesars Forum Conference Center hosted its first major convention on June 15 as well, welcoming more than 1,000attendees for the Meeting Professionals International World Education Congress. The 550,000 square foot conference center was initially expected to open last March but the pandemic derailed those plans. Caesars has grand plans for the $370m facility, which will be used as a location for the 2022 NFL Draft.
A world of difference
The return of conventions coincided with another momentous event: the opening of Resorts World Las Vegas. The $4.3bn project had been under construction since May 2015 and navigated through several delays, some outside of operator Genting Group’s control. The resort includes a 117,000 square foot casino and more than 3,000 hotel rooms. It is the first ground-up resort to open on the Strip since The Cosmopolitan debuted in 2010.
Resorts World went ahead with a summer opening despite ongoing travel restrictions from Asia, which is expected to provide a bulk of the Mongolian-backed resort’s clientele base. McCarran Airport reported minimal international air travel through the first four months of 2021, and most of those visitors were from Mexico. David Schwartz, a gaming historian and ombudsman at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, expects both domestic and international air travel to pick up considerably later this year.
“Traditionally, international tourists were the most lucrative customer segment for Las Vegas, followed by domestic fly-in convention, domestic fly-in leisure, and drive-in customers,” says Schwartz. “For many months after reopening, Las Vegas casinos relied on their least lucrative customer segment, so the return of international and domestic fly-in visitors bodes well for the industry’s future.”
The influx of people visiting Las Vegas this summer has undoubtedly put a strain on casinos and other local businesses, many of which were caught off guard by how quickly tourism returned. This spring tourists were met with severe Uber and Lyft shortages, leading Sisolak to lift a ban on ride-hailing surge pricing. Several Strip restaurants and shops have yet to reopen their doors, leaving tourists like Yank frustrated.
“I tried to go into two Caesars Palace shops that I frequent and the actual Caesars shop where you get the gift packs and things like that, and it wasn’t even opened,” Yank says. “I asked the staff about that and all over Vegas, they’re having trouble getting people getting back to work because they’ve either gotten other jobs or they’re not fully staffed.”
Bethany Khan, director of communications and digital strategy at the Culinary Union, says the blame is on casinos who“simply haven’t recalled employees back to work.” During the peak of the pandemic, 98% of Culinary Union members were unemployed. Only 30,000 were back at work by this spring. That led Sisolak to sign SB386, a law that guarantees laid-off hospitality workers can return to their former jobs beginning in July.
“This wasn’t about an argument about a bill,” Sisolak told Culinary Union members during a June 15 trip to southern Nevada. “This was about people. This was about people that worked for a living – hard-working people that have built this city. They fueled this tourism economy. Without you, nobody’s coming to Las Vegas.”
Known as the Right to Work bill, the law mandates employers (with 30 or more employees) must offer laid-off employees job openings for the same or similar positions as the employee previously worked. Workers who receive a job offer will have 24 hours to accept or decline and must be ready to work within five days. Protections in SB386 begin July 1 and expire August 31.
“No organization in Nevada has done what the Culinary Union has accomplished in order to protect workers over the past 14 months, from providing daily food assistance to fiercely advocating to have workers brought back to work, and preserving worker’s health care benefits. We are proud to have supported workers every step of the way during this crisis,” Khan says.
Casinos have worked with the Culinary Union to vaccinate workers, and so far the vaccinations have kept Las Vegas’ Covid-19 infection rates down. Between mid-May to mid-June, the region maintained a seven-day average of fewer than 300 new cases per day.
Ensuring that workers and guests remain healthy is a top priority ahead of a loaded summer entertainment calendar that should deliver enormous crowds. Some highlights: the July 4 fireworks show, Justin Bieber at the Wynn, UFC 264 Poirier vs. McGregor at T-Mobile Arena, the WNBA All-Star Game at Mandalay Bay, and the CONCACAF Gold Cup Final at Allegiant Stadium.“Las Vegas is a city built on hospitality and entertainment, and we are thrilled to welcome visitors back from around the country,” said Kate Wik, chief marketing officer for the LVCVA. “The excitement throughout the destination is palpable, and we know the pent-up demand to visit is real.”