Nevada Conventions, Trade Shows, Entertainment Vie for Comeback

Whether it’s rapid testing for Covid-19, social distancing, state of the art cleaning or a demonstration trade show, casinos in major convention destinations are bidding for a return of meetings and entertainment. Chandra Allison (l.), senior vice president of sales at the Venetian and Sands Expo, says MICE is crucial for her property.

Nevada Conventions, Trade Shows, Entertainment Vie for Comeback

To help convince Governor Steve Sisolak that Las Vegas is ready to open its doors to conventions again, the Las Vegas Sands Corporation created a mock trade show with social distancing within a 296,000-square-foot area at the Sands Expo hall.

The event, held over several days in September, took the governor and meeting industry representatives through the entire trade show process, from arrival and registration to exhibit halls and vendor booths. The expo center also staged food courts and general sessions with updated protocols, from social distancing to sanitation procedures, according to the Las Vegas Review Journal.

“Meetings are at the heart of the Venetian Resort, and we recognize the importance of bringing meetings back in a safe and responsible way,” Chandra Allison, senior vice president of sales at the Venetian and Sands Expo, said in a statement.

The Expo, which hosts trade shows like the CES each year, created several initiatives to keep attendees safe. Sands is participating in a pilot program testing a “smart ring” that could potentially predict the onset of the virus before symptoms appear, as well as a digital device that can aid contact tracing efforts.

The company partnered with ABC’s Shark Tank over the summer to both host the TV show’s production and test the new Venetian Clean meeting and trade show safety protocols. Sands proved successful in creating a bubble around the show’s production, using tools such as on-site testing and new food and beverage guidelines. More than two months after production began, and with zero cases of positive Covid-19 test, the experiment was considered a success.

Sisolak said on September 29 that capacity limits would be eased so larger meetings, concerts, sports and trade shows could be held. Event organizers can apply to host up to 1,000 attendees, with people separated into groups of no more than 250 at a time in areas such as banquet halls.

“This is not the end. This is the first step toward getting us where we need to get back to. We need to get some people back to work,” he said.

Nevada’s cumulative positivity rate ranks 9th in the U.S., said the Covid Tracking Project. But a seven-day average of the positivity rate dipped to 7.8 percent, half the rate for July 9.

Some casinos believe the ability to test for Covid-19 and get back rapid results is crucial and that lies at the core of plans by MGM Resorts International to apply a defibrillator to its moribund convention business. Other Las Vegas casino companies are preparing to do the same.

The move represents the most significant step in eliminating Covid-19 restrictions, since casinos opened June 4, according to the Associated Press.

“I know you may be considering locations in other states,” Sisolak said to convention planners. “But before you make a decision, understand that Nevada is not only open for business, we plan to be open for the long term.”

Businesses must send plans to local authorities to account for such factors as social distancing. Venues that can accommodate more than 2,500 guests will be allowed to operate at 10 percent capacity. Smaller venues will be able to host up to 50 percent capacity or 250 patrons, whichever is less. However, anything in stadiums, arenas and convention halls requires state permission, Sisolak said.

Other restrictions, including a 50 percent capacity limit in casinos and restaurants, remain in place.

MGM last week unveiled Convene with Confidence, a plan that it says will enable it to safely bring back conventions to its U.S. properties. The same day Wynn Resorts Ltd. said it also plans to use this technology.

MGM Resorts CEO and President Bill Hornbuckle said in a statement “Convene With Confidence represents the culmination of everything we’ve learned, cutting-edge technology and months of consultation with experts.”

The same day Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak announced that small scale conventions can begin again, with small-scale meaning 1,000 or less attendees, with no more than 250 people in a room at a time.

Conventions have become a major part of casino business, and in the last six months they have fallen to zero. Conventions have been called the “bread and butter” of the Las Vegas economy.

MGM’s protocol will offer virtual, hybrid and in-person events where guests will be able to use rapid testing and touchless kiosks before entering a venue.

Atif Rafiq, MGM’s president of commercial and growth commented, “MGM Resorts and others are trying to really look at each resort experience or each service we provide and find a way forward.” He continued, “This is another indication of Las Vegas trying to lead.”

The company offers assistance for pre-event planning, digital registration, social distancing, cleaning and disinfection protocols, along with meal and break services. These elements add to safety plans already in place such as temperature screenings, mandatory masks, clear plastic barriers, and spraying to prevent the spread of virus.

The additions, if used, will be based on a red-light, green-light CLEAR Health Pass system and on-site rapid molecular tests using nasal swabs that can produce results in 20 minutes. Fees for the screening and monitoring process will be based on the size of the group.

Impact Health, of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, will provide the tests, while New York-based CLEAR, will make its mobile app for attendees.

Conference-goers will step on an electronic kiosk for a temperature check and to scan a computer code from their app. A green signal allows entry while a red requires a protocol for further assessment.

The same technology has been used in some sporting events, such as the NHL and Stanley Cup playoffs, which reported no cases.

Wynn Resorts says it plans to open a lab at the Wynn Convention Center expansion later this year using thousands of the rapid tests daily. All at a low cost and with a 99 percent accuracy rate. It also plans to share the technology with other business to use or customize, said Wynn.

Wynn Resorts CEO Matt Maddox published an Op-Ed in the Nevada Independent detailing the company’s vision on how to jump start the Las Vegas entertainment, nightlife and convention scene.

He wrote, “What Las Vegas does better than anywhere else in the world is provide a fun escape. Now, more than ever, people need to unwind and switch off from the stresses and strains of daily life.”

Noting that Wynn “reopened with top-notch health and safety protocols: stringent employee testing, a dedicated contact tracing team, and rigorous sanitation plans,” he wrote, “For months, we have been working with University Medical Center (UMC), Georgetown University and leading labs in California and New York to study technology that can rapidly and rigorously test thousands of people in a matter of hours. The progress in rapid testing has been incredible to witness and we are now in the process of building an on-site lab with UMC at Wynn Las Vegas to deploy thousands of accurate rapid tests daily at a fraction of the current cost.”

Chandra Allison, senior president of sales for the Venetian Resort and Sands Expo, said “Our resort — from the suites of our hotel towers to the meeting space of the Congress Center and Sands Expo Convention Center— is ready for meetings and conventions to return safely.” She continued, “We are encouraged as this announcement (from Sisolak) marks a first in a series of steps to open our city for meetings, conventions and tradeshows.”

Caesars Entertainment Inc., made a similar announcement that would, said a spokesman, “allow for larger meetings and assure that Las Vegas is not only the best city to gather in but also the safest.”

MGM’s Rafiq said no one expects business to return to normal levels. He told the Las Vegas Review-Journal: “But we’re eager to get going, to stimulate that. It’s a very meaningful part of Las Vegas visitation.”

In a press conference the governor urged associations and groups who are thinking about taking their convention business away to be patient, that the capacity requirements are “only the first step.” He urged convention organizers not to take their business to other states that won’t be able to guarantee guests’ safety to the same degree that Nevada will be able to.

The service that gaming companies will use first asks patrons to download a biometric mobile app and create an account before attending an event. They will be ask to take a photo of themselves and verify their identity while answering a series of health questions.

Once the guest arrives at the event, the rapid test can give a result on the app within 20 minutes. Besides taking the test, attendees can go to the touchless kiosk for a temperature scan.

Wynn is emphasizing that its new testing technology protocols “will offer the most sensitive and accurate test available in the United States utilizing FDA approved ‘gold standard’ PCR (polymerase chain reaction) technology, and we are talking to UNLV to track and analyze the results.”

Maddox stressed the importance of getting such procedures in place before Thanksgiving. “Extensive research clearly indicates that what is keeping people away from Las Vegas is not so much the physical environment, which we work diligently to keep sterilized, but rather a fear of other people. We must alleviate that fear.”

In New Jersey, Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo and John Armato have asked Governor Phil Murphy to lessen restrictions to help bring back Atlantic City’s $1.9 billion convention and trade show industry, which ground to a halt in March.

Right now, indoor gatherings remain capped at 25 percent of capacity or 150 people.

“Without the convention and meeting industry, the negative economic impact to both large and small businesses, including lost wages, will be devastating to the market and residents of Atlantic City and Atlantic County,” the assemblymen wrote in a joint letter October 5. “Atlantic City cannot afford to sit empty through the winter season, and certainly cannot afford the long-term impact of not being able to schedule conventions and trade shows for upcoming or future dates.”

Restrictions cost the region the League of Municipalities, New Jersey Education Association, Northeast Pool and Spa, Police Security Expo and The National Sports Collectors Convention, according to the Press of Atlantic City.

A second-quarter report by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research showed that the impact is not limited to casino regions.

“About 88 percent of events originally scheduled in the second quarter were canceled; the remaining 12 percent were postponed and some of those events may eventually be canceled as well,” according to the report.

Michael Chait, president of the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce said the chamber has been talking with state officials about increasing indoor capacity in order to reopen the convention industry.

“The midweek convention industry carries us through the late fall, winter and early spring,” Chait said. “We are having discussions about protecting the conventions that are scheduled for January.”

Meanwhile, another leg of Las Vegas prosperities, its shows, are working to reopen. Part of Sisolak’s lifting of some restrictions including rules for theaters.

Live events can resume as long as they submit a safety plan and limit audiences to a maximum of 250 people or 50 percent of capacity, whichever is fewer. Social distancing of 6 feet must also be maintained.

Although theaters could theoretically resume this week, it will undoubtedly take weeks to write the plans, and get them approved for each production.

David Saxe figures it like this. Sure, he’s got problems reopening his various shows under the new protocols to reduce the coronavirus pandemic risk. Even the loosening capacity for shows offers little solace. The Mentalist and All Shook Up won’t be able to fill the room at the V Theater in the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood.

He said there’s no way to go but forward.

“It’s extremely challenging on so many levels but I think just like most people in entertainment, we can’t not try to get a show open or put a show together. It’s just in our blood.”

A Las Vegas native, Saxe produces long running shows like V – The Ultimate Variety Show and Vegas! The Show, and owns and operates the Saxe Theater and V Theater where many more popular shows like Zombie Burlesque, BeatleShow and Motown revue Hitzville run like clockwork, according to the Las Vegas Sun. He allowed shows to cross-promote one another.

Then the virus arrived. Everything shut down across the country in mid-March. Planet Hollywood has since reopened and the shops came back in June.

Wynn Las Vegas, which operates the 1,500 seat Encore Theater, reacted to the governor’s announcement with this statement: “The governor’s directive increasing the size of gatherings is a positive step for our city. We share in his enthusiasm to take a phased approach to ensure the long-term safety of Nevada, and are working on an in-depth plan to welcome back large groups in a safe and reliable fashion.”

Cirque du Soleil, which regularly performs at Treasure Island, New York-New York and other properties in Las Vegas, also responded: “We are encouraged by the next phase of the governor’s reopening plan, which includes live entertainment. At this point, we are continuing to plan for our shows to return safely to our theaters and for capacity limits to increase to a point where it is financially viable to resume performances.”

MGM’s president of entertainment and sports, George Kliavkoff, added, “Entertainment is in our DNA. We welcome the governor’s decision allowing for the beginning of a return for the entertainment industry in Las Vegas. We will take some time to review the specifications of the executive directive and plan for how to best proceed with getting shows back onstage, employees back to work and audiences back in their seats, the way it is supposed to be!”

Caesars Entertainment reacted with a similar statement, congratulating the governor and other officials and concluding, “We encourage them to continue to boldly lead by example to show that through thoughtful planning and the cooperation of guests, we can see live entertainment where it belongs, back onstage.”

Some shows, like Sir Harry Cowell’s Raiding the Rock Vault, are prevented from returning to Las Vegas because of lockdowns. Cowell declared in a phone call with Las Vegas Sun, “I don’t think people in Vegas or America understand that the borders are closed, so we Brits can’t come to visit.”

Cowell added, “I can’t come home. These are very odd times. Getting a phone call in the middle of the night and hearing what the governor said was exciting and wonderful news, but reopening is not what I’m seeing here. We’re locked down and we’re not opening.”

Hanoch Rossen, creator of WOW – The Vegas Spectacular at the Rio and Extravaganza at Bally’s, told the Las Vegas Sun that it is feasible for the shows to operate with 250 person audiences but it would take several weeks to reopen. He said, “We have been in contact with the casts of both shows quite frequently, to keep them informed and ensure that they and their families are safe and healthy.”

Spiegelworld, which puts on three shows at different Strip venues, is nearly ready to reopen, said founder Ross Mollison. “If our plans meet the requirements stipulated, we will collaborate with our resort partners to reopen each Spiegelworld show in a measured way,” he said.

The regulations will be easier for smaller show venues to follow. Larger shows can petition to expand their audiences to 10 percent of capacity if the state approves of their reopening plan. This can be done by dividing the venue into separate sections with separate staffs and entrances/exits.

“There are a lot of things (the state government) put on us and I’m trying to make sure we can deliver all of that the right way. We’re trying to get clarification on exactly what we have to do and how we have to do it, and then [the next] phase is, is this even commercially viable?,” Saxe said.

In addition to 50 percent capacity limitations, Saxe may have to deal with a 25-foot setback between stage and audience, a sticking point for sure. “Even if we can open up and all the protocols are met with no code violations, the distancing measures will [bring down] capacities. I’ve got this whole model built on how to populate the rooms.