Is Vegas back? Not yet, but the gaming capital has reached a tipping point By Howard Stutz, Executive Editor, CDC Gaming Reports May 15, 2021 at 5:00 am Las Vegas is healthy again, but more needs to happen before the patient receives the all-clear. As we look back at the last 14 months, this week’s slate of news from Las Vegas could be viewed as the tipping point for the epicenter of the gaming industry. Analysts, the investment community, and the industry in general are anticipating the time Las Vegas achieves business levels and numbers that would equate with a full-scale post-pandemic recovery. We’re not there yet, so in sports terminology, don’t spike the football short of the end zone. Shutterstock/Las Vegas Strip Major casino operators along the Strip and within Las Vegas locals markets were cleared by gaming regulators this week for 100% occupancy on casino floors without social-distancing measures. Several properties, notably Wynn Las Vegas and Encore, removed plexiglass dividers from table games and slot machines. On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said individuals fully vaccinated against COVID-19 could resume activities without wearing facial coverings in indoor or outdoor settings. The Gaming Control Board, following the governor’s lead, ended mask mandates in casinos. A key point here: Unvaccinated casino customers and employees, however, still need to wear masks, based on CDC recommendations. But Control Board agents will not spend time weeding out violators. As Chairman Brin Gibson said in a statement, “It is not practical.” Wynn Resorts said that it “trusts guests to take appropriate precautions.” So we’ve reached the start of Las Vegas’ COVID-19 recovery. In March, Strip gaming revenues topped more than $500 million for the first time since February 2020. Several analysts project April’s gaming revenues to be equally impressive. But Las Vegas is far from recovered. A vibrant gaming floor is one piece of the overall puzzle. Prior to the pandemic, gaming revenues accounted for roughly 35% of the total taxable revenues produced by Strip casinos. Non-gaming amenities – hotel rooms, restaurants, entertainment, and retail – accounted for 65% of the overall total. The major driver of the non-gaming business comes from the convention and meetings segment that fills the Las Vegas Valley’s more than 145,000 hotel rooms during the middle of the week. In 2019, a record 6.65 million convention delegates came to Las Vegas, more than 15% of the market’s 42.5 million visitors that year. Next month, eyes will turn to the World of Concrete conference and tradeshow, the city’s first large-scale event in more than a year. The attendance and the tradeshow itself – much of it taking place in the Las Vegas Convention Center’s new $989 million West Hall expansion – is secondary to how the tourism industry handles its first large influx of visitors. Strip resorts have been challenged to fill hundreds of open positions as business begins to ramp up. Many properties launched hiring events during April and May. “We don’t want to be in a position where we can open all the restaurants and open at 100% of our occupancy, but not have enough people to serve our guests the way we want to serve them,” MGM Resorts International Vice President Randy Goldberg told the Las Vegas Review-Journal last month. During recent quarterly conference calls, executives from MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment expressed confidence in forward bookings for tradeshows and events. “Our group business remains solid in the back half of this year,” MGM Resorts CEO Bill Hornbuckle said on April 28. “With the larger groups expected to return at scale in 2022, our business in 2022 and 2023 is on pace with pre-COVID levels.” Caesars President Anthony Carano offered a similar view on May 4. “Group and convention room nights on the books for the second half of 2021 versus 2019 are currently pacing up approximately 20% and we’re seeing good rate growth as well,” Carano said. “We’re very optimistic regarding the remaining three quarters of the year in Las Vegas and the return of the group and convention business and entertainment offerings that will drive incremental demand to the market.” International airline travel also needs a return to health. Through March, international flights to and from McCarran International were down 93.2%, following a 79.5% decline in 2020. McCarran Director of Aviation Rosemary Vassiliadis will address the issue in front of a U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Tourism, Trade, and Export Promotion next week. Meanwhile, the opening of the $4.3 billion Resorts World Las Vegas on June 24, the Strip’s first all-new megaresort in more than a decade, has a late 2021/early 2022 timeline for the performances of its high-profile entertainment. Celine Dion’s return to Las Vegas is on Nov. 5, Carrie Underwood and Katy Perry will take turns headlining in December, and county music star Luke Bryan takes the stage in February. If all goes as planned, the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders will play in front of fans this fall in the 65,000-seat Allegiant Stadium and the National Finals Rodeo will return in December. Las Vegas appears to be on the road to recovery. Hopefully, nothing will veer the Strip off course. Former CDC Gaming Reports Executive Editor Howard Stutz is joining The Nevada Independent this week.