LAS VEGAS – A new commercial beckoning travelers to return was ready to go.
The 30-second ad showed a suited man flipping a lever and powering up the slumbering Las Vegas Strip in a spectacular burst of electricity and color.
It was set for launch Tuesday morning, two days before casinos planned to end the coronavirus shutdown and open doors to visitors for the first time in almost 80 days.
But weekend demonstrations resulted in hundreds of arrests. Police used tear gas, pepper balls and beanbag projectiles to break up protesters, and tourism authorities pushed the launch to Thursday – reopening day.
Things changed again when another violent night of unrest left a police officer shot in the head and a man dead outside a courthouse. The commercial was shelved.
“We pulled the ads,” said Billy Vassiliadis, CEO of R&R Partners, the firm behind the city’s famous “What happens here” campaign and the latest commercials trying to get visitors back to Las Vegas. “We were ready to go, but it felt wrong. Because of the passion and sensitivity and pain our community was feeling, as well as every community in the country, we thought it would be more appropriate to show restraint.”
Nightly protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death added a layer of troubles to an already complex situation. The pandemic collapsed the tourism economy, put hundreds of thousands out of work and created a fear of flying in airplanes – the way most of the money Las Vegas depends on gets here.
Those ingredients – plus 109-degree desert heat – made for a less than spectacular reopening. “It was almost like a soft opening,” Vassiliadis said.
What will it take for Las Vegas to return to form?
Breaking out of quarantine mode
The Strip woke up slowly Thursday, with foot traffic light in casinos by lunch time.
“It was not as strong as what we saw in regional markets,” said Macquarie research analyst Chad Beynon. “The casino floors were full for what we’d call a regular Thursday.”
By Friday night at Caesars Palace, there was a clear uptick in energy. New Vegas more resembled the get-away-from-it-all destination it was before the shutdown: heavy foot traffic between slots and card tables, bodies at every open bar and restaurant, incoming travelers dragging luggage from the parking garage.
With intel from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, Vassiliadis monitors room occupancy rates, bookings and visitor numbers at McCarran International Airport. The data, he said, has been promising – but nowhere near pre-pandemic levels.
Las Vegas counted 106,900 visitors in April, down 97% from early in the year. In January and February, before coronavirus crushed travel demand, Las Vegas welcomed more than 3 million visitors. It will take time for travelers to build up confidence and switch from quarantine mode to vacation mode.
“The biggest thing is getting people comfortable locking their house up and leaving it for three, four days and going someplace where they’re not fearful,” Vassiliadis said. “It’s a mindset change and behavioral change. People went from being mobile and free to staying home for three months. There’s going to be an adjustment back to mobility – but I don’t think it’s going to be long.”
Booming by Father’s Day?
Derek Stevens, owner of the D Las Vegas and Golden Gate, expects Las Vegas to be bustling again by mid-June as hotels reopen and visitors return.
“The week after Father’s Day, I think we’re booming,” he said.
He said downtown, home to 6,000 of Las Vegas’ 155,000 hotel rooms, is expected to recover more quickly than the Strip because it doesn’t rely on convention business.
“We always thought that the independent traveler is going to come back first before a trade show is going to make a decision to bring 40,000 people here,” he said.
What could change his optimistic outlook: an increase in coronavirus cases around the country that results in new or extended stay-at-home orders.
‘Business will grow over time’
MGM Resorts International is booking 30% to 35% of available rooms at the reopened Bellagio, New York-New York and MGM Grand.
“We don’t want to fill these things up right now,” said John Flynn, vice president of administration. “We just want to take this slow, methodical philosophy moving forward and show that we can do it. And we think we can.”
MGM Resorts Acting CEO Bill Hornbuckle said he will consider reopening week a success if visitors “go home and say, ‘While it was different, it was safe, it was fun, and it’s still the Vegas I know.’ ”
Hopefully, he said, they’ll spread the word to others “so that ultimately, the business will grow over time.”
Contributing: Dawn Gilbertson, USA TODAY
Ed Komenda writes about Las Vegas for the Reno Gazette Journal and USA Today Network. Do you care about democracy? Then support local journalism by subscribing to the Reno Gazette Journal right here.