After more than a year of lethargic convention attendance in Las Vegas, the meetings and trade show industry will regain much of its health in 2011.
Southern Nevadans can thank rebounding corporate profits, a relentless convention sales force and that irksome volcano in Iceland for putting the local industry on the road to recovery.
Using 2007 as a benchmark — the year Las Vegas saw a record 6.2 million conventiongoers — next year’s visitor numbers are expected to reach levels on par with late 2005 or early 2006 in the run-up to those glory days.
After stellar 2007, convention traffic tanked.
The recession hit Las Vegas in August 2008 when convention traffic fell 22.3 percent from the same month a year earlier. There were double-digit percentage declines in four of the 12 months of 2008, even though the annual decrease was just 5 percent.
In 2009, convention traffic was off 23.9 percent for the year and August 2009 was down a stunning 58.9 percent from that ugly August 2008 number.
“We didn’t just ease into it,” said Chris Meyer, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority vice president of sales. “It went right off the cliff in 2008, and it stayed that way for several months.”
The crash was a byproduct of the Great Recession as companies retreated from travel. Local experts are convinced that a recovery didn’t begin immediately because of President Barack Obama’s remarks about spending economic stimulus money on corporate junkets.
“It had a chilling effect for the entire industry, but it may have hurt us more because we got singled out,” Meyer said. “A lot of companies and organizations said they felt horrible about canceling their events here, but they also said, ‘When we get a chance to rebook, we’re calling you first.’ ”
Jan Freitag, vice president of global development for STR, a travel research company based in Hendersonville, Tenn., said the dive in corporate travel wasn’t just a Las Vegas phenomenon.
In fact, in more cases than not, Freitag said, Las Vegas defies conventional travel trends.
“There are three basic trends we’re watching,” he said. “Nationwide, the growth rate of new hotel rooms has decreased. Las Vegas has almost always been an exception to the market in that area.”
The second trend, he said, is that room demand is up. For the first 10 months of 2010, the total number of rooms sold was up 7.6 percent from the previous year.
In Las Vegas, room sales were up 3.3 percent during that time, although room inventory was up 4.6 percent, thanks primarily to the opening of CityCenter and new towers at the Hard Rock Hotel, Golden Nugget and Planet Hollywood in 2009.
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