Convention attendance hit hard by falling economy

Dip not due to president’s comments

Convention attendance numbers are down, but the results stem more from the recession than they do from anything President Obama has said.

Obama first spoke out against visiting Las Vegas last February when he said companies receiving federal bailout funds should not be traveling to the city (or the Super Bowl) at taxpayers’ expense. A backlash ensued, and Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said in a letter to the president that his remark could be “harmful” to the city so dependent on tourism.

Convention attendance dropped nearly 24 percent from 2008 to 2009, according to Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority’s December report detailing end-of-year results released Feb. 9. That’s 1.4 million fewer attendees, from 5.9 million to 4.5 million, year-over-year.

The number of conventions and meetings held decreased 13.6 percent, from 22,500 in 2008 to 19,400 in 2009. But there was an increase of 11.6 percent when comparing convention attendance month-over-month, from December 2008 to December 2009. The number of conventions and meetings went up 10.1 percent during this time, from 1,100 meetings and conventions to 1,200.

LVCVA spokesman Jeremy Handel said the drop in convention traffic was primarily attributed to the cancellation of smaller conferences and meetings early last year, and wasn’t a result of Obama’s comment. The cancellation of small meetings started in the last quarter of 2008, stemming largely from cut budgets.

The meetings canceled were generally corporate board meetings or incentive trips, where high-performing employees come for play, networking and team building.

On the other hand, larger conventions—such as the National Association of Broadcasters, which drew nearly 84,000 people last year—follow a different model than the smaller corporate meetings, Handel said.

Those conventions book for several years at a time, and for them to abruptly cancel would mean they’d have to stop existing as a convention, he said.

“It’s quite an effort to move,” said Handel, who added that no major conventions left Las Vegas in the last year.

President Obama disparaged Las Vegas again on Feb. 2, this time while discussing the federal deficit, saying, “You don’t blow a bunch of cash on Vegas when you’re trying to save for college.”

With most major conventions planned three to five years in advance, some of the negative effects of the president’s comments might not be felt for years to come.

Things seem to be looking up, however. The first quarter of the year is promising, LVCVA announced last month. Overall, there are 11 major conventions that are expected to draw 400,000 visitors to the city. And February is one of the busiest months of the year, with conventions such as World of Concrete and the World Market Center Winter Las Vegas Market recently taking place.

Also, a lot of shows aren’t in Las Vegas every year; they rotate cities, making it difficult to gauge the decline, Handel said.

At the same time, new shows, such as the Association of Amusement Parks and Entertainment, came to Las Vegas for the first time last year. That convention had 30,000 attendees.

In September, the International Baking Industry Expo will be in Las Vegas for the first time in six years. That convention is expected to draw 35,000 attendees.

IMEX America is launching its North American show in October 2011 in Las Vegas. IMEX is an annual convention in Frankfurt, Germany, for the incentive travel, meeting and events industry. The industry employs 45,000 workers in Las Vegas.

Employment in Las Vegas’ leisure and hospitality sector dropped 7.9 percent from December 2008 to December 2009, according to the most recent figures from the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation. That means 20,700 jobs were lost, from 263,300 to 242,600.

One large convention Las Vegas recently bagged is the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society for its annual show in 2012, beating out Chicago as host.