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Sin City Goes Conventional

Las Vegas is No.1 on trade show circuit while others play catch-up.

September 23, 2003|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

Attending a trade show anytime soon? Pack some sunscreen and money for slot machines, because it's a good bet you're going to Las Vegas.

With three of the nation's 10 largest convention centers, the gaming mecca has become a juggernaut in the trade show and convention business.

It's sucking business away from meeting centers in Dallas, San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago and beyond. Stiff competition between the city's three 1-million-square-foot-plus centers -- combined with a slow economy and a convention space building boom elsewhere -- is helping to drive down prices for meetings nationally, as much as 10% to 20% by some estimates.

Los Angeles convention officials recently offered more than $100,000 in discounts to two shows -- a big nursing convention and a tech conference. But both ultimately picked Las Vegas, said Michael Collins, executive vice president of the Los Angeles Convention and Visitor's Bureau.

Similar stories can be heard across the nation.

"Other cities are just scratching their heads," said Mark Theis, a vice president with the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Some of the nation's largest trade shows are held in Las Vegas. They include the annual tech confab Comdex, which even in recent down years still draws more than 100,000 attendees, and the Consumer Electronics Show, a showcase of everything from high-definition televisions to video-game consoles to camera phones.

The city's roster of big shows is only increasing. The National Assn. of Home Builders brought 92,000 attendees to the city this year after meeting last year in Atlanta. And after 26 years in Dallas, the Promotional Products Assn. International in Irving, Texas, moved its annual confab to the Mandalay Bay Convention Center this year.

"We wanted a less expensive city," said Steve Slagle, president of the trade group.

Las Vegas has easy airport access and is served by big discount airlines, including Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways, that keep fares relatively low. Indeed, air fares to Las Vegas have declined in recent months, according to the city's tourism office.

Slagle figures the average room rate paid by convention-goers was $40 less per night than what they would have paid for an equivalent hotel in Dallas. Those staying at the Luxor Casino & Hotel, adjacent to the Mandalay Bay center, paid $89.

"The only hotel that we had in Dallas under $100 was a third-tier hotel far from the city center," Slagle said.

Lower attendance at some of Las Vegas' biggest shows have eased the scramble to find rooms. Room rates during the giant Comdex show this year, for example, "have gone down significantly due to more supply and less demand," said Chris Meyer, director of convention sales of the visitors authority.

The Las Vegas effect is apparent in numbers published annually by Tradeshow Week, the industry's trade journal. In 1990, Las Vegas accounted for 14.9% of the space rented by the nation's top 200 trade shows. It was a distant second to Chicago, with an 18.8% market share.

By last year, Las Vegas had grown its share to 26.1%, almost double its closest competitor, Chicago. And that was before the 1-million square-foot Mandalay Bay Convention Center opened in January. The city's other big centers include the 1.1-million square-foot Sands Expo and Convention Center and the 2-million square foot Las Vegas Convention Center.

The other big winner during this period is Orlando, which has a 9% share, up from just 1% in 1990.

The success of Las Vegas and Orlando reflects a migration of trade shows and conventions to Sun Belt climes supported by the infrastructure of large tourist destinations.

Both are expected to grow market share, but the dominance of Las Vegas will become even more dramatic, analysts say.

By capitalizing on its ample convention space, hotel rooms at nearly all price levels, weather, active nightlife and easy airport access, the city will steal as much as 4 to 6 percentage points more in market share of big conventions from its top competitors over the next several years, according to an analysis by David Anders of Merrill Lynch.

The goal, said Manny Cortez, general manager of the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority, is to grow the number of people coming to Las Vegas for a convention from its current 14% of the city's 36 million tourists to as much as 25%.

Cortez said the convention business is critical to the city's long-term economic health. Analysts who follow major publicly traded casino companies say convention visitors helped sustain Las Vegas during a tourism slump over the past two years, helping to replace the decline in tourists from Asia and elsewhere.

Once seen primarily as a gambling destination, the city has greatly broadened its appeal to tourists and convention goers. Fine restaurants by famous chefs such as Bradley Ogden of the Lark Creek Inn in Larkspur, Calif. -- who recently opened an establishment at Caesars Palace -- have supplemented inexpensive buffet lines.

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