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Hometown U.S.A.: Las Vegas

In Las Vegas, business is all conventional

The economy has been devastated, but it's still the world's conference capital, drawing every imaginable trade group. Sometimes it makes for uncomfortable bedfellows, but it's a living.

July 15, 2012|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • Crowds pack the Las Vegas Convention Center for the Consumer Electronics Show. Conventions are a lifeline for the city's struggling economy.
Crowds pack the Las Vegas Convention Center for the Consumer Electronics… (Myung J. Chun, Los Angeles…)

Judi Beshella and her colleagues gathered at a suburban casino here, amid a sea of green-felt card tables and clanging slot machines. They had come to talk about addiction — and they could not have picked a better place.

During a four-day forum promoting "Clinical Recipes for Success: The Psychology of Eating Disorders Revealed," therapists from across the nation discussed such issues as obesity, binge eating and bulimia nervosa.

On the casino's main floor, just above their suite of basement conference rooms, bored-looking gamblers, many woefully overweight, waited in line for an all-you-can-eat buffet beneath a sign that proclaimed: "Feast."

It's an irony not lost on Beshella, a coordinator whose conference has met here for six straight years. "Many therapists are former addicts and some don't feel that coming to Las Vegas every year is appropriate," she said.

But still they come. While Sin City each year draws tens of millions of gamblers and other throw-caution-to-the-wind revelers, it also serves as the world's conference capital — meetings that local officials consider key to reviving an economy devastated by recession.

In 2011, nearly 5 million convention and trade show delegates converged on the city, dumping more than $4 billion in nongambling revenue into the civic coffers. In all, they hosted 19,029 meetings, shows and get-togethers. That's an average of 52 gatherings each day, every day of the year.

A few, such as January's mammoth Consumer Electronics Show, draw 100,000 attendees who fill every hotel room in town. But most Vegas events are less-heralded to-dos that bring in fewer than 500 people — and several as few as 50. The eating disorder conference, for example, attracted 200 attendees.

Convention officials says it's these little-guy get-togethers that make Lady Vegas flutter her lashes in a come-hither way.

"They're our bread and butter," said Chris Meyer, vice president of sales for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. "We get the huge trade shows everybody hears about. But it's the small ones that keep our hotel rooms full.

"Most stay Sunday to Thursday and then go home to make way for the leisure visitors. That means an 84% occupancy for this city's 150,920 hotel rooms. And that's a lot of rooms."

The local conference business isn't nearly what it was in the record year of 2006, when 6.3 million conventioneers came to town for more than 23,000 events. But according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, conference attendance in 2011 was up 8.8% over the year before.

The city draws fetishistic movie star fan clubs — like the female aficionados of Scottish actor Gerard Butler whose charity auction sold a khaki jumpsuit the actor once wore (price: $3,000) — to confabs of geeky tech geniuses who come to relax, mingle and sip stiff drinks while sporting Poindexter plastic name cards on their lapels.

There's the Star Trek convention that recently set a Guinness record for the largest gathering of people dressed as Star Trek characters (1,041); the mermaid meeting of women and men who dare don a fin and pretend to be imaginary sea creatures; and the Roller Derby confab, where 1,500 rough-and-tumble attendees gather for classes like "Schlemiel! Schlemiel! Blocking Laverne and Shirley Style."

There are Red Hats (a social society for women 50 and older) and Black Hats (computer network security professionals). Then there's the National Pecan Shellers Assn.; Associated Locksmiths of America; Washington State Bowling Proprietors Assn.; and the Assn. for Dressings and Sauces.

Others events bring more buzz, like the American Beekeeping Federation; Safari Club International; Nudist Clubhouse Expo; Electrostatic Discharge Assn.; Beaver Ambassador Club (for owners of the brand-name motor coaches); Nothing Bundt Cakes National Convention; Bedbug University North American Summit; and International Accordion Convention.

"This is our 13th year," said the latter group's founder, Paul Pasquali, who says the event annually features a symphony orchestra fronted by 50 accordion players, a sort of Lawrence Welk show at full volume. "Hey, Vegas still has $29 hotel rooms. What more could you ask for?"

Groups representing both prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers also meet here. There has been controversy, as when a few hundred employees of the federal General Services Administration ran up an $820,000 bill — paid for with taxpayer money.

There have been booking fiascoes. "We once had the American Respiratory Assn. here with some big tobacco show," said Meyer. "That was a bit of a boo-boo."

Then there was the big pharmaceutical industry show butting up against an adult video awards banquet. "Conservative East Coast pharmaceutics executives who had never been to Vegas were encountering scantily clad porn actresses," he said. "Not a pretty sight."

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