Preparing for comeback in ‘21

While the coronavirus setbacks keep coming for the gaming industry, a December survey of American tourists shows Las Vegas is the No. 1 city to visit in 2021.

That bodes well for Las Vegas once the COVID-19 vaccine is disseminated in the first half of 2021, setting the stage for a strong summer and fall.

In my column last week, American Gaming Association President and CEO Bill Miller told me how the industry has taken a step back with rising COVID-19 cases and restrictions and closures within the gaming industry in Las Vegas and the rest of the country. He said the vaccine, however, will lead to a strong recovery by the summer of 2021.

It has been a mixed bag in Las Vegas with the gaming industry headlines.

MGM Resorts announced Monday it’s shuttering The Mirage completely midweek starting Jan. 4. It had already closed its hotel towers midweek in December but now the casino, restaurants and other amenities are down as well. That’s expected to last through February.

MGM already has towers at Mandalay Bay and Park MGM that are closed midweek and other Strip properties have closed hotel towers midweek as well.

None of this is a surprise. Gaming executives warned during their third quarter earnings reports that November and December and beyond would be a slow period following a strong October. Since Nov. 20, numbers from the Nevada Department of Transportation show traffic between Southern California and Las Vegas is down double digits most days from 2019 and down 25 of 27 days through Dec. 16.

That news comes as Circa Resort will open most of its 777 rooms on Dec. 28. Guests booked that day are allowed to check in two days earlier. The casino and rest of the property has been open since Oct. 28.

That contrasts to Virgin Hotels Las Vegas (the former Hard Rock), in delaying its Jan. 15 reopening without setting a date. The hotel is accepting reservations for April.

In a more hopeful sign about the future, the Henderson City Council voted Dec. 15 to take steps to sell nine acres across from the M Resort to its former developer Anthony Marnell to build a casino and hotel.

Erin Francis-Cummings, president and CEO of Destination

Analysts, a tourism research company that works with the Nevada Commission on Tourism, said there are hopeful signs despite what’s happening with the surge in cases and partial shuttering of Las Vegas.

Because of the introduction of vaccines, more than half of Americans are more optimistic that they can travel safely in the next six months and 44 percent say that their first trip after a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available will be a vacation, likely to a place far from home.

American travelers are hoping 2021 will provide a turning point to escape the boredom, misery and fear that defined 2020, she said. In June, she painted a pessimistic picture about people returning to Las Vegas quickly, saying only one in 10 said gambling was on their list to do once they emerged from quarantine.

“To us that’s an indicator of recovery,” Francis-Cummings said. “People are returning to what was popular before this crisis. The tourism powerhouses (like Las Vegas) still look like they will be tourism powerhouses in 2021.”

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But Francis-Cummings added near-term travel “will be difficult because of the surge in cases. It’s definitely having an impact. We have seen almost half say they cancelled or postponed a trip because of the recent surge.”

Francis-Cummings said a Washington Post story of the travel industry shows there are already a lot of travel bookings being made for summer and fall.

“Because health care workers have started getting vaccinations, people are hopeful about the summer and later so there’s been an increase in bookings,” Francis-Cummings said. “The sooner the mass public can get vaccinated the more we’re going to see that pent-up demand expressed.”

That will be especially true once Los Angeles gets vaccinated since it’s an important feeder market to Las Vegas, according to the California-based Francis-Cummings.

“If we can even flatten this latest wave, Vegas will see people start venturing out again after that,” Francis-Cummings said. “Delaying the opening of (Virgin Hotels) will work out better. If we can make it through this dark time with the pandemic worse than ever, there’s definitely a much brighter light that we can see.”

While Las Vegas ranked as the No. 1 city, Florida as an entire state ranked as the No. 1 destination overall. Hawaii was third.

Brent Pirosch, a gaming analyst for CBRE, said December is traditionally a slow time of year and restrictions have hurt business. The National Finals Rodeo relocated to Dallas because Las Vegas couldn’t accommodate fans.

“I still think we have blue skies ahead with the vaccine distributed, and we just have to get through this current slump,” Pirosch said. “It should reach most folks by mid-2021 and once that happens more flights will come in, which should really add a nice visitation pop. Corporate business should return later next year or early 2022.”

Las Vegas will surpass 18 million visitors and approach 20 million despite a pandemic in 2020, Pirosch said. That shows people want to come to Las Vegas, he said.

“I think they’ll really be excited about it next year when they can come and not have to worry about (the coronavirus) so much,” he said. “I’m optimistic about 2021 and 2022 about the Strip and economy.”

The proposal for a new casino in West Henderson shows the resilience of the local’s market, which has been doing pretty well all things considered Pirosch said. Casinos that are convenient to visit by car have done well in Las Vegas and across the country during the pandemic, he said. “Our local population continues to grow, and we’re still the beneficiary of migration from other parts of the country, including California,” he said.

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