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Las Vegas hosts its first big convention since the pandemic. It better go well.

Matt Levin Jun 8, 2021
Heard on:
The Las Vegas Convention Center before the World of Concrete convention opens. "It’s our Super Bowl or World Series," a participant calls it. Matt Levin/Marketplace

Las Vegas hosts its first big convention since the pandemic. It better go well.

Matt Levin Jun 8, 2021
Heard on:
The Las Vegas Convention Center before the World of Concrete convention opens. "It’s our Super Bowl or World Series," a participant calls it. Matt Levin/Marketplace

Sean Sheehan has been to World of Concrete so many times, he can’t remember if this is his eighth or ninth time attending the construction industry’s huge annual trade show. 

Sheehan is the northeast regional sales manager for Husqvarna Construction — a division of the Swedish power tools giant, which manufactures a range of equipment that cuts through concrete, asphalt and rebar.

“It’s our Super Bowl or World Series of events every year,” he said.

But as we made our way into the Las Vegas Convention Center, a day before the convention officially began, it felt less like the Super Bowl and more like a preseason exhibition game. Big booths were being set up for companies like Ford and Valvoline, but Sheehan said it looked like there wouldn’t be nearly as many exhibitors on the trade floor as there used to be.

“In previous years, you’d have three of these halls, back to back to back to back all filled,” he said.

World of Concrete’s last convention saw about 60,000 masons, contractors and salespeople descend on Vegas for close to a week. 

Nobody expects that type of crowd this year.

The pre-pandemic convention business was the $11 billion backbone of the Vegas economy. A permanently smaller convention industry would be a big problem, mainly because there would be a lot fewer people to do what Sheehan had planned to do later in the day, despite the 97-degree heat. 

“Playing golf, no doubt,” he said. “We’re hoping to this afternoon if we can sneak out ’cause we have a little window.”

Conventiongoers like Sheehan are more lucrative customers generally than traditional weekend tourists, said David Schwartz, a gaming historian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. 

“Because they do spend so much more on food and beverage, room and entertainment, even though they don’t always gamble as much.”

The city has Sheldon Adelson to thank for the model that led to that. The deceased Republican megadonor and casino magnate made a fortune running a personal computing convention in the 1980s and ’90s. 

That’s where he discovered the obvious. Corporate credit cards couldn’t be used in the casino, but they could be used to treat clients to front-row seats at Cirque du Soleil and lavish dinners at Spago. 

“Adelson figured out you could use conventions as the base to build a pretty profitable casino resort,” Schwartz said.

After Adelson made conventions the backbones of the wildly successful Venetian and Palazzo resorts, other hotels followed suit, and the convention industry became the engine of a multibillion-dollar economy that pumped money throughout the city.

A lot of that money went to small businesses, including the one Marco Villarreal started five years ago. Villarreal, an ice sculptor, is best known as the Vegas Ice Man for his custom creations. About 90% of his business, which includes everything from unicorn vodka fountains to ice cubes bearing corporate logos, was tied to the convention business.

“They’ll have the expo, and then they’ll have their side banquet, whatever,” Villarreal said. “And then they’ll have the small, private parties at the clubs. That was big.”

When the pandemic hit, his business went cold. He had to let his employees go and he shut down his garage-sized freezer. The steady hum it made was replaced by silence. Villarreal said it affected him emotionally. “It was just weird to walk into silence,” he said. “Because I’ve heard this hum for years.”

But Villarreal’s freezer is back on now, and business is picking up. World of Concrete is the first in a string of conventions already on the calendar.

Stephanie Glanzer, chief sales officer for MGM Resorts, said that while 2020 was obviously rough, bookings for this year and next are strong.

Glanzer isn’t worried by the rise of digital conferences. In fact, she said she’s building a line of new business from companies that have gone fully remote. 

“Companies that have given up their real estate to allow people to work from home, they are booking small meetings, whether it’s just their executive team or their sales team,” Glanzer said.

It’s still an open question whether companies will be willing to spend what they used to on big, global conventions like World of Concrete. Running a demo of your company’s power saws on Zoom is a lot cheaper than an international flight. 

Sheehan, the Husqvarna sales manager, was a seller at a digital convention last year. He wasn’t a big fan.

“Being in a sales or sales-related business, the human, one-on-one interaction is really, really key,” he said.

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