LAS VEGAS — Fred Campbell plans to head here early next month with an ambitious goal: to build a flawless 26-foot wall, with 800 bricks, in an hour. That will be enough, he figures, to make him the world champion of bricklaying for a record fourth time and secure his reputation as a masonry superstar.
“It’s going to happen,” said Campbell, a mason from Greeneville, Tenn. “It’s set in stone.”
But a more critical test looms. World of Concrete — the convention that is staging the bricklaying competition — is the first large, in-person trade show scheduled in the United States since the coronavirus pandemic began. The stakes are high, even for a city accustomed to high stakes.
“Everyone has their eyes on this,” said Tommy Blitsch, director of trade shows and conventions for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and principal officer of Local 631 in Las Vegas.
If the show hosts tens of thousands of attendees without a major problem, such as a virus outbreak, it will be a milestone, signaling the revival of the convention business across the country, Blitsch said. But if there is a big snag or people stay away, it could be a setback for cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami, and especially Las Vegas, where tourism is rebounding but big-spending business travelers are scarce.
“Las Vegas is like a Ferrari and the trade shows and conventions are the engine,” Blitsch said. “You can have a really nice shiny Ferrari, but it won’t go very far with a four-cylinder engine.”
By any measure, the risks involved in holding a big trade show are much lower than they have been in more than a year.
Cases of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, are declining. World of Concrete plans several safety precautions. Casinos, where conventioneers are likely to spend free time, have prodded workers to get vaccinated; several large casinos say 80 to 90 percent of their employees have received at least one shot. That compares with about 54 percent of eligible people 16 and over in Clark County, where Las Vegas is located.
Last week, local officials announced with fanfare that the county, which is operating at 80 percent capacity, will lift all pandemic restrictions on June 1, allowing restaurants, hotels and bars to fully open.
But even as officials here and elsewhere express confidence about the future, they are watching warily for potential surprises from a dangerous and unpredictable foe: Are they moving too fast or too slowly? Are variants a threat? How can they reach the people who have not yet been vaccinated?
“It feels as though we are in the front seat of a roller coaster,” said Alan Feldman, a distinguished fellow at the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. “We see clear skies ahead, but will we continue to go up — or will we go down?”
Brian Labus, an assistant professor of epidemiology at UNLV, said his concerns center on the new federal guidance that vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks in most places. “It relies on the honor system, which is a lot to ask of people who are taking their first vacation in a year and a half and are coming to Las Vegas to escape their worries about the pandemic,” he said.
World of Concrete, which is dedicated to the concrete and masonry construction industries, will operate under previously approved limits of 80 percent capacity and social distancing of three feet, according to a spokesperson for Informa Markets, the company that is putting on the trade show.
The three-day show, which begins June 8, will use extra-wide aisles, temperature screenings at the entrance and hand-sanitizing stations. But attendees will not be required to be vaccinated and masks are recommended but not mandatory, according to the show’s website.
No one expects this year’s convention to draw 50,000 to 60,000 people, as it has in the past. Blitsch hopes attendance will reach half that. Informa Markets said it does not share attendance estimates in advance because they can fluctuate widely before an event.
In pre-pandemic years, conventions and trade shows generated about $11 billion in annual revenue for the Las Vegas area and employed tens of thousands of workers, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. For more than a year, that spigot has been almost totally shut.
Now Las Vegas is desperate to lure back business travelers, who spend more on restaurants and rental cars than casual tourists and fill up hotel rooms during the week.
With its heavy reliance on tourism, the metropolitan area took an especially brutal battering during the pandemic, posting an unemployment rate of more than 33 percent in April 2020, according to the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation.
“I felt like I was watching the Apocalypse,” said Jeremy Aguero, principal analyst with Applied Analysis in Las Vegas.
Brandon Geyer, 50, who was laid off more than a year ago after working 25 years as a bartender in a downtown casino, remains out of work. “It’s a lot of stress,” said Geyer, who has frequently turned to an emergency food program run by the nonprofit Culinary Academy of Las Vegas. His union, Culinary Workers Local 226, says about half of its 60,000 members remain out of work.
But encouraging signs have been popping up for months, as hordes of weekend visitors flock to the soaring fountains at the Bellagio Las Vegas, the 550-foot High Roller Observation Wheel and the Mob Museum. Buffets, pool parties and strip clubs are open and Cirque du Soleil is preparing to resume its aerial acrobatics. In March, gambling revenue for Nevada totaled a staggering $1 billion, the highest monthly tally in more than eight years.
Local officials had said earlier this spring they would wait until 60 percent of the eligible population was vaccinated to fully reopen, but last week they dropped that requirement. Now, with vaccinations slowing, they are pivoting to smaller, more targeted venues, said the Southern Nevada Health District. Free vaccinations were offered Friday at Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club, a strip joint, and will be available Monday at the iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada” sign on the Strip, with a professional photographer on hand for the Instagram crowd.
Meanwhile, casinos, which are among the biggest employers in Las Vegas, have turned out to be a bright spot on vaccinations — which could help convince business travelers that it is safe to return.
In early April, the Nevada Gaming Control Board announced a policy designed to supercharge vaccinations among casino workers. The regulator said it would consider raising capacity limits beyond 80 percent on gaming floors where resorts made “measurable” efforts to inoculate staff. The board oversees casinos but not hotels or restaurants.
“I didn’t want people to think things were over,” said board chairman J. Brin Gibson. “I wanted them to get vaccinations up. I worry about a spike in positive cases in the fall and winter.”
Within days, Wynn Resorts, which owns the Wynn and Encore hotel towers and sprawling casinos, told workers they would be required to get vaccinated or submit weekly coronavirus tests. On-site tests are $15 a pop. Now, nearly 90 percent of employees are fully vaccinated, the company says.
The control board quickly allowed Wynn to open its casinos to 100 percent capacity and remove the plexiglass dividers between slot machines and seats at gaming tables.
Wynn had been trying to counter the pandemic from the beginning. When it hit in March 2020, the gambling industry was shut down for 78 days. Rather than wait for government guidance, Wynn chief executive Matt Maddox consulted medical experts and epidemiologists “to help guide the company in a very confusing and tumultuous time,” said Feldman of the UNLV gaming institute. MGM Resorts, which owns several big casinos in Las Vegas including the Bellagio, took similar steps, he said.
When casinos partially reopened last June, Wynn published a 35-page safety plan on its website. In January, it set up a vaccination site for the community and its employees with a partner, University Medical Center of Southern Nevada, in an Encore ballroom usually used for weddings and corporate shindigs. It also opened a 3,000-square-foot lab with another company, Lighthouse Lab Services, to process coronavirus tests for workers and interested meeting participants.
After administering 55,000 shots, the vaccine facility moved in mid-May to a location near UMC’s hospital.
MGM Resorts, which set up an employee vaccination site at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino and pop-up clinics at eight other properties, ran lotteries for vaccinated employees that offered cash, spa vouchers and tickets to a Dave Chappelle show. The Cosmopolitan, which had its own inoculation site, distributed $1 million in cash bonuses to reward its workforce for a high vaccination rate — which stands at 84 percent, the company said.
Anthony Tsatas, 28, who manages pools at Wynn, recently got his second Pfizer-BioNTech shot at Encore. He said he had no issue with being required to get vaccinated or to submit weekly test results: “I think it’s a good way to go about” getting the vaccination rate up, he said.
The control board over the last several weeks has allowed many big casinos in Las Vegas to open to full capacity, weeks earlier than the county’s June 1 date.
The casinos “made it convenient to be vaccinated and inconvenient to not be vaccinated,” said UNLV’s Labus. “Their vaccination rate is much, much higher than the general population’s. They are doing something right, and we should learn from that.”
In a crowded lobby at the Bellagio one recent day, Sharon Merritt, who lives near Pasadena, Calif., and was celebrating her 80th birthday, said she was not worried about covid-19. “I feel safe,” she said.
Tourists like Merritt are welcome, but Las Vegas is eager to resume hosting big conventions, such as CES — formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show, which attracts 180,000 attendees. CES is planning to return in person to Las Vegas early next year after staging a virtual meeting this year.
While resorts say convention bookings are running high for later this year and next year, some analysts say it could take a year or longer for business travel to reach pre-pandemic levels. “Unemployment and underemployment could be a problem for us,” said Aguero, the Las Vegas analyst.
For World of Concrete, the Teamsters would normally provide 1,500 workers to set up exhibits, said Blitsch. This year, no more than 500 will be needed because of fewer exhibits, he said.
The trade show will take place in a new $989 million addition to the Las Vegas Convention Center and in outside parking lots. The convention center has been equipped with an underground transportation system that uses Teslas to ferry people and was built by Elon Musk’s Boring Co.
Donna Bellantone, executive vice president for infrastructure and construction for Informa Markets, said the company considered requiring attendees to be vaccinated, but a survey of possible conventioneers indicated that would deter attendance.
Campbell, the 49-year-old bricklaying champion, expects 30 friends and relatives to be on hand to cheer him as he defends his title. He’s hoping a fourth win will put him in the record books.
“I have a lot on the line,” he said.