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A few friends walk down the Las Vegas Strip with yard long drinks while various properties reopen to the public after a temporary shutdown caused by the COVID-19 health pandemic on Thursday, June 4, 2020. (Photo by Mikayla Whitmore)

People who planned to travel are increasingly having second thoughts about their vacations as coronavirus case counts hit new heights in Nevada and elsewhere, according to Sin City’s top tourism official.

Members of the Nevada Commission on Tourism met by videoconference on Tuesday to hear how hard tourism had been hurt by coronavirus and how to move forward. Steve Hill, head of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, said the demand for Vegas visits was higher than expected when casinos reopened earlier this month but a drumbeat of bad news has chilled the enthusiasm.

“That information has started to cause the numbers that we have seen improving, primarily around intent to travel, start to deteriorate a little bit,” Hill said. “We have regressed a little over the past three weeks, and that's simply driven by the health situation and the health concerns of our potential visitors.”

On questions about when international flights to Las Vegas would resume, whether rodeos could fill seats and when conferences of more than 50 people would be back, Hill responded that “projecting things based on a calendar at this point is more difficult than projecting things based on the health situation.”

A dip in consumer confidence is evident in the latest market research from Destination Analysts. The company has been doing surveys of 1,200 travelers across the U.S. every week since March 15.

Firm CEO Erin Francis-Cummings said last week, there was a 13-percentage point increase in the number of people surveyed who believed the coronavirus situation was going to get worse over the next month. Nearly 51 percent of people expect the outlook to worsen, and fewer than 20 percent now say they expect it will improve over the month. 

Excitement to travel has dropped from its late-May peak, and survey respondents’ confidence that they’ll travel this fall is also on the decline.

People are also increasingly concerned for their own health and even more so for the health of their loved ones. That comes after two months of declining levels of concern about the virus.

“For every one person who is a little concerned about their friends and family contracting the virus, there are now, this week, five people who are highly concerned,” Francis-Cummings said.

The survey also asked potential travelers when the coronavirus situation would be “resolved” to the point that they would feel a level of normalcy had been achieved. Sixty percent said they would feel that way when a vaccine was developed; 40 percent said they would feel comfortable when people started adhering to social distancing and mask-wearing protocols.

The possibility that a vaccine would be developed in the next year is one of many scenarios the state tourism agency, which is funded solely by lodging tax, is using to try to predict its revenue levels. Kyle Shulz, the research manager at Travel Nevada, graphed out the most optimistic scenario in which room occupancy would reach normal levels by next May if a COVID-19 vaccine was developed.

In the most pessimistic model, coronavirus flares up again to the point that Nevada experiences another multi-month shutdown early next year and tourism revenue tanks. The agency is basing its budget predictions — which call for a 60 percent drop in revenues in the coming fiscal year — on a middling scenario that assumes no vaccine and a slow recovery that does not reach occupancy levels of the prior year.

For now, the agency, which focuses on promoting rural areas of the state that don’t already have an established tourism promotion arm, is trying to sell Nevada as an attractive destination for socially distanced vacations. They’re also planning to keep a close watch on changes in potential traveler behavior and pivot as needed. 

“Our core value of freedom positions us really well as people begin to look for more wide-open travel experiences,” said M.E. Kawchak, chief marketing officer for Travel Nevada. “We must be sure that all of our creative content remains consistently aligned to promote safe travel and will continue to be fluid in our ever-changing environment.”

The Las Vegas tourism authority has been doing its own research on its customer base ahead of reopening casinos. Hill said that about 30 percent of travelers don’t consider Las Vegas for their trips, but of the remaining 70 percent, one-sixth are enthusiastic to return quickly if they know the steps that are being taken to keep them healthy.

That group was 77 percent male, younger than the average visitor, 82 percent employed and generally higher income.

About a third of the potential visitors hewed more closely to the average age, income and gender mix. While health was important, so was value, and whether Sin City’s offerings in a coronavirus-stricken world would be lacking.

“Their primary concern was making sure that coming back to Las Vegas was worth the expenditure,” Hill said. “They realize that all the offerings that we typically have aren't available, basically anything that draws a crowd, which is a big part of our offerings, and they want to see that.”

About 105,000 rooms in Las Vegas are being made available — out of about 150,000 total — and about 55 to 60 percent of the available rooms are filled on the weekends and 25-30 percent from Sunday through Wednesday, Hill said. Room rates are down, and most properties are not charging a resort fee, which means there’s less spending to tax.

The authority’s portion of room tax revenue is expected to be about $4-5 million a month — better than first projected but still about a quarter of what a normal month should bring.

Bringing up the numbers will depend on offering more to consumers, such as big concerts and conventions.

“Obviously the number of cases and the severity of cases needs to stay relatively stable in order to look at the continued expansion in those areas,” Hill said. “But they’re going to be critical in helping the rest of the industry recover.”

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