LAS VEGAS – Not long ago, Nevada's tourism industry had no ceiling.
At the center of this philosophy? Giving vacationers experiences they value. But in the age of COVID-19, what they value has changed in a deep and profound way.
It's no longer about finding a place where you can let your hair down, leave the tie in the hotel room and be who you always wanted to be for a weekend. It's about finding a place that's clean and secluded and far from the perils of the pandemic.
As Nevada enters the new year, the dilemma that pressed pause on the state's economic engine appears to be one that no tourism slogan can solve.
What will it take for hotel-casinos to rebound and get people traveling again? We asked several industry insiders to find out.
No magic switch to flip tourism on
Howard Stutz has been around the Nevada gaming industry for three decades. The executive editor of CDC Gaming Reports, he spent years as a local newspaper reporter in Las Vegas, where he covered the Great Recession.
The catastrophic implications of the COVID-19 pandemic are far worse, he said.
"The switch is not going to be flipped right away," Stutz told the USA TODAY Network. "Even though the vaccine looks like it's coming, it's still going to take some time."
On top of a widely available vaccine, several pieces must fall into place for Las Vegas and Nevada tourism to attract people again.
"You need to have international travel," Stutz said. "That's why Palazzo closed. They didn't have international business. It's a ghost town there. I think others are going to do the midweek closure for a while. The business just isn't there."
Without international travel and with devastated domestic travel, Las Vegas has become a regional gambling hub for drive-in business from California and Arizona.
Visitation is now down to levels the state hasn't seen since 1993. With concerts and conventions canceled and hotel towers closed, Nevada will remain in financial trouble, with thousands of jobless residents stuck in a jammed unemployment system until COVID-19 restrictions are rolled back and travelers regain their confidence.
"It's still going to be a very slow process," Stutz said.
How long will it take?
Some tourism experts say next Christmas. Others say two years from now.
"Everybody's all over the place," Stutz said. "If the vaccine works, if this pandemic starts going away and other parts of the economy start rebounding, then we're going to start seeing more visitation maybe by summer."
But even with a bump in visitation, Nevada will have to play catch-up.
In 2019, Nevada generated $12 billion in gambling revenue. It was the first time in 12 years that the state reached that mark – and only the third time ever.
Gaming revenue is now down 36%. It stands to further dwindle by year's end.
"November is going to be a terrible month," Stutz said. "December is going to be even worse, because there's no rodeo and all the New Year's Eve stuff has been canceled. It's going to be a while before we get back."
Vaccine is only answer for slumping confidence
Even if Las Vegas opened every hotel tower, brought back every live show and Nevada allowed large conventions to return, a big problem remains: Getting people to feel confident enough to travel again.
"How do you get the certainty back?" Macquarie research analyst Chad Beynon said. "How can you announce one of these big concerts or events being open to the public if you don't know that you're going to be able to fill it?"
The solution, he said, is the vaccine, the first of which was approved by the FDA for U.S. distribution on Friday.
"That'll be the big thing," Beynon said. "We have three companies that are pretty far along in the process with the vaccine. If it's fully distributed and kids are back at school at the end of the first quarter, I think that's when people will start to get more comfortable – when their lives are a little more normal."
But the vaccine timeline could be a tricky one. An exclusive USA TODAY Network survey of health officials in all 50 states revealed a patchwork of preparations and different distribution plans that may mean wide variations in what the rollout looks like as it expands across the nation.
Asked how much of her staff's time is being taken up with getting ready for COVID-19 vaccinations, Nevada Immunization Program Manager Shannon Bennett answered simply, "all of it."
Vegas can't slogan its way out of this one
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, travelers stopped flying. Plummeting casino revenue and visitor numbers forced tourism officials here to find a new way to draw people.
Part of the solution was a slogan: "What happens here, stays here." The R&R Partners advertising campaign launched in 2002 aimed to make people feel comfortable again.
And it worked. When travelers began to plot their getaways, they looked to the glittering Las Vegas Strip – a place where you could forget your problems and responsibilities.
“It is reflective of Las Vegas as a place where I can come and escape my doldrums and escape the treadmill that’s my life," R&R Partners CEO Billy Vassiliadis told the Las Vegas Sun in 2014.
But for most of the U.S. in 2020, COVID-19 made the classic Las Vegas vacation an impossibility, and no catch-phrase would bring it back.
'A pent-up need to celebrate something'
When the pandemic collapsed the visitor stream to Nevada, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and R&R Partners launched a new 30-second television spot that aimed to reflect a post-pandemic landscape.
The new campaign – called “Reimagined” – offered a toned-down glimpse of Las Vegas tourism, focusing on outdoor recreation and intimate settings. One shot showed a man and woman in a warm bar conversation, a glass of wine separating them.
But as December ticks away, air travel to Las Vegas remains down by 50 percent.
"The long-term solution is the vaccine," Vassiliadis told the USA TODAY Network Wednesday. "As the vaccine goes beyond just health care workers and first responders and the public starts to get vaccinated, I think we'll see an easing of the tension – an incremental growth in confidence and a sense of comfort."
The Las Vegas pitchman is optimistic about what will happen in Nevada's tourism markets when people start traveling again.
"Assuming the general public starts to get vaccinated in April," Vassiliadis said, "there won't be a recovery. There will be a boom in Vegas. In my regular life, I've either said it or heard it a hundred times: 'Honey, we'll celebrate my birthday next year when it's OK,' or 'Honey, we'll do our anniversary next year' or 'We'll save up all the events we missed and have one big party.'"
Las Vegas is where they'll go, he said.
"Vegas is a place where people come and celebrate special things," Vassiliadis said. "Bachelorette parties, bachelor parties, anniversaries, the first time we met, whatever it may be. There's a pent up need to celebrate something, and I think seeing the end of the pandemic will create cause and reason for recapturing the missed moments."
Ed Komenda writes about Las Vegas for the Reno Gazette Journal and USA Today Network. Do you care about democracy? Then support local journalism by subscribing to the Reno Gazette Journal.
This article originally appeared on Reno Gazette Journal: Las Vegas: When will Nevada tourism rebound from COVID-19 impact?