For those of you wagering against the city of Las Vegas, you might want to hedge those bets. At least a little bit.
A visit there this week for one of the first larger business events to return to what has historically been a non-stop swirl of convention, conference and trade show attendees showed a city surprisingly busy with crowded casinos, difficult-to-land dinner reservations, rental car shortages and a far-more-than-expected steady parade of frolickers working the famous Las Vegas Strip.
At least three industry events — for the home furnishings trade, the cannabis sector and a conference for what appeared to be business consultants — produced at least a modicum of people wearing badges and sneaking away to the pool when they could.
But the overwhelming proportion of traffic in town appeared to be tourists and vacationers, including more than a few bachelor and bachelorette parties, a couple of weddings and lots of Americans who were finally escaping from their homes after a year of lockdown in search of fun, food, frolic and perhaps a bit of legal marijuana.
In fact some parts of the town seemed ill-prepared for the onslaught as many locals said the surge had come on suddenly and with more strength than perhaps businesses here were expecting. That included rental cars, normally very inexpensive most times but this week in short supply and premium priced as rental companies try to rebuild their pandemic-shattered fleets. Transit via car services like Uber UBER or local cabs weren’t much better, the result of fewer drivers working the town.
Restaurant tables were also in short supply, partly because of social-distancing-mandated reduced capacities but also because the labor needed to man kitchens and dining rooms remains a challenge. Many restaurants were on restricted schedules, some closed entirely and a couple completely out of business. Same for the big shows that are Vegas stables but are now waiting for a time when they can pack in the guests they need to pay those big celebrity salaries.
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Social distancing measures were a mixed bag. Even though there were signs everywhere reminding people to be careful — a favorite was “No mask, no dice” — adherence was uneven. Most people were wearing masks walking trade shows and hotels alike but they often looked for any excuse to take them off around pools, casinos and clubs. (Many of the masks, by the way, were larger than some of the outfits club goers were wearing.)
The reduced number of restaurant tables was matched by some casinos cutting back active tables and slot machines, though the scientific patterns of how they were doing this sometimes defied logic. Plexiglass dividers separating gamblers at blackjack and poker tables were a little off-putting to say the least. Security personnel in the casinos and around the pools were monitoring the mask-wearing status and, to their credit, often asked visitors to mask up. Some did and, not to their credit, some did not or took them right off again after the guard had moved on.
The city did appear to be itching to get back to its regular business of being the ultimate tourist destination for many Americans. The first new hotel to appear post-pandemic, the Circa, in downtown, was open for business and the giant Resorts World complex on the Strip was just about completed for its summer debut. So too is the new wing of the convention center on the site of the old Riviera Hotel and the center’s underground transit system, the first such completed project from Elon Musk’s Boring Company. Nonetheless, the frame of the Fontainebleau, which has been a big blue hulking monstrosity on one end of the Strip, remained at a standstill as it has for more than a decade, waiting for somebody — anybody — to finish it.
One area less affected by all of this were the stores and shopping centers that have become every bit as much a draw in the city as the slot machines and spas. Yes, there were more empty storefronts than pre-pandemic but the lines outside the luxury Gucci and Dior stores and the crowds inside the souvenir and discount outlets appeared to be pretty strong. The World’s Biggest Gift Shop, the legal cannabis dispensaries and the lines at Starbucks SBUX and In-and-Out Burger seemed unfazed. Bugsy & Meyer’s Steakhouse, a homage to two of the city’s most famous historical figures, was both iconic and ironic.
As much as the signs of returning life throughout the city were everywhere, Las Vegas still has a long way to go to get back to where it was. Things slowed down as the weekend warriors headed back home and until the weekday conventioneers return in force, the big showrooms reopen and more Elvis’s are on hand to Viva Las Vegas, it will still be a city waiting to hit that jackpot again.