Experiencing Preparedness in Las Vegas
Over the last few months, the meetings and events industry has been upended. Postponements and cancellations may be expected for the foreseeable future, but at Bishop-McCann, we see a clear path toward a return to live experiences.
While in-person meetings and events may be on hold, we continue to execute virtual meetings and have a strong book of virtual, hybrid, and in-person events starting next year. Entering the third quarter of 2020, clients have started to communicate with us about their commitment to face-to-face events. Almost universally, they tell us that they’re eager to proceed but want to know what it feels like to experience the “new normal” in Las Vegas and cities like it.
Las Vegas, of course, serves as a stand-in for meeting destinations globally. As the unofficial “Meetings Capital” of the world, Las Vegas is synonymous with live meetings and events to industry professionals. After all, the city continues to dominate the industry, hosting 6.5 million meeting and event attendees annually. If they can be ready to host millions of visitors, countless other locales need only look to their example to follow suit.
Since the start of COVID-19, we’ve been keeping up with our partners at properties across Las Vegas and reading all of the information coming from trusted sources, such as the CDC, State of Nevada, Clark County, and more. However, our honest answer to the question at hand was that we didn’t personally know; we had no firsthand knowledge of the situation on the ground in Las Vegas or elsewhere.
It was immediately obvious that we needed to remedy that shortcoming. We needed to see Las Vegas for ourselves and make a determination for our clients about whether or not the city, and indeed the travel and hospitality industry overall, we’re ready for meetings and events to resume.
Naturally, I was curious to go and booked a three-day trip to Las Vegas to check it out myself, returning with a new perspective on where the meetings industry goes from here.
As someone whose job keeps him on the road multiple nights per month in “regular” times, I was anxious yet excited about boarding a plane for the first time since early March. The airport experience was fairly seamless, even easy compared to the normal security procedures. It was markedly less busy than I was accustomed to, and the TSA had adapted to COVID-era security precautions without any hiccups. From the time I entered Kansas City International (MCI) to my exit at McCarran International Airport (LAS), a mask stayed on my face.
I noticed additional hand sanitizer stations dotting the entire terminal and other cleanliness protocols around the food courts, but the primary difference of this travel experience came during the boarding process. The normal 1-60 numbered boarding process that Southwest travelers will be familiar with had been dispatched for a more regimented, socially-distanced boarding of smaller groups spread around the gate area. It didn’t take more than a few additional minutes to complete.
Once I stepped onto the plane, I was handed a baggie with my snack and a can of water. To minimize crew-passenger interactions, there was no food/beverage service on this flight. Southwest is one of the airlines that has continued to leave its middle seats open, and I found that to be an added comfort, both for my legs and my mind.
Upon my arrival, I took a cab to the first property of my visit, the MGM Grand. Entering the lobby, I saw signage requiring mask wearing and encouraging social distancing. Then I was greeted by John Montes, the MGM’s Associate Director of Sales. He took me on a walk around the property to check out some of the changes.
First, he took me upstairs to learn more about new cleaning protocols in their guest suites and to drop my bag in my room. At my door, I noticed a sticker across the door frame indicating that hospitality had been the last people to enter the room before me. It was a reassuring touch, and a few changes stuck out inside.
The customary mini fridge/snack bar offerings had been removed, along with the coffee machine. In the bathroom, the typical set of soap, shampoo, and lotion was replaced with a single baggie of personal toiletries, which also included hand sanitizer, wipes, gloves, and a couple of extra face masks.
Next, we toured the casino floor and saw large, plastic dividers separating players, from the blackjack tables to each row of slot machines. Dotting the floor were new hand-washing stations—not just sanitizer dispensers, but full-fledged sinks—and I learned about the cleaning protocols at each of the gaming tables, down to the frequency of chip sanitization. The MGM had even utilized the downtime to install new carpet throughout the property.
The room and the rest of the property definitely felt clean, and these small changes provided an extra level of reassurance about their new precautions.
I started my day with a quick session at the gym. There was a hand sanitizer station in the entryway and signage around the room about wiping down equipment before and after each use. A crew of attendants stood ready to wipe down every item I touched, too. Even when I wiped down my equipment after each use as instructed, an attendant immediately rushed over to wipe it down again.
My first appointment of the day was with MGM executives, including Mike Neubecker, Patrick Miller, and Megan Archambeault. They took me to the front lobby to observe their brand new check-in process. Previously, checking in at a big property like the MGM entailed waiting in a line next to dozens of fellow arrivals. The experience was never particularly painful, but it could be time consuming. Now though, MGM properties have instituted a new, contactless check-in protocol. They showed me that as soon as I entered the main lobby area, I could take out my phone and tap on a link in my confirmation email. The room key displayed right on my phone. Without speaking to anyone on site, guests could be headed to their room.
I went to lunch with the MGM team, and coincidentally, we visited a restaurant that I had eaten at just a few months earlier during a 3,000-attendee client meeting.
It was interesting to compare those two experiences, and I found the precautions to be enhanced from what I was experiencing back home in Kansas City. The tables were spread apart, staff and everyone not eating or drinking was masked up, and the menu was accessible via either a QR code on the table or a throwaway copy from the waitstaff. QR codes were actually quite prevalent across properties and were even used to access the room service menu back in my suite. As we wrapped up our meal, I reflected that this experience felt “safer” in many ways than visiting some of my favorite restaurants back home.
That afternoon, I met up with Lee Nakahara and Randy Fireman from the MGM’s catering and convention services to view the new training modules that every associate was required to complete. The training covered everything from identifying guests with COVID symptoms to the uses of new disinfectant sprayers. Afterward, we ventured into a few meeting spaces to get a glimpse of how their teams are preparing for a return to large group meetings. Their event staff demonstrated unique seating configurations that complied with social distancing and occupancy rules established by the State of Nevada. We discussed how banquet service standards have changed, from new sanitation methods for items like linen and silverware to how self-serve buffet options have been put on hold. One buffet innovation was new “food runners,” who take your plate to the serving line and bring back your selections at the Wynn. Others utilized serving attendants on the buffet line to minimize contact.
I spent the rest of my day repeating the tour of conference spaces, guest rooms, and catering procedures at other properties, including The Venetian and the Bellagio, another MGM property.
On my final day in Las Vegas, I visited the Wynn and received a behind-the-scenes look at their thermal scanning technology. I knew that at every property I entered during this trip, my temperature was being passively scanned. That precaution in particular made me feel safe entering various properties. Typically, these cameras were unnoticeable unless I really searched for one. Their job was to ensure that no one entering the property had an elevated body temperature. When an individual tripped the sensor, a variety of protocols were followed, from guiding them toward 24-hour emergency medical technicians on site to sending them directly to the hospital.
For HIPAA reasons (the federal law mandating protections for personal health information), I wasn’t able to watch live, but I watched the attendant keeping an eye on the device live streaming the information collected from visitors entering the building. Unless an incident was happening, the staff member served as a greeter, offering personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer to everyone entering the building. Fortunately, I never saw any more action than that.
As I packed up to head over to McCarran International for my return flight to Kansas City, I reflected on the hospitality I had received over the course of my trip. Countless industry professionals had taken time out of their busy schedules to show me around their properties. They were proud to show how seriously Las Vegas was taking this issue, and over the course of three days, I got to see the full spectrum of safety protocols at properties across the strip.
The new Las Vegas experience is undoubtedly different, but not in the ways I expected heading into this trip. Where I expected to find a sterile, unwelcoming experience contrary to my expectations for Las Vegas, I found an elevated guest experience. The extra attention paid to cleanliness was evident, and staff seemed even more attentive to the attendee experience wherever I went. As someone who cared a lot about germs before COVID, I can say with confidence that each property I visited felt cleaner than ever before.
I also noticed that the entire experience was “greener.” The countless single-use items that typically fill up a hotel suite, the giveaways on property, and the airline snacks were gone. It’s hard to downplay the amount of waste those small changes avoided. My sources on the food and beverage side confirmed another unexpected benefit of their buffet adaptations: less food waste.
It’s also clear that this downtime has given Las Vegas the opportunity to embrace and roll out technologies that have been in the works for years. The MGM said they had always intended to go “keyless” with their check-in process, but COVID had simply escalated their timeline.
I experienced that same story again and again, from thermal cameras to air filters and more. Many of these “new” precautions were already in the pipeline—this had just been their opportunity to deploy them fully. And technologies that have been around, like the Wynn putting an Amazon Alexa in each room, are being adapted more broadly as the benefits of the device’s contactless voice command interface become more obvious.
I left with an overriding sense that Vegas will be ready. The experience wasn’t the same as before, but after countless visits, I can’t say that any of my trips have been the same. In Las Vegas, I found the “gold standard” for COVID response. If Vegas can be ready, anywhere can.