The first large convention in Las Vegas since March 2020 is happening this week — but for the majority of convention workers, recovery is not yet in sight.
At a media event Tuesday morning, Gov. Steve Sisolak and other officials celebrated the return of World of Concrete, marketed as “the only annual international event dedicated to the commercial concrete and masonry construction industries.” Two showgirls framed the stage, outfitted not in their typical feathers, but in half-zipped construction vests, sequined bras, orange hard hats, and high-heeled silver work boots.
World of Concrete is taking place at the newly expanded Las Vegas Convention Center and will last through Thursday. It drew almost 60,000 attendees in early 2020, but fewer, possibly around 30,000, are expected this year, due to factors including international travel limitations, seasonal scheduling conflicts, and limits on businesses’ budgets.
Sisolak praised the return of conventions as ushering in a recovered Las Vegas.
“It’s been a long time coming, Nevada, but we made it,” he said, citing the “robust” lineup of conventions for the rest of the year and into 2022.
“Today, what I’ll tell you is: Vegas is back,” Clark County Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick said to a round of applause. “We’re open for business.”
But Vegas is not back quite yet. Reviving the convention industry will take months, and in the meantime, many remain out of work.
In March 2020, thousands of convention jobs evaporated, including for contractors who work on trade show floors setting up booths, lighting and sound. A large Las Vegas convention brings crowds in the tens, even hundreds of thousands from around the world, gathers them in an enclosed space, and then sends them home; it’s an industry especially defenseless against COVID-19.
When the governor eased restrictions last summer, allowing casinos to gradually reopen, some casino workers were rehired. But convention workers have remained out of luck.
“We went through this period of about 14 months where nobody worked,” said Tommy Blitsch, principal officer of Teamsters Local 631, which represents more than 2,000 trade show industry workers. “As a union leader, this was the hardest year that I ever experienced.”
The dormant convention industry hurt other workers whose jobs rely on tourism, too. Casinos and hotels rely on convention attendees to fill the gaps between weekend visitors. Blitsch called the return of conventions the “catalyst to finish the reopening of Las Vegas,” and said that a revival of the industry would allow more Culinary Union workers, hospitality workers and entertainment workers to return to their jobs, too. One quarter of all jobs in Las Vegas were in the tourism sector, as of 2019.
Around 400 members of Teamsters Local 631 were called to work at World of Concrete, Blitsch said, far below the 1,500 members who would work the show in a normal year.
Phil Jaynes, president of International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees 720, which represents technicians, artisans and craftspersons in the entertainment industry, said the union is sending between 40 and 50 workers to the convention. In a normal year, they might have sent up to 80.
One member of IATSE who hasn’t yet gotten the call to return is Matt Kimball, an audio-visual technician who used to set up lighting and sound at conventions.
“To spend half my life in this work and to see it gone was utterly devastating,” Kimball said. His last day of work in the industry was March 6, 2020.
Kimball is grateful that Nevada extended unemployment benefits, “because that is literally all I am living on right now.”
Union steward Todd Robbins has tried to “keep hope alive” among fellow IATSE members during the past 15 months.
Most challenging, Robbins said, was the false hope: conventions that were scheduled, rescheduled, and then cancelled outright, or the politicians who suggested that return was imminent before it was — all of which left the workers feeling helpless.
Robbins said he was fortunate to be called to serve as a steward at World of Concrete, his first work in 15 months, but most of his members were not so lucky.
Robbins has been fielding calls from concerned members who want to remind him that they are eager to return. They want to know why they haven’t been invited back. “What I’ve been telling people is: I know you see people working right now. Be patient,” he said, because there will be more work on the horizon.
At the convention itself on Tuesday morning, the booths were all set up and ready to go, constructed in the days before by the handful of lucky workers who were called.
Attendees had their temperatures checked upon arrival. Masks were recommended but not required. The vast majority went without. Proof of vaccination was not required.
The crowds appeared to pick up steadily throughout the morning.
Jason Pinney, a regional sales manager at QUIKRETE, a packaged concrete manufacturer, said he has been “pleasantly surprised” by turnout, and that World of Concrete has “the same type of buzz” as pre-COVID conventions.
A few dozen attendees gathered around a QUIKRETE demonstration. On stage, a salesman narrated while his colleague poured their concrete product into a bucket, extolling its benefits. Several attendees watched transfixed.
Another booth beckoned attendees to “Get this saw FREE with minimum purchase.” A giant “MASONRY MADNESS” sign flew above the parking lot, advertising competitions that will take place Wednesday.
Tracy Carter, the trade show coordinator at Kaeser Compressors, said that those who did manage to attend are enthusiastic: “I just think everybody is probably a little bit more giddy and happy because we’ve been locked up for a year.”
The workers invited back were thrilled to be there and working hard, Robbins, the union steward, said. “It seemed like we’d never left for a year and a half.”
But when will the majority of industry workers be back to their jobs, and a more complete recovery begin to take place?
Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority President Steve Hill acknowledged the recovery process will likely last into next year.
“This show marks the beginning of the recovery,” Hill said at a press conference Tuesday. “It will take some time to get full attendance.”
He added, “We are excited about what the next 12 months will bring.” Fewer convention attendees, of course, means fewer workers are brought back to staff the shows.
Blitsch thinks it will be “closer towards the end of the year” that all of his members can be back to work, and said that he hopes the scheduled conventions will all take place. (Those conventions will depend on whether World of Concrete is a success and attracts enough people, among other factors.) To reach the level of work the union had immediately before the pandemic, in late 2019 and early 2020, which saw record highs, Blitsch said, “I don’t think we get back to pre-pandemic normal until we see the international travel (return).”
Jaynes also expects things to pick up by the end of the year, but the summer is “still going to be difficult.”
“In the convention trade show nobody really has a full-time job,” Jaynes said. “Once World of Concrete is done and they move that show out, they just won’t have work again.”
But come fall, “we’re slammed again,” Jaynes said. Right before the pandemic, they were so busy that they were running out of labor, and that might be a problem again next spring, Jaynes said, optimistic that the industry will rebound to its pre-pandemic heights.
The workers are eager to return in full.
While some members changed professions, driving in rideshare or picking up new skills, as Kimball said, “A lot of us just buckled down and waited.”
“This is kind of a culture, a multi-generational culture, and I think it takes a special kind of person to do the work,” Blitsch said, “And they like their jobs: they like working with their hands, they like working with the clients in the industry.”
“I know all my guys, they want to contribute. Nobody likes sitting around for a year and five months,” Jaynes said. “They’re ready to go back.”