Party Like It’s 2019 In Las Vegas, Where Crowds Are Back

I recently flew toLas Vegas to attend a tradeshow for the first time in more than two years. The good news is that from TSA at the airport to crowded flights to hotel check-in, there were lines, lines, lines. With a million Americans dead, COVID may or may not be ‘over.’ But when it comes to travel, crowds are back, baby!

On my Southwest flight to Vegas, masks seemed an afterthought. Less than 20% of flyers were wearing them. Onboard I chose not to wear a mask, like the flight crew. But I co-existed peacefully with an older woman in the next seat wearing hers. Much of the friction and air rage seems to have evaporated with the ruling of Federal court U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle striking down the CDC mask mandate in one fell swoop.

The Biden Administration said it might sue to reinstate the mask mandate. That genie seems unlikely to go back in the bottle. At Drai’s Beachclub and Nightclub, I met a pair of Canadian airline employees, who told me their mask mandate was still in effect. But in the US, they seemed happy to go maskless, dancing with the huge crowd and waiting in the long drink lines.

At the tradeshow, when a keynote ended, hallways and escalators were packed with badge-wearing guests. We slowly pushed our way towards the equally jammed elevator bank.

One line I skipped was the long morning line to buy a cup of coffee. I could really have used it, as even the nicest hotels in Las Vegas lack the perk of coffee in the room. Alas, everything is a profit center.

At the show, I showed my Clear App id to the check-in people. They gave me a tradeshow credential to wear around my neck. That was the last time I thought about COVID at the show, although I will take a COVID test just to be sure.

At the tradeshow exhibition, giveaways were back! Tchotchkes included branded water bottles, USB flash drives, t-shirts, and of course, lots of hand sanitizer.

Outside the show, the Strip was jammed with walkers, gawkers, and strollers. Women paid tribute to Las Vegas’ showgirl past, wearing feather tiaras and little else. Las Vegas Boulevard also played host to impromptu bachelorette parades. The future bride wore a veil, tiara, or sash, while her court dressed to impress.

With the crowds, Ubers and taxis took time to get. But on the Strip, being able to hail a taxi at many hotels was a handy alternative to dependence on a smartphone and its ever-dying battery.

How many people are coming to Las Vegas? The most recent Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCA) data is from March 2022. That month Las Vegas hosted more than 3.3M visitors, 50% ahead of March 2021 and just 10% shy of March 2019. Hotel occupancy in March was a healthy 80.6%. Meetings are back too, with 495,000 business travelers attending trade shows in Sin City in March.

Business travel still has a long way to go. But Las Vegas seems better off than another key business destination. A San Francisco NBC affiliate reported that the city is on pace to have the steepest decline in business travel of all major U.S. cities, with a drop of nearly 70%, $1.7 billion.

One reason for the return of travel to Las Vegas is the can-do attitude of hospitality workers. I had positive interactions with taxi and Uber drivers, a waiter at Aria’s Moneyline Pizza & Bar who swapped out an overdressed Ceasar salad, and a bellman who went above and beyond to get a solo traveler a cab. It took half an hour to check out of the hotel, but an employee thoughtfully brought customers trays of bottled water.

An LVCA spokeswoman recently thanked the 265,000 hospitality workers in Las Vegas. “We are nothing without an incredible hospitality workforce,” she said. “The backbone of what makes Vegas so special is the extraordinary customer service, the understanding of creating memorable experiences for visitors.”

Even McCarran Airport (LAS) err, Harry Reid, was jammed. On a Friday afternoon at 1PM, the TSA line was swamped. I overheard one TSA employee telling another “Hold them back, there’s no room.” For some reason when people reached the area, only males were asked to show a boarding pass. We needed to show the pass and ID again 20 minutes later when we reached another TSA agent.

Our Southwest flight scheduled to depart at 2:05 did not take off until 2:30. The pilot announced that there was a lengthy line of planes on the taxiway ahead of us.

At Burbank Airport, I checked Uber and the price for Uber X came back at $49 (pre-tip) to my house. In November it was about $36. Disturbed, I checked Lyft, which wanted $83 for the same ride. This week Uber and Lyft hit 52-week lows. But those buying options betting on the ride-sharers to rise might be onto something.

When I finally got an Uber, a message alerted me that in LA County, the Health Department still insists on masks on public transportation, including Uber. Although my driver had the windows open and could not find a mask for himself, I put on my mask as a nod to the pandemic.

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