by Leo Jakobson | November 01, 2015
If you were staying at the Wynn Las Vegas during the IMEX America trade show in October, you noticed that it was also playing host to the first Democratic presidential debate, in which Hillary Clinton finally managed to break past Vermont phenom (and U.S. Senator) Bernie Sanders, who has been punching above his weight for months.

But that's not the only presidential debate that will be held in Las Vegas during this election cycle. On Oct. 19, 2016, the final -- and thus most important -- presidential debate will be held at the University of Nevada Las Vegas campus. And Chris Meyer, vice president of global business sales of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), wants to make certain that no one misses what the decision to hold both the recent Democratic primary debate and that vital presidential debate in Las Vegas says about Las Vegas' value as a meetings destination.

"The presidential debate is a platform that shouts the importance of face-to-face meetings," Meyer says. It also, he adds, gives "the perception that Las Vegas is a serious destination. If we can have the future president here to debate, you can have your meeting or convention here. This removes any question or concern that companies shouldn't hold meetings here."

That question, of course, arose during a presidential town hall meeting on Feb. 9, 2009, when the president warned bankers that took public bailouts, "You can't get corporate jets, you can't go take a trip to Las Vegas, or go down to the Superbowl on the taxpayers' dime." In the wake of these concerns, public companies of all kinds cancelled meetings and events in Las Vegas, costing the city tens of thousands of room-nights and more than $100 million in revenue in short order.

President Obama visited Las Vegas many times after that remark -- often to a frosty reception -- but the meetings, incentives, conventions, and events (MICE) industry is doing quite well there now, regardless. All the talk these days is about growth, both on the Strip and off.

In August, Las Vegas welcomed 3.6 million visitors -- 530,000 of them convention attendees -- for a total of 28 million visitors through the first eight months of the year. Convention attendance is up 3.4 percent in 2015.

One of the biggest projects had its official launch on Oct. 22, when the LVCVA went before an economic development task force appointed by Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval to formally make the case to fund a major renovation and expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center, growing it from 3.2 million square feet to 5.7 million square feet, as part of the $2.3-billion Las Vegas Global Business District project.

This project's initial goal would be the 55-year-old convention center's first major expansion in a decade. The first phase would include 750,000 square feet of exhibition space and 187,500 square feet of supporting meeting space, as part of an 1.8-million-square-foot expansion. The plan would  then be followed by a full renovation of the existing convention center and more additions to the facility.

During this time, the LVCVA would be working on the creation of a business and entertainment neighborhood around the convention center. There's also the possibility of a major monorail expansion associated with the project.

The project really began in February, when the LVCVA bought and shuttered the old Riviera Hotel & Casino (its iconic sign has been preserved at the Las Vegas Neon Museum). The 26-acre site "will give the convention center a Las Vegas Boulevard address," Meyer says. That Strip-front access will make it easier to develop the 191-acre area around the convention center into a real neighborhood, which will in turn "start attracting more businesses," he says.

Of course, this is a long-term project, Meyer says, noting that even renovating the existing Las Vegas Convention Center will have to wait until the new addition is built. "Realistically, we are looking at an eight-year program," Meyer adds. "There is not even an architectural rendering yet."

In fact, the plan was only formally presented to the governor's Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee on Oct. 22, and the Committee isn't scheduled to make its recommendations until mid-2016. Of course, the LVCVA's $180-million-plus purchase of the Riviera in February, which it shuttered in May, does suggest a certain degree of confidence by the LVCVA, even if it isn't showing all its cards.