by Leo Jakobson | November 03, 2017

By the time IMEX America opened in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Oct. 10, the largest U.S. trade show for the incentive travel, meetings, and events industry found itself in a changed city.

Nine days earlier, at 10:05 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 1, Stephen Paddock had broken the window out of a room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino and started shooting at a crowd of more than 20,000 concert-goers at an open-air venue next to the hotel. Fifty-eight people were killed and over 500 were wounded over the next 10 minutes. Paddock killed himself about an hour later, as police officers blew open the door to his room with explosives.

A city that takes pride in its nickname "Sin City" and celebrates being a place where people from around the world come to be a little bit louder, party a little bit harder, and take in the spectacular shows, famous entertainers, ultra-hip nightclubs, and famous-name chefs' restaurants was in mourning and in shock.

But like many cities and even countries beset by tragedy, what Las Vegas showed last month is that it refuses to be defined by the terror it experienced.

The two words the city adopted as its rallying cry, "Vegas Strong" could be seen everywhere, from Twitter, to the illuminated signs in black-and-white on The Strip, to the ice at T-Mobile Arena where the NHL expansion team Golden Knights team played -- and won -- its first home game the night IMEX America opened.

"We are heartbroken, but we're not broken," said Jim Murren, chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts International, at a Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) press conference to address the shooting.

"I don't want to dwell on the inhumane act that occurred. I prefer to focus on the acts of humanity and kindness that I have witnessed in the last week. We're strong and we're working together to heal this community and this city."

Part of that healing process is moving forward, and having the entire meetings and events industry converge on Las Vegas for IMEX America at that time, "is really beautiful and kind of poetic in a sense" Murren added. "The meetings and convention business is the backbone of our model, and without it we would not be able to recover."

That is a theme that came up time and again during the show.

IMEX America experienced
record attendance one week
after the shootings

"Thank God IMEX was being held this week rather than two weeks ago," said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, at the press conference. "We all have a responsibility to carry out a positive message. The travel and hospitality industry is an incredibly strong industry but also an incredibly fragile industry. We have 24/7 media coverage that always paints a bad picture of what's happening whenever a tragedy like this occurs. And sometimes it takes years for destinations to recover from the perception that it is not safe."

When that happens, Dow added, "it can bring an industry to its knees. We all have a job, and Las Vegas has a job, to talk about every successful convention, every tourism record broken."

And in fact, Las Vegas had one of its best years ever in 2016 with 43 million visitors and 6.3 million convention attendees.

Fighting perception
Still, Las Vegas has a hill to climb. After several high-profile attacks, Paris saw tourism slump by 1.5 million visitors in 2016, only to come back strong in 2017.

LVCVA's Rossi Ralenkotter
spoke at IMEX America

The instinct to avoid anywhere seen as unsafe after this kind of attack is powerful, but so is the determination people have to show that they will not be deterred. That has more than a little to do with the fact that the impact on Parisian tourism was short-lived. Las Vegas tourism figures through August for 2017 saw 28 million overall visitors and 4.7 million convention attendees, both figures on a pace to exceed the 2016 numbers.

If attendance at IMEX America is any indication, those figures will keep on track. At the show's final press conference, IMEX Group chairman Ray Bloom called the 2017 show the "largest ever," attracting 3,200 hosted buyers, 2,500 independent buyers, and 3,300 exhibitors.

"I sent out a notification the day after the event [shooting], letting the show organizers know that we would still be attending," says David Jefferys, founder and executive director of the LGBT Meeting Professionals Association. "We can't let these senseless acts of violence deter us from pursuing our goals as event planners. The best response is to move forward."

Vincent Laruffa, senior vice president of resort sales and marketing for Universal Orlando Resort, agrees, noting, "We never seriously considered not attending because of the tragedy. You can't let the fear of an attack keep you from doing business."

What the meetings, incentives, conventions, and events (MICE) industry can do -- the best thing it can do -- is "to educate our clients and keep them informed on the facts, to make sure they know the true situation rather than the skewed view they might be getting from news and social media," says David Peckinpaugh, president of Maritz Global Events. "I don't know of a destination in the world that can guarantee safety, but you can do due diligence and have a plan in place when a tragedy does occur."

What is harder to quantify is the MICE business that doesn't come to a destination after this kind of tragedy. And the cause is not always fear.

While his firm has seen no cancellations, "we are seeing in the incentive space, clients are bypassing Las Vegas on the short list," says Tracy Kinsey, vice president of sales and marketing for Bishop-McCann. "Having a celebration in Las Vegas after such a tragedy does not feel right."

Still, he adds, experience tells him that this will not be an issue for long. "It will affect programs for the next six to nine months," Kinsey adds. "Beyond that, it is not an issue."