How 'Vegas Strong' Leads the Way

How IMEX America and Las Vegas taught the meetings industry important lessons

2017 Vegas opener

Las Vegas hosted IMEX America just days after the city was rocked by tragedy

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.

"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.

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."

ADMEI Emergency Preparedness Certificate
The Association of Destination Management Executives International's two-day Emergency Preparedness Certificate class covers seven topics. Participants earn 10 content hours, which can be used toward Destination Management Certified Professional (DMCP) certification or recertification, as well as toward the Event Industry Council's CMP Preferred Provider certification.

The topics covered are:
Emergency planning with a focus on prevention, mitigation, and recovery

Basics of emergency operations planning

 A comprehensive, team approach to assist in building or revising an Emergency Operations Plan

Extensive scenarios to explore emergency situations and appropriate responses

Liability and risk management issues that can occur

Additional planning considerations and risk assessment tools

Current events and trends impacting the event and destination management industry

See more details at

Planning is key
"When the tragedy occurred, we quickly implemented our crisis plan, which we have had in place for a number of years," says Carina Bauer, CEO of IMEX Group. "Some members of our crisis team monitored what was being reported in the media to get a general sense of what had occurred, and others contacted the Sands Expo Center to understand what was actually happening on the ground. This enabled us to make a timely assessment to reach a decision to go on with the show."

Leaders of the Las Vegas meetings
industry discuss "Vegas Strong"
at IMEX America one week after
the attack
Leaders of the Las Vegas meetings industry discuss "Vegas Strong" at IMEX America one week after the attack

The crucial element, Bauer says, was that "we established a strong communication link between our crisis team and the team at the Sands Expo," where IMEX America takes place. That left her team "well-informed to answer questions from our exhibitors and attendees as they came in. We sent personalized responses to each exhibitor or attendee that had a question."

This helped make his own determination easier, Laruffa says, noting "when IMEX let us know that the show was still going on, it made the decision even easier."

It also helped sway wavering participants, Bauer says. "In one case, an exhibitor from Asia asked if this was going to affect the immigration controls for getting into the United States," she recalls. "We never would have thought of that, but we contacted the Sands and they helped get the answer quickly so we could allay any fears the exhibitor may have had."

Talk to everyone

"Venues, hotels, and the corporations running an event each have their own [emergency] plans, but they need to connect," says Marty MacKay, DMCP, the president for global alliances at Hosts Global Destination Services, which has member destination management companies covering more than 300 destinations on six continents. DMCs can be of particular help in that regard, MacKay adds, noting that they deal directly with both the client and all the suppliers -- not just hotels and event venues, but also smaller ones like transportation providers and restaurants.

"A year ago, we created an emergency template for all of our DMCs," she says. "One page is a communications checklist. We are telling them that they need to talk about this before the trip. They need to know who is the one person who can make decisions [in an emergency] and who is involved in that response, ahead of time."

MacKay wears another hat as a member of the executive board of the Association of Destination Management Executives International (ADMEI). The issue of emergency planning came up at a January board meeting and by March, ADMEI launched the first training session of its Emergency Preparedness Certificate Programs (see sidebar at left).

"We were talking about issues -- education is one of our big pillars -- and the security topic came up," she says. "So many DMCs do not know where to start."

MacKay headed up the committee of board members that worked with an outside security firm to create the now 10-hour training and certification course -- it grew two hours after a question about liability in the first class led to the addition of legal and insurance sections -- that comes with a customizable emergency event planning checklist.

The Strip's bright and colorful
signs went black and white to
declare the city's strength
in the face of tragedy
The Strip's bright and colorful signs went black and white to declare the city's strength in the face of tragedy

Even with all the incidents of the past few years, "it is hard to get people to talk about the 'what ifs,'" MacKay notes. During the course, which is also open to planners, a question arose about attendee contact information.

"A planner asked why DMCs need this -- it is proprietary information," MacKay recalls. Referring back to the January 2017 mass shooting at a Florida airport, she adds, "We said, if you had an event in Fort Lauderdale, your first question would be, 'Are all of our people safe?'"

Soon after that, the question turns to what can we do to help, observes Chris Meyer, vice president of global business sales for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. "The outpouring of support and care we've received this week has just been phenomenal," he says. "The energy at this event was unlike any I've ever seen. I think that was our community rallying."

Speaking to a group of high-level corporate planners assembled by incentive travel and employee engagement firm MotivAction a day before IMEX America opened, Michael Dominguez, chief sales officer of MGM Resorts International, had a simple message before launching into his prepared remarks: "Thank you for coming to Las Vegas this week. It means the world to us."

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This article appears in the November 2017 issue of Successful Meetings.