A city built on tourism, conventions, and the on-premise, Las Vegas was absolutely decimated by the Covid-19 pandemic last year. The lifeblood of the city—its hotels, restaurants, bars, and entertainment halls—all shut down suddenly and completely in March 2020, turning the once-packed Strip into a ghost town. From that hardship, however, a new Vegas is emerging, and the rebound has already begun. Las Vegas lifted all of its Covid-19 restrictions on June 1st of this year, removing the city’s capacity limits and distancing mandates for restaurants, bars, and casinos. In the weeks since, guest traffic is way up, both on and off The Strip, and optimism has returned to Sin City.
“Business has improved significantly,” says Ashley Farkas, the executive director of public relations for MGM Resorts International. “Las Vegas and our industry are both recovering incredibly fast. There’s been enormous pent-up demand for Las Vegas over the past year and we’re seeing the results of that now. More people are comfortable traveling, and we’re ready to welcome them. Our restaurants are extremely busy, and we’re seeing pre-pandemic levels in our bars and lounges.”
MGM Resorts is a dominant player in Las Vegas’ casino-resort scene, operating some of the most well-known properties on The Strip, including Bellagio Resort & Casino, MGM Grand Hotel & Casino, Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, and New York-New York Hotel & Casino, among others. The company has reopened all of its venues in Las Vegas at full capacity with no social distancing requirements, and masks are optional for vaccinated guests. This is indicative of the scene throughout Sin City now and most on-premise outlets are operating along similar lines.
MGM Resorts upgraded most of its cleaning and safety protocols over the last year to accommodate the various reopening stages of Las Vegas, and it plans to maintain many of those practices going forward. The company embraced technology, rolling out several digital innovations that helped create contactless transactions and minimize touchpoints for guests, including digital hotel check-in, menu ordering, and virtual queues for people waiting at busy restaurants and bars. These efforts were bolstered by upgraded cleaning and disinfecting methods.
“Many of these innovations have been so well received that they’ll become permanent components of our entertainment experience,” Farkas says. “Health and safety will remain a priority for guests and employees in a post-Covid world, and technology will continue to play a key role. Over the last year, we’ve seen that people are yearning for diversion, for fun, and for a getaway. We’re prepared to bring entertainment and sports back in a big way.”
The company’s poolside venues have been very popular during the early parts of Covid-19 recovery. MGM Resorts created a poolside mobile ordering platform for all of its properties in Las Vegas earlier this year, allowing guests to place their own orders from their mobile phones and have them delivered directly to their chair or daybed. At The Mirage Hotel and Casino, Farkas says the top-selling drinks include buckets of beer ($55-$100 for 6-11 beers) and cocktails like the Bacardi Superior and Cruzan Aged Light rum-based Miami Vice, the Bacardi Superior and Malibu Coconut rum-based Piña Colada, and the Bacardi Lime rum-based Mojito (cocktails are $15-$17 a 12-ounce drink and $26-$39 a 32-ounce drink at Paradise Café).
Restaurateur and hospitality operator Elizabeth Blau, the founder and CEO of Blau + Associates, has also seen a big uptick in business. Her company manages two restaurants in Las Vegas, the Italian concept Buddy V’s Ristorante in The Venetian Resort and the American bistro Honey Salt in the suburban neighborhood Summerlin. Buddy V’s, the dinner concept created with television’s “Cake Boss” pastry chef Buddy Valastro, was completely closed for months, as was the entire Venetian Resort, which is managed by Las Vegas Sands Corp. However, Honey Salt shifted quickly to a takeout and delivery model when the city shut down, and that helped it stay open for business throughout the pandemic. Blau got creative at Honey Salt, offering meal ingredient kits and virtual cooking demonstrations led from her own home to diversify her business during the height of the closures. Now, Blau says Saturday and Sunday brunch service at Honey Salt has been selling out every weekend, and she adds that even typically slow dinner nights like Monday and Tuesday have been at capacity.
“It’s definitely apparent that people are ready to be out again,” Blau says. “It’s great to see people dining together, and it’s wonderful for our staff, who struggled throughout this pandemic, to be busy. We’re doing better than ever.” She adds that navigating the last year-plus of Covid-19 mandated closures and restrictions was the most challenging time she’s experienced in her 30 years of restaurant work, but she also points to rewards like the Delivering With Dignity program she helped co-found to bring high-quality meals to at-risk people and families in the Vegas Valley. The group has given out more than 350,000 free meals since March 2020.
“Covid was devastating for Las Vegas,” Blau explains. “The unprecedented shutdown of The Strip, the entire hospitality industry, the Convention Center, and the abrupt halt of air travel was completely debilitating. But Vegas is coming back. We need to rebuild convention business, but in the past couple months The Strip has been as busy (with tourists) as I can ever remember it. People are ready to dine and dance again.” Blau also consults on special projects for Wynn and is helping that resort open the new supper club Delilah this summer.
Moving Off The Strip
Properties located away from Las Vegas Boulevard—better known as The Strip—have benefitted from an uptick in business as the recovery moves forward. Vegas locals have long been regulars in the more far-flung areas of Sin City, and even tourists are venturing away from the main drag now. El Cortez Hotel & Casino on Freemont Street in downtown Las Vegas is the longest-running hotel and casino in the city, having opened in 1941, and it remains family owned today. General manager Adam Wiesberg says business is strong again in gaming and in the property’s restaurants and bars. El Cortez shut down in March 2020 and stayed closed for nearly three months because of Covid restrictions. Management used that downtime to redesign its interior and implement new distancing and cleaning protocols, and many of those efforts are still in place.
Wiesberg says the redesign at El Cortez included spacing out its machines and tables on the casino floor and putting acrylic dividers in some areas, as well as implementing intense cleaning protocols. The property also had to furlough many of its employees, though it has since brought most people back. Wiesberg adds that bar business is strong again and that takeout and to-go orders are also holding steady, a trend he expects to continue for the foreseeable future. Early on in the pandemic El Cortez cut its food and drinks menus way back, but they’re gradually being built up again.
“El Cortez is definitely back and running full speed ahead, with The Strip right behind us,” Wiesberg says. “Las Vegas was devastated, and The Strip was impacted the most. Having to close for almost three months with no revenue was hard, and then reopening without shows, buffets, conventions, and nightclubs, with 25% capacity, made it impossible to take advantage of the reopening. Downtown has fared better than The Strip because we have more locals and Californians driving in to keep us going. Vegas is rebuilding and tourism has definitely started to return. Gaming and beverage are performing well, and that should continue. Our food business still has room for growth, but we need more staff for that, and that’s our biggest challenge right now.”
Staffing constraints are among the biggest barriers to full recovery for Las Vegas these days, and many operators are facing similar struggles. Josh Molina, the founder and CEO of the Latin restaurant and bar Makers & Finders, which has two locations off The Strip in Vegas, says he’s perpetually short-staffed now, which makes operating at capacity infinitely harder. “That’s our newest challenge and it’s the true long-term effect of Covid,” Molina explains. “The shutdown and quarantine were easy compared to what we’re dealing with now. Because of the unemployment benefits and the complexity of the market, it’s impossible to find personnel. And it’s a massive undertaking to run short-staffed.”
Molina recalls being able to walk down the middle of Las Vegas Boulevard last spring with no traffic and says it was a scary time. But he adds that the shutdowns in Las Vegas forced people to stray away from The Strip and that has been good for his business. During the height of quarantine, Makers & Finders shifted to takeout and opened a sidewalk espresso bar with a small food menu, and managed to stay open for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic. He adds that revenue is up now over 2019, and that there’s recently been an influx of tourism, more so than before the shutdowns. Before Covid, Makers & Finders used to see about 12% of its total revenue come from beverage alcohol, but in 2021 it’s been closer to 20%, led by sparkling wine.
“Vegas was one of the fastest and hardest-hit cities in the country when Covid began, but now it’s one of the fastest recovering cities in the nation,” Molina says. “The quarantine and shutdown accelerated the evolution of the Vegas tourist and made them explore, which has been very beneficial to the local market off The Strip. I think we’re going to see a busier summer than usual and that’s going to continue to ride through the rest of this year. There’s so much happening here and so many venues opening this year and early into 2022. It’s going to be the final ignition needed to get back to full strength, if not stronger.”
Wiesberg at El Cortez Hotel & Casino is equally optimistic, pointing to the thousands of new hotel rooms opening this year and the success of the Las Vegas Raiders football team and the Golden Knights hockey team. “I think Las Vegas is entering one of its greatest periods of growth,” Wiesberg adds. “Given the pent-up demand for the Las Vegas experience, I couldn’t be more optimistic.”