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Chris Jones

It's All About Auto Shows

1 November 2005

Gentlemen, start your aftermarket automotive products.

This week will showcase three major automotive Las Vegas trade shows.

And though conventioneers will probably never notice, what's perhaps been the city's most impressive tune-up of 2005 will quietly continue just beneath their feet.

More than 100,000 people from more than 100 countries are expected to attend Las Vegas' second-annual Automotive Aftermarket Industry Week, which has quickly emerged as one of the city's busiest convention periods.

Last November's staging of separate automotive-themed gatherings was the first time the city's three largest trade- show venues simultaneously hosted cooperative events. Since then, new ownership has led to big changes at the newest of those three venues, the 1.5 million-square-foot Mandalay Bay Convention Center.

Still, an executive there said Monday his team is pleased to again host the International Autobody Congress & Exposition, commonly called NACE, which is expected to draw 40,000 people. He hopes the high-profile gathering will become another selling point in new owner MGM Mirage's push to bolster business at the nation's fifth-largest trade convention center.

"In terms of its size and economic impact, NACE is clearly the largest event we've hosted since we took over," said Richard Harper, a former MGM Grand executive who's spent the past six months as vice president of sales and marketing at Mandalay Bay, "But any time all of our halls are booked, it's a great show for us."

Filling those halls has been a key issue for MGM Mirage. Company executives have said that Mandalay Bay's massive trade show hall was a key driver in the company's 2004 decision to buy Mandalay Resort Group.

Once that $7.9 billion takeover was finished in late April, Harper and his 80-person staff moved quickly to boost their new property's convention business, which, insiders say, has largely failed to meet expectations since Mandalay Resort Group completed a $236 million expansion in January 2003.

Adam Schaffer, publisher of Los Angeles-based Tradeshow Week magazine, said Mandalay Bay's previous owner ran into trouble when it tried to force trade-show planners to commit to certain hotel and food-and- beverage sales requirements when booking an event.

Such practices can cause major snags in today's volatile trade show environment, Schaffer explained; the old sales provisos ultimately created an industrywide perception that Mandalay Bay was not trade-show friendly. Based on recent conversations with trade-show planners and other leaders, he said Harper's team has already improved Mandalay Bay's image within those circles.

"Richard really listens to clients and understands what they need to be successful," Schaffer said. "The difference is really phenomenal."

Harper said his staff has worked closely with trade- show organizers, meeting planners and other key players to better understand what would persuade them to bring more events to Mandalay Bay. Many of those recommendations were quickly enacted, and Harper said the property has since posted five of the its six best months, as measured by advance room nights sold.

Mandalay Bay's biggest change came through making negotiations simpler for customers, he added.

"I don't see any reason why we can't negotiate a contract within one week or agree to let someone take their business elsewhere," Harper said. "We're going out of our way to say 'Yes,' which may be a change from what our customers were used to hearing over here."

Since MGM Mirage took control, Harper said, Mandalay Bay has signed long-term extensions with several events, most notably the Promotional Products Association International trade show, which draws about 20,000 people each January.

Deals are also in the works to bring new shows to the venue from outside Las Vegas, as well as from other hotel-casinos in Southern Nevada. Harper declined to identify those events until contracts are in place.

"Given the square footage, property and team we have in place, it makes sense that there has been demand. ... There are a lot of shows that aren't meeting in Las Vegas that I think Mandalay Bay can bring to the table," said Harper, who admitted he suffered from "space envy" when eyeing Mandalay Bay's massive state-of-the-art facility during his competing days at MGM Grand.

In addition to NACE, the Diamond Bar, Calif.-based Specialty Equipment Market Association kicks off its four-day trade show today at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Today also marks the launch of the four-day Automotive Aftermarket Products Expo at The Venetian's Sands Exposition Center.

Doors open Wednesday to the four-day NACE show at Mandalay Bay. All three events are closed to the public.

Because so many people will attend more than one show, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority said it is difficult to estimate how many visitors will travel here for Automotive Aftermarket Industry Week.

Kevin Bagger, the authority's research director, said visitation could range from 130,000 to 170,000. Based on those estimates, attendees would spend between $189 million to $247 million on nongaming goods and services this week.