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Jennifer Robison

Boom in convention attendance drives Las Vegas visitation

11 January 2013

LAS VEGAS -- A record year for visitor volume continued to take shape in November.

More than 3.1 million people visited Las Vegas in the month, up 2.5 percent from 3 million a year earlier, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority reported Thursday.

A boom in convention attendance pushed up the figures. More than 438,000 conventioneers flocked to the city, a 16.6 percent gain over 375,500 attendees in November 2011.

Scott Russell, the authority's senior manager of research, said much of the improvement came from two shows: the 25,900-attendee Society of Manufacturing Engineers show, last here in 2008, and the 16,000-attendee Diving Equipment and Marketing Association meeting, visiting for the first time since 2010.

What's more, annual conventions, including the SEMA Show, exceeded attendance forecasts, Russell said.

November's results kept the Las Vegas tourism market on track for record results in 2012, though visitor volume might not break the 40-million mark, as authority officials projected a year ago.

Visitor volume from January through November clocked in at 36.7 million, 2 percent ahead of 36 million in the same period of 2011.

If the market sees typical December visitation of about 2.75 million, it would mean a 2012 tally of about 39.6 million visitors, said Steve Brown, director of UNLV's Center for Business and Economic Research. That would surpass 2007's record visitation of 39.2 million.

It would take a "banner December" to reach 40 million, Russell said, but he added that authority officials are optimistic the market will "easily eclipse" its prerecession high.

Brown said November's numbers suggest that "at least in one respect, our tourism industry has recovered to where it was prior to the recession."

Still, other tourism metrics have a way to go to return to boom-era watermarks.

November's average daily room rate was $104, up 0.6 percent from $103.34 a year earlier, but well below a 2007 high of $146.53. Occupancy ticked up to 79.7 percent, up from 78.3 percent in November 2011, but down from an average of 90.4 percent in 2007.

The market does have more rooms to fill, though. Inventory was 150,165 rooms in November, compared with 132,947 rooms at the end of 2007, thanks to major openings including CityCenter in 2009 and The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas in 2010. It's a positive sign that the market added so much supply and kept its occupancy rates 20 percentage points above the U.S. average, Russell said.

Gaming analysts agreed that trends are improving.

"While the pace of the recovery relative to expectations can be debated, there is no doubt that the fundamentals continue to move in the right direction," Macquarie Research gaming analyst Chad Beynon wrote in a Thursday note to investors.