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Rod Smith

Nevadan At Work: Richard Heller, President, Sands Expo and Convention Center, and Executive Vice President, The Venetian

2 September 2003

A big grease board dominates Richard Heller's board room deep in the bowels of the Sands Expo and Convention Center.

There, handwritten in big, bold letters, is a message: "I love you Daddy," with a huge valentine and a bunch of doodles about geometry classes and other teenage vexations.

Heller's 20-year-old daughter drew the message on the Peter Maxlike grease board years ago, and Heller said, "I just can't bear to erase it."

The otherwise sterile suite of executive offices bears little personal imprint, but conversations with Heller, president of the Sands Expo and Convention Center and executive vice president of The Venetian, make it clear work is his life, and vice versa.

Heller's life is a sort of Horatio Alger tale, with some unusual detours.

He didn't marry the boss's daughter, but he went to work for his wife's father, Sheldon Adelson, 22 years ago. The marriage itself ended about the time the Sands Expo and Convention Center opened, but the work and relationships went on.

Together, Adelson and Heller have built the Sands Expo and Convention Center into the largest privately owned convention operation in the country and it is now an integral part of the business driving The Venetian.

Most recently, the Sands Expo and Convention Center signed 13 contracts with VNU Expositions Inc. to bring five trade shows to Las Vegas by 2008. Four are renewals, but all five are ranked in the Tradeshow Week 200, a listing of the top trade shows by square footage compiled by Tradeshow Week.

The real victory, Heller says, was landing the GlobalShop Conference and Expo, ranked 67th on the Tradeshow Week 200, for 2004 after it was staged in Chicago for a decade.

Signing GlobalShop, he says, symbolizes the progress he and Adelson have made in making Las Vegas and the Sands Expo and Convention Center national leaders in the convention industry, the fastest-growing segment of business travel.

Question: How did the Sands get started?

Answer: The concept of us building a convention center in Las Vegas came from owning Comdex and running it at many, many sites in Las Vegas, the Las Vegas Convention Center, the Las Vegas Hilton, the Tropicana, Bally's, Caesars Palace, the Riviera, Sahara and exhibit space at Cashman (Center), in the late '80s, and yet we still had pent-up demand for exhibit space so we had a problem. One of the ways to solve it, since no one else was building anything at the time, was to build our own convention center.

In 1989, we bought the Sands hotel so we could build a convention center. We broke ground in February 1990 and opened the convention center at the end of October 1990. Three or four days after we got our occupancy permit, we started moving Comdex in. We had 555,000 square feet of exhibit space, meeting rooms and lobbies. The first year, Comdex used Sands Expo and Convention Center, all of the Las Vegas Convention Center exhibition space, Hilton exhibition space and a couple of hotels. And the show continued to grow which was a great problem. I was in charge of design and construction as well as recruiting everyone we needed plus my old job.

Now, we have 1.2 million gross square feet of exhibit space, meeting rooms and public space, not counting any Venetian space.

When you add the Sands and The Venetian, we're overseeing 1.8 million square feet of space, soon to be more than 2 million square feet when the next three floors (now mothballed in The Venetian expansion) are finished.

Question: How has the Sands done?

Answer: The Sands has done extremely well. We opened in 1990, at the time we were the largest privately owned convention center and everyone was saying it would never work and we've been very successful for 13 years. The Sands has done well first and foremost because of the success of Las Vegas. The power of Las Vegas as a destination, it's a city that the buyers and sellers want to come to. ... We were at the right place at the right time because there was pent-up demand for suppliers to get into the city and we were able to facilitate that. And Las Vegas reaped the benefits along with us since more people were able to come to the city because companies had our convention space, thereby increasing spending in the city with no subsidy or public cost. Taxpayers didn't have to pay for this. We did.

Question: What do you do now?

Answer: I'm responsible for everything that's wrong. The staff does what they do, but when it's wrong, it's my responsibility. I oversee all the day-to-day functions of the Sands Expo and Convention Center, but most importantly I'm a salesman for Las Vegas first and for our property second.

Question: How did you get into the business?

Answer: I was introduced to (Sands Expo and Convention Center owner Sheldon (Adelson) by his daughter whom I'd met in college. I started working part-time for the Interface Group and I moved boxes. I started literally at the bottom. When I joined the company full-time, I started in operations as a manager and progressed over the years.

Question: How do you explain your move up?

Answer: As the company grew, I was given more responsibility. Never being one to shy away from responsibility, I always took it on. Having been in the trade show business gave me a chance to learn sales and marketing and promotion and all that when I was very young (in Framingham and Needham, Mass.).

Question: What's the state of convention business today?

Answer: I don't think you can look at the state of convention business in Las Vegas without looking at it nationally. As a whole, the convention industry is in a recession across the country. In Las Vegas, we're not feeling the full effects of the industry recession at all. I do believe we're on the tail end of the recession now and beginning to climb out of it.

In Las Vegas, we didn't feel the full effect of the trade show and convention recession because of the power of the destination. It was a place people wanted to visit.

The other thing that happened was that organizers realized trade shows and meetings tend to have their best attendance when they come to Las Vegas. Trade show organizers and meeting planners have recognized that, making us a first choice. In the last two years, the supply of space has grown in Las Vegas, and because of the increasing capacity, more groups have been able to get into Las Vegas than have in the past.

Question: Do you feel any competition?

Answer: I think there's competition in Las Vegas, but in our case, trade shows book three to five years out so while the Convention Center and Mandalay have built more space, our space has been full while they have gone after the additional business that wanted to come to town. And then in the weak periods when we all have empty space, then naturally we're all competing. But first and foremost, the customers have to decide they want to be in our city.

Question: Where does the Sands go from here?

Answer: The Sands continues to do what it does. Hopefully, we've have the opportunity to grow additional space in the future to meet the needs and as the neighborhood continues to develop. And with Wynn Las Vegas opening across the street, and the next 300,000 square foot Venetian addition, it maintains us in the center of the Strip and the center of it all.