Jim Murren optimistic about Las Vegas’ recovery from virus

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Former MGM Resorts International CEO Jim Murren heads the Nevada COVID-19 Response, Relief and Recovery Task Force to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Jim Murren is convinced Las Vegas will come back bigger and better in the aftermath of the economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

Murren, who in February left his post as CEO of MGM Resorts International, doesn’t say that because of his current position — chairman of the state’s COVID-19 Response, Relief and Recovery Task Force.

Rather, it’s from his long run as a leader on the Strip, where MGM has more than 10 properties and was at the forefront when the resort corridor started to rebound in the late-2000s from the downturn of the Great Recession.

“In 2022, I think we’re going to see a very rapid snapback in consumer activity nationwide, particularly in Las Vegas,” Murren said.

We caught up with Murren last week to get an update on his work with the task force, his thoughts on the Las Vegas recovery and his plans for the future.

COVID-19 numbers have been rising in Nevada recently. What’s the latest you can tell us about the task force’s work and the battle to tame the virus here?

We’re more prepared now than we were in March, which is not to say that we aren’t seeing increased cases. We are in a position now where we have more resources to treat, to trace, and to protect those who are treating those with COVID. We’re in a much better space in terms of PPE (personal protective equipment) and we’ve vastly expanded testing capacity relative to March.

We also have better education, which has led to a better understanding of the disease. Where we’re still behind is having a robust contact tracing infrastructure in place to track the disease better and treat people more quickly with a tracing mechanism.

The heavily tourism-based economy in Las Vegas has suffered greatly because of the pandemic. Where are we in terms of a recovery?

We certainly can’t wait for a vaccine to jumpstart economic activity here in the Valley. I think health safety protocols here are superior to most hospitality companies around the country, but they are limited in their nature to fight the disease. There needs to be added protocols put in place to allow us to occupy theaters more fully, stadiums, arenas and convention centers. Until we can do that, we’re going to have the level of revenue activity that we have right now, which is far below what a healthy Las Vegas economy needs.

We need to find out what kinds of additional health safety measures need to be put into place so we can be comfortable with occupying venues more than we’re currently able to do. I’ve seen reports that say a recovery in Las Vegas wouldn’t happen until maybe 2024. I think that’s wrong. I think we’re going to see slow, but steady improvement throughout 2021—not rapid, but demonstrable.

News came out last month that Las Vegas Sands is shopping its Strip assets, including the Venetian. Did that surprise you?

I was surprised. I’m not sure what the outcome of that will be, but I do know that the vast majority of profits they’ve been making lately have been coming from outside of Las Vegas. They’ve been aggressive and deliberate investors in Macau and Singapore. We’ll see where that goes.

Do you miss the casino and gaming industry?

I sure do. I love the industry. I love Las Vegas and MGM and the people at MGM. I appreciate that the board at MGM let me leave a little earlier than I was going to because the governor asked me to run this task force. I feel like I’m contributing where I can without getting in anyone’s way. I know how difficult the times are right now, and my heart goes out to the men and women who are doing their best.

Would you entertain the possibility of getting back into the industry?

I don’t think so, no. One of the really important lessons I’ve learned—and tried to instill during my 22 years—is to reduce barriers of upward mobility. People have a tendency sometimes to stay too long, whether that’s in sports or business. I loved every bit of my role. I can’t say it was always a fun job because we went through some incredibly stressful times as an industry and as a company, but I wouldn’t trade a moment of it. For now, I think I’m in the right place, helping the state more holistically.

I’m an investor now, too. I love to invest and do so in a variety of sectors. I spent 14 years on Wall Street before I came to Las Vegas. I’m incredibly proud to have worked for Mr. (Kirk) Kerkorian for the last 17 years of his life. I learned a lot from him. I idolized him. He was the ultimate value investor. I think my path will continue to be as an investor.

As of this writing, votes are still being counted in one of the most contentious presidential elections in American history. Did you have a horse in the race?

There’s a stark difference between the two candidates. I had been a Republican my entire life and was incredibly proud being able to vote in my first presidential election in 1980. The Reagan/Bush ticket was the first ticket I could vote for. My dad was in politics as a local Republican legislator in Connecticut, where I grew up, so there were Republicans all around me. Wall Street was very Republican-leaning as well.

When I came here, I learned a lot about Nevada from people like Mr. Kerkorian, Sen. (Harry) Reid, and Terry Lanni. It was really important for me to be a Nevadan, and not a Republican or Democrat. That’s what I envision that I am right now. Through that lens, I can see that one candidate is very divisive, has racist and bigoted rhetoric who sees no way to win unless someone else is losing. He has turned us backward on the world stage and in terms of clean energy, immigration and health care. He’s belittled scientists and educators. The other candidate, who I’ve gotten to know, believes in science, medicine, is a healer, is empathetic, is a bridge-builder, and believes we’re stronger as a community for our diversity. I believe in Joe Biden. I think what he stands for is what America is.

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This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.

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