Convention workforce in Vegas gears up for first test since start of pandemic

Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau

Displays fill the silver lot during the World of Concrete show Tuesday, February 4, 2020, at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

The head of a local union that represents trade show industry laborers said his workers are ready as Las Vegas meetings and convention business begins to crawl back from the doldrums of the pandemic.

Tommy Blitsch, principal officer of Teamsters Local 631 in Las Vegas, said it’s likely that about a third of the approximately 1,500 workers in the union will get called to do work for the World of Concrete show at the Las Vegas Convention Center in June.

The workers will mostly handle loading and unloading, and setup of exhibitions and other show areas. World of Concrete will be the first in-person, large-scale convention to return to Las Vegas since the onset of COVID-19 last year, and is considered a milestone event as the tourism industry restarts.

“They’re eager to come back,” Blitsch said. “They’ve been really patient during this whole process. My biggest fear is that there won’t be enough work this year. I think all eyes will be on World of Concrete; it will let us know how the next show might go.”

Blitsch, who is also director of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters’ Trade Show and Convention Centers Division, said industry leaders in other convention hotspots like Orlando, Fla.; Anaheim, Calif.; and Chicago will have eyes on the World of Concrete show.

“Our members know how important that show is,” Blitsch said. “If World of Concrete isn’t successful, it will be a slower crawl back to the top, and I don’t think Las Vegas can return to what it was pre-pandemic without a healthy and thriving trade show industry.”

The show attracted over 50,000 attendees to Las Vegas in early 2020—just before the coronavirus started to sweep across the country—though it will be smaller this year.

As of early April, World of Concrete’s website listed 576 committed exhibitors for June.

While that didn’t represent a final tally, it’s significantly down from the over 1,300 companies that exhibited at the event in 2020.

Organizers and Las Vegas tourism officials have said they can’t yet estimate how many people will attend the construction show.

As of early this month, Gov. Steve Sisolak had allowed for large gatherings in the state to reach 50% of a venue’s fire code, assuming a health and safety plan is approved by leaders. Those restrictions could be completely removed by June 1 — depending on how much of the population is vaccinated.

Despite Blitsch’s optimism, Kevin Carty, executive vice president of Oregon-based convention builder Classic Exhibits, which does business in Las Vegas, said there are concerns in the industry about a possible workforce shortage.

Along with manual laborers, Carty said, the industry also depends on a deep network of other specialists to bring shows to life. That could include electricians, information technology professionals, designers and many others.

Along with some other trade show business leaders from across the country, he helped start an advocacy group called the National Trade Show Alliance. One of the main goals for the alliance, Carty said, is to raise awareness about a possible labor pool shortage.

Once fully operational, the alliance’s website will feature a jobs board and “skills refresh and development” resources, he said.

“In March of 2020, our industry was shut down,” Carty said. “We lost more than 90% of our employees. The workforce has been depleted.”

Because of the shifting economy during the pandemic, workers in many industries had to get creative to find work. Similar to what has been seen in the restaurant industry, some found entirely new lines of work, leaving massive holes to fill.

Others, because of age or for any number of reasons, may not ever return to the workforce, something that tends to happen following any major economic downturn.

Mark Yuska, president of Virginia-based Alliance Exposition Services and another founder of the National Trade Show Alliance, said he’s concerned.

“It’s not a good situation right now,” Yuska said. “It takes a lot of people to put on a show the caliber of World of Concrete and some of the other large conventions. There’s a lot that goes into it, and our industry was taken to its knees. We’re having to basically start over.”

Following World of Concrete, Informa Markets, the company that puts the show on, is slated to hold a cosmetic surgery show, the International Surface Event, and WasteExpo in Las Vegas in June.

Steve Hill, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, expects Las Vegas’ trade show worker ecosystem to be ready.

“Laying out a show floor is a complicated process,” Hill said. “We’re going through that with the World of Concrete people now. I know the small businesses that work with the industry are ready to get back in gear. It’s been an exceptionally hard time for the suppliers of this industry. This is a lifeline for those small businesses.”

Las Vegas, of course, has missed out on hundreds of millions of dollars in direct and indirect benefits from conventions being canceled during the pandemic.

Resort companies like Caesars Entertainment, Wynn Resorts, MGM Resorts International and Las Vegas Sands have put tens of millions of dollars, and in some cases much more, into convention and meetings spaces in recent years.

During a normal year, officials estimate that World of Concrete alone has an economic impact of about $93 million.

“For the next couple of months, it will be slow,” Hill said. “But when we get to around Memorial Day, and into June, we’re going to start to see a real movement up in this industry.”


This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.