COVID-19 hit Las Vegas like a prizefighter. Overnight it morphed from a city teeming with millions of guests to a collection of empty streets. Suddenly, there was no blackjack or buffets. No first-rate shows or spontaneous weddings.
As a city known for dreams and fantasy, the pandemic brought a strange kind of unreality to Las Vegas. I’ve lived and worked here for nearly 10 years, and I love driving down the Strip and seeing visitors from all over the world. Vegas is about hospitality, and its unique sights and experiences normally draw close to 42 million tourists each year.
I’m on the board of the Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, which held its annual fundraising gala in March 2020. Doctors normally fly in from Ohio to attend, but on March 4 they were told to stay back and work on the then-emerging coronavirus threat. It was the last large-scale event in Las Vegas before everything shut down one week later. On a personal level, the production of my TV show Bar Rescue shut down on March 13. Just like that, our lives as we knew it had changed forever, not knowing when it might return to normal.
After Vegas fully closed, I drove down the Strip and literally cried. I’d never seen anything like it. Our casinos had locks on the doors. Hotels were boarded up, parking lots shut down. At one of the busiest intersections in the country, I saw people riding bicycles down an empty Las Vegas Strip.
Because Vegas is a city whose economy revolves around tourism, the pandemic hit the city hard. Close to 70,000 employees work in tourism-related businesses—from bars to restaurants, entertainment to retail venues. During the height of the pandemic, Las Vegas experienced a 35 percent unemployment rate—the highest in the nation. Nearly 18 percent of its restaurants and bars have closed for good, eliminating thousands of jobs.
A family featured on Bar Rescue moved from Austin, Texas, to Las Vegas to start a restaurant, but wound up losing their house and living in a room above their closed establishment, two parents and four kids sleeping on wooden floors. I’ve seen the national impact too, as I did with a family in New York who put their life savings into a café that never opened and saw it disappear. Liquor distributors laid off thousands of salespeople, moving to online ordering systems, and the majority of these jobs will likely not be refilled by humans. The loss and desperation has been horrifying.
I’ve been asked several times by national news shows to make forecasts this past year. Last summer I said that the pandemic would be largely over by March or April 2021. I had a lot of confidence in vaccine development and distribution, and for me this became a powerful catalyst for optimism.
This past Memorial Day weekend proved my predictions fairly accurate: it almost felt normal in Las Vegas. Crowds have returned, eager to reward themselves for hunkering down these past 14 months. Given the pent-up demand, this summer may actually do better business than pre-pandemic Vegas.
But we’re far from “out of the woods.” The bar and restaurant industry is at a critical juncture.
As I predicted then, restaurant and bar customers are coming back in thirds. First back were the young and fearless who love their lifestyle and want to get back to it. Second are what I call the “reserved third” who have been monitoring information and images, watching what happens with the first group and, now satisfied, are following suit. Finally, there are the “certain third,” older people and those with health conditions who won’t come until they’re convinced it’s safe. We’re not there yet with them. This is a group with a big chunk of disposable income. No full recovery is possible without them.
Other elements are affecting the recovery. During the pandemic many businesses learned to be more efficient, shifting to takeout-only, streamlining operations and embracing technology solutions. But the hospitality business remains people-driven. Getting employees to come back to work is proving a challenge. Supply issues have driven costs way up, with everything from ketchup to lobster doubling or tripling in price, and it remains to be seen whether this is just a temporary spike.
So, the question remains: What can—and should—be done to help Las Vegas bars and restaurants?
From government, the answer is a polite yet firm get out of the way. Federal Small Business Administration PPP loans are over, and the most moronic thing to do right now is increasing corporate taxes when establishments are still struggling. Creating opportunities for venues to expand their revenue base is beneficial, such as allowing permanent seating on sidewalks and to-go cocktails. Incentivizing people to get off the public dole and go back to work is equally important.
Hotels and casinos have long recognized how on-premise restaurants and bars contribute to the guest experience. Throughout the last few decades there’s been a shift in guest spending, flipping from 70 percent gaming/30 percent hospitality to 70 percent hospitality/30 percent gaming. They should highlight these amenities in co-branded advertising and marketing campaigns and provide support in myriad other ways. Every casino has hosts with the discretion to move comps, including sending traffic to restaurants—a win-win for everyone.
For bar and restaurant owners? In an industry of thin margins, they have to tighten their belts yet again. Along with the challenges of staffing up and initial lower capacities, they need to deal with increased supply costs without scaring off customers. In the short term, they may have to temporarily raise prices 30-40 percent to survive. Getting on the news and making consumers aware is essential. This communication must extend to the industry’s longstanding commitment to safety, even more important in the COVID-19 era. From food handling to sanitation, building trust with patrons builds patronage. Asking all employees to get vaccinated is another key goal, so that restaurants where staff don’t wear masks become a symbol of safety.
Finally, there’s tourists and the Las Vegas community. Those who appreciate this city for its unique charms and curiosities need to come back to experience it in person, and after enjoying some of our world-class restaurants and bars, spread the word through their social circles. The same goes for local residents, even beyond the hospitality sector, taking a break from the big-box stores and giving extra support to smaller local businesses. We are all knit together as a community. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that we may all fantasize about hitting the jackpot on a one-armed bandit, yet what we genuinely need is each other.
Jon Taffer, a leading hospitality expert and business consultant, is creator, executive producer and star of the popular television show Bar Rescue, and a New York Times best-selling author.