Las Vegas takes lead in luring foreign business travelers

Beyond the Sun

Las Vegas has taken center stage in a bid to attract more business travelers to the United States, a key component in the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority’s goal of increasing the percentage of foreign visitors here from 18 percent to 30 percent by 2021.

The inaugural IMEX America, a business-to-business incentive travel, meetings and events conference using a hosted-buyer format, opened its three-day run at the Sands Expo Center on Tuesday, bringing 1,800 exhibitors from 140 countries to the city.

The conference is important to Las Vegas because many exhibitors and buyers are getting their first look at the city’s convention and meetings amenities and hotels.

The hosted-buyer format is unusual in that the producers of IMEX, the London-based IMEX Group, pay for all travel and accommodations for buyers who have a track record of developing meetings and events domestically and internationally.

When the IMEX Group began planning this week’s conference two years ago, it had a goal of having 1,500 hosted buyers and 1,000 exhibitors. But demand has been higher than expected.

“I am pleased to tell you our global and U.S. exhibitors and buyers have responded with great interest and enthusiasm to the IMEX America hosted-buyer model,” IMEX Chairman Ray Bloom said. “We soon increased our targets to the 2,000 hosted buyers who we are delighted to welcome to the Sands Expo this week. They will meet and do business with 1,867 exhibitors, of which 800 are from the USA, with the remainder representing over 140 countries around the world.”

Bloom said before the show opened, 20,000 appointments had been made between buyers and exhibitors.

“When we include group appointments, this number rises to 30,000,” Bloom said. “I expect these figures to be even higher at the close of play on Thursday and look forward to giving you all an update then.”

The city is anxious to bring more conventioneers and international visitors to Las Vegas because, generally, they spend more time and more money here than domestic leisure travelers.

In 2010, about 6.2 million people were in Las Vegas for conventions and meetings, and 6.7 million people from foreign countries visited the city.

IMEX signed a three-year contract to conduct the event at the Sands Expo Center through 2013. This year’s show has drawn 14 co-located industry events that are meeting in Las Vegas in conjunction with IMEX.

One of the goals of the LVCVA will be to emphasize the amount of business conducted at the show, a contrast to advertising and marketing campaigns it uses to attract leisure travelers.

John Caparella, president and chief operating officer of the Venetian, said at an introductory press conference that meetings in Las Vegas see a 13 percent increase in attendance, while those that meet in Las Vegas and then go some other place see their attendance shrink by 7 percent.

“I’m not good with algebra, but I think that’s a 20 percent swing, and I think that’s an important thing to say,” Caparella said.

While attracting international tourism to the United States is one of the goals of the Corporation for Travel Promotion and the U.S. Travel Association, there have been problems increasing those numbers for a variety of reasons, including shortcomings in the visa application process.

Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, said the $760 billion U.S. tourism industry has seen its share of difficult times, even after the Sept. 11 tragedy 10 years ago.

Dow said the industry has had to weather the sluggish economy, rising unemployment, skyrocketing oil prices that have increased travel costs, a series of natural disasters, an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the threat of pandemics.

But, he said, the biggest problems may have come from U.S. government leaders who have vilified corporate America for participating in meetings that support the economies of cities nationwide.

The association has responded with a widespread education program, “Meetings Mean Business,” to explain how corporate and association meetings, conferences, conventions and trade shows are essential to maintaining jobs across the country.

Dow also took the opportunity to note the ongoing problem of visa applications in countries that have prospective conventioneers who want to travel to the United States. In countries like China, India and Brazil, it takes four to five months to schedule a three-minute interview to secure a visa, while the show registration process begins three to four months in advance of the event.

The problem is that federal government red tape has prevented the proper level of staffing for interviews or developing technology to conduct interviews by videoconference or Skype.

One of the tasks of the recently formed Corporation for Travel Promotion is to work to ease the visa waiver process as well as market the United States to foreign visitors.

Earlier Tuesday, the LVCVA made its own financial contribution to the visa waiver cause, voting to approve a one-time $100,000 sponsorship of the Corporation for Travel Promotion.

The corporation, whose board of directors is headed by Las Vegas resort executive Stephen Cloobeck, is seeking funds from private enterprise, convention and visitor bureaus and state tourism offices to match funds raised by a $14-per-traveler fee international tourists will pay that will build a marketing fund to promote travel to the United States.

The corporation is seeking $50 million from those sources to unlock $100 million in seed money to begin marketing and branding the United States abroad.

The Corporation for Travel Promotion is expected to unveil the United States’ branding message in a travel show in London next month.

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