Las Vegas Sun

February 22, 2018

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Sure, Las Vegas could host political convention, but do we want to?

As convention-goers in Florida and North Carolina contended with hurricane warnings, snarled bus transportation and air thick enough to make even the most poised politicians sweat through their clothes in 10 minutes flat, many Republicans and Democrats found themselves wishing for the same thing: a dry heat.

“I was thinking this morning it’s too bad we’re not in Las Vegas,” Obama’s top adviser, Robert Gibbs, said as he made a beeline from the outdoor security gate toward the air conditioning beckoning from Charlotte, N.C.’s Time Warner Cable Arena last week. “It might be 10,000 degrees, but at least it would be dry.”

Disregarding, for a moment, the monsoon that caused flash flooding in Las Vegas this week, the town usually is bone-dry during convention season.

In general, Las Vegas’ clustered hotels, abundant supply of taxi cabs, never-ending nightlife and safe geographic distance from the path of hurricanes collectively called like a siren song to delegates getting stuck and soggy in the Southeast over the past two weeks.

And this is one political issue that seems to receive bipartisan support.

“We could do a much better job than what happened there,” Kim Bacchus said, comparing Las Vegas to Tampa, Fla., where she traveled as a Republican delegate representing Nevada.

National news reports captured how both the Republican and Democratic conventions were forced to change plans at the last minute due to the threat of rain. For the Republicans in Tampa, that meant delaying the start of the convention by 24 hours. For the Democrats in Charlotte, that meant bringing President Barack Obama’s final night ceremonies indoors — and reneging on 65,000 stadium seating tickets they’d handed out to fans.

But as Nevadans saw it, those weather delays actually were the least of the problems with the two conventions that, they surmised, would not have arisen in Las Vegas.

“The transportation was absolutely horrid. ... There were no taxicabs,” Bacchus, a first-time convention-goer, said of Tampa. “In Las Vegas, certainly activities would be a lot more fun. You don’t have to try too desperately hard to entertain people because just where you’re staying in your hotel is entertaining.”

In Tampa, Nevada’s Republican delegation stayed in an airport hotel about a 10-minute drive from the heart of the action in and around the Tampa Bay Times Forum downtown. But on several occasions, the buses that were supposed to cart delegates that short distance got mixed up, delaying some delegates’ arrival to the convention and keeping others up half the night as they waited hours for drivers to find their hotels.

Nevada’s delegates to the Democratic convention in Charlotte didn’t have to deal with those sorts of complications, as they stayed four blocks from the convention forum.

But they had other complaints.

“Basically, Charlotte is using this as a money grab,” said Dick Collins, a four-time convention-goer and Democratic delegate representing Nevada. “Now I know they have a tremendous bill they have to pay for security — which they’ve overdone. ... But every convention I’ve ever been to before, all the guests get free transportation and free entry into the events.

“Here (in Charlotte), the buses from the airport? They charge the guests $30 a head to ride 10 minutes. And most of the events put on by the city are charging $30, $50, $75 an event. I’ve never seen this at a Democratic convention before.”

But the reasons Las Vegas might be better at hosting a convention are exactly why the city hasn’t volunteered for the opportunity.

“We’ve been invited (to pitch a convention plan), and solely as a business decision, we haven’t,” said Billy Vassiliadis, whose firm, R&R Partners , represents the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “It’s just a function of our business model and the (parties’) needs not intersecting.”

There’s no question that Las Vegas knows how to put on a convention — even a very large convention. And it has the hotel space to house delegates in close proximity to one another and their events.

But because Las Vegas is so well-known as a convention town, it’s hard to find space on the calendar to squeeze in a political convention.

The political parties pick their convention cities about two years in advance. Once selected, a convention host is required to hold the convention-dedicated space open for a long period of time: for at least two weeks, and as some tourism officials told the Sun, up to 90 days.

That’s a huge block of time for a city that normally hosts almost 60 major conventions per year.

To make room for a political convention, Las Vegas would have to bump as many as 10 regular conventions, depending on the year, tourism officials said. Some of those bumped conventions could even be potential repeat customers, meaning Las Vegas might be undermining its own business interests in exchange for a one-time political showcase.

Here’s some quick math: Bumping eight to 10 events means displacing about a quarter-million customers. If those are customers for trade shows, tourism officials estimate each attendee is worth about $1,275. That’s more than $300 million lost in convention revenue alone.

Those calculations don’t include the fact that other local business usually slows to a crawl during a political convention.

Political delegates, who pay for themselves, usually spend less than business convention-goers, who often are on corporate expense accounts.

Tourism officials also worry about setting a dangerous precedent: Political convention organizers expect perks from the city, such as complimentary suites for top party officials.

“Vegas has been really careful about not getting into that game because we have so many conventions,” Vassiliadis said. “We might have the president of Sony and the executive vice president of Apple. Once you start, where do you stop with the complimentary rooms, suites and things like that?”

Republican National Committeewoman Heidi Smith estimated a city has to pony up about $50 million in upfront costs to woo a convention to town.

“The biggest problem is raising that money,” she said.

Plus there might be the added cost, for Las Vegas, of building an indoor stadium big enough to seat all the delegates. UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center won’t cut it. There were complaints in Charlotte and Tampa that the stadiums were too small, even after chairs were pushed four inches closer together than normal in the Tampa Bay Times Forum. In Charlotte, delegates — save for a few special swing states — were placed in the stands instead of on the floor of the Time Warner Cable Arena.

Convention planners and Las Vegas boosters acknowledge there are definite perks that might prompt officials to rethink hosting a political convention in the future.

“I don’t think we’d lose money,” Vassiliadis said. “There’s a great deal of other value that a convention brings to a destination and it would bring to Las Vegas.”

For example: a week’s worth of news coverage, 24 hours a day on cable stations. Datelines in news articles around the globe that read “Las Vegas.” A whole new audience viewing Las Vegas for what might be the first time.

Still, that wasn’t enough for Las Vegas to bite when it was approached — by both parties — four and eight years ago.

“We mathematically factor that in and put a dollar value on it,” Vassiliadis said. “Our guys crunch numbers a lot, and no one’s yet convinced this is something they need to go passionately pursue. But would it be nice in the future? Yeah.”

There’s just one problem: Las Vegas itself.

Las Vegas hasn’t enjoyed the greatest reputation in political circles of late. Ever since the government’s General Service Administration was censured for holding a lavish conference in Las Vegas, it has been more of a whipping post, not a platform upon which politicians want to stand for their most important quadrennial party.

But boosters of both political stripes say they think the kneejerk wave of Las Vegas hatred is subsiding enough to keep grandstanding moral objectors at bay.

“Does Las Vegas have a bad reputation? It was built on that bad reputation. I don’t think they would take it into serious consideration,” said Smith, a Republican from Reno. “You’d have to maybe not run the buses with the girls playing in the windows. You would have to clean up the Strip with the guys handing out porno stuff ... but all the big conventions go to Las Vegas, and they manage to keep coming year after year."

“Plus," Smith added, echoing an unproven, yet oft-repeated claim: "We’ve got more churches than anybody else.”

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