This story originally appeared in The Nevada Independent by Howard Stutz.

The Las Vegas tourism industry’s recovery has lagged behind the 2021 gaming revenue totals, which are headed toward record levels with December’s figures to be released as soon as next week.

A resurgence in Las Vegas convention and meeting business is in the early stages. Meanwhile, international visitors numbers have begun to pick up as direct flights to and from foreign destinations are increased.

The head of the agency tasked with bringing visitors to Las Vegas and the destination’s top advertising and marketing executive said major sporting events will be a primary component in driving visitation to post-pandemic Las Vegas.

“Over 50 percent of those visiting (Las Vegas) will add a trip here or stay longer because of the sporting events that we’re having,” R&R Partners CEO Billy Vassiliadis said Tuesday during the closing session of 2022 Preview Las Vegas, the business community’s annual program that looks ahead to the coming year.

R&R has handled the advertising and marketing campaigns for the LVCVA since the 1980s and Vassiliadis cited surveys the firm has conducted on behalf of the tourism agency.

“Think about that,” Vassiliadis said. “Half of our business, that’s 23 million people, said they’ll either stay longer or come another time because of sports. That’s the difference-maker. That’s been a game-changer for us.”

LVCVA CEO Steve Hill said the venue hosting Preview – Allegiant Stadium – was the perfect example of the resurgence of big events in Las Vegas, which centered around sports.

Hill said the stadium, which is the home of the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders, has exceeded its expected performance in attracting visitors to Las Vegas, especially during the last half of 2021. The venue hosted 24 events, bringing in more than 400,000 attendees, nearly 80 percent above projections made when construction of the nearly $2 billion stadium — that included $750 million of public money — was being debated.

Hill, who was co-chairman of the committee that took the stadium plans to a special session of the Legislature for approval in 2016, continues to oversee the facility as the chairman of the Las Vegas Stadium Authority. He took over as LVCVA CEO in 2018.

“This community made a great decision. The state made a great decision,” he said.

Vassiliadis and Hill both said the stadium and other venues under construction, such as the nearly $1.9 billion MSG Sphere, an immersive entertainment attraction that is expected to open in 2023, are key to reviving Las Vegas visitation.

Hill went through a list of other expansion efforts for Las Vegas that are coming in the next two years that will attract additional visitation to the market, including the completion of the Fontainebleau resort in 2023 and Hard Rock International’s planned redevelopment of The Mirage into Hard Rock Las Vegas.

Allegiant Stadium and Las Vegas will host the NFL’s Super Bowl LVIII in February 2024 and will host two other NFL events in the coming months —  Pro Bowl Weekend Feb. 5-6 and the NFL Draft April 28-30.

“The most important thing about the stadium is we missed out on things like major concerts and opportunities and events because there wasn’t a stadium,” Vassiliadis said. “So while we love the Raiders, this stadium has expanded the opportunities for Las Vegas. Not just tourism, but to the value of the entire business community.”

“If you walk through Mandalay Bay or Bellagio or Caesars Palace, prior to any kind of game or a concert this year, there’s energy because of all those people who have come for that event,” Hill said. “It’s making a huge difference. This stadium has worked.”

The events have also filled the Strip’s hotel rooms.

Through November, Las Vegas has seen 29.2 million visitors, according to the LVCVA. While the figure has already surpassed 2020’s 19 million visitors, the market won’t reach the 42.5 million visitors the city attracted in pre-pandemic 2020. Las Vegas drew a record 42.9 million visitors in 2016.

Gaming revenues on the Strip through November are almost $6.43 billion, just below 2019’s full-year total of $6.58 billion. Gaming Control Board Senior Economic Analyst Michael Lawton said the Strip trailed the rest of the state’s recovery until July.

Brian Gordon, principal in Las Vegas-based financial advisor Applied Analysis, said in a separate presentation that the average Las Vegas visitor spent $361 on gaming during their 2021 trip, up from just under $350 spent on gaming per visit in 2020.

That same visitor spent just below $250 on gaming during 2019.

Hill, in an interview after his presentation, said the lack of entertainment options in Las Vegas outside of gambling early in the pandemic recovery days, federal stimulus money, and gambling by locals were contributing factors to the high gaming figures. He doesn’t believe that number will last as Las Vegas continues its comeback.

“I think you’ll see that level off somewhat, maybe not all the way, but somewhat as we move forward,” Hill said.