The lights are just starting to come back on in the hotels and casinos that line the Las Vegas Strip, but according to reports, the streets are still pretty empty. Memorial Day weekend is the target date for some properties to begin reopening, but only one or two restaurants will operate in each hotel at first. And casinos are going to look and feel very different, with mandated social distancing and sanitation protocols.
But the big questions remains: Who is going to come?
Las Vegas residents started patronizing local restaurants over Mother’s Day weekend, as soon as Nevada lifted its ban on dine-in service on May 11. But the Strip relies on tourists and conventioneers flying in from around the country and the world, and it’s doubtful vacation and business travel will accelerate soon.
Nevertheless, the large casino hotels are getting ready. MGM Resorts, which includes the Mirage, Bellagio, MGM Grand and Aria properties, developed a detailed seven-point safety plan for reopening. Along with general CDC sanitation and social distance guidelines, guests are strongly encouraged to wear masks in all public areas, which the hotels will provide free of charge. Gamers are asked to refrain from eating on the casino floor, but drinks are allowed—as long as the mask is only removed briefly while sipping. Visitors will also see plexiglass dividers on some of the casino tables and croupiers wearing protective eye gear along with their masks.
Hotel buffets, which operate on volume and shared serving platters of food, can’t return in their traditional format—at least for the immediate future—and MGM’s restaurants have new rules in place for dining in. Virtual wait lists are replacing customers congregating at the entrance, and text alerts will be sent when the table is ready. It seems that smartphones will be essential for dining out. Menus will have to be viewed digitally using a QR code, and contactless payment will take place on the table through the device.
“Our properties will not look the way they used to for a while, and that’s not only OK, it’s critically important,” Bill Hornbuckle, acting CEO and president of MGM Resorts, said in a statement. “We will continue working with experts and following guidance from the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and government officials and regulators as we evolve these protocols based on the latest information.”
Off the Strip
The big Las Vegas hotels have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on intensive sanitation and safety protocols, according to Elizabeth Blau, a restaurateur and consultant to the Wynn and Venetian hotels. New guidelines mandating half-filled casinos and restaurants will delay a recovery, but getting out the message that it’s safe to come back is imperative to the city’s survival.
In 2018, the hospitality industry accounted for 40% of Nevada’s revenue, and most of it is centered in Las Vegas. “Last year, 42 million people visited the city,” says Blau, “but it’s predicted that hotel occupancy in the next few months will be 10% to 15%. We have to start reengaging the economy to save the economy.”
Meanwhile, neighborhood independent restaurants—many of which have adapted with takeout and creative pivots during the pandemic—got a head start in reopening. Blau’s own restaurant, 140-seat Honey Salt, opened on May 15, with reservations required for dining in and a limit of five guests per party. The menu has been adjusted, incorporating requests from guests, Honey Salt classics and changing seasonal dishes based on availability from local purveyors. "We now have one fantastic menu for curbside, delivery and dining in, with an additional expanded section for dinner and a whole other menu for brunch," she says.
The first weekend, Honey Salt had more reservations than expected. "Lots of friends, VIPs and great members of our community came out to celebrate with us, thank us and encourage us. It was wonderful," she says. Some of Blau’s initiatives have kept Honey Salt top of mind for guests during the closure. Family meals to go, video cooking demos for kid-friendly items such as chicken Parm and dessert sushi, cocktail kits comprising mason jars of premade mixers along with a bottle of spirits and a marketplace selling groceries all boosted business.
Sam Marvin, chef-owner of Echo & Rig Butcher & Steakhouse, is opening later this week, but as soon as the governor made the announcement on May 9, people immediately started calling his restaurant for reservations.
The butcher shop kept the operation going during the shutdown, but Marvin has been planning his reopening strategy all along. Reinvention is the short-term plan. “We used to have 65 items on the menu with lots of small plates,” he says, “but I pared it down to 25, analyzing top revenue drivers, best sellers and prep times to create a good balance. I had to pay attention to reduced labor and inventory.”
Marvin also pared down the wine list and hours of operations. “During Phase 1, we’ll be open only for dinner, from 4 to 9 p.m. on weekdays and 4 to 10 p.m. on weekends. And I’m working on a club membership program, offering dinner for two twice a month for a certain price—takeout included,” he says.
Pre-pandemic, most Vegas restaurant operators wanted to be on the Strip, Marvin says. But he believes it will take three years before tourism comes back, taking into account the impact of the economy, reduced air travel and other challenges. “Local hospitality will do much better here,” he says. “There’s a lot of pent-up demand, and the community wants to eat out.”
A look at the future
To help meet the challenges ahead, UNLV’s Lee School of Business, in collaboration with the Ted and Doris Lee Family Foundation, is stepping up with a $1 million incentive—The Lee School Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Companies and individuals can submit entries from May 11 to July 5. The competition is seeking “technologies and solutions to rapidly address the urgent problems facing the hospitality, entertainment and travel industries resulting from COVID-19,” according to a statement. Once the products and solutions are selected by the committee of hospitality industry leaders, they must to be brought to market within 12 months.
“Las Vegas is the world leader in hospitality and entertainment, and we must lead now in identifying the best practices and products to safely chart the way forward for guests and employees,” said Greg Lee, former Chairman of the UNLV Foundation and Chairman and CEO of Eureka Casinos.
Meanwhile, restaurateurs in other tourist and convention destinations will be watching closely.