Leave Nothing to Chance

June 30, 2014
Luck and a roll of the dice might be what keeps gamblers gambling, but it’s not what airport officials rely on to keep traffic moving at McCarran International Airport. Planning, preparation and teamwork keep passenger services high at the world’s 6th busiest airport

“Vegas Means Business.”

The above tagline for the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority says it all. Though flashy show floors, high stakes gambling and questionable morals gave Sin City its nickname, what’s making the city hot, hot, hot nowadays is something that is a lot less risque: the business meeting and convention.

Las Vegas plays host to some of the largest and most varied trade shows in the world, each with its own unique population of attendees.

The Consumer Electronics Show, an internationally renowned electronics and technology convention, attracts 3,200 major companies and more than 150,000 industry professionals from across the globe to Las Vegas every January. SHOT Show is the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show and Conference for the firearms, ammunition, hunting and shooting accessories industry. This trade show covers 630,000 square feet and draws more than 62,000 industry professionals from all over the world. The Electric Daisy Carnival, the world’s largest music festival, arrives in Las Vegas for three days every June, bringing nearly 333,000 people to the event.

It’s shows like this that have helped Las Vegas hold onto its title as the No. 1 trade show destination in North America for more than 20 years. In 2013, the city hosted more than 5.1 million convention and trade show delegates, who came to the Gambling Capital of the World for one of 22,000 business meetings and conventions.

Combine this convention travel with an already thriving worldwide tourist trade and you have an airport operations puzzle that needs to be assembled carefully in order to maintain high service levels, according to Rick Jackson, stakeholder manager of the Transportation Security Administration.

“A convention comes in and we fill the hotel rooms on Sunday and Monday nights, and then, because the rooms are full, we could have a very slow Tuesday and Wednesday,” he says. “But on Thursday or Friday when the convention breaks, we could have 150,000 people heading to the airport on the same day. We need to prepare and plan for this surge of traffic.”

Though the ebbs and flows that the 6th busiest airport in the world experiences daily certainly complicate operations, Rosemary Vassiliadis, director of Clark County Department of Aviation, says it’s unacceptable to use them as an excuse for McCarran International Airport to offer customers a reduced level of service.

“We have one industry in town and we all know how important that is,” she emphasizes. “Our goal is to always have the most seamless experience possible for our passengers. That being said, we realized shortly after 9/11 that conventioneers, especially, have different behaviors and different needs because of those behaviors, which we need to address.”

Share and Share Alike

Sir Francis Bacon once said: Knowledge is power. In the airport world, knowledge is derived through the sharing of information. For this reason, McCarran International Airport instituted Weekly Passenger Traffic Meetings three years ago. The get-togethers include representatives from the visitors and conventions bureau, airlines, airport officials and the TSA, and are designed to share information that helps keep service levels high.

They are designed to recap the previous week’s passenger and traffic volumes, identify what worked and what didn’t, review passenger experiences, and consider what caused any delays. The group then looks at the week ahead to forecast traffic levels and make appropriate staffing adjustments.

Holmes says it’s particularly important to review peak times at these gatherings. The group looks at the peak issues from the previous week and what staffing levels were needed, and then adjusts up or down for the week to come based on this information. “The meetings help us identify trends or pitch points so that we can make adjustments and don’t have reoccurring issues,” he says. “It’s very, very productive. United provides its passenger data a couple times a week to give a 10-day window for projections.”

For such a meeting of the minds to be truly successful, information must be freely shared, thus the airport requires airlines to provide proprietary information for planning purposes; data airlines traditionally keep pretty close to the vest, according to Vassiliadis.

 “We realized we needed information from the airlines, such as their load factors, and that information had to broken up by time of day,” she says. “We are very peak and valley at this airport, and we need to plan accordingly.”

Today, airlines share load factor information in four-hour blocks to enable the team to anticipate the expected passenger flow and adjust staffing. Initially airlines were reluctant to provide this data but they found a workaround by sending the information directly to the TSA instead of airport officials, thus ensuring other airlines and the airport itself did not have access to the data.

“I do not share my passenger forecasts with the other air carriers,” explains Kirk Holmes of United Airlines. “But I’m more than comfortable sharing that information on a confidential basis with our TSA counterparts to help project staffing volumes. The TSA acts as the keeper of the information and collates the data they gathered from all the air carriers to help plan staffing levels.”

Jackson adds the TSA keeps this proprietary information confidential. “We are not allowed to share it with other carriers, we only share it internally with our leadership,” he says. “It is only used so that we can preplan and forecast. There is a privacy act we are required to follow.”

This factor is important, says Vassiliadis. “One airline would never share this information with another airline,” she says. “If we asked them to do that, they would never cooperate. We don’t care if they give it to us directly, as long as we have the information to plan.”

Know Thy Visitor

The airport works with the Las Vegas Conventions & Visitors Authority to learn what conventions or meetings are coming to town, and whether the bulk of the visitors are business or leisure travelers. According to Vassiliadis, business and leisure travelers have very different travel behaviors. For instance a convention attendee typically arrives on Sunday or Monday and leaves by Thursday or Friday, while tourists show up on Thursday or Friday and depart Sunday or Monday.

The same can be said of the conventions themselves. “Some of our bigger shows have very specific behaviors,” Vassiliadis says. For instance, Magic Marketplace is a men’s apparel show that comes to Las Vegas twice a year, in February and August. Attendees for this event come in for a day or so and then leave, meaning there airport has several thousands of travelers coming and going the duration of the event.

Each event distributes different types of giveaways or tchotchkes, which can greatly impact security lines as well.  SHOT Show giveaways, for instance, range from inert bullets to hand grenades to items shaped like a target or a weapon. “When these items hit security checkpoints, they become an issue the TSA has to identify and resolve,” says Jackson. Knowing this in advance, the airlines, airport authority, and airport public information office work with show organizers to educate the traveling public and encourage them to pack these objects in checked luggage rather than bring them through security. Even so, the TSA still staffs their lines more heavily when the SHOT Show is in town, anticipating that there will still be attendees who put these things in their carryon luggage.

Large construction shows distribute four-colored glossy, 3-inch-thick giveaway binders. “Guess what that did to our security lines,” says Vassiliadis. “That type of lamination is not friendly in our inline security system. We worked with the TSA to find out why the system was stopping every single piece of luggage, and found it was these beautiful binders.” The airport authority then worked with the visitors bureau and show organizers to educate attendees and ask them to place binders in their checked luggage, and to encourage exhibitors to place product information on thumb drives instead.

“Now that problem is greatly reduced,” she says.

Security lines also require greater staffing during the Consumer Electronics Show, when attendees bring more laptops and personal electronics with them. Electronic items packed in their checked luggage also impact the baggage system, increasing the need for hand searches.

JCK Las Vegas, the jewelry industry’s premier trade show, also challenges security. This show attracts approximately 40,000 people, many of whom purchase expensive jewelry that they want to carry onboard rather than put in checked luggage. This jewelry often sets off the screening system requiring hand searches of carryon luggage. The TSA must bump up staffing for this event as well.

The group also considers a convention’s end times. If the show ends at 3 p.m., the airport anticipates a surge in the evening, and staffs accordingly at every affected area, including ticketing, security checkpoints, and even concessionaires, who learn when surges are expected in a separate meeting.

Taxis and shuttle operations are also notified when increased traffic is expected. The airport loads an average of 14,000 taxis in a single day, and needs to make sure they have enough coming in. Different travelers have different expectations for this, as well, says Vassiliadis, noting that business travelers and vacationers expect to travel by cab, while other groups may be willing to share a shuttle.

Proactive Instead of Reactive

Everyone agrees these meetings improve the airport’s ability to communicate effectively, react and plan.

“I’m not going to tell you it is wonderful every single morning that we ask the airlines to open their ticket counters earlier because of a big show,” says Vassiliadis. “But their customer service is our customer service, and everyone understands that this is the philosophy we live by here.”

The meetings, she says, have improved everyone’s understanding of this fact and have put everyone on the same page. “They now understand we’re not just dictating what we want, we’ve put a lot of analysis into this, and have historical and empirical data that they can take back to corporate and say they need more staffing on these days,” she says.

“This collaborative effort makes a big difference, not only for the passengers, but for everyone involved,” she adds. “It is something that has helped us bond at this airport, work together, share information, and respect everyone’s part in the operation.”