The News: RECon Veterans Head to Vegas with Modest Hopes

Signs of the times will be inescapable in Las Vegas next week, when the International Council of Shopping Centers raises the curtain on the 2009 edition of RECon. After astounding growth brought attendance to 50,000 two years ago, ICSC is expecting a considerably smaller crowd of 30,000 during this year’s show, which runs from Sunday through Wednesday. Smaller staffs, fewer exhibitors and even the conspicuous absence of a few giants will also mark the show.Yet some senior executives and veterans of the Las Vegas show suggest that the re-sizing from gigantic to merely very big may prove an advantage. “The people who attend will be very surprised by the tenor of the show,” predicted Edens & Avant CEO Terry Brown. “Expectations are low, and I think the expectations will be exceeded by quite a bit.”This year’s attendees will undoubtedly encounter a trimmer show. An ICSC spokesperson said Monday that the organization is projecting that 30,000 will attend at some point between next Sunday and Wednesday, a significant falloff from 2007, when attendance hit 50,000 after several years of astounding growth. Though the crowd will fall short of the mid-decade’s boom years, some veterans suggest putting the reduced attendance in historical context. “I was there in the late ’80s, when you could shoot a cannon down the hall without hitting anybody,” recalled Pat Duffy, director of Colliers International’s retail services group. “Fifteen years ago, if 15,000 or 20,000 people showed up, it was a pretty good show.”Exhibitors are also responding to leaner times by cutting back on the size of their staffs. Edens & Avant’s Las Vegas team will hit 60 percent the size it was in recent years, and those flying the flag will be senior executives, Brown reported. Don Casto, a partner in Columbus-based development firm Casto, said last week that his company is taking the same amount of space as usual but sending 20 percent fewer people to RECon. Those staying behind will include some of the firm’s construction and finance people.Despite smaller attendance, executives say that their appointment calendars for the convention are as full as they were during the recent peak years. Still to be seen, however, is the nature of those meetings. “It’s clear that the retailers are going to be there,” said Casto, a 30-year veteran of the convention. “It isn’t clear from this what they want to talk about.” He speculated that his firm’s meetings will be less about dealmaking than about renewing old ties, making new acquaintances and restarting deals that have been on hold. Nevertheless, Casto views the company’s presence at the show as critical: “The last thing you want is to cut back on getting your space filled, and that’s what (RECon) is all about.”Retailers will find somewhat fewer owners, service firms and financiers to talk to. About 1,000 exhibitors signed up, a decline of about 200 from last year, according to the ICSC spokesperson. It is no secret that some industry giants will be conspicuously absent from the leasing floor. Simon Properties Group Inc., for example, is vacating its prime position in the convention center’s central hall in favor of space at Caesars Palace. A spokesperson for the nation’s largest retail REIT confirmed on Monday that it is taking space at the famed Las Vegas Strip resort, adding that the company had not publicly discussed its reasons for the switch.Brown reported that other RECon stalwarts are only too happy to take advantage of the defections. Simon’s absence set in motion a series of moves that is allowing Edens & Avant to leave its longtime space in the north hall for what it considers a better-traveled location in the central hall.