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LAS VEGAS -- Longtime casino types remember the days when holiday decor during December at a Strip hotel-casino consisted of a fake Christmas tree in the hotel lobby, a few twinkling lights in the buffet area and silent nights. The holidays were a time that casino employees took vacation, maintenance crews performed touch-up work and the marketing staff readied for the busy New Year's holiday. Between Thanksgiving and New Year's, few, if any, holiday festivities were recognized.
"Other than for the employees, we really didn't do much holiday decorating because there weren't a lot of customers in December," said Ginda Jones, co-owner of Ralph Jones Display, which has been dressing up Las Vegas businesses for the holidays and special events since the early 1960s.
These days holiday decorating takes on various levels of expense.
"There's much more quantity and quality with the decorations," Jones said. "Christmas trees are at least 14 feet and some of the wreaths are 12 feet across. Years ago, we didn't have buildings big enough to hold decorations like that."
MGM Mirage is spending more than $2 million this winter to give its five Strip properties some holiday spirit. About $1 million of the expenditure, company spokesman Alan Feldman said, is earmarked for the Bellagio conservatory in which the entire atrium space takes on a winter village setting with pine trees of all sizes, hundreds of red poinsettias, polar bears made of white flowers and reindeer built from green bushes.
"What we do is appropriate for the customer and I'm not sure we can place a rate of return for what we spend," Feldman said.
"Other than Bellagio, I don't think the decorating is done to necessarily bring in customers. At Bellagio, people will come in to look at the conservatory, and then we hope they'll do other things like eat at a restaurant, visit the retail and maybe play in the casino."
Feldman said the expenditure isn't unusual and has grown over the past 15 years he's been in Las Vegas.
"The decor lasts for several seasons and we just want to give the customer a little more than they expect," Feldman said.
Caesars Palace turned over its new open-air Roman Plaza to a Southern California entertainment company that built a 60 foot-by-90 foot ice rink and hired Olympic and national figure skating champions, such as Elvis Stojko, Rudy Galindo and Viktor Petrenko, to perform on weekends along with an Ice Capades-style show for paying audiences.
During the week, the general public pays $10 a person per two-hour session to skate outdoors with Las Vegas Boulevard as a backdrop. The resort also features a seven-story lighted replica Christmas tree in the middle of the property's front-entrance fountains. With more than one mile of holiday lights -- 216,510 lights on the tree alone -- Caesars notched up the holiday decor to a new level this year.
Inside, Caesars added dozens of smaller decorated Christmas trees along with holiday decor in the lobby, casino, shopping plaza and other public areas.
"We started this trend a couple of years ago by upgrading our decorations," Caesars Palace President Mark Juliano said. "Last year was the most significant when we added the Christmas tree, until this year when we added the ice rink. The decorations bring a festive holiday spirit to the property and we believe our customers like what we've done."
Juliano wouldn't say what Caesars Palace spends on holiday decorations, but the ice rink was built by Gala Entertainment, which rented the space and is paying Caesars a flat fee through January. The promoter also covers the skaters' appearance fees and recovers costs through the public skating sessions and tickets for the weekend ice show, which run $25 or $50 a performance in the 1,800-seat grandstand.
Gary Visconti of Gala Entertainment said the rink cost $155,000; he said the skaters' fees were private. He said the idea was to not only help Caesars promote a holiday attraction, but to highlight the ice show.
"We wanted to create a setting much like Rockefeller Plaza in New York where people can enjoy skating shows and can actually ice skate if they like in a winter setting," Visconti said.
The major cost Caesars Palace assumes every year is storage for the decorations. The replica Rocky Mountain Pine tree alone has more than 1,000 branches and weighs 11,500 pounds.
"We seem to be adding a bit more every year, but we see what we do as a benefit to Las Vegas," Juliano said. Some Strip resorts don't have large holiday budgets or space, but they give their properties a seasonal feeling.
The Imperial Place, for example, placed a few trees around the casino to remind their guests of the season. The Las Vegas Hilton has always placed a Christmas tree in the main casino lobby. At Lake Las Vegas, far from the glitz of the Strip, resorts have gotten into the holiday spirit. The 349-room Ritz-Carlton decorated for the holidays and offers guests complimentary hot cider and gingerbread cookies on weekends.
Also, children of guests can visit with Santa Claus during an afternoon tea on the three Saturdays leading up to Christmas. With Lake Las Vegas featuring a floating ice rink through the holidays at the MonteLago Village, the Ritz-Carlton developed a holiday skating and accommodation package.
"Our in-house decor department did a nice job decorating and with the ice rink behind us, we have a very festive family atmosphere for the holidays," Ritz-Carlton spokeswoman Bonnie Crail said. "There is a solid return on investment on activities such as this, as many of these guests return in the summer to experience our Ritz Kids program."
The appearance of the National Finals Rodeo 20 years ago gave Strip resorts a boost in tourist traffic during the slow first few weeks of December. Along with the competition came the Cowboy Christmas Gift Show, which attracts more than 150,000 annually. In all, the rodeo has an economic impact on Las Vegas of about $50 million. With the rodeo fans flocking to the Strip, resorts were spurred into expanding their holiday decor.
The emergence of the large Strip shopping venues, such as the Forum Shops at Caesars, the Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian, the Desert Passage at the Aladdin, along with the expansion of the Fashion Show mall, has made Las Vegas synonymous with holiday shopping. Retail, which ranks as the second-highest nongaming expenditure by Las Vegas visitors, ties to the holiday theme, said Terry Jicinsky, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority's senior vice president of marketing.
"I'm not sure if the customers are here for the shopping or they're here for other reasons and shopping is just something they happen to do," Jicinsky said. "We do think the idea of holiday shopping between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a good match for Las Vegas."
Jicinsky said visitors from outside the United States are starting to fill rooms the weeks in between the rodeo and Christmas.
"The holiday is very strong for international visitors," Jicinsky said. "There are good travel packages and great room rates with plenty of availability. While the domestic visitor segment is bit softer after the rodeo, the international segment seems to be gaining in strength."
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