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Benjamin Spillman

Las Vegas boosting efforts to lure visitors

14 September 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The people responsible for attracting visitors to Las Vegas will take their message directly to foreign consumers and broaden their pitch to ethnic minorities and gay and lesbian markets in the United States.

But with foreign visitation to the United States stagnant, Southern Nevada's infrastructure straining to keep pace with growth, and economic turmoil on the horizon, it will take more than a few translations of "What happens here, stays here" to fill the nearly 40,000 hotel rooms coming to Southern Nevada by 2010.

Operators of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority on Tuesday outlined how they plan to improve their efforts to attract 43 million visitors to Southern Nevada annually by the end of 2010, an increase of nearly 11 percent from 2006 visitation.

The presentation was an update of a five-year marketing and advertising effort worth more than $600 million that aims to maintain the region's hotel occupancy rate around the current level of 90 percent. That figure is 26 percent higher than the national average despite Southern Nevada's nation-leading inventory of about 130,000 hotel rooms. The strongest international outreach will be in Mexico, Canada and the United Kingdom. Marketers will also reach further to attract conventions and add another slogan, "Your Vegas is showing," to the consumer advertising campaign.

"Gaming competition is increasing worldwide," said Rossi Ralenkotter, president and CEO of the authority. "We've seen Indian casinos and land-based casinos going from just casinos to destination resorts, all going after our customers."

The presentation comes during a time the authority characterized as the calm before a storm of hotel construction that will boost the local room inventory 31 percent and trade show and exhibition space more than 35 percent by the end of the decade. The plan, called Destination Las Vegas Marketing Plan, was implemented in 2005, with goals to accomplish by the end of 2010. The presentation was a progress report and update.

"We are faced with a lot of new challenges," Ralenkotter said, describing Las Vegas' position at the top of the tourism food chain. "That comfort zone is something we can't just sit back and enjoy."

At the same time the American economy is under stress from turmoil in the housing market, which is threatening to spill into other sectors, communities across the country are boosting their own efforts to attract business and tourist visitors. Even the international market, widely viewed as a source for future Las Vegas visitors, could be tough to cultivate as visa restrictions and an ambivalent attitude toward the United States reduce the number of people who make America their destination of choice for vacations.

"We need to know this country is under attack as it relates to international travel to the U.S.," said Charles Bowling, executive vice president for sales and marketing for MGM Mirage, which has 10 resorts on the Strip. "We are not a friendly place to get to."

Overseas visitation to the United States has declined 17 percent since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. An increase in visitation from Canada and Mexico has offset the losses, but North American tourists don't stay as long or spend as much as overseas guests.

The authority's plan is for foreign visitors to be 15 percent of the 43 million people they hope to attract annually by the end of 2010. It will focus most intensely on Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom, the three most important foreign markets for Las Vegas.

Part of the outreach will be Spanish language versions of "What happens here, stays here," commercials.

Billy Vassiliades, chief executive officer of R&R Partners, the advertising agency that created the campaign, said he was pleasantly surprised the slogan translated well in Mexico. In many instances marketing Las Vegas in foreign countries requires different tactics to accommodate differences in language, culture and familiarity with the destination, he said.

The presentation also touched on taking bigger steps to attract racial and ethnic minorities and gay and lesbian travelers. But the marketing plan doesn't have specific goals for those demographics.

"We think there is a lot of pent-up demand there," Ralenkotter said.

Another part of the marketing plan is increased outreach to business travelers. Las Vegas already has more than 200 conventions and more convention space than any other market.

The authority wants to increase the number of smaller conventions and meetings, a category that includes gatherings of 10 to 10,000 people, according to marketers.

Business travelers are considered valuable because they fill hotel rooms midweek and pay higher room rates than tourists. More than 6.3 million people came to Las Vegas for conventions or meetings in 2006 and left behind more than $8 billion, not including gambling.

"The industry has been able to support (higher hotel rates) because most business travelers are traveling on expense accounts," said Heidi Genoist, senior editor for the magazine Tradeshow Week and editor of TSW Las Vegas. "They have a little more flexibility than the average traveler."

Genoist said about the only cloud on the horizon for the future of conventions in Las Vegas is that there are groups that don't want Sin City as a venue for their events.

"Religious groups don't like Las Vegas," she said. "But for each type of group that doesn't come here there are nine lined up that do."