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Benjamin Spillman

Las Vegas nudging visitors outdoors

16 June 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Western tourism boosters are doing something once unheard of in Las Vegas -- encouraging visitors to leave the Strip's posh gambling resorts and spend time in the great outdoors.

Their goal is to boost lagging visitation to national parks and other isolated adventure outposts by marketing to the tens of millions of people, particularly foreigners, who visit major destinations in Las Vegas; Anaheim, Calif.; and San Francisco.

Specifically, they want visitors to go beyond lush resorts and obvious tourist sightseeing venues such as Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon to spend time -- and money -- at lesser-known spots in Nevada, California, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington.

If they're successful it will mean private businesses and public parks in oft-forgotten towns such as Ely and Tropic, Utah, will share in revenue once confined to big casinos and theme parks.

"We've been working for years to break into the minds of the Las Vegas people," said Chris Crystal, a spokeswoman for the Nevada Commission on Tourism. "In the old days, there was this feeling we want to rake everybody into the casino and keep them there."

The trend was evident recently in Las Vegas when thousands of foreign journalists, tour operators and destination businesses gathered for International Powwow, a travel industry convention.

In addition to a massive presence on behalf of the Las Vegas gambling industry, the Nevada tourism boosters trucked foreign travel writers to Death Valley and Great Basin national parks, along with other rural stops.

And shortly after the travel convention concluded, officials from the National Park Service and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority met at Lake Mead National Recreation Area to talk about how more-sophisticated marketing and customer service practices could increase the number of fee-paying visitors at national parks.

Cathy Tull, the authority's vice president of strategic planning, urged National Park Service workers to remember that parks, like resorts, golf courses and casinos, are entertainment venues that need to compete for visitors' time and money.

The park service should use market and brand research to make a connection with potential customers and make parks more than just green spots on a map, she said.

"Whether you love it or hate it, 'what happens here, stays here,' is one of the most successful destination slogans in the history of destinations," Tull said. "(It) elicits an emotional response."

Now would be a good time for the parks to tap into customers' emotions, and their wallets. Park visitation peaked nationally in 1999 with 287 million visits and has been in decline since.

In 2006, the Pacific West Region, which includes Great Basin, Death Valley and Joshua Tree, had the steepest visitation decline among all regions, recording 1.3 million fewer visitors than in 2005.

Dean Reeder, national tourism director for the National Park Service, said the future of parks depends largely on the ability of park workers to attract new business. Reeder says customers not only provide entrance fees that support the parks, they provide a constituency that pressures Congress to remember the park service at budget time.

"If parks aren't relevant, the public isn't going to support parks," Reeder said.

To that end, Reeder, executive director of the Utah Travel Council when the Winter Olympics were held in Salt Lake City, is leading a push to get the federal government to fund a tourism office at a cost of about $800,000 annually.

There's also a lot at stake in small communities that depend on parks to attract tourists to keep rural economies afloat.

"We are not on a road that you drive to," said Denys Koyle, owner of the Border Inn near Baker, Nev., outside Great Basin.

The inn depends on traffic from Highway 50, a route so defined by desolation it is nicknamed the "Loneliest Road in America."

Koyle praised the Nevada Commission on Tourism for promoting rural tourism, but said there is very little promotion for Great Basin's off-season activities like cross country skiing and snowshoeing.

"There is no concerted effort to increase that kind of traffic, but there should be," she said.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority also recognizes the potential for increased park visitation to help the major resorts it represents.

During Powwow, Rossi Ralenkotter, the authority's president and CEO, told a group of foreign journalists of an effort to use the proximity of Las Vegas to 13 Western parks as a lure to make Las Vegas a hub for foreign visitors seeking an outdoor American experience.

Ralenkotter said visitors who add parks to their itineraries are likely to stay longer and spend more money in Las Vegas, even if they duck out of town for awhile.

Crystal agreed.

"The casinos know that in the end, you are going to come back to your hotel at the end of the night," she said. "Almost everybody plugs a few bucks into a slot machine. It all adds up."