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Benjamin Spillman

Laughlin: It's like you own the place

15 September 2008

LAUGHLIN, Nevada -- Faced with increased competition from Southern California Indian casinos and reeling from the rocky national economy, the Colorado River gambling town of Laughlin launched a new multimillion-dollar marketing campaign Friday.

It's part of an effort to reverse a tourism slump that's gripped the low-cost, desert vacation community that is attracting 35 percent fewer visitors than it did in 1994.

The latest gambit by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority to revive interest in isolated Laughlin is a $2.5 million outreach effort in California and Arizona.

It emphasizes the opportunity for visitors to spend time drinking, gambling and partying along the Colorado River at a fraction of what it costs to let loose in Las Vegas.

The campaign won't include any paid advertising in Las Vegas, the closest major city to Laughlin and a major source of customers.

That's because the visitors authority, which gets most of its revenue from room taxes at Las Vegas resorts, says it wants to attract customers from outside Nevada to Laughlin.

"We're what Las Vegas used to be, of course (the authority) doesn't like us to market it that way," said Lloyd Shires, director of hotel marketing for the Riverside Resort, which is owned and operated by Laughlin town founder Don Laughlin.

The authority's campaign itself is built around the tagline, "Laughlin. It's like you own the place." Television ads emphasize the low cost of hotels, restaurants and gambling in Laughlin, as well as the location of most of Laughlin's resorts on the western bank of the Colorado River.

The ads are aimed at the 40- to 60-year-old demographic of people who, market researchers say, have disposable income but are wary of overspending.

"They are a little bit more frugal," said Julie Grau of the advertising firm R&R Partners, which conducted the research behind the campaign and produced the ads.

The average daily room rate in Laughlin was $46.87 in July, compared to $105.97 in Las Vegas, according to the latest Southern Nevada visitation reports.

Grau said Laughlin already has a core group of loyal customers, but their numbers are shrinking and the community needs to broaden its appeal.

"The customers are actually getting older," she said. "We were not, I guess you could say, refilling the pipeline."

Laughlin visitation peaked at more than 4.7 million visitors in 1994 and has been in decline in all but two years since.

In 2007, Laughlin attracted about 3 million visitors, fewer than Las Vegas drew in 1970, the first year the authority measured visitor volume. The Laughlin visitors generated about $631 million in gambling revenue at 10 resorts.

The numbers are small compared with Las Vegas, but maintaining visitation is critical to the estimated 8,000 people who work in Laughlin, many who live across the river in Bullhead City, Ariz.

But it is getting harder to attract visitors.

The town is 95 miles south of Las Vegas, 215 miles northwest of Phoenix and 236 miles east of San Bernardino, Calif., the heart of California's Inland Empire, a major source of Laughlin visitation.

The Arizona and California markets have been heavily saturated with Indian casinos since the late 1990s, and many have grown into full-service resorts in recent years.

A jump in the price of gasoline in the past year has exacerbated the problem. Laughlin visitation is down 6.5 percent so far this year compared to 2007.

"The reality of it is, we need more visitors," said Sean Hammond, president of the Laughlin Tourism Committee and vice president of player development at the Aquarius resort.

Hammond says the resort recently spent $46 million on renovations and is about to spend $20 million refurbishing the hotel rooms.

He's hopeful the authority will change its mind and air some Laughlin ads in Las Vegas. Laughlin resorts can and do advertise with their own money in Las Vegas. But Hammond said an overall campaign through the authority would also be effective, even if it ruffles feathers among Las Vegas casino operators who are also chasing local customers.

"We hope that changes going forward," Hammond said.

With limits on Las Vegas outreach, Laughlin resorts continue to hustle business from further afield.

Management at Riverside Resort has stepped up the number of tourists it flies directly into the Laughlin area.

Shires said the resort and Sun Country airline offers fly-and-stay deals from 64 cities in 29 states. Much of the focus is on attracting Midwestern tourists from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Ohio. There is also outreach to the Pacific Northwest.

Shires said three- and four-night Laughlin packages, including airfare, are less than $400.

The resort is offering about 45,000 packages this year, up from 37,000 in 2007, he said.

Roy Honeycutt, 71, of Alamosa, Colo., said Laughlin's greatest asset is its people.

Honeycutt, who organizes an annual rodeo in Laughlin, said people will continue to visit as long as the area is an affordable, friendly alternative to larger destinations, even if they lose money in the casinos.

"They may take your money but they will smile while they are doing it," he said.