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Benjamin Spillman

National Finals Rodeo brings out cowboy shopper in many visitors

6 December 2006

At home in Galt, Calif., Lee and Adrienne Vance spend their free time steer wrestling and barrel racing.

When they join the herd of more than 40,000 people who come to Las Vegas for National Finals Rodeo, they shop.

And while cowboys and cowgirls sport an aw-shucks attitude and down-home demeanor in conversation, they're also likely to want to step out in style in Las Vegas.

That means many will spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on exotic skin boots, custom-shaped hats and accessories worthy of a Hollywood diva.

"That is what I come for," said Adrienne Vance during a shopping stop at Cowtown Boots, 1080 E. Flamingo Road.

"It's a shopathon," added her friend, Caroline Carter of Oklahoma City.

Adrienne Vance was sporting a high-cut denim jacket, jeans and a cowboy hat with an autograph from champion barrel racer Charmayne James. She complemented the look with furry pink boots, a pink cell-phone holder and a jewel-encrusted belt and buckle.

"I try to find something unusual," she said.

Lee Vance said he's been coming to the rodeo more than 20 years and spends anywhere from $400 to $2,000 on Western wear.

"Me and my wife buy a whole bunch of stuff," he said.

And they are not alone.

The rodeo, once an event meant to fill Las Vegas hotel rooms during the slow month of December, has evolved to a major event with national television coverage. It sells more than 175,000 tickets and generates $48.5 million in nongaming revenue, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority reports.

Rodeo fan Greg Johnson of Michigan and his wife made Cowtown Boots one of several stops during a day of shopping. He estimates they'll spend $300 to $400 at Las Vegas Western stores during the rodeo.

"We make it a point to hit them all when we are here," he said.

And even though the rodeo has its own official Cowboy Christmas and Gift Show, lots of money spills over and into the coffers of local Western businesses.

"It is our busiest time of the year during the rodeo," said Don Gilmore, manager of Shepler's, 3025 E. Tropicana Ave. "It is even busier than Christmastime."

Shepler's, which has three permanent Las Vegas locations, opens two temporary stores just to meet additional demand from the rodeo, Gilmore said.

"The nice thing about the Las Vegas market is it has never lost its Western heritage," Gilmore said. "There are still a lot of people out there that dress and wear Western apparel."

Gilmore said the Western look has peaked and waned several times during his 20 years in the business.

Demand peaks when cowboys and country music are prominent in American popular culture.

"I can remember back in the 'Urban Cowboy' phase when it was real popular," said Gilmore, referring to the 1980 movie starring John Travolta and Debra Winger.

Gilmore said Western wear popularity rose again in the 1990s during the career peak of country singer Garth Brooks.

But even when movie cowboys ride off into the sunset, real-life ranchers and rodeo fans keep the Western wear industry alive and healthy. Local stores routinely sell hats and boots for several hundred dollars each. And events such as the National Finals Rodeo keep country culture alive in places like Las Vegas.

"You can walk around in Western wear and people don't look at you like you're crazy," said Donna de la Vina of Las Vegas.

De la Vina was at Cowtown Boots helping her husband, Gus, pick out two new pairs of cowboy boots.

"I don't know what I would do without this store," she said.

At Cowboy Christmas in the Las Vegas Convention Center, about 400 vendors hoped to capitalize on free-spending rodeo fans.

Cowboy Christmas is the official gift show of the rodeo and has accompanied the event since 1986, said Michael Mack, marketing director of Las Vegas Events, which produces Cowboy Christmas.

"This kind of culminates the rodeo season," Mack said. "A lot of people save their Christmas shopping for when they make their trip to Las Vegas."

With the rodeo gearing up for one more weekend, Cowtown boots manager Mark Akers spent Tuesday afternoon preparing the store to keep up with the shopping surge. He unpacked several boxes of hats he hopes cowboys and cowgirls will be wearing when they head home after the rodeo.

"People will see what kind of budget they have left, they'll load up and fly home," Akers said.