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Benjamin Spillman

Obama criticized over Vegas comments

11 February 2009

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- In late October then-candidate Barack Obama told an audience of 18,000 people in Las Vegas he wanted to help, "not just the folks who own casinos but the folks who are serving in casinos."

Now President Obama is under fire for remarks some say undermine that pre-election promise.

On Tuesday, Las Vegas boosters lashed back at comments by Obama and other politicians who say executives at companies taking taxpayer bailout money shouldn't hold meetings in Las Vegas.

They say harsh words citing Las Vegas meetings as examples of wasteful spending threaten to undermine a business sector that brought 22,000 events, $8.5 billion in spending and directly sustained more than 43,000 jobs in 2008.

"The most responsible thing they can do is choose us as a destination," said Andrew Pascal, president of Wynn Las Vegas.

The resort took a hit recently when officials at the banking giant Wells Fargo backed out of a 12-day junket in response to cries the event would represent wasteful spending.

As a recipient of $25 billion in taxpayer bailout money, Wells Fargo is under intense scrutiny from politicians, taxpayers and national media.

"You can't take a trip to Las Vegas or down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayers' dime," Obama said Monday during a town hall meeting in Elkhart, Ind.

The cable network CNN got into the act, too. During a segment titled "Keeping Them Honest" aired Friday on the government's efforts to undo damage to the economy, the network slammed other bankers for attending and sponsoring an event at The Venetian.

"I wanted to throw my shoe at the TV," said Phil Cooper, CEO of Encore Productions. "They are trying to make it out that Las Vegas has become this toxic city you can't even go to."

The report cited "$300 hotel rooms," as an example of extravagance, even though rooms at The Venetian are actually going for $189 per night on Las Vegas hotel-booking Web sites.

And much of the money spent goes to front line workers Obama courted just months ago, officials contend.

A typical convention or meeting guest is worth $1,177 per visit, a number that includes hotel lodging, food and beverage the guest spends plus spending by companies on presentations and other costs.

"The first people who suffer are the men and women at the front desk, the bell staff and the taxi drivers across this city," said Chuck Bowling, executive vice president at Mandalay Bay.

Cooper's company does event production work in many Strip resorts. It employs 200 people in Las Vegas, including sound and lighting technicians, directors, stage managers and artists.

"We're very worried about the perception," he said.

It's especially infuriating to Cooper because only about 5 percent to 10 percent of the meetings his company serves are incentive trips, like the ones that have been widely criticized.

More common are meetings of technology developers and customers or industry training and certification events, such as a recent IBM developer conference his employees served.

"If the event goes away, those 40 to 50 people don't have any work," Cooper said.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman says he wants an apology for the slights or at least some acknowledgement that Sin City is also an affordable, professional destination for business.

"This is something out of the '50s and '60s," Goodman said.

Even as Goodman was venting on the subject Tuesday, banking giant Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. was backing out of yet another Las Vegas meeting.

The company, which received $10 billion in taxpayer money, announced it would move a three-day conference planned later this month from Las Vegas to San Francisco.

"The decision to relocate the conference is based on our best efforts to operate according to the requirements of the new landscape of our industry," Goldman Sachs spokesman Ed Canaday told The Associated Press.

Ironically, there's plenty of evidence suggesting it could cost more money to hold the event in the new location.

The latest reporting from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics says average airfare to San Francisco in the third quarter of 2008 was $361, compared to $274 for Las Vegas.

The average room rate in San Francisco was $156 in 2008 and $119 in Las Vegas.

"(Las Vegas) is probably one of the cheapest places to have your convention," said Rick Seany, CEO of the Web site "Try having your convention in New York or San Francisco or Orlando and see what it costs."

Mitch Goldstone of the firm ScanMyPhotos agrees.

Goldstone annually holds several business events in Las Vegas and says he gets great deals for his Irvine, Calif.-based company.

"It is a brilliant location," Goldstone said.

But he added his remarks don't apply to bailout-taking banks.

"The only ones who should not be in Las Vegas are those with taxpayer dollars" he said. "They should not be anywhere."

The decision to move the Goldman Sachs event from Las Vegas to San Francisco is even more laughable than just holding it at the original destination.

"They should be Twittering and e-mailing and using the Internet and not going to San Francisco," Goldstone said.