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Chris Jones

There's Madness in the Air

17 March 2006

LAS VEGAS -- From bar-hopping booty chases to basketball, blackjack and blarney, Las Vegas visitors will have no trouble finding fun ways to pass time this weekend.

Local businesses should have even less trouble finding customers willing to pass big money their way.

This week's launch of the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament and today's St. Patrick's Day holiday are only two of the major draws on tap.

With many U.S. schools taking spring break, mid-March is a prime time for leisure getaways.

Bachelor and bachelorette party season is in full swing. Toss in some mild spring weather, and the city's March appeal is all the more apparent.

"Las Vegas is the place all of us wanted to go," said Thomas White, a 24-year-old University of North Carolina fan who flew here Thursday from Charlotte. "For the first week of the tournament there's nonstop basketball, and we heard that's the place to go."

Sixty-five of the nation's best men's collegiate basketball teams are playing for a national title.

Before a winner is decided April 3 at Indianapolis's RCA Dome, countless hoop-heads like White will have flocked to Southern Nevada to catch televised action inside a sports book or nearby bar or casino.

A 64-team women's basketball tournament also tips off Saturday, which could bring more fans to the city.

Last year, March bets on basketball in March, including the NCAA and National Basketball Association, gave Nevada casinos a win of $16.2 million on $170.9 million wagered, up 16.7 percent from 2004, said the Gaming Control Board.

March 2005 marked the first time Nevada's 341 casinos collectively reported a total gaming win of more than $1 billion.

White will celebrate with 15 friends and family who scheduled a weekend bachelor party to coincide with March Madness. When not watching games at Mandalay Bay, the group will do "regular Vegas stuff" including nightclub visits and playing cards, he said.

Scott Frost, general manager of the travel planning Web site, has booked 40 bachelor or bachelorette parties this month. Some traveled across the Atlantic for the celebrations.

"People getting married in June or July are planning and executing their bachelor and bachelorette parties now, and Vegas obviously has a certain mystique along with that," Frost said.

College basketball is also a top draw, he added.

"March Madness is approaching the Super Bowl as the biggest draw for sports betting pilgrims," Frost said. "Everyone comes to Vegas and literally sits in sports books for hours at a time."

That's big business, and not just for sports books. arranges restaurants reservations, limousine rides, nightclub VIP passes and other perks for "after-dark fun," Frost said.

Men typically pay between $150 to $250 per person for the company's services; women's average bills are $40 to $99 per head. That doesn't include meals, hotel charges, bar tabs or other goods or services.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority doesn't track visitor spending related to St. Patrick's Day, or the start of the NCAA Tournament. It's too difficult to measure how many visitors will come here specifically for those events.

Still, the agency's research director said both factor into strong local occupancy this month.

A year ago, the city's then-131,119 guest rooms were 99 percent occupied the weekend of March 18-19. One week later, they were 98 percent filled, the authority's Kevin Bagger said.

March brought nearly 3.4 million visitors to town last year, the busiest month of 2005.

On most days, O'Sheas' nooklike Strip casino caters to small-time gamblers who prefer to grind out a hand or 20 away from the clamor of larger places nearby.

But March 17 isn't "most days." And luckily for O'Sheas, its Irish pub theme makes it an obvious choice for tourists to celebrate St. Patrick's Day.

Melissa Free, marketing director for the separatelythemed adjunct of Flamingo Las Vegas, said O'Sheas enjoys better-than-normal casino play on St. Patrick's Day.

To capitalize on the holiday, owner Harrah's Entertainment will block off a street between O'Sheas and the Flamingo for an outdoor block party from 4 to 11 p.m. today and Saturday.

Free promised live music and drink specials on Bushmills Irish Whiskey and Baileys Irish Cream.

"Everything's green, from drinks to food to the color on people's clothes," Free said. "Who wouldn't want to spend St. Patrick's Day at an Irish-themed casino?"

O'Sheas set up a satellite sports book to garner its share of weekend basketball fans, as well.

Ireland native Declan McGettigan brought a touch of the old sod to Las Vegas when he opened Summerlin's JC Wooloughans Irish Pub in 1999.

He believes St. Patrick's Day celebrations in the United States are more raucous than those back home, including the standing-room-only romps his pub holds at the JW Marriott resort.

"You hear all the time that the real Irish stay away from it because it's such a crazy, crazy day," McGettigan said of St. Patrick's Day parties this side of the Atlantic. "But the ex-pat (expatriate) Irish want to remember their roots as much as possible, and it's evolved almost into our national holiday."

McGettigan, now JW Marriott's food and beverage director, said JC Wooloughans will welcome six bands today, ranging from traditional Irish folk music to a U2 cover band. Despite placing a temporary second stage in a nearby courtyard, many would-be revelers will likely be turned away due to overcrowding.

"The day of the week doesn't really matter. When it comes to St. Patrick's Day, it's a packed house," McGettigan said. "I wish to God I could have one of them off to celebrate it myself."

The National Retail Federation, a Washington-based trade group, estimates U.S. consumers will spend $2.69 billion on St. Patrick's Day purchases this year, up nearly 39 percent from last year's $1.94 billion.

The average consumer will spend $27.94, the Federation reports, up from $22.95 last year.

Tracy Mullin, the Federation's president and chief executive officer, said March 17 is now "a tremendous day for restaurants and bars, as well as your traditional retail outlets."