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Chris Jones

Trade Quandary: To Show or Not to Show?

31 May 2005

So what, exactly, are the boundaries when it comes to exhibiting at a Las Vegas trade show?

Depends on who you ask, and what show you're asking about, sources said Friday.

The organizers of one of Las Vegas' largest recurring conventions, the Specialty Equipment Market Association trade show, recently decreed that its exhibitors cannot use scantily clad spokesmodels to arouse buyer interest when the annual auto parts show returns to the Las Vegas Convention Center this fall.

That crackdown has reportedly upset some exhibitors who revel in the show's longtime ties to beauties willing to bare (almost) all to help promote spinning rims or a new chrome muffler.

But a SEMA representative said the step was taken to ensure attendees focus on the business at hand rather than the bosoms on display.

SEMA's step also flew in the face of the message Las Vegas has traditionally conveyed to leisure travelers: that this is a no-holds-barred adult playground, the place to set aside everyday social norms and let loose.

After all, "What happens here, stays here," as the televisions ads so famously say.

What happens at a convention, however, is determined by the show's organizers, and in part, the demands of each show's exhibitors and attendees.

"We give them four walls and they basically have to run their own show," Luke Puschnig, legal counsel for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, said of the organizers who lease the Las Vegas Convention Center or Cashman Center from the authority.

Puschnig said the authority would require permits should an exhibitor want to use pyrotechnics or something akin. As for nudity or other controversial displays, however, Puschnig said he's never been asked to study the legalities of what is not OK on the showroom floor.

"We want to be able to make sure public health and safety is ensured, but we don't stick our nose in to tell people how to run their show," Puschnig said. "As long as (activities conducted) are legal, it's their show."

That helps explain the scene at this year's Men's Apparel Guild in California trade show, where visitors looked at new fashions displayed amid underwear- and boots-clad models writhing to and fro inside a clear plastic box.

As middle-aged women walked about, loudspeakers in the convention center's 935,000-square-foot South Hall blasted the 1980s rap anthem "Straight Outta Compton," whose lyrics include the lines, "But what about the bitch who got shot? (Expletive). You think I give a damn about a bitch? I ain't a sucker."

MAGIC representatives declined comment Friday.

Other shows prefer a more businesslike approach. The Arlington, Va.-based Consumer Electronics Association puts on what is now Las Vegas' largest annual trade show, the International Consumer Electronics Show. Spokeswoman Tara Dunion said Friday the association has had no complaints about borderline illicit behavior at CES.

"The buying, selling and deal-making that go on at our show keeps the focus more on business than other zanier aspects," said Dunion, whose show in early January drew more than 140,000 attendees.

Despite SEMA's restrictions, Las Vegas seems to have room for varying approaches.

Days before he addressed a luncheon audience at the Las Vegas Hilton earlier this month, noted travel expert Peter Greenberg told the Review-Journal this city remains popular because many visitors see it as a place to set aside conventional social standards.

First-time visitors believe they're breaking the rules, "because that's the image that Las Vegas projects," said Greenberg, an author and travel editor for NBC's "Today" show. And repeat visitors come back, Greenberg added, because they "sure as hell can finesse" social rules here, even if they don't actually break them.

That "let loose" message is central to the city's ongoing marketing campaign. The convention authority's ongoing television and print ads openly encourage people to adopt a different "Vegas persona" than that exhibited during everyday life at home.

That said, the authority is also updating its marketing plan to lure more business visitors here.

Plans call for business-related messages aimed at trade-show producers; corporate and incentive meeting planners; trade associations; as well as so-called "C level" decision makers, as in CEOs, CMOs and COOs.

That strategy could be unveiled as early as this summer, representatives of R&R Partners, the authority's Las Vegas-based advertising agency, said recently.