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Las Vegas Pitch: Shops, Dining Are Sinful, Too

The Wall Street Journal Europe
JUNE 14, 2005

By Peter Sanders

FOR THE PAST TWO years, Las Vegas has sold itself on the back of a suggestive, and enormously successful, credo that proclaimed: "What happens here, stays here." But if that's true, how do you tell people how you spent your time in Vegas?

That's the question the city's convention and visitors bureau hopes to answer with its new "Alibi" ad campaign, which began airing in the U.S. yesterday. It's the city's first major advertising offshoot since its popular "What Happens Here" effort. That campaign, launched in January 2003, quickly vaulted the ad's catchphrase into the American lexicon, and helped restore the city's image as an adult playground.

This time, the idea is to highlight things to do in Sin City besides the sins -- gambling, drinking and more lascivious pursuits -- alluded to in the previous push. That means promoting the city's shopping, dining and live entertainment.

Indeed, much of Las Vegas's growth in recent years -- and its plans for the future -- comes from adding glitzy shopping opportunities, like a string of high-end boutiques that accompany resorts like Bellagio and the Venetian. At the same time, chefs such as Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck and others have brought their signature restaurants to a place once known for the $1.99 breakfast buffet.

"The idea is to promote the idea that there is much more to do in Vegas than gambling," says Rossi Ralenkotter, president and chief executive of the Las Vegas Convention & Visitor's Authority.

The new round of ads is no less salacious than the previous group. The ads present shopping sprees and gourmet meals as excuses that can mask the naughtier fun that Vegas visitors indulge in. One spot, for example, focuses on a worried husband's inquiry about whether his wife and her friends got "wild" during their "girls' weekend" in Vegas. Appearing nervous, the woman replies that they indeed went wild -- while shopping at Versace, Ferragamo and Tiffany. As the husband retreats, the wife's expression conveys relief that her shaky story held up.

In another ad, titled "Blue," three guys in their early 30s are shooting pool at home after a trip to Las Vegas. In a phone call from his mother, one of the men deflects her nosy inquiries by claiming that the men took in the theatrical troupe Blue Man Group -- an alibi she doesn't quite buy.

The LVCVA spent about $80 million, or 66 million euros -- proceeds from hotel-room taxes -- in the past two years trying to bolster the city's naughty image with the "What Happens Here" campaign. Las Vegas-based R&R Partners, which created the ads, is still producing new spots for the original campaign. The LVCVA says $8 million has been budgeted for the "Alibi" push, while an additional $12 million will be spent on the original.

"We didn't want to create a major disconnect" with the "What Happens Here" campaign, says Billy Vassiliadis, chief executive of R&R Partners. "There's been a dramatic enhancement in Las Vegas products in the last few years and the destination is so dynamic."

The new spots will air in the U.S. through September and are being accompanied by a wide-ranging print, online and outdoor campaign. The ads will target consumers both in regions that already send thousands of visitors to Vegas, and in others where the city hopes to raise its profile. For instance, California, whose cities already provide about 30% of all visitors to Vegas, will be heavily saturated with ads throughout the summer. So will Denver, Detroit and Seattle -- three markets from which Las Vegas officials hope to draw more first-time visitors.

The ads are part of an overall five-year plan by the LVCVA to push the number of visitors to Las Vegas to about 43 million by 2009 from last year's 37.4 million. With the help of the current campaign, visitors to Vegas are up 6.5% since 2002.

The recent marketing of Las Vegas, with its heavy emphasis on adult activities, is a stark contrast to a mid-1990s effort to attract families to the gambling mecca. Both Messrs. Vassiliadis and Ralenkotter insist that nothing has changed in the way Las Vegas is being marketed -- while the casinos themselves sometimes touted family offerings, the city itself has never strayed from the notion that it's anything other than a place for grown-up fun. "Las Vegas has always been family-friendly, but there was never a targeted effort [by the convention bureau] to attract families," says Mr. Ralenkotter, "We are an adult market and always have been."

Though Las Vegas Strip casino resorts such as MGM Mirage's Circus Circus, Excalibur, Treasure Island, Luxor, Mandalay Bay and MGM Grand have attractions that have long catered to younger visitors, the pendulum has swung firmly back to adults. "During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Strip moved heavily to themed resorts, so it was an extrapolation that these companies were going more after families," says Mr. Vassiliadis. The fact that "you have to be 21 or older to enjoy what Las Vegas has to offer," he says, supports the argument that Las Vegas is truly a town for grown-ups.

Others agree that the city actually offers something for everyone -- kids included -- but today's advertising focuses almost entirely on the kind of fun Vegas is famous for. Howard Lefkowitz, president of Web portal Vegas.com, says, "Las Vegas is fabled in story and song relative to the sin component, and these ads are merely enhancing that."

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