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Why Tourists Rarely Explore the Rest of Las Vegas

Why Tourists Rarely Explore the Rest of Las Vegas
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Last week, I explored Washington, D.C.'s efforts to get its myriad tourists to visit parts of the city they tend to ignore. As I explained:

Getting people out and exploring is a perennial problem for the nation's capital. Visitors here tend to come for the attractions you'd expect: the White House, the U.S. Capitol, the monuments and Smithsonian museums that line the National Mall. Unfortunately for the city, those places are all clustered together in the same general area, removed from neighborhoods where the District of Columbia's roughly 600,000 residents actually live.

That's a problem, because while tourists spend billions of dollars in Washington every year, too many of the city's restaurants, bars, and arts venues see not much, if any, of that money.

The District's latest attempt (a D.C.-wide temporary public art show, to coincide with the annual Cherry Blossom festival) challenges residents and visitors to scavenge the city for its offerings. It's part of a broader philosophy to sell the city as a whole package, offering off-the-beaten path ideas on the city's official tourism website, on brochures and even as part of the city's merchandise (that's right, you can buy neighborhood t-shirts and 'scents of place' candles.)

Las Vegas (arguably a capital of a different sort) shares Washington's tourism dilemma. The visitors who flock there tend to come to eat, drink, gamble and be entertained on the Strip. But unlike Washington, Las Vegas has chosen to sell its experiences, rather than its neighborhoods. For example, the city's promotional material won't recommend a morning trip to the city's Chinatown. Instead, you'll see references to the neighborhood's myriad food offerings while searching for dining options.

The reason this works, says Julian Dugas, the city's director of sports marketing, is that people come to Las Vegas with a clear idea of what they want to do on their visit. "The average person that comes to Las Vegas comes for a specific reasons," Dugas says. "They know what they’re going to do before they get there."

It's an approach the city honed in the early 2000s. In the 1990s, Vegas's tourism industry expanded rapidly. Between 1990 and 2000, its hotel room inventory increased by almost 70 percent, and tourist spending doubled.

But the turn of the century brought new competition for the country's gamblers. According to a 2007 Travel Marketing Decisions article on Vegas tourism, the two to five-day cruise segment grew by 869 percent between 1980 and 2005, often attracting gamers who might otherwise have traveled to Vegas. As author Rob O'Keefe explained, "there were more players in the 'tourism economy' and many of them openly declared their intention of going after a piece of the tourism pie.'"

Instead of widening its offerings, Vegas doubled down on its core competency. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (the city agency in charge of attracting tourists) hired an advertising agency to help them come up with a branding effort that created "an emotional connection between consumers and our destination." The result? What happens here stays here, a slogan meant to evoke the city's sexiness and sense of "adult freedom." It launched, famously, in 2001.

Early ads also abandoned images of the city in favor of a single woman transforming into her Vegas self on her ride from the airport.

There are, of course, other reasons to go to Vegas. The city offers some pretty wild natural beauty. But instead of trumpeting these sites on the Visit Las Vegas website, the Convention and Visitors authority has built separate websites for non-Strip based tourism. A site for Boulder City, just 20 miles outside of Vegas, trumpets the opportunity to visit the Hoover Dam and take a desert hike. A site for nearby Laughlin highlights golf and water sport opportunities. According to its website, Mesquite is the place to go for spas, championship golf and "one of the most complete collections of artifacts of the early Pueblo Indians."

It's a strategy that's largely worked. In the four years after Vegas launched the "what happens here stays here" campaign, the city's tourism industry grew by 4 million visitors a year and hotel occupancy rose from 84 percent to 89.7 percent.

But Vegas, like D.C., is trying to get its visitors familiar with its non-Strip-and-sin options. A 2005 study suggested that few travelers were familiar with Vegas' non-gambling options - 50 percent of respondents didn't know the city was a "premier golf destination," 61 percent were unaware of the city's outdoor recreation.

"One of the things that we tried to embed in that message are the other things to do when you come here," Dugas says. His agency has done this by sponsoring conferences for niche visitors. One recent event drew golfers; another was geared to NASCAR fans. They also created the "Alibi Vegas" campaign, which featured couples talking (in vaguely sexual terms) about Vegas's other opportunities.

According to the Casino City Times:

One of the commercials shows a couple at a dinner party discussing their trip to Las Vegas with sexual innuendos relating to their dining experience. Another spot has a man asking his significant other if she got "wild" in Las Vegas with her girlfriends. She says she did get wild -- then shows him things she bought on a shopping spree at Versace, Ferragamo and Tiffany's.

Online Flash ads say "I scored in Las Vegas" with a reference to golf as a great alibi and "You won't believe what I picked up in Las Vegas" with a reference to shopping.

Maybe Vegas isn't selling its neighborhoods. But it is trying to update its offerings. Ultimately, it's not all that different from D.C.'s effort to sell the city's soul along with its political and historic offerings.

Photo credit: Cecelia Lim H M/Shutterstock

Amanda Erickson is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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