Courting the Boss

When it comes to luring business travelers, does Las Vegas have a perception problem?

The Las Vegas tourism business is a paradox these days. On paper, things look great: So far this year, visitation numbers are up by more than 5 percent from last year, when more than 37 million visitors came to town. As far as sheer numbers go, Las Vegas is well on its way to rebounding from the recession. But tourism is not, ultimately, a numbers game: it’s a money game. And with the Vegas convention business still trying to regain its footing after the recession, the money’s not what it used to be.

Despite a recent uptick, convention travelers—who represent about 11 percent of visitors to Las Vegas—have lagged behind general tourists in returning to Las Vegas. In 2010, total visitation rose by 2.7 percent, while convention attendance tailed off by 0.4 percent. This year, a big January boosted the number of business travelers, but the total number of meetings held continues to slide. And that matters because they tend to spend far out of proportion to their numbers: 29 percent more on lodging than general tourists, and 28 percent more on dining.

So, what’s been keeping the business travelers away? The sputtering economy, sure, but that’s only part of the problem. Perceptions of Las Vegas—particularly that business travel here is an extravagant waste of stockholder and even taxpayer money—continue to inhibit some meeting planners when it comes to picking a destination for their conventions.

Last week two events, seemingly unrelated, told some of the story.

First, the Global Travel & Tourism Summit met at Aria in CityCenter. Since Las Vegas hosts national and international meetings all the time, the summit might not seem like such a big deal. But it was a unique opportunity to focus international attention on a city that needs all the help it can get in attracting visitors from abroad. Organized by the World Travel and Tourism Council, the conference pulls together travel professionals from around the world, giving them a chance to network, hear from such speakers as Ted Turner and Mexican president Felipe Calderon, and try to figure out how to make global travel easier and more lucrative.

Even U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood came to town for the summit. When Las Vegas Sands Vice President Eric Bello challenged him about President Obama’s commitment to encouraging tourism, it brought back memories of Obama’s 2009/10 double-dip of anti-Las Vegas comments (“You can’t take a trip to Las Vegas or down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayers’ dime” and “You don’t blow a bunch of cash in Vegas when you’re trying to save for college”). Those comments are still significant: While it’s debatable whether they actually led to any lasting slowdown in the leisure travel market, such perceptions of Las Vegas are critical when it comes to business travel.

Corporate meeting planners don’t just pick the most affordable hotel or the one with the most amenities. They also have to be attuned to how their choice of destination will play with executives, stockholders and customers. That’s not necessarily a tough sell, but it’s one that needs to be done right.

“Meeting planners have to do a better job of explaining the positive benefits of meeting in Las Vegas to external stakeholders so they can overcome any objections,” says Reggie Burton, a longtime hospitality public relations professional who focuses on the meetings and conventions market. “Part of it is education, part of it is communicating the facts better. We just need to do a better job of explaining who we are and why we’re a great meetings destination.” Which brings us to last week’s second landmark event: the unveiling of Hangover slots at Planet Hollywood, which coincided with the local premiere of The Hangover: Part II.

While movies like The Hangover and Las Vegas’ “What Happens Here, Stays Here” advertising campaign have been tremendously successful at painting Las Vegas as a town that’s raucous, unsavory and just about any other adjective that signifies good-bad fun, it’s easy to see how that kind of promotion can make scheduling a corporate retreat in Las Vegas problematic. No director of corporate travel wants to think that that CEO will go missing in an alcoholic fog on the eve of a big speech (not to mention the possibility that the chairman of the board will wake up with a missing tooth and a tiger in his room). But that’s the message Las Vegas has been broadcasting since its post-9/11 turn from family-friendly Vegas.

That’s why those who market the city find themselves doing a balancing act worthy of a Cirque performer: If they depict Las Vegas as too sensible an investment in travel, the fun-seeking leisure travelers who make up the bulk of the city’s visitors might look elsewhere for their thrills. But if they make it look too wild, business travelers will take their relatively fat wallets elsewhere. Since the 2008 furor over AIG’s convention extravagance at a Dana Point, Calif., luxury resort, Las Vegas has lost several meetings because planners wanted to avoid the perception that business would take a backseat to pleasure. The M Resort, with a Henderson address, has even benefited slightly, booking more than one convention that wanted a Vegas setting without the Vegas stigma.

So the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and Strip hotels have to struggle to tell a tale of two cities: Las Vegas as a place where you are just as likely—if not more!—to land a new contract as you are to wake up married to a stripper. The message needs to be that, for all its fun and games, Vegas is also a business destination that’s less expensive than San Francisco and has more hotel rooms than Oklahoma City. Sometimes, though, there’s a disconnect: Witness casino executives decrying the president for suggesting that a trip to Vegas might be frivolous just days before the debut of slots that cheerfully remind the world just how frivolously dissolute Vegas can be.

Of course, the Vegas image always has been—and always should be—about loosening the reins. The perception problem, though, is complicated by the last decade’s envelope-pushing, when the city’s pitch often seemed to go straight past fun toward wanton self-abasement. Business executives, like politicians, have large and often angry constituencies to whom they must justify their every move. And in the age of belt-tightening, it’s still a challenge to sell wary meeting planners on Vegas when Vegas sells itself as a place to lose not only your shirt, but maybe your pants, too.