‘What Happens Here’ Happened Here First

How Las Vegas’ mad men (and women) go about creating the city’s next ad campaign

Selling Vegas is harder than you think. Months—even years—of research, inspiration and retooling go into the television, Internet and print advertisements that plant the seed of a simple idea: It’s time to go to Vegas.

Right now, R&R Partners, the company that’s been helping the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority sell the city since 1980, is producing the next round of ads that will remind people why Vegas is a great place to play.

This September, those ads will hit airwaves and magazines around the world. They’ll be quick, flashy and persuasive—and few viewers will ever know how much work went into them.


By the end of 2009, those who make it their business to promote Las Vegas had a dilemma: More than half a decade removed from “What Happens Here, Stays Here,” did they need to chart a new direction? After all, even though spending remained down, visitation was slowly ticking up. On one hand, playing it safe isn’t going to get much attention; on the other, why fix something that isn’t necessarily broken?

Even the experienced hands at the LVCVA and R&R didn’t have the answers to those questions, so they decided to ask the only people whose opinion really matters: the traveling public.

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The process of getting answers began in February 2010 with an ambitious research project to determine what Americans think about Las Vegas and what would get them to come here more often. Lasting seven months, this research—the most intense in the history of the LVCVA—sought to answer a single important question: Who is the post-recession travel consumer, and how do we get him to return to Las Vegas? In other words, does Las Vegas need to move beyond What Happens Here?

Researchers analyzed what’s been written about the economy, tourism in general, and Las Vegas in particular. They tracked how visitors talk about Vegas on blogs. They conducted focus groups in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Philadelphia, Seattle and Los Angeles.

Then came the tagalongs.

“People were recruited before their trip to Vegas, and we asked if we could tag along,” says Todd Gillins, the vice president of research at R&R. “It started with an interview just after they landed, which took about an hour, in which they talked about their expectations for their trip. Then, during the trip, we tagged along with them for a meal or an outing—about 60 or 90 minutes—and talked about what they were experiencing. Finally, when they got back to the airport, we interviewed them again—for as long as two hours, since some of them had a lot to say. They were also given Flip cameras so they could share their experiences.”

The next step in R&R’s research was a national 10,000-respondent survey exploring potential travelers’ perceptions of Las Vegas. Finally, the firm conducted in-depth interviews in four major markets to get a better handle on the travel decision process. How do people make the decision to visit—or not to visit—Las Vegas?

Most importantly, the research will never end. Even now, Gillins says, an ongoing tracking study is looking at how attitudes toward Vegas travel are shifting; the persuaders are constantly shifting their strategies to keep hitting that moving target.

All of that data gave R&R and the LVCVA a better handle on how and why people were making the decision to travel to Las Vegas, and let them start shaping a strategy to keep people coming.

The big question was, would Las Vegas be moving past What Happens Here? “We learned that, for the core group, ‘What Happens Here’ still works, but we need to reassure them that there haven’t been too many changes: The Vegas they love is still alive and well,” says Cathy Tull, senior vice president of marketing for the LVCVA. “But there’s a whole other group out there that we call ‘the persuadables.’ They have the ability to travel now, and they do travel. They’re interested by what they’ve seen in ‘What Happens Here,’ but they need more information about what they’ll find in Las Vegas before they make their decision.”

It may seem incredible, but there are still masses of potential visitors for whom Vegas is mostly one-armed bandits, dollar shrimp cocktails and starch-heavy buffets. Although it’s been more than a decade since Strip casinos earned the majority of their revenues from gambling, there are still people with money to spend who are afraid that, if they book a flight to Vegas, they’ll have nothing to do but gamble.

So the LVCVA’s new campaign has two prongs: to reassure the core, and to persuade the persuadables by educating them about, essentially, everything that’s happened in Vegas in the past 20 years.


No one at R&R is willing to talk specifics about what the new ads—which will be the public face of Las Vegas through 2012—are about. In part, that’s because they don’t want to tip their hand—it wouldn’t be any fun if Orlando or Miami stole a march on Vegas. But it’s also because, even though the scripts are in, those ads are evolving, even as you’re reading this.

But the persuaders are willing to talk in general terms about how they go about selling Vegas. In January, R&R teams began pitching different concepts for ads. The teams include artists, writers, media buyers and social media specialists, and they develop broad concepts that are then discussed and refined.

Once the possibilities were narrowed to a handful of potential scripts, R&R executive creative director Arnie DiGeorge met with a small group at the LVCVA, including CEO and President Rossi Ralenkotter. The LVCVA team read through the scripts and suggested a few tweaks.

Next, production teams come into the picture. That means artsy directors, competing treatments and sometimes-mercurial actors.

“A lot of the time, we’ll have actors who ad lib, or we’ll write new stuff on set to fit what they bring to it,” DiGeorge says. “We talk about every detail of the spots. The voice, the actors, how things are timed, the actions, pretty much everything you can think of. The art director looks over shots, the writer keeps writing endings, creative directors look for great ways to plus things, while account executives and clients make sure we are staying consistent with the brand. The ad isn’t done until it’s done.”

Next, it’s time to test the ads. Some spots were tested with focus groups in early July in Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles. Ultimately, R&R will narrow its list to one or two ads to present to the LVCVA. For DiGeorge, it’s about picking the best of several potential winners. “A lot of them are doing well,” he says. “It’s just about picking the best combination that will hit both the core and the persuadables.”

The winning ads will be calling out to the nation’s would-be tourists in September. R&R and the LVCVA hope the nation’s tourists will be calling back.

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