Our Annual Cowboy Makeover

It’s hardly a secret that December is, on balance, a slow month for Las Vegas casinos—New Year’s Eve excepted, of course. Historically, casino win totals for December lag behind November and January, and there’s a national slowdown in business and leisure travel during those weeks. So casinos lower their room rates, run specials and do whatever they can to get through the slow period.

There’s still a perceptible drop in demand, which is why many casinos save major public-area renovations for the November-to-Christmas lacuna—witness the projects on the casino floors of both Wynn Las Vegas and the Venetian.

But there is one event that thaws the December chill, National Finals Rodeo, which continues through Dec. 10 at the Thomas & Mack Center. Since 1985, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s big championship has been a major draw, with more than 170,000 spectators over the event’s 10-day span.

You don’t have to count oversize belt buckles to see that the event’s economic impact on Las Vegas is undeniable. But the NFR’s not just about bringing rodeo enthusiasts to town once a year—it has evolved into a tool to help casinos market to their loyal customers, both visitors and locals.

Many casinos in town offer ticket packages to their players, with the understanding that they’ll do plenty of gambling when they’re not at the arena. As with free slot tournaments, it’s a way to draw people to town during a slow time. But it can go ever deeper than that.

In 1984, Sam Boyd was at the forefront of the group that brought NFR to Las Vegas, so it’s fitting that Boyd Gaming is still deeply involved with the event. According to Boyd’s vice president of corporate marketing, Dan Stark, the company packages most of its rodeo tickets with rooms. Needless to say, this helps sell rooms; for weeks before the event there’s a waitl-ist for them. (That’s nearly unthinkable during the rest of the month.)

Stark says that NFR plugs directly into Boyd’s marketing philosophy: “It’s all about the horsepower.” Boyd wants those who are passionate about competition to stay with them in Las Vegas.

“Every guest has a passion of some sort,” he says, “Whether it’s rodeo or NASCAR or air shows or entertainment. Las Vegas is an opportunity to fulfill your passion.”

That’s why Stark uses NFR as a chance to showcase Boyd’s casinos—particularly Gold Coast, Sam’s Town and the Orleans—as a way to build long-term customer loyalty and encourage return trips.

The M Resort, which in its short history has taken some advertising leaps of faith (remember the resort’s blimp?), has had a sponsorship agreement with NFR since 2009. Like other casinos, the M offers tickets to its players, but the resort also gets the added bump in exposure that comes from the sponsorship.

Spending money to advertise at an event that’s nearly 13 miles away might not seem like the best idea, but M Resort vice president of marketing analysis Scotty Rutledge says it’s been an unqualified success, with high demand for tickets and increased recognition among rodeo fans.

“From the time we mailed out are rodeo offer letters in October, it took less than two and a half weeks for all of the tickets to be taken,” he says. “That’s a great response.”

There’s a natural synergy between gambling and the rodeo. “When you look at NFR, there’s an adrenalin that people have, a level of excitement, that mirrors what a gamer feels in a casino,” Rutledge says. “There’s a direct correlation there. That’s why the level of interest is so high.”

The M Resort markets its rodeo packages to both out-of-towners and locals—a way of confirming that it’s committed to giving locals perks they don’t often see.

“Some places won’t give these tickets to locals,” Rutledge says, “but we’ve found that when local players get offers they don’t usually get, they’re grateful for it.”

While in the first few years casino owners gave away tickets to anyone who’d fill a seat, National Finals Rodeo is now so entrenched that many early-December visitors don’t even attend the event itself—they watch a live feed at a hotel and attend peripheral attractions like the Cowboy Christmas Gift Show. Since it’s hard to find a music venue anywhere in town that hasn’t gone country, it’s not hard to get into the rodeo spirit.