Gaming Conference Stresses Need For Diverse Economy

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Promoting northern Nevada as an adventure playground, luring more conventions and customized marketing to loyal casino customers are keys to Reno's economic survival in the face of growing competition from tribal casinos, industry leaders were told Thursday.

But one panelist at the inaugural Northern Nevada Gaming Summit said Reno's days as a gambling draw are long gone and efforts to regain lost ground for wagered dollars amount to "fantasized impossible dreams."

Reno is no longer the "Biggest Little City" but rather "just another little market with gaming," said Michael A. Meczka, a marketing analyst from Southern California.

Meczka's assessment was received curtly by Reno's tourism chief and others.

"I guess what we should do is fold up our tents and go home," Jeff Beckelman, president of the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority, quipped after Meczka's presentation.

In California, Meczka said, the perception of Reno is "it's a great place to live but who wants to visit there?"

"A slot machine is a slot machine," he said.

While there will always be a tourist market in Reno, the draw will be for "extreme value seekers," not high rollers or upscale business travelers, he said.

Meczka also suggested casinos that cater to locals will be the "standard bearer" for Washoe County's economy in the future and that it's time to "turn out the lights" in many hotel rooms.

"That party is over," he said.

Beckelman and others, however, presented a more positive take on the region's future despite the challenges.

Michael Silberling, senior vice president and general manager for Harrah's Reno, agreed increasing competition will lead to "Darwinism" among some Reno casinos where only the fittest will survive.

But he doesn't believe all is doom and gloom.

He said hotels and casinos that maintain and update their properties and tailor their marketing can still be profitable.

"By maintaining relations with customers we know, we've actually grown that segment," he said.

During his presentation to about 200 convention attendees at Harrah's Reno Thursday, Beckelman said there's no question the spread of tribal casinos in California and elsewhere over the last decade continues to drain customers from northern Nevada's traditional feeder markets.

"It's just getting worse, and worse and worse," he acknowledged.

Luring conventions and trade shows are the region's salvation, he said, but added success will require cooperation and assistance from large hotel operators.

"We have many hotels that don't even respond to the bid opportunities" to book convention business, he said.

"There has to be a larger level of commitment, I believe, on the part of the operators - the casinos and hotels - to go after this business," Beckelman said.

David Line, president of Reno-based InfoSearch International, said the area needs to create an environment "where people come for business and decide they want to come back" on their own.

Line said Reno casinos can't compete with the glitz and expense of megaresorts on the Las Vegas Strip.

But he said it doesn't take capital investment to build customer service and "make people feel special" so they'll want to return.

"It doesn't take brick and mortar to do that," he said.