LAS VEGAS (AP) - Sin City is worried that its well-honed style
is crimping its business.
Born of carefully crafted slogans - "What happens here stays
here" - and smiling, sequined showgirls, the image of a 24-hour
adult Disneyland with free-flowing booze and casino chips is making
the tourist destination seem radioactive to companies keen on not
appearing frivolous as they seek government bailouts.
In the past two weeks, at least four major companies canceled
meetings worth hundreds of thousands of dollars - not because of
costs but because of appearances. Even President Barack Obama
questioned the propriety of flying off to Las Vegas if taxpayers
were helping foot the bill.
Tourism officials, already nervous after watching meeting and
convention attendance decline 5 percent in 2008, are challenging
the impression that business meetings are wasteful - especially
those conducted under the neon lights of Las Vegas.
"It's necessary, for us to thrive in this community, that folks
come here and realize that this is not some stepchild," Las Vegas
Mayor Oscar Goodman said. "This is a very important place for
people to conduct very important business."
Goodman - who often appears at functions with a showgirl at each
arm - sent a letter this week to Obama objecting to his remarks.
"You can't get corporate jets, you can't go take a trip to Las
Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayer's dime," Obama
said during a town hall meeting in Indiana.
Mister Obama's comment came after Wells Fargo & Co. canceled a
conference at two high-end Las Vegas hotels in response to a
barrage of criticism from Capitol Hill after The Associated Press
reported on the company's previous luxury-laden trips for its top
The company, which received a $25 billion bailout, cried foul in
a full-page New York Times ad and said media reports about
bailed-out companies have been "deliberately misleading." The
bank said it would cancel all its recognition events this year.
Wells Fargo is not alone. Since the fall, companies that have
taken $277 billion in federal assistance through the Troubled Asset
Relief Program have faced increased scrutiny for travel practices
by lawmakers and an angry public.
Goldman Sachs Group Inc. moved a three-day conference from the
Mandalay Bay hotel-casino to San Francisco, incurring a $600,000
cancellation penalty to skip town. U.S. Bancorp, which received
$6.6 billion, dropped plans to reward top managers with a trip to
Naples, Fla. Morgan Stanley, which has received $10 billion in
bailout funds, canceled a trip for top employees to Monte Carlo.
Roger Dow, president of the Travel Industry Association, called
the growing attention "paralyzing" for corporate meetings and
events, which represent 15 percent of all travel spending
"We have to stop this from being epidemic," said Dow.
Dow said Wells Fargo should not have canceled.
"Personally, I wish that ad had said, 'It was a perfect
business expense to get the money back to the American taxpayer
faster, and this is one of the tools that we use and we will defend
them and show anybody that is curious why they are effective and
why they have a great bottom-line result for this organization,"'
Michael Massari, vice president of meeting sales and operations
for Harrah's Entertainment, Inc., in Las Vegas, said some companies
shouldn't have planned trips in the first place.
"If there are meetings that you're having that are lavish and
are boondoggles or that are no longer productive because of the
expense, that have diminishing returns, then good companies should
stop doing those things," he said.
Massari, however, said the vast majority of meetings - in Las
Vegas and elsewhere - are well thought-out.
Those who promote Las Vegas, the nation's top business travel
destination, are quick to list reasons why it's a good place to
book meetings. Easy airline access. 140,000 hotel rooms. Low rates.
Plentiful convention facilities. A wide range of dining and
Las Vegas hosted more than 22,000 meetings, conventions and
trade shows last year, according to the Las Vegas Convention and
Visitors Authority, which markets the city to leisure and business
For years that promotion has unabashedly included gambling and
nightlife. On the convention authority's Web site, a section for
meeting planners features photographs of showgirls, the Las Vegas
Strip and a roulette wheel.
"The two are not at odds with one another," said Mayor
Goodman, who also chairs the convention authority.
Robert Goldstein, senior vice president of Las Vegas Sands
Corp., said he is annoyed by the idea that a company can't do
business at a fun destination.
"We're not going to pretend all this stuff doesn't exist,"
Goldstein said. "Last time I checked, alcohol was prevalent in a
lot of major cities, and you can go anyplace in the country if you
want to see girls."
Goldstein said Sands would likely not change its marketing
strategy despite three recent cancellations that would have each
brought hundreds of guests to its Venetian and Palazzo
Some tourism officials don't think Las Vegas should cling to its
reputation as a party town if it wants to attract image-conscious
"In light of the recession, in light of everything, we
absolutely have to change," said Karen Gordon, president of
Activity Planners International, a Las Vegas-based company that
assists corporate meeting planners and recently laid off half of
its eight-person staff.
Jan Jones, senior vice president of communications and
government relations for Harrah's and a former mayor of Las Vegas,
said the public is focusing more today on how businesses make
decisions, and because of that, Las Vegas itself will likely see a
"All of our marketing is having to change somewhat, because the
consumer is changing," Jones said. "In 2009, you spell Vegas
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