"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, " President Barack Obama said to a town hall meeting in Elkhart, Ind. last week.
But the remark caused a hailstorm of anger from Las Vegas officials, members of the travel industry and even residents. And now the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority will launch a six-figure campaign with ads in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and other publications featuring company testimonials.
"People are telling me that they're not coming to Las Vegas because the president doesn't want them to," Mayor Oscar B. Goodman told the New York Times. Goodman at first demanded an apology from the White House, but later said he would settle for a clarification. "When you make a casual, although not malevolent remark, it can have ramifications which affect the industry as well as all of the citizens who live in southern Nevada," he told the Associated Press.
One reader of the Las Vegas Review-Journal wrote, "Why not add Miami, New York or San Diego to the list of cities to avoid? I'll even bet the bars and massage parlors in Des Moines, Iowa, are rockin' when the annual farm equipment convention rolls into town."
(U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., defended Obama's remarks saying they were aimed at companies using taxpayer money on corporate junkets, not at any particular venue.)
Las Vegas' reputation from its wink-wink "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas," to its freewheeling activities of gambling, strip clubs and topless shows, isn't a serious one and that has created a unique (and profitable) identity for the city. Unfortunately, in hard times, that reputation doesn't look good for companies trying to give an impression of prudent spending and management.
But Vegas boosters are quick to say that they take convention business seriously and do it better than any other city.
"Las Vegas has long tried to balance the image of party town, serious town," Jan Jones, senior vice president of Harrah's Entertainment, told the New York Times. "This is an opportunity for us to remind business why they do business here, and it's because it's the best value."
Las Vegas has a lot to worry about with any negative publicity. About 30,000 hotel rooms booked for conferences in Las Vegas were canceled in the last month. The city has also seen a 4 percent decline in visitors and a 6 percent drop in conventions compared to 2008. December's numbers are more stark, showing an 11 percent drop from December 2008.
While some of the spotlight on Las Vegas has been unfair, the city has built its brand on its wild, adventurous, and even decadent, amenities. That its convention business is widely respected is irrelevant. Public perception, fed by the Las Vegas tourism industry, is that it's a party town. Now Las Vegas has a tough road ahead trying to create an image sober enough to compete with Philadelphia or Boston.
Photo courtesy of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority