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Corporate cancellations make Las Vegas rethink image of excess

LAS VEGAS

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 recent weeks, at least four major companies canceled meetings worth hundreds of thousands of dollars — not because of costs, but because of appearances. Even President 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 fall 5 percent last year, 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 on each arm — sent a letter 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 taxpayers' dime," Obama said during a town hall meeting in Indiana.

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.

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 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.

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 nationwide.

"We have to stop this from being epidemic," said Dow, who also said Wells Fargo should not have canceled.

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 entertainment options.

For years, 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., is annoyed 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."

Some tourism officials don't think Las Vegas should cling to its reputation as a party town if it wants to attract image-conscious companies.

"In light of the recession, in light of everything, we absolutely have to change," said Karen Gordon, president of Activity Planners International, which assists corporate meeting planners.

.FAST FACTS

Second thoughts

• Wells Fargo canceled at two Las Vegas hotels in response to criticism from Capitol Hill.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. moved a three-day conference from the Mandalay Bay hotel-casino to San Francisco.

U.S. Bancorp dropped plans to reward top managers with a trip to Naples.

Morgan Stanley canceled a trip for top employees to Monte Carlo.

Corporate cancellations make Las Vegas rethink image of excess 03/09/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 9, 2009 7:41am]
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