While Las Vegas visitor volume has shown steady - even record - gains over the past 15 years, the number of first-time visitors has significantly declined over the past five years.
Since 1996, the percentage of first-time visitors has dropped from 32 percent of the total to 21 percent last year, a 34 percent decline, according to the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority.
While the percentages may be somewhat askew because overall visitor volume increased from 29.6 million in 1996 to 35.8 million in 2000, whole numbers reflect a drop in first-time visitors of about 2 million.
Given the continued increase in visitor volume, some marketing executives discount the decline as a "correction" based on the unusually large number of new tourists who flocked to Las Vegas in the early to mid-1990s.
"The city generated a lot of traffic when the glitzy themed resorts hit the Strip, and when the wholesome, family-friendly image seemed to drive all the publicity campaigns," says a marketing executive who asked that his name be withheld. "Once many of those tourists saw that Las Vegas wasn’t in fact a Disney World, they decided not to come back."
Coming back, however, has never been a problem. According to the Convention & Visitors Authority, repeat visits to Las Vegas over the last five years rose to 6.8 million last year, up from the 5.3 million recorded in 1997.
Moreover, common sense - as well as simple math - dictates that if visitor volume increased 6 million from 1996 to 2000, and first-time visitors declined by 2 million, then repeat visits had to have increased by 8 million.
"Those are healthy numbers, and we’re not concerned at this point about the breakdown between first-time and repeat visitors," says Rob Powers, vice president of communications for R&R Partners, the marketing arm of the LVCVA. "Both figure into the equation."
Powers added that the equation has two components - driving visitor volume and getting tourists to become repeat visitors.
"As hotel occupancy continues to increase, we feel we’re on target on both counts," he says.
Powers agrees that the "destination marketing" campaign the LVCVA conducted in the 1990s helped fuel the interest of first-time visitors. The campaign included ads featuring restaurateurs such as Wolfgang Puck, lush green golf courses, David Cassidy in dancing shoes, water parks with sandy beaches and theme-park hotels.
But marketing in the new millennium has found a new direction.
"In the past, our advertising was product driven - we showcased property after property, the restaurants, the shopping arcades," Powers says. "But now we’re moving toward delivering a more emotional message, one that appeals to people’s fancies."
Powers says the current campaign creates an image of Las Vegas as a place where people can feel free to let go of their otherwise mundane lives and immerse themselves in a titillating, adult and somewhat mysterious experience.
The new campaign strategy is based on a $250,000 research study commissioned by the LVCVA.
"What we found was that visitors wanted that feeling of abandon they got when they get here, that feeling of having an escape from their everyday routine," Powers says. "People liked the idea that Las Vegas is totally unlike any other place."
Being "totally unlike any other place" could be the key to expanding the market of people who have never visited Las Vegas, which is estimated at 59 percent of the adult population in the United States.
The LVCVA survey suggested that potential visitors seek something emotional in Las Vegas that they can’t get anywhere else.
"That’s what people said they liked, and that’s our message," Powers says.
The campaign is only six months old, so only time will tell whether the message bears tourism fruit.