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Defying convention!

Jan 14, 2003 1:59 AM

By MARK MAYER

Las Vegas has apparently mastered the convention business to the point that comps and the stigma of gambling have become things of the past.

"There’s no need to comp anymore and hold people captive in hotels for eight hours," Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority president and CEO Manny Cortez said last week during the American Gaming Summit at the Rio. "Las Vegas has adapted to the accommodating market."

Cortez told a panel of his peers Las Vegas has always had to overcome a negative conception when going after conventions.

"We’re like Hawaii," Cortez said. "People hold a negative belief over us pertaining to gambling. It’s a conception that had to be overcome. We’ve shown you can conduct business in Las Vegas."

Cortez said the secret to making Las Vegas the top convention city in the United States was in the ability to market during off-peak periods.

"You have to fill in the peaks and valleys," he said. "The LVCVA was originally set to market convention destinations. Now with the opening of convention centers at Mandalay Bay, the Sands and here at the Rio, we have more than enough space to get different groups."

Jeff Beckelman, executive director of the Reno-Sparks Convention Authority, added that there is so much supply in Las Vegas that hotel rates could be driven down.

"In Las Vegas, availability of space is key," he said. "Time will tell if Las Vegas has too much space. As for Reno-Tahoe, we are trying to rebuild our image as an outdoor destination. We have expanded our convention center, but we are looking toward results for 2006-2011."

Jeffrey Vasser, executive director of the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority, admitted the New Jersey gaming site is not a well-rounded destination.

"We need to change that conception," Vasser said. "We want Atlantic City to be a great place to come. There is a 40 percent growth in hotel rooms. The Trop and Park Place are starting to get it as far as promoting dining and entertainment. With the Borgata coming, it will be interesting in the next couple of years."

Patti Shock, chairman of the UNLV Tourism and Convention Department, said Las Vegas has a convenience advantage over other top convention areas.

"Orlando is 30 minutes away from its convention site," Shock said. "Repeat business in Las Vegas is higher than anywhere. We have lower food costs, lower flight rates, endless entertainment and everything close by."

Shock added that those companies booking conventions here tend to stay longer, eat out more, bring spouses and make fewer cancellations.

When a member of the audience suggested that San Diego was a growing convention market, Cortez offered some helpful advice.

"A place like San Diego is beautiful," he said. "The fact that you just expanded your convention center isn’t enough if you don’t also increase the number of hotel rooms. There is a gaming venue within 200 miles anywhere in the country. Las Vegas is fortunate to be a first tier convention city."