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Reno on a roll!

Jul 15, 2003 6:38 AM

As with Mark Twain, who once wrote for a northern Nevada newspaper, the rumors of Reno’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Actually, hotel-casinos in the Reno-Sparks area have been on the improve, quietly upgrading their facilities and expanding their marketing efforts.

Results have begun to show.

For instance, after three straight months of declining gaming revenues, casinos in Reno posted gains of 3.3 percent in May, defying a statewide trend that saw gaming win drop 4 percent from a year ago.

Other indicators have fueled optimism up north. For the first time since January, average nightly room rates increased, climbing 12 percent to $57.07 in May. Moreover, the overall hotel occupancy rose 1.4 percent over 2002 levels.

"May was a good month for Reno," said Richard Wells, president of Wells Gaming Research in Reno. "The weather was good and it was prior to the Thunder Valley opening."

The Thunder Valley Casino near Sacramento, which opened to standing-room-only crowds on June 9, is expected to siphon off some business from Northern Nevada casinos.

The tribal casino is located just off Interstate 80, a key connector from Northern California to Washoe County hotel-casinos.

"The question now is how much impact we’ll see in the summer months," Wells said. "I’d expect to see some impact in June from Thunder Valley."

Nevertheless, Wells is hopeful the Reno-Tahoe economy has finally "turned the corner."

"Reno has suffered declines in monthly gaming revenue for nearly two and a half years," he said. "The recent improvements are paying off, but there’s still a lot to be done. It’s still a work in progress."

Much of that work requires marketing into a fiercely-competitive business environment.

And to Reno’s credit, it has been ambitious in its marketing efforts.

Two weeks ago, the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority (RSCVA) announced an aggressive $3.5 million marketing plan that touts the area as "America’s Adventure Place."

Reinforcing that theme is Reno’s Great Outdoor Games, which concluded last weekend and was covered by ESPN, which will broadcast 40 to 50 hours of TV programming.

The ESPN coverage will be worth millions of dollars in publicity to the Reno-Tahoe area.

"That kind of exposure is amazing, and is not like anything I’ve seen here," said Deanna Ashby, RSCVA executive director of marketing.

Also expected to stimulate local business is more bookings into the Reno Convention Center. Expanded and renovated at a cost of more than $100 million about two years ago, there has been a "definite increase in business" at the center, whose occupancy is expected to increase from 33.3 percent today to 47.8 percent during the 2003-2004 fiscal year, which began July 1.

"We’re way ahead of where we should be," said Jeff Beckelman, RSCVA president and CEO.

Reno is also trying to cultivate the lucrative Hawaiian tourism market. Earlier this month, Aloha Airlines inaugurated a daily Reno-Honolulu flight that stops in Orange County, California.

Aloha has two flights daily to Las Vegas, which is the most popular destination of the seven U.S. mainland and Canadian cities the airlines serves. Reno officials are hoping for the same kind of success.

The flight also represents Reno’s only Orange County connection, which is hoped will boost awareness of the northern Nevada resorts in Southern California. Last year, only 2.2 percent of visitors to Reno-Tahoe came from the Los Angeles-Orange County area.

Most important for the area has been the remaking of Reno itself. Once touted as "The Biggest Little City in the World," Reno for the past five years has undergone an ambitious downtown renovation that has catapulted the city to No. 3 on Men’s Journal magazine’s list of the nation’s 50 best places to live.

Moreover, Reno has broke into the top 10 (at No. 9) on Hotels.com’s list of most requested locales for lodging reservations, and the city is ranked No. 7 in Inc. Magazine’s "Best City in Which to Start and Grow a Business."

The Reno boom comes at an opportune time. The city celebrates its centennial later this year.

The revitalization of Reno follows two basic premises: the tourism industry is not foolishly dependent on gambling, nor is the city a mini-version of Las Vegas.

Geography certainly has a hand in both precepts. Unlike sweltering Las Vegas 340 miles to the south, Reno is truly a four-season community where the leaves change in fall and it snows in the winter.

Taking advantage of the weather and the wilderness area surrounding Reno is an integral part of the tourism experience. That will be enhanced this year as the city undertakes a $22 million project to create a 24-mile whitewater recreation corridor along the Truckee River, which includes a kayaking slalom course through downtown Reno.

The notion of providing entertainment or activities outside of the casinos also separates Reno from Las Vegas. This summer, the area’s major events include last weekend’s Great Outdoor Games, the upcoming Hot August Nights celebration, Virginia City’s Camel Races, the Great Reno Balloon Races and the National Championship Air Races, which have been a tradition in Reno since 1964.

In addition, periodic entertainment, concerts and art shows are frequent along the city’s Riverwalk, and the National Bowling Stadium has become a mecca for bowlers.

Just a few blocks off Virginia Street, Reno’s main drag, there are two spectacular museums that draw thousands of tourists each year.

The newly-constructed Nevada Museum of Art is a striking structure — a four-story, black steel building that resembles a ship at sea. Its first exhibition is from renowned Mexican artist Diego Rivera and other 20th century Mexican art.

Another downtown landmark is the National Auto Museum, also known as the Harrah Collection, which features the largest collection of classic cars and trucks in North America. From Ferrars and Corvettes to Model T’s and Pierce-Arrows, there are enough vintage cars to make any car buff drool.

Finally, Reno is a great spot for stargazers. Because of the relatively low light pollution, the dark nights lends itself to viewing the heavens through the high-tech telescope at UNR’s Fleischmann Planetarium.