Kids R (not) Us?

May 11, 2004 5:41 AM

The number of families coming to Las Vegas with children increased last year, despite a lukewarm attitude by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority towards attracting youngsters.

The number of visitors to the city who were under the age of 18 increased from approximately 3.5 million in 2002 to about 3.9 million in 2003, according to information collected by the LVCVA. The increase came despite the fact that the city "was never marketed directly to kids. It’s best marketed to adults," said Marina Nicola, a public relations specialist for the LVCVA.

Nicola said that any advertised evolution in the city’s marketing strategy was "promoted by a few hotels" and the targeting of families became "a media-driven perception" as opposed to a reality. "They (a few hotels) were trying to go in a different direction, an unusual direction," she said.

Edward Serrano, president of Las VegasKids.com., says that despite the absence of a formal marketing campaign aimed at families, the 400,000 increase in visitors under the age of 18 could be attributed to an increase in the cost of family travel and security issues. He said people in Southern California, wanting to avoid airport hassles and the expense of lengthy vacations, turn to Las Vegas as an attractive option.

In a telephone interview, Serrano said that while there are only a few hotels that are marketing to families, there are many that offer family activities. For example, "I wouldn’t consider the Palms to be a family friendly hotel (but even it) has a child care center and arcade," he said.

One hotel that for a time appeared to aiming for the family trade, the MGM Grand, opened a theme park in 1993 but closed it in 2000, according to a hotel spokesperson. Two other Strip hotels, Circus Circus and the Excalibur, have long had the reputation of attracting families.

Tom Malloy, director of marketing for Circus Circus, said his property has done surveys which indicate that 21 percent of his hotel’s adult visitors come with children under the age of 21. He said the number of people arriving with children is "very seasonal, it goes way up" in the summer, when children are on vacation from school. He said Circus Circus was ranked fifth by the Travel Channel in its listing of the top 10 family resorts in North America. He said the reasons for the high ranking was "affordable room rates, affordable dining and the entertainment" including a theme park, free circus acts and "free clowns and the best arcade on the Strip."

Malloy said he thinks the LVCVA is "doing a fabulous job" and "people who want to come to Las Vegas with their families are going to come" without needing to be lured by a marketing campaign. "People are going to come for the cheap buffet," he said.

John Marz, the vice president of marketing for the Mandalay Bay Resort Group, which includes the Excalibur and Circus Circus among other properties, said "We have not changed our marketing to be more directed to families. We attract that segment naturally."

Jenn Michaels, the vice president of public relations for the MGM Mirage company, said "at its core, this is an adult getaway ”¦ If people bring their children, we are not unfriendly to them but there are far better places to bring their children on vacation," she said. "For us, kids start at age 21."

She said the nature of Las Vegas began to change when The Mirage opened and there were more things for adults to do then gamble, including fine dining and shopping. The trend accelerated in the early 1990s when several other major properties opened on the Strip with more attractions for people who had never before been to Las Vegas.

Treasure Island, for instance, had been staging a battle of the pirate ships but after 10 years, the show was replaced with a more mature version, and now Michaels says "there is a new vibe and energy around the property."

Because of its proximity to Wet N Wild and its roller coaster ride that wraps around the building, some visitors might assume that the Sahara has targeted families. They would be wrong, says Ron Garrett, director of marketing and entertainment for the hotel. "We like families to come but we don’t target them," says the former New Yorker who has been in Las Vegas since 1968. Indeed, the roller coaster and the cyber raceway inside the hotel are not wholly owned by the Sahara but are instead a joint venture with an outside company.

In fact, the Sahara’s interest in attracting families is "minimal," Garrett says. "They’re not high on the list," he says. The target audience for the Sahara is people over the age of 21, he says, and he is "not disappointed at all" that the LVCVA has not made an effort to draw families to Las Vegas. He says the authority has done "a wonderful job. Look around (at Las Vegas’ development). Remarkable. They’ve done great."

He said the four hotels that attract the most families are Circus Circus, Excalibur, Stratosphere and New York-New York.