The stuff in the middle
Downtown Vegas, front and center
Set goals; develop strategies to meet them; deploy your resources; stay focused; measure your progress. These are familiar themes to millions of us, including Boy Scouts, coaches, teachers, managers, consultants and self-help gurus. Most would agree that the hardest part of this process is the stuff in the middle, the part about stay- ing focused, staying committed. Which brings us to the Obama administration’s Na- tional Travel and Tourism Strategy, whose mere existence marks a historical milestone for the industry. We’ve never had a National Travel and Tourism Strategy before. The centerpiece of the strategy statement is the goal of
boosting U.S. international arrivals to 100 million a year
by 2021, a significant goal that is within reach and that can
serve as a motivator, and that allows us to measure our
progress. A solid start.
But as we read through the remaining elements of the
30-page document, we note that things start to get fuzzy.
The second stated goal is to “reduce barriers to trade and
make it safer and more efficient for visitors to enter and
travel within the United States and its territories.” This is
not something that is as easily measured as welcoming 100
Nor are there any stated metrics for the third goal, which
is to “provide a high-quality visitor experience for U.S. and
international visitors to
achieve high customer sat-
isfaction and inspire repeat
Another is to “prioritize and coordinate support for
travel and tourism across the federal government.”
This may be the hardest of all. The strategy statement
was the work of a task force comprising eight Cabinet de-
partments (Agriculture, Commerce, Homeland Security,
Interior, Labor, State, Transportation and Treasury) plus
four other government agencies: the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers, the U.S. Trade Representative, the Export-Im-
port Bank and the Small Business Administration.
If you were asked what all these entities had in common,
would you answer “tourism”?
The authors of this strategy know what they’re up
against. In their own words: “Successful implementation
of the National Travel and Tourism Strategy will require
sustained, high-level commitment throughout federal
agencies, which in turn will depend on continued recog-
nition of travel and tourism as a priority for the federal
government. Similarly, private-sector participation in and
evaluation of these policies, programs and initiatives is
critical to their success.”
As the document notes, the U.S. “does not have an entity
that is recognized by industry and across the federal gov-
ernment as the primary federal policymaker on travel- and
Who, then, is going to lead the effort to sustain “high-
level commitment throughout federal agencies”?
The strategy calls for the creation of an Office of Travel
and Tourism within the Commerce Department to provide
this higher profile, but will that be enough?
Early versions of Travel Promotion Act, which created
Brand USA, called for the creation of a new federal travel
official with the title of undersecretary of commerce.
The proposal didn’t survive the legislative process because conservatives objected to the enlargement of the
federal bureaucracy. This particular bureaucrat, however,
would be charged with one of those difficult tasks in the
middle, keeping the bureaucrats in 10 other government
agencies focused on a tourism policy.
That would be a bureaucrat worth having.
highest total on record, according to the Las Vegas Convention
and Visitors Authority (LVCVA).
Through March, visits were up
3.6% from a year earlier, to nearly
9. 8 million, while room rates increased 3.6%, to $109.84, according to the LVCVA.
“Everything began with the
Golden Nugget choosing to up-
grade their rooms, dining options
and pool area,” said Art Jimenez,
senior director of leisure sales at
the LVCVA. “When that proved to
be successful, other properties fol-
Both the city and the hotels are
looking to boost the presence of a
downtown Las Vegas district that
predated the first high-rise hotel
developments on the Strip in the
Downtown started getting overlooked after 1989, the
year that ex-Golden Nugget owner Steve Wynn helped ush-
er in an age of ever-larger hotel-casino-entertainment de-
velopments along the Strip with the opening of the Mirage.
“Certainly during the boom period along the Strip,
downtown was aging,” said Jeremy Aguero, principal analyst at Las Vegas-based economic and fiscal research firm
Sporadic efforts to keep downtown competitive with the Strip included the opening of the
Fremont Street Experience in 1995 and the debut
of the Fremont East District seven years later.
Granted, the typical Strip visitor remains more
interested in an upscale experience than the people who frequent downtown, the LVCVA said, citing a study conducted by GLS Research. Last year,
the average nightly room rate on the Strip was
about 45% more than downtown’s average rate;
Strip visitors spent about 35% more in food and beverages
than downtown visitors; and about half of the Strip visitors
had an annual income of at least $80,000, compared with
about a third of downtown’s visitors.
Most tellingly, downtown remains far more of a day trip
of sorts than a lodging destination. While about 45% of Las
Vegas’ visitors venture downtown sometime during their
trip, just 6% stay overnight there.
Whether that changes as a result of the most recent
public and private investments is anyone’s guess, especially since downtown isn’t exactly ditching its old-school
gambling image. The Fremont Street Experience’s tagline
is “Real Vegas. Deal Me In,” while the
Mob Museum — officially and more
politely known as the National Museum of Organized Crime & Law Enforcement — opened its doors two
blocks north of Fremont Street in February.
Amazon.com subsidiary Zappos.com, the online clothing
and shoe retailer, reached a deal late last year to move its
headquarters into the old Las Vegas City Hall, and still more
changes are coming, leading both Aguero and Jimenez to
insist that downtown’s transformation is legitimate.
“What we’re seeing today is a completely different downtown experience, and it continues to gain momentum,”
The Golden Nugget’s renovation has spurred other downtown Las Vegas properties to follow suit.
This upcoming Saturday night, Las Vegas’ Fremont Street Experience will kick off its Rock of Vegas Sum- mer Concert Series with a show from Motley Crue lead singer Vince Neil
that will no doubt bring a lot of fist-pumping
Meanwhile, about a half-mile away, the gleam-
ing new Smith Center for the Performing Arts
will host a production of “Mary Poppins.”
Such is the yin and yang of a downtown Las
Vegas district that’s been overshadowed during
the past two decades by the massive explosion
of hotels, restaurants and other attractions five
miles away on the Strip. Now, downtown is look-
ing to get its own share of attention as Las Vegas
prepares for what its tourism bureau predicts will
be a record year for visitor numbers in 2012.
The Fremont Street Experience, the five-block entertainment pedestrian mall that opened in 1995, is known for its
light shows. As it gets ready to host summer performances
by acts like Skid Row, Poison’s Bret Michaels and Twisted
Sister’s Dee Snider, the area is also looking to pitch downtown as the cultural center of Vegas. The goal is to draw
a more upscale crowd, and the centerpiece of that effort
is the $470 million Smith Center for the Performing Arts,
which opened in March and includes a 2,050-seat concert
Meanwhile, the largest hotels in downtown Las Vegas are
making their own efforts to go more
• The Golden Nugget, built in 1946,
led the way, with a three-phase renovation project between 2006 and 2009
that cost more than $300 million.
• Last September, the 40-year-old Plaza Hotel and Casino
reopened after a 10-month, $35 million renovation.
• The century-old Golden Gate, the city’s oldest hotel-casino, is scheduled to finish its new tower and its first expansion in five decades.
• Earlier this year, the owners of Fitzgeralds announced
plans for a $15 million upgrade; the property will be renamed the D Las Vegas.
All the hotels are looking to benefit further from a resurgence in Las Vegas visitation. The city last year boosted
its visitor numbers by 4.3%, to 38. 9 million, the second-
Contact Danny King at email@example.com, and
follow him on Twitter @dktravelweekly.