Las Vegas sags as conventions cancel

By Steve Friess

New York Times News Service

LAS VEGAS — A rash of conference cancellations, and a presidential admonishment peppered with a Las Vegas reference last week, has unnerved politicians and resort executives here who are fearful that the all-important convention industry could be on the verge of collapse.

"It’s certainly a moment we should all pay great attention to," said Jan L. Jones, senior vice president for Harrah’s Entertainment, which had a 30 percent decline in convention business in January compared with a year ago at its seven resorts on the Strip. "This is an opportunity for us to remind business why they do business here, and it’s because it’s the best value."

In the last month, 30,000 hotel room nights booked for conferences have been canceled at an estimated loss of $20 million to the city, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.


Some of those rooms were reserved for a Goldman Sachs technology conference, which was moved to San Francisco this month. And the figures do not include 17,000 people who were expected to attend a State Farm agents’ convention this October. That conference was canceled Wednesday.

Las Vegas had already seen a 4 percent drop in visitors in 2008 from the year before and a decline of 6 percent in the number of conventions and events held here in that same period. The number of visitors was down 11 percent in December from a year before.

Another conference cancellation came from the Automotive Market Research Council, which was supposed to meet at the Planet Hollywood resort in March.

Last week President Barack Obama told an audience in Elkhart, Ind., that companies "can’t go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayer’s dime." The remark was taken by many here as an attack.

"The mayor heard the words ‘Las Vegas’ — he didn’t hear any other city — and people are telling me that they’re not coming to Las Vegas because the president doesn’t want them to," said Mayor Oscar Goodman, who at first demanded a White House apology but later in the week said he just wanted a clarification.

The White House has not commented directly on the matter. But Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said on the Senate floor on Wednesday that Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, had told him that "the president’s criticism was aimed at the potential use of taxpayer funds for junkets, and in no way reflects his thoughts about any one particular city."

Goodman and local meeting planners insist that they have heard from companies who said the president’s remarks scared them away, but Jones, the Harrah’s executive, said no company had made that connection while talking to her.

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