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Despite the fascination of pirate battles, Treasure Island wants " new audiences of adults." DESPITE FAMILY TUG, VEGAS REASSERTS ROOTS ATTRACTION BUILDING SPREE SETS TONE, BUT CASINO-REVENUE-PER-ROOM DRIVES ENGINE

By Published on .

With a multimillion-dollar investment in theme parks, menageries, virtual reality arcades, pyramids and pirate ships, Las Vegas has transformed itself from a decadent adult fantasy retreat into the hot new place for family fun.

Or has it?

There has been a lot of hype about the "Disneyization" of Las Vegas, but a number of marketing executives and others in the gaming industry still view this trend more as a way to keep the little ones amused while mom and dad hit the dollar slots.

"We have to be very careful when we talk about families in Las Vegas," warns Alan Feldman, VP for PR at Mirage Resorts. "The media have turned Las Vegas into a family destination, and it's just not true.

"Las Vegas will always be an adult destination, [but now] if you are traveling with your family, you no longer have to take Las Vegas off the list peremptorily," he says.

Mirage Resorts, which encompasses the namesake hotel/casino as well as the new Treasure Island and the Golden Nugget, isn't pushing itself to families but rather "seeking new audiences of adults," Mr. Feldman says.

Although Mirage Resorts-like most of the hotel and casino operators in Las Vegas-keeps its cards close to the vest when discussing ad spending, Mr. Feldman allows that they "will be paying more attention to cable" TV in the coming months.

In the past, Mirage has used cable, spot and network TV-along with some print advertising-particularly to support last year's grand opening of Treasure Island. Hal Riney & Partners, San Francisco, handles creative.

Whatever the marketing intentions of the city and its myriad hotels are, the building spree of the last decade seems to be paying off. According to Mike Donahue, media coordinator for Las Vegas News Bureau, the number of visitors has almost doubled-from 12.8 million in 1984 to 23.5 million last year.

"And we are expecting 25-plus [million visitors] this year," he says, adding that hotel and motel occupancy rates have risen from 72.5% to 87.6% in the same period.

The sharp upsurge in visitors, many of whom are attracted by new pleasure domes like Luxor and MGM Grand, is also having an impact on some of the Strip's more mature properties.

The Flamingo Hilton-Las Vegas "made a decision not to join in the family marketing fray," says Terry Lindberg, the hotel's director of publicity and advertising. "We are the oldest property on the Strip and we have built up a marvelous clientele. We wanted to make sure we kept those customers, and felt that the best way to do that is by making a good product even better."

The hotel is spending $15 million on improvements.

To make sure people know about that, "We anticipate spending more dollars in advertising and marketing [what is] almost a new property. The majority of our marketing dollars are spent within the tour and travel industry," Mr. Lindberg says, with the addition of direct mail to keep in touch with regular customers.

Advertising is handled in-house.

Another property, Las Vegas Hilton, is seeking to distinguish itself by putting much of its marketing budget behind a show, Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Starlight Express," says Michael Ribero, senior VP-marketing & strategic planning, Hilton Hotels Corp.

"We have spent a great deal of money promoting `Starlight Express' [through a] regional campaign focusing on critical markets," he says, via DiZinno & Partners, San Diego. Spot TV, print and direct mail support this effort to "unofficially position the Las Vegas Hilton as the adult place to play."

The Luxor, with its pyramid and state-of-the-art Sega video arcade, has often been touted as a family entertainment center. But Keith Guyett, an account supervisor at GSD&M, Austin, Texas, which just snagged the resort's ad account, stressed that "we love kids, but we are not positioning the property as a kids' place.

"The name of the game is gambling. [Ad campaigns] will try to show the excitement of the place."

"We are not doing a Disney Channel buy," he adds.

One of the reasons for the increased emphasis on added-value in Las Vegas is demographic. As free-spending baby boomers have children, they're looking for family-friendly places to vacation that also provide an interesting lure for the adults.

Another reason is tied to the growth of casino gambling across the nation, and the fact players now have any number of venues-many of them closer to home than the Nevada desert.

"Gambling is everywhere, and we have to distinguish ourselves from the rest," says William Thompson, a professor of public administration at the University of Nevada/Las Vegas. "We have got to compete with ... a casino in Green Bay, Wis."

The only "undercurrent of concern" Mr. Feldman so far has seen is in the average casino revenue per room.

"If that revenue starts to drop and is not offset by an equal rise somewhere else ... then this reach for new audiences will change the fundamental pro forma for Las Vegas," he notes.

As far as promoting non-gaming activities just to fill rooms: "It is like putting candy at the checkout," Mr. Thompson says. "If people just start coming for the theme-park part, we're screwed."

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