Las Vegas ad slogan takes on life of its own

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On a recent Southwest Airlines flight that was taxiing to a gate at McCarran Airport, the flight attendant told the passengers to remain in their seats until the seatbelt sign was turned off, thanked them for flying Southwest and welcomed them to Las Vegas.

And then she said, "And remember folks, what happens here, stays here."

Yes, the old phrase has been given a new lease on life as the tagline for the city of Las Vegas' ad campaign becomes a pop-culture catchphrase on par with "Where's the beef?" and "You got the right one, baby."

Billy Crystal closed the recent Academy Awards saying "And remember. What happens at the Oscars, stays at the Oscars." The tagline has also turned up in Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" monologues, on TV sitcoms, soap operas, newscasts and talk shows. A church in Las Vegas posted a sign out front that said, "What happens in Vegas, God knows about." Go on Yahoo.com and punch in the phrase "What Happens Here, Stays Here," and you'll get more than 1.1 million search results.

But for Billy Vassiliadis, CEO of R&R Partners, which created the campaign, the seminal moment came when he recently saw former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett on a talk show discussing his gambling losses in Las Vegas.

"Here he was talking about his issues and he says, `I guess `What happens here, stays here' applies to everybody but me,' " Mr. Vassiliadis said. "That was the one that blew me away."

`No big shock'

"It's resonated because this is what our visitors told us they wanted," said Randy Snow, VP-creative director for Las Vegas-based R&R. "When we did our research, it was no big shock to us that Las Vegas has this liberating capacity for people. They will come here and wear things and eat things and do things and see things they would never consider at home."

The $58 million, 20-month campaign for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority began in January of 2003 with a healthy dose of free publicity: The National Football League rejected the its bid to buy a Super Bowl commercial. That prompted outspoken Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman to rip the league and threaten to sue.

From there, the edgy, sexy commercials took off. By the end of 2003, the "Vegas Stories" campaign was the seventh most likeable, according to the USA Today's Ad Tracker, and tied with Citibank for the most effective campaign of the year.

But it did hit a sour note with Ad Age critic Bob Garfield in a review last year. "The primary audience for this resort ... is the upright, salt-of-the-earth, polyester-clad red-county crowd, people who are choosing between Vegas and Branson," he wrote. "If you focus on the culture of immorality, they will not come."

The visitor's bureau is apparently pleased. Last July, less than six months into the campaign, it rolled over R&R's contract for another five years. Late last year, it also approved six more spots for the second half of the campaign, which began Feb. 11.

Others aren't thrilled with "What Happens Here, Stays Here." At the annual Governor's Conference on Tourism in December, hundreds of executives who make decisions about where and when conventions are held voiced their displeasure. It's "not the most effective message to send into the business sector," said Steven Hacker, president of the International Association for Exhibition Management, Dallas.

Terry Jicinsky, senior VP-marketing for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, said convention attendance increased by 12.9% in 2003 compared with 2002, and conventioneers' non-gaming economic impact was up 11.8 % last year compared to the previous year.

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