Obama visit could pay dividends in tough tourism economy

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*logoMuch was made about President Obama's May 26 and 27 visit to Las Vegas, his first return since muttering the diss heard around the tourism world.

Responding to a question about corporate responsibility at a February town hall in Elkhart, Ind., Obama said, "You are not going to be able to give out these big bonuses until you pay taxpayers back. You can't get corporate jets. You can't go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayers' dime. There's got to be some accountability and some responsibility." 

Mayor Oscar Goodman and Gov. Jim Gibbons appeared to be in a race to see who could condemn the president the fastest. They wanted apologies, pronto. They blamed Obama for hurting tourism, citing evidence of companies such as Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo moving meetings and conventions to other cities for fear of being accused of misusing taxpayer bailout funds.

A day after headlining a fundraiser for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Obama toured Nellis Air Force Base and offered the most tepid of mea culpas. "Washington is OK, but it's nice taking some time to talk to Americans of every walk of life outside of the nation's capital. And there's nothing like a quick trip to Vegas in the middle of the week. Like millions of other Americans, we come to this beautiful city for the sights and for the sounds, and today we come for the sun."

More than apologies or face-to-face meetings -- Goodman welcomed Obama at the airport, Gibbons declined a get-together after the White House rejected his initial overtures -- the presidential seal is what the local tourism industry needed. Declining room tax revenue has forced a 17.3% cut to the budget of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Misguided fulminations about the impact of the president's statements won't help the city's marketers, who face the daunting task of trying to fill thousands of hotel rooms slated to come on line in the next year amid declining visitor counts, lagging convention attendance, falling occupancy rates (86% last year, compared with 2007's all-time high of 90.4%) and a shrunken advertising budget -- $86.5 million, or 2.3% lower than last year.

If anything, Obama's visit was an aesthetic shot in tourism's arm. Tickets for the fundraiser at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace went for $50 to $250, with $2,400 getting donors backstage for a reception with the president. Sheryl Crow, Bette Midler and Rita Rudner provided entertainment. Though he didn't attract the same crowds as former Colosseum headliners Celine Dion and Elton John -- the 4,100-seat stadium was mostly full -- Obama's presence sent a clear message to companies skittish about conferencing in Vegas that, hey, it's all good.

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