Hotel packages emphasizing added perks, not lower prices

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Simplicity key to deals' success

What makes a great package in Las Vegas?

For decades, hotels in the self-styled "world's entertainment capital" have been throwing in freebies, from free drinks for customers who feed the slot machines to free rooms for high-rollers. Customers have arrived armed with coupon books for free dinners and various discounts.

Harrah's Entertainment CEO Gary Loveman, a frequent speaker on the art of making guests feel good while losing money, encourages his properties to make use of the "mercy freebie," offering free steak dinners to customers who have left lots of cash at the tables or slot machines in the casinos.

But in this challenging economy, even customers in higher income brackets are cutting back. "People who might have splurged on a dinner and a show in years past are often opting just for the dinner," said Bryan Allison of Vegas.com.

With packages that offer a pair of tickets to see popular entertainers, guests don't have to choose, Allison said. "That's why the show deals do so well," he said. "Every time we have one, it's extremely successful. We are trying to get more of those out into the marketplace."

A value-added package "needs to be simple," so that customers can grasp the value they are receiving without having to do painful math. "And you have to give it enough value so that it really matters to the customer," Allison said.

"You can't just do a coupon book. Those days are over." -- M.M.

Outstanding deals abound in Las Vegas now, but the best of them aren't just about room rates.

As customers plan vacations or quick getaways, the pressures of the economy are on their minds, and they want to feel that they are being "practical," according to Market Metrix, a San Rafael, Calif., company that analyzes consumer behavior for the hospitality industry.

Even as they plan visits to Sin City, consumers want a deal that makes them feel virtuous, at least in regard to how they are using their resources. That involves more than a low room rate.

"Some of the things that have been successful here are more about creating your own experience," said Suzanne Trout, vice president of marketing for five properties owned by Harrah's Entertainment Inc.

The best packages are opening up opportunities for many customers to try things that would have been stricken off their budgets just a year ago, she said.

Bryan Allison, vice president of marketing for Vegas.com, notes that simply setting a new baseline for hotel rates may draw in customers, but it also sets expectations that those rates will remain at rock-bottom levels. That not only is damaging to the brand, it is a turnoff for customers when rates return to normal.

So the smart hotels have been "really aggressive" and creative about the values they offer in the form of food and beverage credits, spa credits and entertainment, he said. The credits can add up to the equivalent of a free night or more.

"A hotel in Las Vegas has more chances of recouping dollars than in other destinations," Allison said. Shopping venues, entertainment and casinos all help to offset other discounts.

One of the most eye-catching promotions of recent months was MGM Mirage's offer of free Cirque du Soleil tickets with a hotel stay.

"That was a huge hit," Julianne Bell, advertising coordinator for Flight Centre, the company that bought Gogo World Vacations last year. "The feedback on that was the biggest I've ever seen."

Not to be outdone, Harrah's is offering similar promotions for Bette Midler and Cher shows. One night at Caesars Palace plus two tickets to see the Divine Miss M can be had for $189.

LV-MirageFrontA package that includes one hotel night and two tickets for a performance by Cher is available for $239. Given that one ticket to see Cher retails at $227, the value to the consumer is compelling.

"It's a smart move," Bell said. "Shows are the biggest thing in Vegas. Everybody wants to see one, and this makes it affordable for them."

Even travelers on a stricter budget can take advantage of these promotions, Trout said. One night at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino plus two tickets for Bette Midler's "The Showgirl Must Go On" can be had for $160. Budget even tighter? The same deal can be had at the Flamingo Las Vegas for $145.

This is also a great time to introduce customers to the luxury of a massage or other spa treatment. Caesars Palace offers a taste of "the life you were meant to live" with its Juliette package, which includes two nights, a $50 dining credit at any of its restaurants and two Roman Rituals spa passes to Qua Baths & Spa worth $90. The total price is $238.

For more of a splurge, the Venetian is offering a two-night package in a Venetian Luxury Suite, a $100 credit per day at Canyon Ranch SpaClub and two spa passports per day from $458.

LV-CaesarsPalaceFrontOther Strip hotels are offering 20% off spa treatments and similar promotions.

Travelers looking for a lower-key getaway can try out other luxury experiences, Trout said.

"The Flamingo has a tremendous five-acre pool complex," she said. If customers want to float the day away accompanied by complimentary frozen cocktails, they can book a Go Deluxe package for $49 or $69 a night.

"There's a lot of choice and variety," Trout said. "Customers are picking how they want their experience to be served up, rather than just the price."

Airlines' vacation divisions also are participating in creative packaging.

Friends Fly Free, a deal offered by Southwest Airlines Vacations (operated by Mark Travel), is popular with both consumers and the participating hotels, which include every major property on the Strip.

It also is offering fourth-night-free packages through October and third-night-free deals from November to February with all participating hotels.

LV-FlamingoFrontTogether, the promotions are "probably the best incentive we've ever done," said Rich Basen, vice president and general manager.

"We're in the second phase of it," he said. "It went so well that we decided to turn it back on again. It's much better than just a discount."

The promotions are getting lots of traction among travel agents, he added.

Basen also likes the creative ways that Las Vegas hotels are adding value to their packages. "The number of resort credits and value-adds enable them to compete with other destinations," he said. "We need those, and customers look for those get-out-of-the-box ideas. The customer sees significant values and price points."

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