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Good stop, bad stop

Vegas’ parallel pitches — Corporate-friendly! Hedonism capital! — are at the center of Obama-Goodman storm

Updated Thursday, Feb. 12, 2009 | 1:25 p.m.

OK, Nevada, we see you winking.

Mayor Oscar Goodman's press conference

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman holds a press conference about a letter he wrote to President Obama in his office in downtown Las Vegas Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009. Mayor Goodman is upset over President Obama's comments that corporate executives from companies getting federal bailout funds shouldn't be going on corporate trips to Las Vegas or events such as the Super Bowl, and felt that the President's comments were hurtful to the convention industry and Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

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Obama in Elkhart, Ind.

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President Barack Obama holds a town hall style meeting about the economic stimulus package Monday at Concord Community High School in Elkhart, Ind.

Yes, President Barack Obama took a swipe at Las Vegas this week as an inappropriate place for corporate execs to meet, especially if their companies receive federal bailout money. And yes, Nevada squealed in protest, demanding an apology, offering up a defense of the city from the floor of the U.S. Senate no less.

By Wednesday afternoon, the issue was raging nationwide.

Is it wrong to go meet in Las Vegas? Too much fun? Sin City?

Yup. Wink.

Sens. Harry Reid, former head of the Nevada Gaming Commission, and John Ensign, the son of a casino executive, said Wednesday they want the world to know Las Vegas is the world’s premier destination spot and one of the most affordable cities in the country. A real steal, they noted in separate speeches, at $119 a night.

Rep. Shelley Berkley, a onetime keno runner, nearly broke into song, delivering her own version of the Marines hymn: “From the neon lights of Las Vegas to the Chicago skyline, from the white sands of Hawaii to the Kansas heartland, tourism means jobs.”

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority spends millions of dollars each year pushing a hedonistic message, hoping to lure tourists, a breed the state needs now more than ever. The mayor flits around the country with showgirls on his arms, sipping martinis, trying to stir up business.

Now the president is talking about it. So are a lot of people.

You can’t buy that kind of publicity.

Does Nevada deserve a retraction?

Or should Obama repeat the line a few more times?

Wink wink.

Obama’s remark came while he answered questions Monday at a town-hall meeting in Elkhart, Ind., as he mustered public support for economic stimulus legislation. Directing his comments toward companies receiving taxpayer money, Obama said, “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 taxpayer’s dime.”

By Wednesday, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman — sans showgirls — was in front of the cameras, “hotter than fish grease,” about Obama’s remarks. In fact, he had demanded an apology and written the president a letter.

He sounded serious.

The tough economy has everyone in Las Vegas worried, explained Billy Vassiliadis, chief executive of advertising powerhouse R&R Partners, the firm that produced Las Vegas’ “What happens here, stays here” slogan.

The number of tourists fell 4.4 percent last year and descent was rapid in December, which saw a nearly 11 percent dip compared with 2007. Ten of the past 12 months had declines. Convention attendance was down too, falling 5 percent. Tourism analysts expect those trends to continue.

“Nerves are a bit frayed, sensitivity is a bit high,” Vassiliadis said.

On the other hand, he said, “I think the fact that the president picked out Las Vegas as a great place to go have fun is a good thing for us.”

Oh big wink.

Yet for all the great publicity, Las Vegas does have a concern. It stems from the fine line the city tries to walk with its image.

For tourists, Las Vegas wants to be a pure pleasure capital. For conventioneers, it wants to be a slick place for a moderately priced convention, with plenty of fun on the side. It’s precisely that “fun on the side” that drives up attendance at conventions. Vegas calls that “lift.”

The problem arises with a third group of visitors: corporations that choose Las Vegas for company meetings and pretend not to care about the lift.

That’s precisely the issue that nailed Goldman Sachs Group Inc. last week. The company drew heat continuing with its plan to hold a three-day conference in Las Vegas after accepting $10 billion in federal bailout funds. Goldman Sachs moved the conference to San Francisco.

Last week, Wells Fargo & Co., which received $25 billion in taxpayer money, canceled a planned employee recognition conference here.

The fear in Las Vegas is that the city will get a reputation as a frivolous destination for companies — and not just those getting federal bailout money. What board of directors wants shareholders upset because the company chose, say, Las Vegas instead of Des Moines for its annual meeting?

That’s what Goodman is driving at. Asked about Las Vegas’ Sin City image, Goodman, in what must have been a first, demurred. The former mob lawyer and occasional proponent of legalized prostitution boasted of the city’s business and conference facilities.

“What we’re famous for has nothing to do with the fact that you can have a serious meeting in Las Vegas,” he said.

Rossi Ralenkotter, president and chief executive of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, appeared alongside Goodman. Afterward he said he couldn’t put a price tag on repairing the damage from Obama’s remark. “We’ve been dealing with the perception that the consumer, all they heard was, ‘Don’t go to Las Vegas.’”

MGM Mirage spokesman Gordon Absher said Obama’s comments had “wildfire potential.”

“Right or wrong doesn’t matter in this case,” Absher said. “It’s the perception that serious business can’t come to Las Vegas. It’s not only deadly wrong but deadly dangerous for what we do here.”

Given the economy and recent media criticism of the financial companies’ Las Vegas trips, Vassiliadis said the tourism industry and the state’s elected leaders were right to respond.

“If this were three years ago, we would probably be laughing it off,” he said. “But now we’re reacting to any opportunity, small or large, and responding to any challenge, small or large. There’s not a large margin for error.”

Vassiliadis acknowledged the city’s predicament: a dual message. Obama’s comment might tilt the image more toward the Sin City side of things, luring in more tourists even as it chips away at Las Vegas’ reputation as a place for serious business.

Deep down, Obama knows Las Vegas is more than glitz, said Vassiliadis, who advised the president’s Nevada campaign. He visited the state 20 times and often marveled at the shared prosperity of casino operators and casino workers.

Plus, he’s stayed in the Caesars Palace towers.

He said he enjoyed the view.

Wink wink.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected. An earlier version said visitor traffic had fallen 14.2 percent last December compared to 2007.

Sun reporters Sam Skolnik and Megan McCloskey contributed to this story.

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