Las Vegas Sun

August 27, 2014

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Tourism column:

Vegas Uncork’d brings a delicious demographic to area

There’s no question that fine dining has made its mark in Las Vegas with the numerous celebrity chefs who have a presence here.

Americans have shown a cultural fascination with the personalities of those chefs with a multitude of television shows giving viewers an up-close look at what makes these people tick.

So it stands to reason that an opportunity to rub elbows with the Bobby Flays, Alain Ducasses and Michael Minas of the world would be a top-drawer tourism opportunity for Las Vegas.

And Vegas Uncork’d has delivered.

At a time when many restaurants are getting chopped, minced and creamed by the recession, Vegas Uncork’d — now in its fourth year — has become a piece de resistance of U.S. food festivals.

Just as wannabe baseball players flock to fantasy camps to play catch with Goose Gossage and Duke Snyder, “foodies” — the dedicated consumers of gourmet grub who travel hundreds of miles for the perfect meal — will find their way to the table of their favorite celebrity chef.

Vegas Uncork’d started humbly with 18 events and 2,358 ticketed guests in 2007. This year, the attendance at the 31 events will likely be more than double what it was in the first year. Ticket sales are up 51 percent over last year.

The festival has staked a claim to Mother’s Day weekend in Las Vegas every year and the 2010 edition will be May 6-9.

Although the festival is still a month away, 11 of the most popular events are sold out. Last year at this time, only three of 25 events were sold out.

Last year, with the recession raging, Vegas Uncork’d attendance climbed 17 percent, making it one of the city’s fastest growing special events.

Rob O’Keefe, executive director, attributes the success to several factors.

“I don’t think you can pin it on any one thing,” he said recently. “It’s all kind of evolved over time.”

One big help has been the boost offered by its sponsoring partner, Bon Appétit magazine. The formal name of the event, in fact, is “Vegas Uncork’d Presented by Bon Appétit.” The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority is another sponsor.

Bon Appétit Editor-in-Chief Barbara Fairchild is having a “culinary conversation” with Wolfgang Puck at Bellagio’s Fontana Lounge, a new event on this year’s program.

Fairchild also is hosting a Mother’s Day lunch with Chef Joel Robuchon at L’Atelier, another new event.

Bon Appétit, which has global circulation as part of the Conde Nast family of publications, is selling Las Vegas as an international dining center.

O’Keefe has found that Vegas Uncork’d is a bigger phenomenon to foodies outside of Las Vegas than to residents, but that really doesn’t bother him.

Last year’s attendance figures showed 72 percent were from out of town (with 9 percent from another country) and 68 percent specifically came to Las Vegas for the event. Attendees had an average household income of more than $120,000 a year and on average spent 73 percent more than the average visitor on trip expenses and 37 percent more gambling.

The study said 89 percent of 2009’s Vegas Uncork’d guests said they would recommend it to friends and 76 percent said they planned to return.

The resorts like the four-day food festival because its 31 events are spread around town — no single resort dominates the host responsibilities, which is another reason Vegas Uncork’d is so successful. Visitors enjoy its resort-hopping aspect.

They also like the up-close-and-personal time they get with the chefs. Most of the sold-out events are dinners at which the celebrity chef himself will put the food out in front of the guest.

This year’s Grand Tasting, a highlight of the festival because it features more than 50 Las Vegas restaurants and 30 vintners and distillers from around the world, is planned May 7 at the Garden of the Gods Pool Oasis at Caesars Palace. Tickets are $175 in advance and $195 at the door.

Other events have differing price ranges, from $50 to $275 each.

Several events include charity components and the Three Square Food Bank, whose goal is to eliminate hunger in Southern Nevada, is the beneficiary of the festival’s charitable efforts.

O’Keefe said one goal of the festival is to develop an awareness of it in some of the nation’s major population centers as well as strengthen the brand so that it becomes more of a year-around phenomenon in Las Vegas.

New flight

American Airlines announced last week that it is expanding its presence in New York with 23 new flights out of LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy International airports.

One new flight will be a nonstop round trip between JFK and McCarran International Airport. A spokeswoman for American said it hasn’t been determined when the flight would be added, but it likely would be in time for the summer travel season.

American runs one daily nonstop between JFK and McCarran, competing with market leader Delta (26 flights a week), JetBlue (23 a week) and discounter Virgin America (one daily flight).

Fort Worth, Texas-based American, the No. 5 carrier at McCarran, has been expanding its presence in Las Vegas with an average 24 flights a day. The airline showed a 4 percent year-over-year traffic increase in February to 167,221 passengers, thanks primarily to flying bigger aircraft.

The airline hasn’t announced what it will fly between New York and Las Vegas, but it likely would be a twin-engine Boeing 757 jet, which is what it flies on the existing Las Vegas nonstop.

American’s New York expansion positions the airline to be a bigger competitor in the lucrative market, viewed as the top business and tourism destination in the United States. New York is a stronghold for Delta and, at nearby Newark, N.J., Continental Airlines. It’s also the center for operations for discounter JetBlue. All the major airline players have a presence at one New York airport or another.

GES president retires

A familiar face will be filling in for John Jastrem, who announced his retirement from the convention services contractor GES last month. He had been GES president.

Paul Dykstra, chairman, president and CEO of GES’ parent company Viad Corp. and the former president and CEO of GES in Las Vegas, will fill in on an interim basis during the four to six months it will take to find a replacement.

Jastrem’s retirement caught many at GES by surprise, and he has agreed to be a consultant during the leadership transition.

Jastrem led a turnaround for another Viad subsidiary, Exhibitgroup/Giltspur, and worked on consolidating and rebranding GES, now known as Global Experience Specialists.

Tomorrow’s pilots

A Las Vegas high school program has a role in producing the next generation of airline pilots and an aviation organization will team with it on a career fair this month.

Florence, Ala.-based FltOps.com is working with Rancho High School Aviation Academy for an aviation and aerospace employment and career counseling event from 12:30 to 5 p.m. April 23 at the Renaissance Las Vegas.

FltOps.com President Louis Smith said it’s only the second time his national organization’s job fair experts are teaming with an aviation industry-oriented secondary school.

“Although the major airlines hired only 30 pilots last year, the pilot job market is beginning to improve as the airlines once again enter a growth mode and pilot attrition returns to normal rates,” Smith said in a news release. “For instance, for the past 20 years, the demand for new-hire pilots at the U.S. major airlines averaged 2,300 annually. We expect that number to double over the next 20 years.”

Rancho’s program, established in 1997 as a magnet school, offers a four-year course designed to introduce students to career opportunities in aviation and aerospace. Bob Hale, an academy instructor, said 98 percent of the academy’s graduates pursue aerospace-related university degrees.

Pilots, college students and college-bound students will be able to sign up for sessions on interview skills with counselors and meet with representatives of 15 flight schools and universities who will discuss their programs.

Southwest ad spoof

You may have seen Southwest Airlines’ recent commercial in which ramp crews turn toward a rival airline’s jet and flash letters painted on their chests that spell “Bags Fly Free.”

Southwest, the busiest air carrier at McCarran International Airport, is pushing its unique position in the industry of not charging extra to check bags in an effort to steal market share from rivals.

Now, discount competitor AirTran, operator of the plane that the Southwest crew directed its message, is retaliating with an ad that mocks something else that is uniquely Southwest — its boarding procedure.

The AirTran spot shows people dressed in cow costumes at a Southwest boarding area, prodded by a gate buckaroo urging the herd to get onboard because “it’s every steer for himself.”

The ad concludes with an AirTran passenger enjoying a cocktail watching some cows on the ramp that apparently got separated from the herd.

Like the Southwest ads that blur out AirTran logos, the cow spot blurs Southwest’s marks — but it’s clear that AirTran is poking fun at what many refer to as a cattle-call boarding process.

An AirTran spokesman said the ad was made for its employees wanting a retaliatory strike. AirTran doesn’t plan to air the ad on TV — but you can see it on YouTube under the title “Skip the stampede. Fly AirTran Airways.”

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