In marketing Las Vegas, have we sold our community short?

The “Vegas, baby!” image of our city is incomplete. Imagine a marketing campaign that captures why our city is like no place on Earth. But if we start selling who we really are, would anyone buy it?

SPENCER HOLLADAY

VEGAS INC coverage

To an outsider, it might seem that Las Vegas is in the throes of an identity crisis, shaken to our roots, betrayed by an economy that had always been faithful to us. And now we’re struggling to recover and regroup and wondering whether, and how, we need to redefine ourselves.

These cynics might now be chortling at our misery, at how our grand, greedy plan went south and that we had it coming. Indeed, the town’s marketing geniuses propped up our huge ego with their success in promoting tourism and the gaming industry. Thanks to the witty (and now tiresome) “What Happens Here” campaign, seductive player-loyalty programs, resorts’ glossy media buys, carefully planted travel stories, aggressive direct mail efforts and sophisticated international marketing strategies, the world’s collective image of Las Vegas is of beautiful people grinning ear-to-ear and having the times of their lives when they come here to gamble, lie poolside, see a show, indulge in fine dining or shop at the world’s finest shops. We’ve got the best minds in the business seducing tourists to spill their money. Vegas, baby!

But lost in that promotional mix was the imperative that we also sell the rest of Las Vegas. Maybe the marketing folks thought the rest of the town was too hard to sell.

(Nationally renowned neurologist Jeffrey Cummings remembers the reaction from the medical and research communities when he was recruited from the Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research at UCLA to become director of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas: “They wondered whether my moving to Las Vegas was the first sign of cognitive deterioration.” And Michael Yackira, now the president and CEO of NV Energy, remembers being courted by the utility eight years ago to leave Boca Raton, Fla., “and I thought that was great because I assumed I’d be working in Reno.” When he learned he’d have to live in Las Vegas, he balked at even being interviewed. His wife pushed him, and taking the job “was the best decision I ever made, from both a career perspective and in terms of joining a community.”)

Fact is, there is much to sell about Las Vegas beyond the Strip, and we need to. Otherwise, what are the chances of recruiting someone from Minneapolis or Buffalo when their other options might include Phoenix, Denver, Salt Lake City or Albuquerque? Vegas? Ha! What’s Vegas got going for itself? You’re dying, man. Your homeowners are underwater. You’ve got awful unemployment. You’re at the top of all the wrong lists and at the bottom of all the good lists.

Las Vegas doesn’t conjure up images of fine arts, religious values and generous philanthropy. To outsiders, we’re fixated on pop culture, we’re hedonistic and we’re out for everyone else’s money. Oh, and that we all live on the Strip. My son remembers working at the Venetian and being asked by an elderly couple what it was like living here. My son pointed to the Sands Convention Center. “That’s where all the employees live,” he told the couple. “We hardly ever see daylight.” The couple nodded knowingly.

That’s how people imagine life in Las Vegas. But the reality is that we have myriad communities within our valley based on where we live, where we work, how we play, where we pray and how we help one another. But that side of us isn’t being told to anyone. What, we’re bashful? Or are we still allowing ourselves to be defined by the Strip? It’s the world’s most garish industrial park, not our community center.

In fact, Las Vegas is much closer to an all-American city than outsiders perceive. That explains, for instance, why so many products are test-marketed here; we are a melting pot. Eight of 10 people who live here were born elsewhere, and they bring a piece of their hometowns to our valley.

So here’s what we need to do. Someone should put me in charge of running the marketing campaigns for the Nevada Development Authority or the Chamber of Commerce. I wouldn’t sell the glitz and glamour. I’d showcase the heart and soul that is Vegas, that marks us as not just one of the sexiest destinations in the world, but a community where we are invested in one another’s welfare and future.

I can hear the cynics’ cackles but please, indulge me on this.

I’d start this feel-good campaign with a TV spot, sort of the way California sells itself with sweeping aerial video of San Diego’s waterfront, Hollywood, Big Sur, the Redwoods and wine country.

Here’s my story board, and it’s all real — no actors, no fake smiles, no entertainers with sculpted bodies, no spray-on tans. Just real people living as community. Maybe you’ll recognize yourself.

Opening scene: the Smith Center for the Performing Arts and a shot of the marquee promoting the Broadway road show The Color Purple, then a close-up shot of a poster recruiting children for dance classes under the tutelage of a Nevada Ballet Theatre coach. Next, an exterior shot of our Frank Gehry building, askew and melting in the sun, where, inside, researchers and doctors at the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health are conducting unprecedented research into Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases. Then a change of pace: walking through the crowd in the Arts District on a balmy First Friday evening, then shifting to East Fremont Street where a towering, neon martini glass illuminates a street band, and local hipsters are meeting up with friends at the Griffin or one of the other impossibly hip bars.

Now we’ll head over to the Pearson Community Center in North Las Vegas, where tax preparers, volunteering through the United Way, help the struggling poor fill out their tax returns, allowing them to claim hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax refunds due them that they might not otherwise have gotten. With a wide shot, we peek inside the warehouse at Three Square, the big community food pantry. Next, a tight shot of the AIDS fundraising walk, and bring into focus two guys who help raise so much money for it, Penn & Teller.

For a different backdrop, we’ll bring the camera into a Henderson living room where a dozen members of St. Thomas More Catholic Community gather every week to share how scripture shapes our daily lives. The group includes an executive with Catholic Charities, a casino floor manager from the Mirage, a Goodwill employee, an elementary school vice principal, a retired ballerina, a United Way honcho, a department store switchboard operator, a real estate agent, an accountant and my wife and me. Then let’s head over to the no-kill animal refuge operated by the Nevada SPCA and meet some of the volunteers who care for hundreds of dogs, cats, rabbits and guinea pigs. We’ll conclude the commercial at a fundraising gala for the Nevada Cancer Institute or the Keep Memory Alive Foundation.

These are some of the communities that distinguish Las Vegas—knots of people who share affinities or are banding together to improve the quality of life in the Las Vegas Valley. This is what we need to be selling, because this is what keeps us here.

You may scoff at my Pollyanna view of Las Vegas, but it is, in fact, accurate. Some of these communities are not readily apparent to newcomers but they are absurdly easy to join. There may be an old guard in town, the folks who went to school together at Clark or Gorman high schools, but they’re outnumbered by the rest of us. Organizations are starved for new and committed members, trust me.

Many people hold to the notion that “community” presents itself in a setting, such as a quaint downtown with storefront awnings and sidewalk tables. Maybe that’s true in an East Coast city that is residentially dense and rich with traditions and loyalties, where you bump into your neighbors while walking to the subway or stopping at the butcher on your way home. But Las Vegas can’t build a community around those sorts of touchstones. We’re new as cities go; we’re not blessed with generations-old bakeries or hobby stores. And we have New West sensibilities, living in suburbs and driving to work. What chance do we have of building friendships when our backyards are protected by six-foot-high cinder-block walls and our neighbors work different shifts than we do? The only way I know we have neighbors on the right side of our house is by the movement of cars in the driveway and the changing light patterns inside their windows.

Community-building has lagged here for another reason, says Rich Harwood, who’s an authority on building communities and engaging the citizenry. He notes that we had become so prosperous (and grew at a pace that eclipsed every other metropolitan region in the country), we had become the New Frontier, where individualism and independence trump social connections. People poured into our valley for its abundance of jobs. Our welcome mat was inscribed “The American Dream.” People bought homes and then they bought huge pickup trucks that pulled boats to Lake Mead. We didn’t need one another. We felt comfortable in our greedy skin, making bank and dismissing our neighbors with that glib Vegas wave. “Hi, neighbor (whatever your name is).” Well, Harwood wasn’t quite that harsh. His words were softer: “Everyone was focusing on themselves.”

But now, in hard times, is when we should be building communities, at least based on his definition of what it means. “Community is people needing and helping one another, for things that are larger than ourselves, and that we’re in it together. It’s not so much a sense of place as it is a sense of belonging.” Usually, the strongest communities are the ones that orbit around schools and children, he says. That focus, Harwood says, is lacking in Las Vegas. (The Asian Chamber of Commerce directs many of its resources to education, offering $30,000 in scholarships annually and helping to place 20 UNLV students into business internships. “We want to help make a difference,” says Vida Lin, the chamber president. “We can overcome anything in this town. We built a city out of the desert. Las Vegas is amazing.”)

There are, in fact, many definitions of community. For Alan Feldman, the MGM Resorts executive, it’s the people who work to make Las Vegas a better place than it is now. (Gaming companies like his are steeped in a culture of encouraging its workers to engage in community affairs and charities in a multitude of ways.) For D. Taylor, the head of the Culinary Union, community is people pursuing a shared sense of purpose—improving the environment or education, for instance, or helping struggling homeowners deal with foreclosure. For Jan Jones, the former Las Vegas mayor and now executive with Caesars Entertainment, community means claiming ownership of where you live. For Larry Ruvo, the liquor distributor and founder of the Ruvo Center, community means “building a place that our kids can be proud, and want to return to.” For Hae Un Lee, CEO of Lee’s Discount Liquor, community means cutting a check for turkeys for Catholic Charities—and then going to the facility with your family to help serve meals. For Maureen Peckman, who’s developing business opportunities in Nevada for the Cleveland Clinic, community is palpable when people work together to improve our quality of life. For Tony Hsieh, community is formed by a workplace culture in which his Zappos employees have a ball working together and just as much fun hanging out after work. And for Cass Palmer, the recently installed president and CEO of the United Way of Southern Nevada and for years a human resources executive for various gaming companies, community starts with employers instilling in their workers an ethic to get involved in nonprofit organizations that serve the valley.

Really, they’re all saying the same thing—that community is a band of like-minded people who share a sense of belonging and/or are focused on helping one another for a larger good. Las Vegas is literally filled with such communities, but outsiders don’t see them because they’re not displayed on neon pedestals.

There is some thinking that “community” can rise out of specific places—such as the entertainment district springing up along East Fremont Street. I put that to the test on a recent Friday night, asking people at the Griffin and the Downtown Cocktail Room why they chose those places for a drink. The general response: I’m here with co-workers. I asked them if they knew anyone else at the bar, other than their colleagues. They looked around, stretched their necks, squinted, and said no, they didn’t know anyone else other than their immediate party. Cheers, this wasn’t. Their community was more the workplace than where to unwind after work.

On the other hand, there is sweeping consensus that the Smith Center for the Performing Arts will nurture a feeling community by providing a source of civic pride as well as creating a “there” there, an anchor for the emerging Symphony Park complex downtown.

“That center is important because it was built with the community in mind, not as a destination for tourists. That’s a tangible symbol—and a proof point—that Las Vegas is moving in a new direction,” Harwood, the community-engagement expert, told me. “It demonstrates to a business person who’s thinking about moving to Las Vegas what kind of community people in Las Vegas are trying to create, based on philanthropy and people coming together to do something for their community.”

And he kept talking about Las Vegas and our future, and even though it sounded a bit sappy, I want to buy into it. “This is what I believe about Las Vegas: It has an entrepreneurial spirit and a can-do attitude, and it’s heading into a new era. Of all the cities in the country, I look at Las Vegas as a place where we can demonstrate what a community will look like. There are more people today pulling together in Las Vegas than at any other time in the past 10 years—because people realize they can’t go it by themselves anymore. I’m more hopeful about Las Vegas now than I was for it at the height of its economic boom.”

Maybe I’ll put Harwood in my promotional video showcasing what Las Vegas is really about.

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  1. Look at a 5-10 year old neighborhood, weeds, bad paint, smashed garage doors, cars here and there. No pride of ownership when it comes to 90% of the homes. Look at the boarded up commercial and casino sites, the empty car lots. Talk is cheap, numbers are cerebral, blight is visual, and that is how humans perceive 80% of their input.

    I'd have a campaign to finish or demolish buildings.

  2. The is article is a bull-eyes on the new direction that is needed from community leaders and State elected officials. A vision and action plan for the Las Vegas community.

    The strip has RR, the LVCA, and the NRA. The Las Vegas community has City Hall, elected State Officials and community leaders. Vision and Action. Politicially, Katie Duncan had both qualities and the energy to see it through, a vision for Las Vegas and the action to see if through. Katie Duncan entered the mayoral rarace under-funded, with no politicial connections, however, Katie Duncan has the right stuff to promote and offer Las Vegas in a way to support community growth.

    It surprises many people that neither mayoral candidates has ask Katie Duncan for support? Or have they and Katie has refused? If they did ask for Katie's support and Katie did refused, this show truly that Katie was the right person for the job of Mayor of Las Vegas. Chris is getting close, but she must work harder to persuade us she understands the future needs of the Las Vegas community. That is why the next mayoral cannot contiune with the status quo, doing the same old things that benefit a few close friends. City Hall has to change, we first need to change the name posted on the mayor's office door.

  3. Excellent points. Hope people listen....

  4. Propaganda. If you live here, you know the truth.

  5. You forgot Boulder City, town of 17,000 that just raised over $40,000 for Relay for Life, has Spring Jamboree, Art in the Park, and no gambling in the city limits. The local Rotary puts on a Grad Night for the high school and this year is taking the graduates to Disneyland--other years an all-night party to keep them out of trouble and off the roads. We do have to fix our schools--our record is dismal. However, if we attract new blood, maybe we can fix our problems. I have lived in southern Nevada for 45 years, and I love it here.

  6. It's not Las Vegas that must change but our nations trade balance which is creating the unemployment that's keeping customers away. Possibly a salesperson, such as Trump, can convince citizens to dump the time shares we've been sold that prevent protectionist measures until our trade balances? Oh yeah, they're bad, we've been sold, certainly for outsourcers?

  7. An excellent article. When we were in LA last month I started chatting with someone on the elevator who said she was from Texas. When I mentioned we were from Las Vegas she laughed. I asked here why that was funny and she said that you don't picture people actually living in Las Vegas, just going there to party. That is our image to the rest of the world and until we all work together to improve it, we'll be fighting an uphill battle to diversify our economy or become anything more than just "Vegas, baby!"

  8. "Eight of 10 people who live here were born elsewhere"...

    "community is a band of like-minded people who share a sense of belonging and/or are focused on helping one another for a larger good."

    Surely you see the disconnect here.
    THERE AREN'T ANY GROUPS OF LIKE MINDED PEOPLE populating the valley.

    There IS NO HOMOGENEOUS POPULOUS HEREABOUTS, no "communities" within the valley, BESIDES THE RICH IN THEIR GATED, SECURED FINERY.
    Sure, we have BOUNDARIES that define certain areas of the valley; WE HAVE GATES & WALLS & FENCING GALORE!

    "And the sign said,
    Anybody caught trespassin'
    Will be shot on sight.
    So I jumped on the fence and I yelled at the house,
    Hey! What gives you the right
    To put up a fence to keep me out,
    But to keep Mother Nature in?
    If God was here, he'd tell you to your face, 'Man, you're some kind of sinner.'"
    (5 Man Electrical Band)

    I, ME, MINE.

    Selfishness rules.
    EGOCENTRICITY, Las Vegas is thy model.

  9. gmag39,

    Thanks for your comments (ah, the Five Man Electrical Band!), but I don't agree with your suggestion that a bunch of outsiders moving to Las Vegas can't find and form a sense of community. Like-minded people will find one another.

    My wife and I moved here 5 1/2 years ago from Southern California (we had lived in Las Vegas previously for 2 years). It was pretty simple to reach out to meet people -- through business contacts, church, and among animal advocates who share our values and social interests. And the more people we choose to meet, the more connected we feel with the community.

    In fact, I'd suggest that it might be easier for a newcomer to become engaged in the community than an old-timer who has chosen over the years to become isolated and uninvolved. Newcomers are hungry for relationships.

  10. Tom,
    Good points, well taken.
    The problem is the extent to which people here participate in the "community building" process; it's the exception, not the rule, and by a wide margin, IMO.
    Perhaps, in the throes of desperation, Las Vegas will reshape itself into a viable, vibrant "community" or set of communities.
    Unfortunately THE HOUSING MARKET has ripped apart a ton of your "community building", and that bridge has been BLOWN UP.
    It will take years for the valley to recover from the devastation of that explosion, or implosion, if you will.

    You can lead a horse to water...

  11. Whoever came up with the "adults only" marketing approach that was put into effect at about the same time our economy was tanking shares in the blame. For several years I brought my 14-17 yr. old kids to Las Vegas along with several of their friends where they had a fantastic time. The kids loved it.....Ka at MGM, Tournament of Kings at Excalibur, swimming in one of the lazy river pools or simply walking the strip/looking at lights & meeting new friends. When Vegas stopped catering to them, the kids stopped coming. Casino hotels didn't want kids in there keeping mom & dad away from the tables, their greed wanted more, more, more. Guess what? They were responsible for lots of meals sold, hotel rooms booked & tickets to shows sold. Do something to start bringin em back & profits will come with it. A dose of kids & the fresh air they bring would be good for everybody.