Saddle and horse: An economic force

As he has almost every year for the past quarter-century, Marty Jandreau trekked to Las Vegas for the National Finals Rodeo.

"For me, it's a part of my life, it's what I do," said Jandreau, who lives near Kennebec, S.D.

This time he will judge some competitions, but he was a rider before his hair started to gray.

It is this kind of devotion that has earned the rodeo, and the country-and-western crowd that follows it, a reputation as one of Las Vegas' most consistent visitor groups. The rodeo, which started Thursday and will run through Dec. 12 at the Thomas & Mack Center, has sold out at 174,000 tickets for years.

Still, sequined shirts and belt buckles the size of hubcaps may not be enough to ward off recession.

"I would say that of the 10 families in my area that normally go, maybe four will stay home this year," Jandreau said. "I know people who set aside money all year for this and will come no matter what. But the truth is, you can have pretty good seats in front of a TV."

How broadly anecdotal evidence will apply is open to question. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority counted nearly 35,000 visitors coming last year and $50 million in nongaming spending, but has not made a projection for this year. But the events are sold out again.

"We'll see about the turnout," said Manny Azevedo, a barn contractor in Nashville, Tenn., who will also participate in some events. "That's been the big question this year."

Some of the tangible indicators suggest that rodeo attendance should at least hold its own. Tom Mikovits, marketing director for the equestrian-oriented South Point, said the hotel has sold out for the event at the same rates as last year. Also, meeting and catering sales have run ahead of last year's pace, a rare accomplishment in Las Vegas over the past year.

"It's their Super Bowl," Mikovits said. "It's our Super Bowl as well."

Boyd Gaming Corp., which spends heavily on sponsorships to drive visitors to Sam's Town, The Orleans and the Gold Coast, said bookings are holding their own compared with last year.

"I can't say it's on a par with a few years ago," said Dan Stark, vice president of marketing. "But the cachet of this event is a very strong draw. This is a very loyal audience in a lot of ways."

The convention for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, the governing body for the rodeo and hundreds of others, matched last year's attendance at 1,100, convention director Amy Rodgers said.

The exhibit hall at South Point, which had empty spaces in 2008, sold out this year, helped by cutting the fee by $100 to a base rate of $400. But with 15 more booths, Rodgers said revenues ran higher.

The tent outlet that Sheplers sets up every year in a parking lot at Sam's Town has generated sales running ahead of last year's pace, manager J.R. Stoney said, but he did not divulge numbers.

"It's a high-dollar lifestyle and these people are not afraid of it," he said, pointing to the shelves of boots and clothing.

Still, Sheplers has fallen in line with conventional retailers by pushing lower-priced items -- value in the industry parlance -- in front of shoppers. Numerous racks held $20 shirts, a drop compared with the normal price range of $55 to $70.

Michael Hull, who works the floor at the Boot Barn on Las Vegas Boulevard, has noticed a change in the customer mix.

"The decline in what we're seeing in locals and American visitors is being offset by more Europeans," he said.

Although sales were generally buoyant during the Professional Bull Riding competition in October, he noticed that customers paid close attention to prices.

"We are not seeing as many people coming in an buying on a whim," he said. "They are much pickier and more careful about what they are paying."

Nevertheless, some people cast aside cost qualms. Dick and Pat Oberg came from Cornville, Maine, on the hope that they could find some tickets.

"But if we can't do this, there are always other things to do in Las Vegas," Pat Oberg said.

Contact reporter Tim O'Reiley at or 702-387-5290.