Casinos hope spring break crowd is finally giving Las Vegas chance

Calf roping and National Finals Rodeo always have been a sure-fire hit in Las Vegas.

Ditto for electronic gizmo shows.

Even nuclear testing in the 1950s drew crowds.

But the city’s collective marketing acumen has never figured out how to fully tap into college spring break.

Is this the year?

The Palms and, to a lesser degree, MGM Resorts International will try to lure students to fill the soft spot in the calendar between the early-year crush of conventions and summer vacations. The Palms is hosting MTV Spring Break, which started Sunday and runs through Thursday.

"It’ll be pretty spectacular," said owner George Maloof. "You can expect to see 3,000 people that want to have a good time."

Spring break business has been building at the Palms , Maloof said, but this was its first formal promotion.

Still, that hasn’t convinced other resort operators to join the party. Boyd Gaming had a potential spring break tie-in by booking the West Coast Conference basketball tournament at The Orleans Arena but decided to pass.

Instead, the sales pitch was directed at alumni and basketball fans, spokesman Rob Meyne said.

"That’s really not our market," he said of college students. "Many of them are under 21, and we generally don’t market to them."

AGE RESTRICTIONS

Indeed, Maloof was careful to point out that the Palms would only try to draw students who could legally attend parties and enter clubs. Both Las Vegas police and the Nevada Gaming Control Board said they have not seen anything to warrant extra vigilance, despite problems that have cropped up in places such as Florida.

"The licensees are very aware of what the standards are, and I think the kids know what they can’t do if they are under 21," said Jerry Marking, chief of enforcement for the board. "So we get an older crowd than Florida, and I think that saves some problems."

In the past, age restrictions on drinking and gambling, plus the lack of a large body of water and beaches essential to most spring break magnets, have dampened the city’s allure to students.

Whether the city can overcome those hurdles over the next few years is a question mark, said Jeff Jacobsen, president of Student Travel Services of Glen Burnie, Md.

"There is interest," he said. "What I’ve found is that the hotels are a lot more open to it because of the economy, but they still don’t promote it much."

MTV BROADCASTS

Perhaps the biggest potential stimulus is the MTV effect. Although it rotates among different cities, Maloof said spring break interest in a location typically spikes the year after a broadcast. He hopes interest in the Palms will carry over to next year.

Jake Kelly, a student at Gonzaga University, came for the basketball tournament and headed home to Phoenix soon after it ended Monday night.

"Vegas is a little out of my element. I’m 19, and there’s not much you can do."

Some his friends over 21 would go on to Southern California and stay with friends, because it was a lot cheaper than the Strip, he said.

But Victoria Kurt said she decided to come to Las Vegas because it lies off the beaten path.

"It’s kind of like we wanted to do something different by coming to Las Vegas, since so many people go to other places," said Kurt, a 22-year-old senior at Bowling Green University in Ohio.

Stephen Barwick, a 25-year-old doctoral student at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, likes a venue where more people were his age.

"I didn’t even know MTV was going to be here until a couple of days ago," Barwick said, as he headed to the poolside stage, beer in hand.

According to tripsmarter.com, colleges and universities with 5.2 million students have scheduled spring breaks in March, three-fourths of them this week and next. Places promoting spring break have found that students generally stay in their region, with those in the West hitting places like Baja California, Southern California, Colorado and Lake Havasu in Arizona.

MGM sent news releases about its spring break promotions, which do not include top-line properties Bellagio and CityCenter, to college media outlets , spokesman Shant Apelian said.

MGM did not engage in any other direct marketing, he added. However, MGM discounts start on March 12, after the first peak week, and extend through April, after the tans have faded. Because of a huge construction industry convention, the discounts are hard to find in the week starting March 20. Where convention attendees on expense accounts spend more than the average tourist, college students spend less.

The Hard Rock Hotel hosted season debut parties and events for MTV’s "Real World" reality show, which appeals to college students, but did not gear any promotions specifically to them.

LUKEWARM WELCOME

Spring break has spawned a love/hate relationship with some cities made famous by it. Daytona Beach and Fort Lauderdale both discourage college students in favor of K-12 kids under parental supervision, said Lori Campbell Baker, spokeswoman for the Dayton Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Even officials in Panama City Beach, Fla., where spring break is a cornerstone of tourism, had become concerned that publicity about hordes of college students engaged in Charlie Sheen-style partying scared off other business, said Dan Rowe, president of the local convention and visitors bureau.

The solution involved calling the Florida Highway Patrol to handle traffic issues, freeing local police to walk the beat to maintain order, he said.

But Maloof said Las Vegas is accustomed to large crowds and keeping them from getting out of hand.

Contact reporter Tim O’Reiley at toreiley@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5290.

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