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Trying to buck a trend

Times are good in Dalos Kvanvig’s hometown of Hettinger, N.D., so he didn’t hesitate to spring for the plane ticket and hotel after his parents gave him National Finals Rodeo tickets as a present.

Major oil discoveries have ramped up the job market there, leaving him shaking his head at the recent economic numbers coming out of Las Vegas. Still, Kvanvig has put himself on a stricter budget than when he last came to the rodeo three years ago.

"We came to Cowboy Christmas three years ago and probably spent $2,500 on presents," he said. "This year, it will probably be half that. A dollar doesn’t go as far as it used to."

But the resorts and merchants who build their Decembers around the rodeo hope to find more people like Wendy Lewis of Lehigh, Utah. Her income from running a tanning salon, along with that of her husband, Tom, a corporate salesman and a rodeo participant, has not dropped during the recession.

"We’re going to be doing a lot of our Christmas shopping here," she said. "Our spending is not going to be a lot different than it was in the past."

Since 1985, the rodeo has breathed life into Decembers that would otherwise be marked by too many wide-open spaces in the casinos and on the sidewalks of the Strip. Hotels such as South Point and the Gold Coast have created their own extended calendars of events beyond the competition itself, which started on Thursday and will run through Dec. 11. Four venues host gift markets.

Even Aria — the centerpiece of the CityCenter that has been marketed as a modern and sophisticated destination for people who formerly turned up their noses at Las Vegas — has pitched package deals for people who favor checkered shirts and belt buckles that could double as hubcaps.

The recent past, however, has seen the rodeo hit by the same downturn that has afflicted the other 11 months of the year. According to statistics from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, both out-of-town attendance and spending, at 37,650 and $51.5 million, respectively, were up last year from a dismal 2008. Still, the numbers remained well below the peak year of 2007.

The convention authority has not made any projections for this year.

Average spending per person rose to its highest level ever in 2008 to $1,435, then dropped 4.7 percent last year. Executives involved with the event explain that people who previously had to stretch their bank accounts to come stayed home two years ago, then started returning.

Nevertheless, people such as Jose Calderon mete out their money carefully. A general contractor from Tucson, Ariz., another city where real estate is struggling, he bets the $10 minimum on every hand of blackjack at South Point.

"It’s a hard hit if you lose now," he said. "When it comes to buying things, it’s almost window shopping now. You have to be very selective."

Although room rates have fallen, Dan Stark, vice president of corporate marketing for Boyd Gaming, sees traffic rising. "It feels a little stronger this year than last in sheer numbers of people," he said. "We’re on an improving trend, but it’s not coming real fast."

Michael Strong Leather Products of Reno has seen sales rise for each of the past 15 years he has come to the rodeo, although recently by slim margins, said owner Michael Strong. His strategy to maintain the streak has been to hold his prices for items like chaps under competitors’ prices.

"Everybody is trying to save money," he said. "They are not throwing it around the way they used to."

Western-themed floor coverings have been selling, said Olivia Ximenes, co-owner of Skyhawks in Albuquerque, N.M. "We are seeing a loosening of consumer purse strings," she said. "I think everybody is kind of tired of being tight-fisted and wants to have a little fun."

South Point owner Michael Gaughan said he has sold out for the rodeo without discounting.

This year, the 175,000 seats for the 10 rodeo events at the Thomas & Mack Center sold out only about a month ago, instead of the normal April. As a board member of Las Vegas Events, which stages the rodeo in conjunction with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, Gaughan said the slow sales were due to reconfiguring the seat layout and not slack demand.

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

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