LAS VEGAS -- Brenda and Vance Szot were just two among the steady parade of tourists that paused to admire and photograph the 45-foot Christmas tree that towers above Bellagio's conservatory.
"It's simple yet spectacular," said Brenda, who was visiting with her husband from Wenatchee, Wash. "We have come every year for the last 10 years, but it's sad that Vegas doesn't celebrate Christmas."
"We expect to see more Christmas trees here next year," added Vance.
Don't count on it.
The city that has grabbed international prominence by building scaled-down versions of prominent skylines, dancing fountains and shopping malls styled after Venice and ancient Rome has never figured out what to do with Santa and friends and shown little interest in trying.
A couple of headliners, such as ventriloquist Terry Fator, adopt Christmas themes for shows. A few hotel-casinos, including Bellagio, The Venetian, Wynn Las Vegas and The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, have incorporated holiday touches.
Highway traffic suggests the holiday season starts with a bang for Las Vegas, or at least its merchants. Black Friday is one of the year's busiest days at California's agricultural inspection station on Interstate 15 as people head home from shopping safaris, especially at outlet malls, station manager Greg Du Bose said.
But during December, finding signs of holiday momentum or any other holiday trappings, has been tough. Outdoors, the Strip looks no different than in July, except for The Venetian's Winter in Venice tree-shaped lights, skating rink and snowflakes projected on to walls. Even inside, many hotel-casinos remain oblivious to the time of year. They hardly hang wreaths, much less mimic Bellagio's horticultural and decorative opulence.
As a result, December remains at or near the bottom of every monthly benchmark tracked by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, including hotel occupancy, room rates, visitor count and gaming revenues. As convention traffic falls off, leisure visitors only partially fill the gap.
AVOIDING DECEMBER DOLDRUMS
By contrast, the month starting with Black Friday is one of the busiest in New York with room rates and occupancy running well above annual averages. People come not only to load up on presents, said Chris Heywood, the spokesman for NYC & Co., the city's tourism marketing agency, but to take in the outdoor lights, the tree at Rockefeller Center, the elaborate department store window displays, the outdoor markets and holiday-themed shows on and off Broadway.
"It's just a given that we are the number one tourist destination and people want to come here during the holidays," Heywood said.
Las Vegas has signed or created a growing lineup of special events, headed by the National Finals Rodeo and the Rock 'n' Roll Las Vegas Marathon, to make Decembers brighter than in past decades. Longtime residents remember theaters, restaurants and entire wings of hotels going into hibernation during the month.
Still, Treasure Island Vice President of Marketing Don Voss said, "I would agree that postrodeo demand definitely needs some help."
Once people send their wrapping paper to the nearest Dumpster, the Strip comes back to life.
"As a mostly secular destination, I'm actually surprised how well we do from Christmas leading up to New Year's Eve, compared to the 10 days before Christmas," Voss said.
However, tourism executives are split on whether pouring extra time or money into holiday touches such as decorating the pedestrian bridges over the Strip or offering holiday shows would pay off.
"I absolutely think we should do more," said Farid Matraki, senior vice president and general manager of the Crystals shopping center. "Why not? We are trying to create an atmosphere and decorating puts people in a holiday mood. They like it."
Further, he said, something out of the ordinary draws locals who otherwise avoid the Strip.
Crystals, part of the CityCenter complex managed and half-owned by MGM Resorts International, brought in lighted trees and poinsettias and hung red and silver spirals from the ceiling.
But other MGM properties, such as the neighboring New York-New York and Monte Carlo, have remained calendar-neutral.
A YULETIDE STRATEGY
Sarah Tanford, a marketing professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas' William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration, said the city could launch a menu of holiday events that could combine with relatively low hotel prices and crisp-but-usually-sunny weather to help Las Vegas overcome its image as a low-priority December destination.
"I think a lot could be done," she said. "Instead of hotels undercutting each other on price and not accomplishing much, they could work together in a coordinated effort."
The Fremont Street Experience has turned one of its stages over to a Christmas act, stage menorah and tree lighting ceremonies, but is not inclined to go farther.
"This is just a time of year when people engage in activities with family and not come to Las Vegas," Fremont Street Experience marketing director Thomas Bruny said. "Are we going to be able to change people's travel patterns and get them to come before Christmas? Probably not."
In the 1990s, Las Vegas conducted an ill-fated experiment in family marketing that segued into the "What happens here, stays here" era. Yet many of the people strolling through the Bellagio on a recent day had toddlers in tow and took their pictures in front of polar bears, the tree or a Happy Holidays sign made of flowers.
Even venues that have moved toward holiday themes aren't sure how far the trend can spread.
The Golden Nugget set up new, more elaborate decorations this year and installed three reindeer outside that resemble sculpted hedges.
"We have been pleasantly surprised by the response," said Vice President of Marketing Amy Chasey, who added that guests have posted dozens of photos on social media.
Nevertheless, she does not expect create a winter wonderland.
"The days leading up to Christmas are tough. You can't fight Santa," she said. "It probably wouldn't be worth it to throw too much money or effort into Christmas."
The early year crush of proven winners including New Year's Eve, the Super Bowl and a heavy convention schedule take precedence over Christmas, several industry insiders say.
To get use out of a pool deck that would otherwise sit empty in the winter, The Cosmopolitan installed an ice rink with fire pits for toasting marshmallows faintly reminiscent of a Currier & Ives drawing.
Although the hotel's decor isn't specifically tied to Christmas - there are no garlands, wreaths or twinkling lights - Cosmopolitan Chief Marketing Officer Lisa Marchese said it is a setting people associate with the holidays.
"We decided to create our own version of a ski lodge," she said. "We have truly been surprised by the interest and response."
William Copsey and Johanna Grosso of Summerlin are typical locals in that they normally avoid the Strip unless they're escorting visitors. But they tried the rink.
"I think it's a cool concept," Copsey said. "I definitely think they should do it again and make the rink bigger."
If decor is one Christmas season hallmark, shopping is another. Las Vegas frequently promotes itself as a "world-class" shopping mecca. That would seemingly make it easier to draw Christmas shoppers.
But the distinction has a drawback.
"For some reason," Marchese said, "Las Vegas is perceived as a place you shop for yourself and not for others."
Entertainer Wayne Newton, whose career as a Strip headliner dates back to the 1960s, said he performed his first Christmas show at the Flamingo in 2005 and it sold out.
Still, he said, many entertainers shy away from the format.
"With a holiday show, you are really limited in what you can perform," he said.
At the Flamingo, he did only a couple of holiday songs up front before switching to a nonseasonal repertoire.
"And that seemed to be fine with the audience," Newton said.
Some executives think that the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority or its Las Vegas Events affiliate would need to lead a Christmas promotional push. But that may not be in the authority's plans.
"Currently, we promote Las Vegas as a holiday channel primarily through PR channels," authority spokeswoman Courtney Fitzgerald said.
But attorney James Jimmerson, the owner of the limo and shuttle bus company Jacobs Transportation, sees opportunities to boost a slow December through more extensive decoration and attractions such as a Christmas Day basketball game between UNLV and a prominent opponent.
"There's no reason why we couldn't build a festive, Christmas atmosphere," he said. "It's a no-brainer."
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