Resorts’ brands are all in for the go-round that is NFR

/ Las Vegas Sun

Bareback rider Kaycee Feild braces himself and gives the OK to open the chute during the last night of the National Finals Rodeo on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2010, at the Thomas & Mack Center.

Bet you didn’t know that the volcano in front of the Mirage will become known as the world’s largest cowboy campfire for the next week and a half, or that Mandalay Bay is being transformed into “Cowboyville.”

Or that if you wear cowboy boots, you can get into Madame Tussauds Las Vegas for half price through Dec. 10.

Even MGM Grand’s famed Studio 54 nightclub is getting a western makeover and will become “Saloon 54” for 10 days.

It’s all the result of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo coming to town.

And be sure to keep the “Wrangler” brand name in the title, pardner, because corporate sponsorships, marketing deals and western-themed special events have transformed the rodeo from just the sport’s final competition of the year into a celebration of all things western, drawing as many people without rodeo tickets to town as people with them.

“The reason NFR is so successful is that we have all these different hotel properties involved and they activate around it,” said Dale Eeles, vice president of corporate marketing for Las Vegas Events, the city’s special-events coordinator, which partners with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

“Because of the holidays, there are few conventions in December and it’s a slow time for tourists,” Eeles said. “But NFR has changed that, and the resort community has created many experiences around the rodeo. It gives more of a reason for people to attend.”

The rodeo was the first signature event coordinated by Las Vegas Events, and it now has become a template for shows and festivals under development in Southern Nevada. The strategy: Build a series of supporting attractions and activities around a major central event, particularly one with multiple personalities, so that the city’s resorts can share the wealth by focusing on their own star attractions or events.

The NFR model has been used to enhance the current NASCAR Champion’s Week and May’s Vegas Uncork’d foodie event, for example.

In the years before the rodeo arrived, the city seemed more like Tombstone than Las Vegas in December.

It was a month that some properties shuttered rooms to do maintenance and furloughed employees because there was little work. Now, NFR occupies one-third of the month and minimizes the holiday doldrums.

It hasn’t been difficult to calculate the rodeo’s ongoing influence on the Las Vegas economy, because the event consistently sells out.

Based on the capacity of the Thomas & Mack Center, the rodeo’s venue, the city can count on attendance of 174,000 people over 10 performance dates, said Scott Russell, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority’s senior research manager. The LVCVA estimates that there are 43,425 unique attendees because so many fans go to more than one rodeo session.

Those figures have been consistent for the past four years, Russell said. In 2010, that meant a nongaming economic impact of $52 million on the city.

But as Eeles noted, there’s an additional fan in town for every unique attendee, enjoying the atmosphere and camaraderie of fellow fans and taking in the city’s other attractions, from attending country music concerts to shopping for new Stetsons.

The event gets bigger every year as more resort properties sign on as sponsors and stage activities geared to attract a niche of the cowboy hat-wearing crowd.

This year, there are a record 21 resort sponsors and a total of 45 properties, including one in Laughlin, that have venues for viewing a live video feed of each rodeo session.

Local rodeo coordinators believe the network of activity centered on NFR is key to keeping the event in Las Vegas. Although Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has dangled the potential revenue generated by the high capacity of his magnificent Cowboys Stadium before the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, the support of Las Vegas’ resort community and its dozens of affiliated activities are effective deterrents to any rodeo rustling.

Historically, Boyd Gaming resort properties have been the biggest players in boosting the rodeo locally.

The company’s Orleans, Gold Coast and Sam’s Town are established rodeo fan hangouts and the company’s patriarch, Sam Boyd, was an NFR booster since the event first arrived in Las Vegas in 1985.

A former Boyd executive, Michael Gaughan — a rodeo backer for more than 25 years — built and developed South Point into a cowboy-friendly resort property, complete with an equestrian arena. It’s one of the host properties.

One of the newest big sponsors is MGM Resorts International, which contracted for its MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay, Aria, Mirage, Excalibur, Circus Circus and Monte Carlo properties to be sponsoring host hotels.

Eeles also touted Treasure Island, which recently expanded its Gilley’s Saloon, Dance Hall & BBQ, as an NFR hot spot.

“Treasure Island has become one of the leading hangouts for the bull riders,” Eeles said. “A lot of this is about the properties building relationships with the participants.”

Other properties have done the same thing.

Boyd Gaming’s Gold Coast, for example, hosts “National Finals Tonight,” a nightly highlights and wrap-up show with interviews and commentary, from its showroom. A nightly after-party, the Buck’n Ball, features live music in the property’s Arizona Ballroom.

MGM’s properties will have hosted post-rodeo parties, line dancing lessons and autograph sessions. The Mandalay Bay Convention Center east parking lot will anchor Cowboy Marketplace, featuring hundreds of western apparel and goods vendors. And new this year, MGM Grand will transform its Marquee Ballroom into a 90,000-square-foot shopping area for western goods and rodeo wear.

MGM Grand also is home to Miss Rodeo America Pageant events Saturday through Dec. 10.

The Mirage is hosting the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association World Champions Award Show and after-party on Dec. 10.

South Point is the site of the annual PRCA National Convention trade show, and the Las Vegas Convention Center hosts the free NFR Cowboy Christmas Gift Show.

Virtually everybody who’s anybody in the world of country music will be in Las Vegas to perform when the rodeo is in town. Among the headliners this year are the Charlie Daniels Band and Lee Ann Womack (Orleans), Clint Black, Travis Tritt, Tanya Tucker and Merle Haggard (Golden Nugget), Dwight Yoakam (Las Vegas Hilton), Colt Ford and Pistol Annies (Mandalay Bay), Trace Adkins (Riviera) and Garth Brooks (Wynn).

The Academy of Country Music is partnering with NFR to bring live performances to the Cox Pavilion, next door to the Thomas & Mack Center, for pre-rodeo and post-rodeo entertainment.

DJ Du and DJ Silver will host parties at Studio 54, which temporarily is taking on the name “Saloon 54” for the duration of NFR, and Madame Tussauds at the Venetian will offer half-price adult general admission tickets to guests wearing cowboy boots when purchasing tickets at the box office.

Every related activity brings more people to Las Vegas.

And it isn’t all for profit. Crown Royal is using NFR as a stage for philanthropy, promising to donate $2,000 for every ride scoring 90 points or more to the Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund, which benefits cowboys and their families who suffer catastrophic injuries resulting from professional rodeo riding.

There’s also a charity bowling tournament Saturday at Gold Coast. Conducted in collaboration with NASCAR Champion’s Week, the Bob Tallman’s WNFR Charity Bowling Tournament and Silent Auction will benefit the Justin Cowboy Crisis Fund and the Las Vegas chapter of Speedway Children’s Charities.