Fitness tourism making strides in Las Vegas

Gene Herzog/Las Vegas News Bureau

Marathon participants run along the Las Vegas Strip during the 2009 Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas Marathon on Dec. 6, 2009.

Click to enlarge photo

Climbing the challenging foothills of Red Rock Canyon, cyclists of the Las Vegas Valley Bike Club crest the top of the hill while heading toward Blue Diamond on their 50-mile morning ride Saturday.

Once a year, Bellinda Erikson packs a special little something in her bag and hits the road for a weekend of romance on the Las Vegas Strip.

But don’t get the wrong idea. This isn’t another tale of naughtiness in Las Vegas.

The little something is exercise gear. Erikson’s only dates will be with her husband. And the way the couple get their heartbeats racing is to run the Rock ’n’ Roll Las Vegas Marathon, where Erikson makes sure to hit a chapel along the route to observe the anniversary of her wedding and renew her vows.

“I’m usually in a white running skirt, and my husband has a tuxedo jacket,” said Erikson, who lives in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. “I tell people that I had 20,000 people at my wedding.”

This year, even more people will join Erikson and her husband, Tom, on their anniversary. The marathon is expected to attract 40,000 runners – part of a new and growing breed of tourists who come to Las Vegas not for the all-you-can-eat buffets and around-the-clock cocktail service, but to run 26.2 miles, scramble up the side of a cliff or take part in other healthy and competitive activities.

Bouldering is challenging blackjack. Fatness is giving way to fitness. And the city’s tourism marketers are taking note.

Consider:

• The Las Vegas Marathon and Half Marathon, held in December and sponsored by Zappos.com, will attract more than 40,000 runners who will get the opportunity to run the Las Vegas Strip under the lights of the resorts’ marquees in the world’s largest nighttime running event. The first race on the Strip drew 15,000 runners.

• More than 42,000 softball players on more than 450 teams will be in the city for tournaments that run throughout the year.

• At the end of this week, the Nevada Silverman Triathlon will bring 5,000 athletes who will swim a 4-kilometer course in Lake Las Vegas, bicycle 120 kilometers along Lake Mead and run 30 kilometers to the Henderson Multigenerational Center in Green Valley. There’s a half-triathlon for the wimps.

• The Mayor’s Cup International Soccer Tournament will bring in some of the city’s favorite guests — the ones who travel overseas to get here and usually spend extra time and money on their trips.

• The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority turned Cashman Center into a 60-lane bowling center for 154 days so that the city could host 85,000 bowlers on 17,200 teams for the U.S. Bowling Congress Open Championships in 2009. It was the second-best attended tournament in the organization’s history. The LVCVA hopes to bring the championships back to the city, but the event is committed to Baton Rouge, La., next year, El Paso, Texas, in 2015, and Reno in 2013, 2014 and 2016.

• Red Rock Canyon, Mount Charleston and Mount Potosi are acknowledged as world-class rock-climbing areas, and local enthusiasts are promoting competitive climbing events.

• More than 45,000 high-school basketball players came to Las Vegas last year for several elite-level tournaments. It doesn’t matter that high school students can’t gamble or take part in the city’s adult attractions. Their parents can.

• And you think dancers aren’t athletes? Think again. Not only are participants in the World Hip Hop Dance Championship skilled gymnasts, but the rapidly growing event has outgrown one host hotel and now has its finals at the Orleans Arena. This year’s event was in July. Just as Dallas is trying to steal the National Finals Rodeo from Las Vegas, other cities are trying to lure the hip hop competition away.

“People have a passion for their sports, and they will travel to participate in them if given the opportunity,” said Julian Dugas, director of sports marketing for the LVCVA. “They love their events and they enjoy Las Vegas. It’s like a vacation, and they’re doing what they love.”

The beauty of Las Vegas is that it has 150,000 hotel rooms and can accommodate just about any event, recreation-oriented or otherwise. Dugas said because a competition, game, stage or activity usually takes a few hours at most, that leaves plenty of time for participants to enjoy the city’s other diversions.

On average, the LVCVA says fitness tourists spend about $645 per trip in the city.

•••

The marathon’s change to a night race will play right into the bottom line of the city’s resorts.

In the early days of the marathon, first run in 1967, the race started in the predawn hours and was run from Jean into Las Vegas along Las Vegas Boulevard South.

When San Diego-based Competitor Group Inc. took over as owner and operator of the marathon in 2008, it put the rebranded Las Vegas event in its Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon Series of 24 races in North America the following year.

Scott Dickey, president of Competitor Group, saw an opportunity to interest runners with a course along the iconic Strip.

“It was a lengthy process trying to convince partners on the Strip that it was a risk worth taking,” Dickey said. “But when we brought the Rock ’n’ Roll brand to town, I think we all knew we were on to something.”

In the first time the race was staged on a Sunday morning on the Strip, participation doubled to about 20,000 runners. But organizers had a bold idea — to run the race at night just as Strip lights were coming on.

Although some property owners were nervous about the idea of shutting down the resort corridor’s primary thoroughfare, they decided to take the gamble, convinced that the inconvenience of the street closure would be made up for with additional room nights and amenity spending by participants and their fans.

They were right.

More than a month before the Dec. 4 race, more than 38,000 people have registered to run. Dickey expects the final count will be around 43,000. It’s the third-largest race on the Rock ’n’ Roll circuit behind the New York City 10K and close behind the Chicago Half Marathon. Dickey thinks that by 2012, the Las Vegas event could pass New York and become the circuit’s largest race in North America. (If you were wondering, the New York City Marathon and Boston Marathon are not part of the Rock ’n’ Roll circuit.)

Entries to the full marathon will be capped at 5,000 runners, who must have run the distance in 4.5 hours to qualify. The remainder of the participants will run the half-marathon. Both the marathon, which will start at 4 p.m., and the half-marathon, at 5:30, will start at Mandalay Bay and will include a run to downtown Las Vegas and back. The late start and the after-race parties virtually assure that participants will stay an extra night.

Organizers anticipate that supporters of the runners will crowd the Strip. Street closures and crowd control will be like a dress rehearsal for New Year’s Eve when revelers pack the street.

Oh, and one added complication: The National Finals Rodeo will be town at the same time as the race.

Pat Christenson, president and CEO of Las Vegas Events which develops major events for the city, said NFR has stepped up to make the two events work.

“On that Sunday, the rodeo will move to the afternoon,” Christenson said. “Rodeo fans should be back in their rooms before the Strip closes.”

Buses, which will be allowed to operate on the Strip as the closures begin, will run rodeo fans from the Thomas & Mack Center to their hotels.

“It’ll be the fastest, cleanest way back to the hotel and they’ll get there before the marathon runners arrive,” he said.

In 2012, there won’t be any conflict because the rodeo will begin later in the month after the marathon weekend.

Even though marathon participants will be paying more for their rooms — supply and demand should kick rates higher with both the National Finals Rodeo and the race in town — most can’t wait to experience a race on the Strip at night.

“I’m super excited,” said Denise Lemelin, a 44-year-old X-ray tech from Manchester, Conn., who will run the Las Vegas race for the first time. “Vegas is great on its own, but to close down the Strip — wow!”

Lemelin, who is making the 3,200-mile trip and has been running for about 18 months, will be part of a team of friends participating in support of the event’s charity, the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America.

Kimee Armour, who took up running for her health — she’s lost 175 pounds in the three years she has been a runner — can’t wait to see if the fans along Las Vegas Boulevard will be as enthusiastic as the ones she saw at the Chicago Half Marathon.

“I love it when people get involved,” she said. “One of the reasons I went back to the Chicago (Half) Marathon was because there were 1.7 million people out there, and I think I got high-fives from most of them.”

She can’t wait to see the lights of the Strip and hear the noise of the casinos.

“I want to find and play the loudest slot machine in the city,” she said.

•••

For Bellinda Erikson, the Californian who renews her vows every year at the marathon, December’s race will be her seventh. It will be the 49th for her husband, Tom. Two years ago, while pregnant, she started the race on foot but had to switch to a wheelchair at the chapel. This year, the couple is bringing a babysitter to watch their 17-month-old son while they run.

While the marathon may be the signature event representative of fitness tourism, other competitions and activities are growing in prominence — and the future promises even more.

Stephanie Forte, a public relations professional in Las Vegas, moved here from Aspen, Colo., in 1998, in part because of rock climbing and other outdoor recreational opportunities.

“I looked at a lot of places — like Bend, Ore., Bishop, Calif., Salt Lake City, Boulder (Colo.) — and I kept coming back to Las Vegas,” she said.

While marketers have touted the city’s geographic proximity to national parks and recreation areas, Forte believes Las Vegas hasn’t exploited the full potential of selling the city as a center for outdoor adventure. It’s a concept the state’s Tourism Commission has touched with its minimal budget, but the flash of gambling and entertainment in Las Vegas often overpowers the outdoor recreation image.

But outdoor fanatics know about it.

“It’s really amazing,” Forte said. “You can go up to Mount Charleston or Mount Potosi on any given weekend and meet up with elite climbers from Japan, Spain and Germany.”

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is acknowledged as one of the top sandstone climbing areas in the country. Forte thinks the limestone faces of Charleston and Potosi are just as impressive.

Dozens of climbers have moved to the area and established climbing equipment businesses and gyms to train people to climb.

Climbing and bouldering competitions are conducted in gyms to preserve the rock faces. The nation’s largest climbing festival, Red Rock Rendezvous, is conducted in the park areas just west of Las Vegas. Sponsored by outfitters Mountain Gear and North Face, the next Red Rock Rendezvous, a climbing clinic, is scheduled March 30 to April 1.

“It’s never going to rival the number of people who come here for gambling and clubbing, but it’s a huge draw for that specific group,” Forte said. “Lots of people aren’t dreaming about the Strip when they come here. They’re dreaming about climbing the sandstone.”

Travis Graves, one of the co-owners of Desert Rock Sports and Red Rock Climbing Center, a gym that features an assortment of climbing walls, said most of the customers of his outfitting store aren’t Southern Nevada residents.

“It’s a multicultural affair — people coming in, flying in, from all around the world,” Graves said.

He estimates two-thirds to three-quarters of his customers are using Las Vegas as their base camp, either for day trips to Red Rock Canyon and the Spring Mountains or for longer trips to Zion, Yosemite and Joshua Tree national parks.

“We may not be as big as Salt Lake City or Denver, and there may not be as much of an outdoor vibe here, but our access to a lot of cool places is unmatched,” he said.

Graves said many of his friends have done exactly what he has — moved here to be closer to so many top outdoor destinations. Graves moved to Las Vegas from Vermont 10 years ago with plans to seek admission to a law school. He got a job at Desert Rock Sports and began climbing recreationally. In 2005, he and his partners bought out the retiring owners of the store.

Most of his out-of-state customers visit the store for books and supplies. Some buy equipment from him to avoid having to transport gear on flights.

“I really think outdoor recreation, especially climbing, could be marketed and Las Vegas could be a top destination for it, just like the convention industry,” Graves said.

•••

Another growing competitive event is hip hop dancing. Like the Mayor’s Cup soccer tournament, the World Hip Hop Dance Championship has grown into a major international event.

Howard Schwartz, co-founder of Hip Hop International, moved the competition to Las Vegas four years ago after inaugurating it in Miami and having a stop in Los Angeles.

The event quickly outgrew Loews Lake Las Vegas, the initial host. Now, the event is headquartered at Red Rock Resort where the event will take over the property’s entire meetings and convention area next summer.

The event is staged like beauty pageants, with localized contests across the country and worldwide with the U.S. championship determined in the first week of the event and the world championship in a second week. The finals have such a huge draw that they’re staged at the Orleans Arena. The international event, Schwartz said, is a big flag-waving event not unlike the Olympic Games.

In last summer’s competition, 33 countries were represented in the final event. Teams of five to seven dancers compete with more than 2,000 dancers and more than 8,500 supporters and fans in town.

The event gets great exposure because Schwartz also is one of the executive producers of “America’s Best Dance Crew,” a televised hip hop competition shown on MTV.

As in most of the televised dance competitions, the participants on “America’s Best Dance Crew” get incredible exposure and one of the first winners – Jabbawockeez – was offered a short-term performance gig at the MGM Grand that turned into a long-term contract at the Monte Carlo where the group continues to perform six nights a week.

Schwartz said last summer’s event was responsible for 6,000 room nights in 31 hotels. One of the raps on the event is that most of its competitors are under 21, but like the soccer tournaments that draw children to the city, the parents travel with the teams and they spend on food and lodging.

“We’re growing and, to be honest with you, we’re being courted by other cities,” Schwartz said. “But I think even Pat (Christenson, of Las Vegas Events) was surprised at how big it was.”

Another powerful outdoor sport that appears destined to be a tourism draw is skiing and snowboarding.

Kevin Stickelman, president and general manager of the Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort, admitted that his challenge of explaining to a disbelieving world that it snows enough to ski less than an hour from the Strip is daunting. But he added that the novelty of coming to Las Vegas to ski — and participate in competitions – could be huge.

“We have an opportunity that few other resorts in the country have,” Stickelman said.

Stickelman estimated that 35 percent of the resort’s guests are from out of state, most of them intrigued with the novelty of there being winter sports opportunities near the Strip. With growth on the horizon for extreme winter sports and the resort, Stickelman figures there to be plenty of potential for more visitors in the years ahead.

The resort got a boost when federal authorities approved a plan that will enable an expansion. One of the first improvements in a $35 million expansion was to build a reservoir from which snow-making equipment can draw water. Thanks to the new equipment and a cold snap, the Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort was the first ski area to open in the continental United States a few weeks ago.

Stickelman said the resort will have a light schedule of competitive snowboard and ski events this year as the resort develops terrain parks, half-pipes, jumps and jibs.

Last year, 500 spectators were on the mountain for a competition. This year, Stickelman hopes to have 50 competitors and 1,000 spectators for a winter sport “rail jam.”

“We’re trying to look over the horizon to see what’s next in winter action sports,” he said. “We get 240 inches of snow a year, but even with that, we have to supplement it with snow-making capabilities like most major ski resorts. What we’ll have won’t be the Winter Olympics, but it will be really good.”

Building or expanding facilities will likely be the theme for growing fitness tourism events in the city.

“That’s one of the reasons why we’re so interested in watching what happens with the development of a new stadium in Southern Nevada,” the LVCVA’s Dugas said. “With a venue like that, who knows what types of things we’d be able to bring here?”

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  1. Just think of how many events that did not get any financial backing from Las Vegas Events or the LVCVA over the years that are now gone! Plenty. High School Hoops used to dominate in December with top ranked teams coming to town, filling up hotel rooms the week before Christmas. Now those big events are gone. As much due to the thought that filling hotel rooms with non gamblers does not make any sense - while non gaming hotels now dont get anything. The town needs all of the help it can get. Why they wont reach out to the organizers who put these events on is beyond me. It is like Electronic Daisy - dont want it - willing to extort $400 a night to force guests away - now they can not wait to get it back. Give people a fair deal, support all events - the town could use all of the filled guest rooms that it can get.