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How a Tourism Slogan Transformed Las Vegas

Apr 06, 2014 11:00 am

Skift Take

Outside of, perhaps, ‘I Love NY’, nothing in tourism has had the ongoing impact of ‘What Happens Here’.

— Jason Clampet

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Davef3138  / Flickr

The tourism slogan hanging at the Las Vegas Airport. Davef3138 / Flickr


It’s a slogan unlike any other in the history of advertising.

“What happens here, stays here,” was a perfect pitch for a city built on excess, one that became as ingrained in the American vernacular as “Just do it,” “I’m lovin’ it,” “Tastes great, less filling,” “Don’t leave home without it” and others it joined on the Madison Avenue Advertising Walk of Fame.

But here’s what really set it apart: While other slogans promoted a product or a company, “What happens” helped save and transform a community.

The campaign was simple and fearless: Focus on the idea of Vegas as a guilt-free place where visitors can assume any identity they choose and do things they would never dream of in their lives back home.

It worked brilliantly. “What happens here” changed the tourism game in Las Vegas. It triggered a surge in visitors, a generally younger crowd than those who had come before, which in turn gave rise to a nightclub scene that boosted the city’s economy.

Where visitors once came to Las Vegas to gamble and be entertained, “What happens” provided the city with a third major draw — the chance for tourists to be their own entertainment.

“It’s reflected what visitors want from Las Vegas,” said R&R Partners CEO Billy Vassiliadis, whose firm created the campaign. “It is reflective of Las Vegas as a place where I can come and escape my doldrums and escape the treadmill that’s my life.”

—-Look to the center of this desert mecca’s economy and you’ll spot the party-centric pillars keeping the embattled resort industry afloat since the recession.

There are the multimillion-dollar nightclubs and millennials partying in dark corners of resorts. Down the hall, filling auditoriums, are A-list entertainers, spanning from Donny & Marie to Calvin Harris and Tiesto. Between those runs a river of booze, poured from bar-top bottles and slushy vendors at every turn in the casinos.

Outside casinos, crowding the sidewalks, are sex salesmen in multi-colored shirts and bandanas flicking escort cards, and trucks motoring down Las Vegas Boulevard pulling a giant advertising wall in tow. Just call this number for “Girls direct to you.”

And while the Vegas experience for nearly everyone is much tamer than the campaign, the idea is it’s possible to walk on the wild side.

With all those options, some tourists have taken up the “What happens here” slogan as a mantra. The short stretch of words provided Vegas-goers permission to live out their deepest fantasies. Here, it’s OK to get drunk, party hard, gamble away your money and do whatever your heart desires because what happens here, stays here. It’s an unspoken code: no one will ever know.

So let loose for once, huh? Leave those worries at home.

It’s Vegas, baby. Why else did you come?

For many in the tourism industry, the decade-old campaign has been a gold mine, attracting a stream of party-hungry tourists and the dollars they’re willing to leave behind to chase their fantasies.

But for some residents, the campaign has delivered unexpectedly dark consequences.

It did more than change the image of the city. It changed us, too.

What Happens Here Goes Supernova

The 9/11 terrorist attacks staggered Las Vegas. Tourists stopped traveling. The stock market suffered. Casino revenues tanked.

The braintrust at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the marketing arm responsible for promoting the city, needed help addressing the biggest question in Southern Nevada: How do you get people back to Sin City?

R&R Partners found the answer.

With people outside Las Vegas living in the “New Normalcy,” a place where a sense of stability took a backseat to worry and uncertainty, the agency realized Las Vegas could be the American escape destination — the place where it was fine to enjoy an unbridled sense of freedom. Though Vegas once tried to market itself as a family destination, city leaders soon refocused on the city’s traditional identity as an adult playground.

R&R once partnered with NBC and asked travelers to share their own “Vegas stories” for a chance to play poker with the cast of the popular television show, “Las Vegas.” Most of the stories involved sex.

“I’ve got to tell you, some of the stuff that people were willing to send and sign their name to made my toes curl,” Randy Snow, R&R’s creative director, told Brandweek magazine about the experience. “If people think our campaign is too racy, they have no idea what is going on in real life.”

So R&R delivered the “What happens here” campaign. It first appeared in 2003, and it wasn’t long before Las Vegas became the destination again. Brandweek said the slogan “helped make Vegas hotter than a blowtorch.”

The LVCVA targeted a wide audience with specific habits: anyone between the ages of 25 and 54 with incomes over $40,000 who traveled twice in the past year and who had visited Vegas in the past 12 months. They provided a sweeping mission statement: “For people who like to completely let go every now and then, Vegas is the feeling of choice because of its contagious energy and whatever-you-want approach.”

Soon, the slogan started cropping up in places other than commercials. Oscars host Billy Crystal mentioned it, as did former first lady Laura Bush when asked by Jay Leno if she saw any Chippendales dancers during a Vegas visit.

Eventually, the five-word sentence crept into everyday conversations, serving as a sort of unspoken contract between friends and co-workers visiting Las Vegas: You don’t have to worry about your behavior making the gossip rounds back home. Your significant other, your kids and your boss will never know.

City leaders loved the ad campaign’s mystique and credited it with drawing the largest number of visitors and highest hotel occupancy in history.

The year before the “What happens here” launch, just over 35 million visitors came to Las Vegas, and the hotel room occupancy rate was at 84 percent. In 2007, before the recession tossed America’s wallet in the dryer, more than 39 million people showed up and helped the city reach its highest occupancy rate ever: 97 percent.

“It’s alluring,” said Oscar Goodman, the famed former attorney and Las Vegas mayor when the slogan shot the city to stardom. Goodman is a staunch supporter of an uber-indulgent, almost cartoonish Las Vegas lifestyle; he’s often seen in public toting his signature drink, a martini in a giant glass. “It’s what separates the men from the boys.”

Vassiliadis is humble when assessing the slogan’s impact, saying it didn’t transform Las Vegas. The town’s business and community leaders did that, he said.

But there’s no question that “What happens” helped give rise to the explosion of nightclubs in the city.

Before the campaign, Las Vegas visitors tended to be much older and preferred gambling and showroom entertainment.

Today, the targeted demographic is different. They’re younger, and they want to party.

Because the number of baby boomers on the casino floor is thinning out, the resort industry has been hard-nosed about attracting a younger audience — Gen Xers and millennials. Nightclubs were the answer, one that has produced a gusher of cash.

Trade publication Nightclub & Bar recently released its 2014 list of the top 100 top-grossing nightlife venues in the United States. Las Vegas topped the list with 24 local clubs making the cut. Of the list’s Top 10 earners, seven called Las Vegas home.

XS at Steve Wynn’s Encore took the crown, logging a total revenue of $90 million-$95 million — way up from the $80 million-$90 million the club pulled in a year earlier.

DJs have since become among the highest-paid entertainers on the Strip. MGM Resorts International last year opened the $100 million, five-story Hakkasan, signing entertainer contracts totaling $65 million. The club’s lead DJ, Tiesto, makes $22 million a year, or $250,000 per performance.

But with the boom of the nightclub scene in Las Vegas, the new crop of visitors brought with it the “What happens here” attitude. It wasn’t always pretty.

The Ugly Side of Paradise

When the slogan launched, Cynthia Falls laughed.

At 60, she’s spent 35 years as a Las Vegas dealer, now serving as vice president of the local Transport Workers Union 721. Falls at first didn’t understand the big deal behind the phrase; Vegas was always the place to let loose. The minds behind “What happens here” can say what they want about how the slogan built the city, but that doesn’t ring true to her.

“Las Vegas has always been a party city,” she said. “You don’t have to sell this city.”

But after dealing to emboldened guests day in and day out, Falls can tell you just how much the dealer’s job has changed since the slogan appeared.

“That slogan was the worst thing that ever happened to the front-line staff at casinos,” Falls said. “Tourists think that everything is off the table. They think that they have free rein to drink until they’re falling down stupid and it’s OK to do anything they want because we won’t say anything … We’ve been spit on and cussed at!”

She’s also heard stories about disgruntled players threatening to shoot dealers at the dice table. Other dealers have been shoved because of a losing hand.

Falls, who remembers a time when customers respected dealers, said the slogan “galvanized rowdy behavior that was already present in Las Vegas.”

Shane Kaufmann, the dealer union’s property chairman, said working as a dealer in Las Vegas these days is like living a scene from “Animal House,” the 1978 film chronicling a semester of debauchery in a college frat community.

Supporters of the slogan say it has brought more people to Vegas, arguably bringing more money in tips to dealers, so front-line workers shouldn’t complain.

But Kaufmann says that isn’t true. Tips didn’t get better. After the recession rocked the country, visitor numbers dropped from 39 million in 2007 to 36 million in 2009.

So companies now do what they can to keep customers happy, Kaufmann said. That means ordering dealers to grin and bear it when visitors act up.

“I have to stay quiet,” said Kaufmann, who isn’t allowed to tell a guest to calm down when they get out of hand. “That’s the duty of managers … The managers are doing that less and less.”

And so are the cops, he said.

The Law in Las Vegas

Cops in Las Vegas don’t hear about every disturbance on the Strip. Casinos have their own security officers who decide whether a problem is big enough to call police.

That means it’s impossible to know how often people get crazy inside casinos. The police couldn’t respond to all the troublemaking anyway; there’d be too many places to be at once. “If we had to respond to every disturbance, we wouldn’t know what to do,” said Larry Hadfield, a public information officer with Metro Police.

Metro bosses say that’s because there’s a lack of cops on the force.

“I can tell you right now, the Strip is a very, very busy place and it’s very, very difficult right now for us to police it with the number of officers that we have,” said Sheriff Doug Gillespie, who plans to retire this year.

Capt. Robert DuVall spent two years covering the Convention Center Area Command, the police region that includes the Strip. He said the department has a good working relationship with the casinos, which often serve as a buffer between police and bad behavior.

If there’s a scuffle in a casino, the property’s security guards will often break it up and leave it at that, DuVall said. But if they think the brawl will carry on outside, they’ll call police and the department will send officers to the scene.

Police say there are about 2,000 arrests on the Strip every year. Most of those are considered “in custody” arrests, which means the accused were already arrested by the casino staff by the time Metro showed up. Those arrests range from lewdness to drug possession to sexual assault.

Locals don’t seem immune to the seductive power of the Strip.

Anecdotally, police said, about half the arrests on the Strip involve residents.

Local advertising suggests the “What happens here” mentality has embedded itself into the culture. Examples include Lee’s Discount Liquor’s billboard featuring slogans including: “Wine: How classy people get drunk” and “Yeah, I’d tap that … Keg.”

A personal injury attorney with Cogburn Law, Kristin Cogburn, says “What happens here, stays here” and a loose attitude about alcohol have transformed the Strip into a trouble spot.

“People have taken it as a mantra,” she said. Cogburn calls those people “extremists,” and says she’s represented countless clients injured by drunken drivers or rowdy guests throwing fists. “There’s a heightened state of reckless behavior,” Cogburn said. “Now it’s a circus atmosphere.”

The Hangover Dream

Michael Green has thought long and hard about how Las Vegas has changed.

A local Las Vegas historian and teacher at the College of Southern Nevada, Green has chronicled Sin City’s story in books and magazine articles. To illustrate how the culture came to accept the raciness of the “What happens here” slogan, he points to the evolution of moral standards on TV since the 1950s and 1960s, when the characters on “I Love Lucy” weren’t allowed to say star Lucille Ball was pregnant and the married couple on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” slept in separate beds.

“Think of those days compared to what’s available on cable and television today,” Green said.

In the earlier 2000s, when the LVCVA rolled out a series of television ads pumping the “What happens here” campaign, people called the behavior strung through the 30-second spots “risque.”

In one ad, a male visitor has a different occupation for every girl he meets. Among them: brain doctor, lifeguard, race car driver, hand model, big game hunter, cage fighter, author — and a lawyer in the off-season.

In another, one man tells his skeptical friend about the power Las Vegas has given them: “We’re like the Huns,” he said. “This is all for the taking … all for the pillaging.”

There were other Vegas ads that were much more risque, Brandweek noted. The Hard Rock Hotel at one time rolled out a 24-page partying guide including tips on proper etiquette during a sexual threesome. The Hard Rock also put up a billboard showing a naked woman on a blackjack table. The text read: “There’s always a temptation to cheat.”

Flash forward to today and there’s the “Hangover” movie series, which featured the exploits of a group of friends trying to find a rogue groom who’s swallowed by Las Vegas after a blackout weekend. In a haze of booze and drugs, the group, among other things, steals Mike Tyson’s pet tiger — and then meets the former boxing champ, listening to him play a Phil Collins tune on the piano.

The closest real-life “Hangover” event in recent Vegas news featured a California lawyer who celebrated his birthday in a high-roller suite at the Encore in 2013 — and proceeded to cause $100,000 in damages while drunk.

Inside the room, cops found overturned furniture, shards of glass on the floor and food caked on the carpet and walls.

“Las Vegas is evolving from a gambling mecca with entertainment to an entertainment mecca,” Green said. “Times have changed. There has always been in Las Vegas the tendency to do other things you wouldn’t do elsewhere.”

Selling Las Vegas

Eddie Munoz has a colorful — and racy — career compared with other Las Vegas locals.

For the past three decades, Munoz has manned the numerous news racks dotting Southern Nevada. These racks hold everything from foreign newspapers to pamphlets stuffed with advertisements for escort services. On the Strip alone, Munoz operates 450 of these racks. In total, he has about 650. That’s a dip compared with the peak of his career, when he had 1,000 racks on the Strip alone.

Munoz is a local through and through, and a local businessman at that. So if the “What happens here” slogan is bringing more people and money to the valley, he’s wondering why he hasn’t see any of it.

“People don’t have the money to spend. People don’t use their credit cards anymore. It’s just not the same,” Munoz said. “We’re in the depression. People are going to pay their bills before they go and party. For anybody that’s saying Vegas is getting better, that’s bull.”

To Munoz, “What happens here” is nothing but a “marketing ploy.” It doesn’t reflect reality.

If that’s true, the ploy has made life easier for Tom Skancke. As point man for the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, he’s responsible for luring business to the desert.

The phrase has been great for guys like Skancke because of brand recognition. “What happens here” is global. The slogan doesn’t stay here. In other countries, it’s just as recognizable as Nike’s “Just do it.” That’s given Skancke the opportunity to talk about Vegas as a place people know.

It’s similar to how most people have a certain perception of London or Tokyo or New York. By most standards, it’s impressive that this little city of 2 million people in the middle of the desert has as much name recognition and branding in most corners of the globe.

“Is there any negative?” Skancke said. “I would say no.”

So what’s next? Vassiliadis says that’s unclear — because “What happens here” is still on top. It’s what people want, and he doesn’t see a timeline for the slogan’s successor: “I think it’ll be after my lifetime.”

Ad campaigns, he added, are steeped in what the visitors are saying.

“At this point, they’re saying we love what you’re saying to us,” Vassiliadis said.

Eleven years after “What happens here” debuted, it’s impossible to imagine a contemporary Las Vegas without it. It seems just as important as the visionaries who first built the casinos, as iconic as Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo, and as explosive as Steve Wynn’s volcano at the Mirage.

But those were material developments. In the case of “What happens here,” it was about a perception of ourselves and our city. It cemented Las Vegas in the national consciousness as a must-visit destination, like Yellowstone or New York or Disneyland with a twist.

It forever changed the way the world viewed us — and the way we viewed ourselves.

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