Thursday, July 15, 2010

Bet on the Power of Your Brand

“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Sin City. The Hangover. With the exception of a failed ad campaign about a decade ago that touted it as a “family destination,” Vegas has worked effortlessly to build its brand as the place where adults go to play.

Interestingly, I’ve just returned from a trip to Las Vegas that seemed more like a trip to Disney World; ironically, I flew out of Orlando, where there were less children running around than there were in my hotel on the Strip.

Every year, my husband and I take a few days off from parenthood to vacation alone. Like many couples, it’s our chance to get away from it all, have some peace and quiet and do things (like eat dinner at a fancy restaurant at 10 pm and then go dancing) that you just can’t – or shouldn’t – do with young children.

Therefore, we choose to go to Vegas because it’s the perfect destination for us. We stay at a high-end, modern-looking hotel at the end of the Strip. It’s located inside a resort that has the best pool in town and has all the amenities and conveniences that we could possibly ask for during a grown-up vacation. What we never had seen, and what we certainly didn’t count on, were the hoards of crying babies, scampering toddlers, hyper kids and tweens that seemed to have invaded the resort.

Whatever became of: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas?” Perhaps these kids DID “happen” in Vegas and mom and dad were taking them back to visit. Kidding aside, it just didn’t make sense. We’ve been going to that hotel for the past five years and had never encountered the issue. Other than “The Lion King,” which has been playing at that venue for a couple of years, there were no other events scheduled for kids. In fact, most other events were definitely Vegas-like in nature, meaning that kids were not the target audience.

So what could it be? We were perplexed and a little annoyed. Our kid-less vacation had taken a turn we didn’t expect.

In Vegas, you expect to see 20-somethings passed out in the elevators, not 20-month-olds passed out from a day chock-full-of activities. You expect to find some interesting items floating in the pool, but the Silly Bandz I found threw me for a loop. I couldn’t understand the child phenomenon, but I wanted to get to the bottom of it.

I finally got my answer when I went to the spa, where I was the only customer. Now, this particular spa used to be one of the finest in Vegas. In fact, two years ago I would have had to make an appointment weeks in advance just to get in for a pedicure. This time, the appointment book was empty. Apparently, busy moms on vacation didn’t have the time or money to pamper themselves.

So I asked the spa employees about the child situation and they mentioned that during the summer (now that the economy is in the dumps), locals are booking low-cost rooms at the hotel just so that they can use the many water park-like facilities. Wow! The “staycation” phenomenon has even affected one of the largest tourist destinations in the country. And with a city like Vegas, where the heat is oppressive and there isn’t a water park in sight, booking the cheapest hotel room at the resort with the best pools is practically a deal for the locals. I suppose that they know the REAL Vegas and, as locals, can ignore the seductive marketing campaigns and take advantage of the many attractions that the city has to offer.

As a communications and branding exec, I thought about this and I realized that the Vegas board of tourism is experiencing what other companies are probably experiencing, too: the loss of their brand during harsh economic times. In an effort to drive business any way they can, they’re focusing less on their typical customers and taking business from wherever they can get it. This, while perhaps important or necessary in the short-term, is a destructive move that will not only kill the brand that they’ve worked so hard to create, but it may kill the city’s economy altogether.

If it’s the locals with children who are being wooed to the hotels, then the gambling, hard partying, bachelor/bachelorette and DINK (dual-income, no kids) crowds are being ignored. And even if they’re not being ignored, then they’re certainly being turned off by the gaggle of kids awaiting them as they step through the doors.

Naturally, it’s challenging to think of the long-term financial effects when in the short-term the bottom line needs to be met. However, in the case of Vegas – or this one resort, in particular – what will happen when the kids are back in school and the casino’s target market has been turned off by the ambiance? Plus, does the resort understand the damage that having so many kids is doing to the building itself? Kids run around, ding and scratch walls, break stuff and get things dirty (yes, I realize that not all kids do this, but the ones that I had the pleasure of seeing during this trip do). That ruins the resort, both physically and from an image perspective. That increases maintenance costs. That damages the upscale reputation of a hotel known for its coolness; George Clooney and Brad Pitt graced its halls during Ocean’s Thirteen.

I won’t be staying at this resort during my next trip to Vegas, but I hope to once again be able to visit and see that its reputation has been restored to match the image it created. However, given the economy and the damage that it’s inflicted to its own brand, I don’t know how quickly it will recover. I wonder what its marketing department is doing to ensure that the brand won’t suffer too much in the long-term? I also wonder if the marketing department is even aware of the damage that the loss of control of its brand has had for the hotel.

They took a risk and bet on the short-term gains that an upsurge in families would do to increase their bottom line and keep them in the black for the year. Let’s hope the house wins on this one.