Harrah’s boss backs changes in Northern Nevada tourism focus
RENO — A leading casino executive told Northern Nevadans on Tuesday they could attract more tourists by emphasizing the reasons that lured them here — from the beauty of the Sierra to the friendly people.
“In Las Vegas, our customers say it’s a great place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live here,” said Phil Satre, chairman of the board of Harrah’s Entertainment Inc.
“In Reno, all too often, it is the opposite,” he told about 800 business, community and government leaders at a Northern Nevada economic conference.
“We must change the image of Reno. The image in my view is the place my parents went to. That is the penalty for being the original gaming destination. We need to change that to make it a place I want to go and people in their 20s and 30s want to go.”
The annual conference 2003 Dimensions at the Reno Hilton emphasized many of the themes sounded a month ago at the 19th annual Nevada Conference on Tourism — especially promoting the Reno-Tahoe area as more than just a gambling destination.
“Research shows people do not know what Reno-Tahoe has to offer,” said Jeff Beckelman, president and chief executive officer of the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority.
“People know we have gaming,” he said. But he said they don’t know about the world-class restaurants, big-name entertainment, more than 40 golf courses, skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, hiking, fishing, arts, culture and special events.
Satre said he is a “reformed Californian” who first moved to Nevada to practice law in 1979 and returned to Reno in 1999 after a 12-year stint in Memphis at Harrah’s corporate offices, the third largest casino company in the United States behind Park Place Entertainment and MGM Mirage.
“I’m a Reno-ite by choice,” Satre said. “What attracted me was the Truckee River, the beauty of the East Slope of the Sierra, the four seasons, our proximity to Lake Tahoe and the striking beauty of the desert. Also, the fiercely independent and warm, friendly people who live here.
“The reasons we live here, I believe, are the reasons we will be able to be successful,” he said, even in the face of competition from tribal casinos in California.
“It is not new casinos. We are already oversupplied with slot machines and table games in Northern Nevada,” he said.
Steven High, executive director of the Nevada Museum of Art, said arts and cultural organizations have invested more than $50 million for capital improvements in downtown Reno over the past three years, including $16 million for the art museum set to open in May, $11 million for the Riverside Artists Lofts and $9 million for the Lear Theater’s renovation.
“These facilities and accompanying performance, exhibition and educational programs create a bridge between our tourist economy and our local economy,” High said.
“Reno will become a unique and vital city where people are proud to live and where visitors can find authentic and unique experiences.”
Satre said tourists pumped $32 billion into Las Vegas’ economy in 2001, but only 24 percent of it was direct revenue from gambling.
Las Vegas visitors spend on average $607 on gambling and $751 on lodging, entertainment, dining and shopping, he said.
Reno visitors, on the other hand, spend an average of $419 on gambling and $296 on other things, he said.
“The key is improving the quality and extent of the tourism product, including casinos and non-casino businesses,” he said.
Satre and others said they back city leaders’ efforts to crack down on panhandlers, drug dealers and street drunks while cleaning up the downtown casino area.
“Mayor Bob Cashell is right to push for removal of blight from downtown,” he said.
But Satre also took Reno city leaders to task for impeding development of new downtown projects. He pointed to the difficulty Harrah’s had in constructing an outdoor entertainment plaza.
“It took us as long to negotiate and sign deals with 16 property owners to get the land (in downtown Reno) as it did to acquire the Rio, acquire the Showboat, acquire Players International and acquire Harveys (Lake Tahoe) at a combined $2 billion,” he said.
“It is still a practical problem in Reno. Even if the property is available for delivery in Reno, it takes far too long to acquire it and get approval for a project.”
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