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Nevadans gambling on the great outdoors

State promoting its recreational opportunities

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RENO, Nev. — Ferenc Szony was introducing one of the speakers at Nevada's 19th annual tourism conference recently when he noted the heavy snow falling in the neighboring Sierra range.

And then the president of the Sands Regency Casino & Hotel uttered something traditionally taboo in a tourism market heavily dependent on San Francisco Bay area gamblers driving over the mountains. He said the snow was a good thing.

"To have a casino guy saying on a Tuesday morning that snow is a good thing — it's a big change," Szony said. "But it's a good change."

Szony is among the Reno casino operators still getting used to the idea that what's good for Lake Tahoe ski resorts an hour away is good for them, too.

With 11 states offering some form of casino-style gambling — 29 if tribal gambling is included — and growing threats from Indian casinos in neighboring California and Arizona, Nevada tourism officials are increasingly placing their bets on a strategy that emphasizes skiing, golfing and other outdoor recreation as the best way to attract the traveler of the future.

In their latest campaign promoting the "Wildest Adventure State in the Lower 48," they portray fine dining as part of the glamorous night life that complements the hiking, biking and rock-climbing that make Nevada unique — from southern Nevada's desert to the snowcapped peaks of the Sierra.

"This whole adventure concept was a huge leap of faith for many of us," said Szony, who previously worked 16 years with Hilton Hotels Corp., including the Flamingo Hilton in Las Vegas.

The theme of this year's tourism conference was "Putting Adventure Back in Tourism." In addition to the statewide push, the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority has dubbed the Reno-Tahoe area as "America's Adventure Place."

The Nevada Tourism Conference kicked it all off nearly a year ago with an edgy, $3 million advertising campaign, "Nevada: Bring It On."

Aimed at active Generation Xers, it promotes activities such as hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail, dropping by helicopter to ski virgin snow near Elko and climbing cliffs at Red Rock Canyon near Las Vegas.

"It was bold. It was a risk. But we now are marketing the state as a whole," says Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt, one of the effort's biggest backers.

"Other states have outdoor recreation, but not with the glamour and the glitz, 24-7. We have everything from neon to nature."

A new tour guide publication welcomes "nomadic souls like you, those seeking asylum from the artificial aspirations that complicate our time."

"Alpine-awed" and "manic-moonscaped . . . we're a state of epic adrenaline poetry, rugged run-on sentences of pure, unyielding beauty, a big-scale improvisation on the theme of being alive."

Hunt, an entertainer who worked in casinos in Las Vegas and Reno, acknowledged that emphasizing the "primal scream of Nevada's outback" is a change for many.

"It used to be the only adrenaline-rushing experience in Nevada was to hit a megajackpot or hit it big on a roulette table," she says.

But she's confident it's the right way to go and points to cable sports network ESPN's recent decision to televise its Great Outdoor Games from the Reno area in July. The competition includes lumberjacking, shooting, sporting dogs and fishing.

"It's a perfect fit," she says.

Jeff Beckelman, president and CEO of the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority, said ESPN's "Great Outdoor Games" is the best opportunity to date to promote the Reno-Tahoe area.

"We're using adventure travel as the hook," Beckelman says. "We're trying to capitalize on what the people who live here love the most — the abundance of recreational opportunities, including gaming."

Skip Sayre, marketing director for Harrah's and Harvey's at Lake Tahoe, says there is no choice but to change with the times.

"It's a challenging world for tourism. We need innovation, risk and adventure in our marketing approach if we are going to maintain Nevada's position in the industry," he says.

Nevada's gambling revenues fell 3.7 percent in the fiscal year that ended last June 30, the first year-to-year decrease since 1990. In the Reno area, revenues have declined in 21 of the past 24 months.

Bill Eadington, an economics professor who directs the Institute for the Study of Gaming at the University of Nevada, Reno, says the half-dozen tribal casinos being developed in northern California will pose significant new competition in the northern Nevada market.

California tribal casinos brought in an estimated $5 billion last year — half of Nevada's nation-leading total of $10 billion, Eadington says.

"California Indian gaming likely will grow to exceed Nevada in the next 10 years," he says.

"In Reno, the question is, will the patient survive?" Eadington told the tourism conference. "Will we in northern Nevada be clever enough to come up with new strategies?"

Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., a former Nevadan who lobbies Congress for casinos as president of the American Gaming Association, recalled a recent trip down Virginia Street, the main drag through Reno's casino district underneath the arch that proclaims it "The Biggest Little City in the World."

"I'll tell you, for a kid who moved to this city in 1949, I was sick to my stomach by what I saw. Things were boarded up," Fahrenkopf said.

"I wish there was more of the entrepreneurial spirit of southern Nevada in the north. . . . This town has to be more creative."

Eadington said local governments in the Reno-Sparks area have continued to invest in tourism even if the private sector has not kept pace.

"The critical mass of tourism infrastructure and facilities give Nevada resort areas an advantage over emerging markets," he said.

William Norman, president of the Travel Industry of America, said the Washington-based trade association's surveys suggest Nevada's emphasis on recreational opportunities will serve the state well.

"The research has shown that since Sept. 11, Americans desire to connect with our natural environment is even stronger than ever," Norman said.

"The outdoors is one of best ways to capture young demographics," he told the tourism conference. "You can find casinos in other places, but there's really no place like Nevada."

On the net: Nevada Commission on Tourism