Friday, April 10, 2009

Las Vegas is catering to the over-21 college crowd, hoping to fill empty rooms with young people lured by the promise of cheap rooms, cheap booze and nonstop entertainment.

MGM Mirage is promoting Sin City’s potential as a spring break hotspot with a “Vegas Spring Break Escape,” offering $59 hotel rooms and free pizza at its New York-New York and Monte Carlo resort casinos. The casinos also offer “beer pong” drinking contests and “shot girls” who cruise poolsides with trays of free drinks. Of course, they also offer the traditional all-you-can-eat buffets along with the city’s famous nightlife.

Other resorts including the Plaza Hotel & Casino, the Flamingo and Harrah’s Carnival Court have added events that appeal to college-age people, including RockBand competitions and beer pong tournaments.

“We always get a pretty good influx of college students at spring break,” said Tony Bender, vice president of marketing at the Plaza.

Any business is good business for Las Vegas, especially when the city is struggling with an economic downturn and a slowdown in business travel.

Las Vegas is currently the top destination for travel booked through Travelocity’s site, pulling in 9 percent of the tickets booked on Travelocity for March 14 through April 26. In February, Travelocity named Las Vegas one of the “Top Eight Value Destinations for Spring Break,” citing a 5 percent drop in average airfare and a 34 percent drop in average daily room rates from last year.

“Financially, I didn’t think that I could afford to spend $1,200 or $1,500 on a trip to Mexico like everyone else was doing,” said Kent State junior Lauren Yelichek.

Miss Yelichek chose Las Vegas for spring break this year, spending about $425 for five nights at Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino, where her room was upgraded to a suite because of low occupancy.

Miss Yelichek, a student and bartender, said she saw more college students than she had expected and she and her travel buddy seized every opportunity for a good time on their inexpensive vacation.

“People told me that when I went there I’d be in awe and it’s this fantasy land, and it really is,” said Miss Yelichek. “It’s just a nonstop city. No one sleeps.”

Las Vegas is focusing on attracting students like Miss Yelichek, and many of the city’s resorts have carved out deals that appeal to that demographic at this time of the year, said Alicia Malone, spokeswoman for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. She said she has “heard the concerns with traveling to Mexico or other popular spring break spots” and that Las Vegas is benefiting from problems south of the border.

The State Department alerted Americans in February about the dangers of travel in Mexico.

Cancun has been a popular spring break destination for years, partially because of the border proximity and lower drinking age. Florida is also a popular spring break destination for this demographic, but Visit Florida spokeswoman Dia Kuykendall said the tourism board’s “pitches and promotions were centered around family spring break, not college spring break.”

Las Vegas has remained “one of the top two spring break destinations for the last three years,” said Jennifer Gaines, spokeswoman for

Bill Kalogeras, a college student who also drives an ambulance on the Strip, said he has noticed a change in Las Vegas this spring.

“There was a ton more spring breakers because of all the stuff going on in Mexico,” said Mr. Kalogeras, a junior at the College of Las Vegas and a paramedic with American Medical Response. “A lot of people just drive over from California instead of driving to Mexico.”

Mr. Kalogeras said the influx made it harder for him to do his job.

“I couldn’t even move my ambulance down the Strip when I usually can get up and down the Strip just fine,” he explained.

The Strip gets a lot of attention, but the owner of the oldest hotel in Las Vegas, the Golden Gate, said Fremont Street is becoming a desirable destination for a young crowd.

“We’ve been getting a relatively younger crowd down here on Fremont Street because they’re beginning to discover we’re here,” said Golden Gate owner Mark Brandenburg. “The Fremont Street Experience is pretty much an all-night party scene with free light shows, music entertainment and it’s really an attractive place for spring break.”

A canopy covers the street for four blocks, allowing pedestrians to look up and see light shows day and night. Bands and DJs play there daily, and celebrities often join the party. LeAnn Rimes and Kellie Pickler gave free concerts there last Saturday

“For spring breakers who want to be able to get around without having to jump in cars or cabs, it’s ideal,” said Mr. Brandenburg.

Miss Yelichek reminisced about her first gambling experience, the high energy of the city and the nightlife there.

“I have to go back, I want to go back so bad right now,” she said.

New York-New York’s “Vegas Spring Break Escape” promotion expires Sunday, but MGM Mirage plans to repeat it this summer.

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