12/26/2003 12:00AM

Critics fail to grasp city's appeal

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You have to hand it to people who will come into your house and trash you right in your face. That's what happened last week at the annual Governor's Conference on Tourism, held at Caesars Palace.

Michael O'Keefe, who works for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, was the moderator of a panel; he asked the panelists if they perceived Nevada as a viable destination for trade groups.

The background here is the LVCVA is running a risque national ad campaign called "Vegas Stories," which coined the catchphrase, "What happens here, stays here."

The panelists took turns ripping into the ad campaign and Las Vegas as a convention destination:

"I find it very tough to come here, because the city's image and reputation hurt it, including some of the creative advertising," said Ed Barclay of Carlson Marketing Group in Minneapolis.

"If anything is going to hurt Las Vegas, I would suggest it's going to be attitude," said Steven Hacker of International Association for Exhibition Management in Dallas. "Las Vegas is not the kind of image we want to be associated with."

"I'm really disappointed in this message that we've alluded to: 'What happens here, stays here,' " said Bruce Harris of Conferon Global Services in Twinsburg, Ohio. "I think it's kind of repulsive. You're pushing the wrong message."

I, personally, view the "Vegas Stories" ad campaign as right on. It hints at what makes Las Vegas unique and the most popular tourist and convention destination in America.

It was incredible to hear these comments from supposed leaders of marketing fields. It was as if we were transported to 1965, when television censors felt it was obscene to show Rob and Laura Petrie, a married couple on "The Dick Van Dyke Show," sleeping in the same bed.

The LVCVA fended off the criticism like a brush-back pitch to Barry Bonds - it will continue to swing for the fences.

LVCVA data showed that in 1982, convention business accounted for 7 percent of Las Vegas's total visitor count. A decade later, that number rose to 9 percent. Last year, conventions, trade shows, and corporate meetings accounted for almost 15 percent of the visitor count. The current booking pace will make it rise to 17 percent in 2003.

The bottom line - pushing the envelope in advertising is what cuts through the clutter of incessant commercials. Then look at the rash of shows, movies, and commercial shoots based out of Las Vegas that portray a deepening fascination with this city. To ignore the human nature of people letting their hair down while visiting Las Vegas is an insult to our intelligence.

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up Show.