02/28/2003 12:00AM

Planning for tourism during war

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While the United States military continues its buildup toward war against Iraq, leaders of the gaming industry in Las Vegas watch with caution and pent-up anxiety about the timing and duration of the invasion by American-led forces.

Casino operators and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority are certain to draw on the city's experience from 9/11 and the Gulf War of 1991. Although the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, came without warning, another Gulf War will come with months of anticipation.

Both times Las Vegas took its hit immediately and hard.

Visitor volume slowed during the early days of the war in 1991 as many stayed home and watched it unfold on television. The entire country, however, came to a standstill when air travel was grounded for several days following the 9/11 attacks. Then, everyone was glued to their television sets watching round-the-clock coverage.

Las Vegas has learned from these experiences, and many experts believe the city will be able to weather the impending action in the Middle East better than most tourist destinations. Although no one can definitively measure how severe the impact will be, resort operators learned that even after the 9/11 attacks business eventually returned.

The Convention and Visitors Authority has done a lot of research on the trends that followed 9/11 and the last Gulf War and are poised to utilize that research this time around.

Initially, the city will watch the first days of the war with the rest of the world on television. Depending on the early outcome, a shift in marketing strategy will be put into place. Setting a plan in motion to revitalize tourism will be the hard part. Timing is crucial and sensitivity is essential.

A heavier presence will be placed on feeder markets within three hours from Las Vegas, as reduced air travel for overnight visits to the city can be anticipated. Just after 9/11 more people drove to Las Vegas than flew.

The drive-in markets of Southern California and Arizona will be targeted with mailers and special added-incentive packages. Those packages will have to be further enhanced if the price of gasoline continues its skyward spiral. A typical round-trip by car from Phoenix or Los Angeles could cut a dinner show from the visit.

After the public breaks away from the images of war on television, it may well need an escape from what is going on in the world. For millions of people, Las Vegas's reputation as the ultimate getaway will fill the bill, as it has done in the past.

One of the key elements attributed to the quicker recovery of Las Vegas than other destination resorts after the 1991 war and 9/11 was the almost immediate marketing campaigns touting the city as a safe destination of excitement and escape.

After 9/11 many expansion projects were put on hold, and others came to a halt. No such actions are foreseen this time.

Park Place Entertainment is still on schedule to open its Colosseum with Celine Dion in March, a new celebrity restaurant at Caesars Palace, and a nightclub at Paris Las Vegas. Locals casino giants Coast Casinos and Stations Casinos have no plans for any wartime strategies, as neither company experienced significant business declines after 9/11 or during the first Gulf War.

Ralph Siraco is turf editor for the Las Vegas Sun and host of the Race Day Las Vegas radio show