By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/15/2009 9:08:51 AM ET 2009-12-15T14:08:51

Have you been to Las Vegas lately? According to the numbers, probably not. Thanks to the recession, crumbling real estate values and hundreds of canceled conventions, the city’s visitor volume this year is off 3.9 percent (through October).

In fact, some have suggested the city has all but crapped out. The explosive growth, the multi-billion-dollar projects and the over-the-top, anything-goes mind-set — it was all artifice, a boom destined to go bust and a relic of pre-recessionary excess.

On the other hand, they don’t call Las Vegas “The Capital of Second Chances” for nothing, and if the city has proven anything, it’s that the house always wins in the end.

Cowboys, crooners and kitsch
Las Vegas, it turns out, has a history of promoting itself out of troubled times. In 1934, with Hoover Dam nearing completion, the prospect of empty hotel rooms led to the creation of a cowboy-themed festival called Helldorado Days. “The whole town dressed Western,” says Duane LaDuke, Helldorado’s current executive director. “They had to do something to keep people coming.”

And come they did, staying and playing at a passel of Wild West–inspired resorts like El Rancho Vegas (1941) and the Last Frontier (1942) — at least until the cowboy motif started to go moldy. “As it turns out,” suggests Robert Dorgan, director of the University of Nevada’s Downtown Design Center, “a bunch of scruffy guys who don’t bathe isn’t a particularly catchy brand.”

So local promoters tapped into more modern imagery. Atomic cocktails inspired by the nuclear blasts at the nearby Nevada Test Site. Celebrities and showgirls who epitomized the loosening of the old moral code. For many, the Vegas “brand” reached its apotheosis in the early ‘60s in the swing and swagger of the Rat Pack before becoming a caricature of itself by way of a bling-laden Liberace and an overweight Elvis.

In fact, by the mid-‘70s, it had all gotten a bit stale. “The aura of tuxedos and martinis had given way to beer and $3.99 buffets,” says Billy Vassiliadis, CEO of Las Vegas–based R&R Partners (the ad agency behind the “What Happens Here, Stays Here” campaign). “The other trappings were just there to give gamblers another reason to come.”

Vegas gets a wake-up call
And those trappings might have been enough except for one thing: the rise of legalized tribal gaming in the late ‘70s, especially in Las Vegas’ biggest market, California. “If all you wanted to do was play slots,” says Vassiliadis, “why drive four or five hours or fly an hour when you can be at a casino in 20 to 30 minutes? That was a huge wake-up call.”

It was answered in 1989 when Steve Wynn opened the Mirage, the city’s first new resort since 1973 and the first to put high-end, non-gaming attractions front and center. The move not only jumpstarted visitation, but also led to another tweaking of the Vegas brand: Bring the family, catch a show, and when you’re done sightseeing, the slots and tables will be waiting.

The Mirage’s success would also bring a whirlwind of development, with more attractions and ever-bigger resorts, not to mention the growing sense that nothing could stop the Vegas juggernaut. The city had it all, which meant you could, too — no questions asked. Leave your worries, your responsibilities and your inhibitions at home because, hey, what happens here stays here.

Of course, that’s a moot point if people stop coming.

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Post-recession Vegas: the next evolution?
Few places have been harder hit by the recession than Las Vegas, and the city’s current troubles dwarf those of earlier eras. And yet, despite the challenges — stalled projects, declining room revenues, more flight cutbacks — the city is already poised for its next evolution.

In May, the city broke ground on a new performing arts center that will serve as home to the Las Vegas Philharmonic and Nevada Ballet Theatre when it opens in 2012. On the Strip, new additions like Encore and CityCenter feature sleek design and sophisticated amenities, rather than ersatz architecture and amusement park rides.

“We’re very successful at reinventing ourselves,” says Terry Jicinsky, senior vice president of operations for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “These new projects offer another case study that we’ll look back at 10 years from now and say, ‘Here was another milestone in our evolution.’ ”

Slideshow: Viva Las Vegas!

The irony, perhaps, is that a city that’s built its reputation on allowing visitors to leave their old lives behind and adopt new personas is itself a major shape-shifter. And while the recession has clearly dealt it a lousy hand lately, betting against the place remains a fool’s game.

“The amazing thing about this town,” says Vassiliadis, “is that the folks that make the financial decisions have made huge chunks of investment at exactly the right time to transform the city into what it needs to be to continue being an attraction.”

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail.

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