For two weeks around the first of the year, the city of Las Vegas, while certainly not under siege, in many ways seemed to be preparing for one. Helicopters flew overhead, patrolling city streets, and a no-fly zone was in force over the city. More police officers walked the Strip, cars were searched, and National Guardsmen were brought in from other parts of the state to beef up security efforts.
It’s not necessarily the kind of publicity that a tourist destination such as Las Vegas likes to see, but if you talk to planners, their perceptions haven’t changed—Las Vegas continues to be an attractive, appealing, and safe place to hold a meeting.
"I think it’s one of the safest places in the world to stay," says Bill Boyd, president and CEO of Sunbelt Motivation and Travel, Dallas, whose company does millions of dollars in business in Las Vegas annually.
"I wouldn’t pick out Las Vegas as a special target [for terrorists]," says Tony Lorenz, president of ProActive Inc., Chicago, a strategic communications and events company specializing in strategic services, production services, and event management. "No more than any other major metropolitan area, such as Chicago or New York."
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority has no doubt that Las Vegas remains a secure venue. "Las Vegas continues to enjoy the perception that it’s a safe destination," says spokesman Rob Powers.
No Specific Threat
It all began in late December, when the federal government imposed a high terror alert that included references to Las Vegas as a possible target. During this time, several Air France flights with U.S. destinations were canceled. Press reports included suggestions from some unnamed government officials that terrorists may have intended to hijack a flight from Paris to Los Angeles with the intention of crashing it in Las Vegas.
While law enforcement officials were adamant that there was no specific threat against Las Vegas, the security response was extraordinary. Whether it was restricting air space over the city or stationing National Guardsmen at McCarran International Airport, the authorities did not take chances.
Todd Palmer, spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Las Vegas, says that in cities with scheduled public events that are expected to draw more than 50,000 people, the authorities were urged to take "protective and cooperative" steps to ensure safety and security. "That’s just what we did," he says.
"There were no specific, actionable threats," says Jerry Bussell, Homeland Security adviser to Nevada Gov. Kenneth Guinn. At the same time, Bussell says, there was a "real potential for terrorism" in Las Vegas that became clear in the period leading up to New Year’s Eve.
Sgt. Tim Shalhoob, a spokesman for the Las Vegas Police Department who works in its Tourist Safety Bureau, says that ever since Sept. 11, 2001, law enforcement authorities have worked under the assumption that the city—"the entertainment capital of the world"—is a conspicuous target. As Shalhoob points out, a half-dozen of the terrorists involved in the 9/11 hijackings visited Las Vegas, "and from that day forward, we’ve wondered what they were doing here.
"We take nothing for chance," Shalhoob says. "We assume they looked at Las Vegas as a potential target."
Some of the stepped-up security precautions were tough to miss. Vehicles were routinely searched as they pulled up in front of resorts. Police performed roving checks in the crowds. And there were those helicopter gun ships overhead.
Yet Bussell says that much of what took place from a security standpoint was not visible to most citizens and tourists, and that law enforcement officials remain sensitive to the fact that Las Vegas is a tourist destination. "We can’t put economics ahead of safety," he says. "But by the same token, we have to be aware of what we are saying … that we are not unduly scaring the public. It’s a balancing act."
"It [the added security] was evident, but it wasn’t obtrusive," says Powers. "Law enforcement here does a very good job of letting people have a good time, and only step in when they need to. They are very sensitive to our industry."
Ironically, the increased security, instead of creating anxiety, might have actually increased the feeling of well-being within the city. The FBI’s Palmer said that in the aftermath of the alert, he constantly heard that residents and citizens appreciated the added security and felt safer because of it.
Added security precautions during peak tourist periods have become a matter of course for the Las Vegas Police Department, according to Shalhoob. Approximately 100 extra officers patrolled the tourist corridor during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve as a precaution, Shalhoob explains. But the publicity over this past New Year’s Eve was "a lot less dramatic for us," he says. "We’ve been in that mode for years."
Privacy vs. Security
There was one other security step taken by authorities that—at first—took place completely out of the sight of the city’s residents and guests. Resorts and hotels were asked to supply the FBI with their guest lists—a request with which they complied–but it was not without some less-than-flattering publicity when that news became public.
"Everyone was extremely cooperative," says Palmer, who added that despite some reports to the contrary, hotels did not supply detailed information about guests, but only names that the FBI used to check against those on terrorist watch lists.
While there have been invasion of privacy concerns over the release of names, Boyd wonders whether it is an issue that will resonate with attendees.
"I guess my question is, what’s the beef here?" Boyd asks. "So the federal government knows you stayed in Las Vegas. Maybe if you have something to hide it’s a problem. Is it an invasion of privacy? Probably. Should that take priority over the issues of safety and security? Probably not."
Will security concerns have any kind of long-term impact on Las Vegas as a meeting destination?
If so, it’s not apparent in the short term, says Michael Uhl, senior vice president of sales andfor the Paris Las Vegas Resort. "We heightened our security, but from a business perspective, we are in the middle of one of the best Januarys we’ve ever had," Uhl says. "We haven’t had any customers express any concerns about coming to Las Vegas."
The LVCVA’s Powers agrees, pointing to January’s successful International Consumer and Electronics Show as a sign that Las Vegas has not been affected by the alert. "The CES was amazing. The show floor was as crowded as I’ve ever seen it."
Lorenz of ProActive sends five or six groups to Las Vegas a year, and he says that from a security standpoint, nothing would make him rethink Vegas as a destination. And Roxanne Sobanski has not changed her mind about bringing a sales meeting to Las Vegas this spring. Sobanski, a planner for JohnsonDiversy, a Sturtevant, Wis.–based company that produces cleaning and hygiene products, says that she doesn’t believe the recent security alert in Las Vegas would bother her attendees at all. In fact, she says, "I hope it [added security] would give them more of a sense of security than the opposite."
While there appears to be little concern that the added security alert will have a lasting impact on the Las Vegas tourism industry, Bill Thompson is not quite as sanguine about the future. "We don’t want to be singled out [for alerts]," says Thompson, a professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas and an expert in the casino industry. "If there is a specific threat, yes. But if it’s general, no." If Las Vegas continues to be pinpointed, he says, it could lose business to cities that aren’t alleged terrorist targets.
Should the worst happen, Vegas could be devastated economically. Thompson points to South Florida’s experience in the early 1990s, when it was hit by a rash of murders of international tourists, and tourism was cut in half. With that in mind, he says, authorities need to act if Las Vegas is the target of a specific threat. But, he adds, "just don’t do it frivolously." —Michael Bassett
Sidebar: Know Before You Go
Web sites for security information:
Department of Homeland Security
Event & Meeting Security
Transportation Security Administration
U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
FAA Airport Status
Other Travel Resources:
The Weather Channel