LAS VEGAS – “What happens here, stays here.”
For almost two decades, those five words have served as this city’s mantra of excess. Rarely has an official tourism slogan been so widely recognized, with Las Vegas travelers often reciting the familiar “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” mantra.
The catchy and controversial one-liner encouraged and empowered tourists to behave in ways they would have never dared back home – a wink to the naughty.
But there have been rumblings along the Strip that that slogan may soon change to something a little different, reports the Reno Gazette-Journal, which is part of the USA TODAY Network.
“What happens here only happens here.”
That’s the catchphrase Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler introduced last week to a Las Vegas concert audience at least four times, according to John Katsilometes, of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
“When I say, ‘What happens here,’ you say, ‘Only happens here!’ ” Tyler told the crowd.
Tyler’s callout could be part of a larger campaign to roll out “What happens here only happens here” as the city’s new slogan, according to the report.
Aerosmith has also participated in what appears to be a top secret campaign to roll out a surprise in Las Vegas on Jan. 26.
Officials from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and R&R Partners – the advertising company behind the “What happens here” campaign – were not immediately available for comment Monday.
Reflecting Vegas values
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the number of people traveling to destinations like Las Vegas plunged.
Plummeting casino revenues and visitor numbers forced tourism officials here to find a new way of drawing people to Southern Nevada.
Part of the solution, it turned out, was a slogan.
In 2002, R&R Partners developed “What happens here, stays here.”
“It’s reflected what visitors want from Las Vegas,” R&R Partners CEO Billy Vassiliadis told the Las Vegas Sun in 2014. “It is reflective of Las Vegas as a place where I can come and escape my doldrums and escape the treadmill that’s my life.”
In 2004, Jay Leno asked former first lady Laura Bush about a recent visit to Las Vegas.
“I imagine partying until dawn?” Leno asked. “Did you gamble at all while you were there? Did you pull a slot machine? Did you go to a Chippendales show?”
“Jay,” Bush said, “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”
With the “What happens here” launch came a series of 30-second television ads about the kind of ribald behavior that’s possible when your secrets stay safe.
One ad featured a man explaining the freedom that comes with a trip to Vegas.
“We’re like the huns,” he said to a friend. “This is all for the taking… all for the pillaging.”
The ad campaign carried a long shelf life – a concept that’s rare in a city known to implode the old to make way for the new time and time again.
Brainstorming a new pitch
The visitors authority, charged with delivering nearly 43 million tourists to Las Vegas annually, immediately put the “What happens here” motto on hold and went to work creating a new pitch.
The agency quickly brainstormed with its ad agency for a new message to keep Las Vegas out front in a tasteful way.
A new spot featured a cityscape and the voice of Las Vegas native and retired tennis star Andre Agassi.
“What is strength?” Agassi asked, playing off the #VegasStrong slogan that exploded on Twitter. “Strength is valet parkers who become medics, mothers who become emergency responders.”
Three months after the shooting, “What happens here, stays here” returned by popular demand.
The LVCVA revived the 15-year-old slogan with new online and television ads, marking a return to normalcy in the city where the backbone industry was directly affected by the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
Telling a new story
In the 1990s, tourism authorities touted the Strip as a family destination complete with full-blown amusement parks.
As casino operations became more and more corporate, the business model aimed to capture adults looking for their own version of Disneyland.
“What happens here, stays here” appealed to the adults.
As regional casinos emerge across the country and online sports betting proliferates, revenue streams that once floated resorts on the Strip are shrinking, forcing tourism authorities to find yet another way to bring people to Las Vegas.
“What happens here, only happens here” would appeal to tourists looking for what they can’t find anywhere else, according to Nevada historian Michael Green.
“It’s a vow to the fact that – once upon a time – gambling was what happened here, and it was the only thing that happened here legally,” Green said. “Nevada could rest on its laurels, though it isn’t.”
What separates Las Vegas from regional gambling hubs, Green said, is the combinations tourists can create here.
It’s a 24/7 destination of nonstop spectacle: A-list entertainers and Michelin restaurants, professional sports and world class casinos, designer shops and social media stops.
“You go to the other places to get your bachelor’s, but Las Vegas is where you go for the graduate degree in fun,” Green said. “You warmed up over there. That’s the bullpen. Come here to get in the game.”
Contributing: The Associated Press.
Ed Komenda writes about Las Vegas for the Reno Gazette Journal and USA TODAY Network.