Aftermath of a massacre: The new normalcy

from the north for a change
CC BY-SA 4.0 Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz

Fifty-one Sundays have passed since the city known for sin lost its innocence.  The fifty-second Sunday this weekend and the following day, the first anniversary of the Las Vegas shooting massacre, will be marked by memorials, tributes and other reminders of the victims, their families and a community stunned by its vulnerability.

The people of Las Vegas, like those in many of the high-profile locations targeted by maniacs and terrorists, are economically dependent on tourism, which appears to have emerged relatively unscathed.

“I don’t think the challenges and/or opportunities we face today are any different than they’d be if ‘One October’ hadn’t happened,” says Billy Vassiliadis, owner of R&R Advertising, the agency of record for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority for the last three and a half decades and the media agency for MGM Resorts International, owner of Mandalay Bay.  

“One October” is the moniker assigned by local officials to the mass shooting in which gambler and Mesquite resident Stephen Paddock perched in the windows of his Mandalay Bay suite and unleashed terror on the Route 91 Festival concert crowd across the Las Vegas Strip, killing 58 and injuring 851.  

The euphemism ‘One October’ is more palatable in a tourism town than “shooting massacre on the Strip.”  

“Right after the event, people wanted to see more security.  They wanted to see visible deterrents. They wanted to be sure it’s a wake-up call,” says Vassiliadis.  

Fortunately for the Las Vegas recovery, and unfortunately for the world we live in, says Vassiliadis, the concern for security was fleeting, usurped in our collective conscience by the next act of violence.  

“With every passing month, the memory has faded.  There was the crazy van thing in Manhattan, then the Parkland shooting, then another.  As Americans, we’ve sort of accepted our plight,” he says.  “It seems to become a cycle. We get angry. I don’t want to say it’s acceptance, but we’re living with it.”

Hospitality and security make for strange bedfellows.  The handheld metal detectors that checked bags as guests entered the Wynn and Encore in the days following the massacre rapidly disappeared, apparently proving too intrusive for the devil-may-care vibe of the Strip.  

But the devil turned up on October 1, 2017, personified in the form of a valium-chomping, gun-toting insomniac with a penchant for perks and gambling on the graveyard shift.  Las Vegas is unlikely to ever be the same.

“I know security has been increased.  There’s more security on the casino floors.  I think every one of the properties has stepped it up because the guests have asked them to,” says Vassiliadis.

But a lawsuit filed on behalf of several victims of the shooting and their families contends the “wake up call” to which Vassiliadis refers has not been answered: 

… MGM has not updated its security policies, procedures, or safeguards to reflect and/or be commensurate with the increased volume of visitors coming onto its properties, especially at Mandalay Bay, notwithstanding its active efforts in soliciting such business.

Likewise, MGM has not updated its security policies, procedures or safeguards to reflect and/or be commensurate with the prevalence of terroristic threats and mass shootings in our society, which many other Las Vegas hotels have done.

MGM declined to be interviewed for this story.

The world has changed,” Sheriff Joe Lombardo told the New York Times days after the mass shooting.   “Who would have ever imagined this situation?”

Lombardo’s suggestion that the shooting could not have been anticipated belies the fact that his own officers routinely trained for such scenarios and even formed a unit to combat mass shootings and simultaneous multiple attacks, according to the lawsuit and public documents reviewed by the Current. The suit alleges the shooting was both foreseeable and preventable – in other words, if true, a public relations nightmare:  

In preparation for its heroic response to this Mass Shooting, law enforcement trained every officer to identify and neutralize a wide variety of threats, including a lone wolf Shooter in a shopping mall, a sniper on the Stratosphere, and a coordinated attack by a terrorist militia. Reportedly, plans were developed for how to deal with multiple threat scenarios at every hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, which included MGM’s other properties.

The lawsuit says MGM not only anticipated the possibility of such an event, it was insured against it.  

Based on information and belief, at the time of the Route 91 event, MGM had active shooter and/or terrorist incident insurance in effect showing such incidents were reasonably foreseeable. In essence, the insurance industry recognized the risk of active shooters, performed an actuarial analysis of it, and set a price on the cost of coverage. MGM also recognized the risk, performed a risk benefit analysis on the insurance industry coverage and price, and decided to pay the premium to reduce its risk. Demonstrating that active shooters at MGM properties were not just foreseeable, but actually foreseen.

Has the threat of violence become an expense to be factored in to the cost of doing business?  MGM Resorts International sacrificed goodwill for the sake of the bottom line by suing victims of the shooting in an effort to minimize its own liability.  

Industry analysts still wonder if the shooting is having an impact on visitation.  The shooting appears to have had little effect on visitation, which is off slightly (1.2 percent) for the year through July, the last month on record.  Visitor volume for July was 3.7 million, down 3.4 percent from the same month in 2017. Convention attendance was down by 19.5 percent for the month and down 5.1 percent for the year.

Average daily room rates on the Strip have tumbled from $150 a night a year ago to $128 in July.

A room this weekend booked on Hotels.com will run $329 at Wynn Las Vegas, $215 at the Palazzo, $154 at Treasure Island and $143 at Mandalay Bay.  

Vassiliadis says tourism officials have been cautious in their advertising, especially in Southern California’s feeder markets, home to hundreds of shooting massacre victims and their families.  

“We’ve been particularly sensitive there because there was news coverage of victims returning home and of funerals,” he says.  “We’ve stayed very low key.”

“As we got closer last year to December, we started seeing on social media and elsewhere the sentiment, not like after 9-11,  but a feeling that we don’t want Vegas to be defined by one crazy killer.”

Vassiliadis says the popular “What happens here, stays here” campaign isn’t going anywhere.  

“We’re just taking a break from any raucous, party ads,” he says.  

In their place are ‘Vegas Moments’ spots, a campaign Vassiliadis says is based on “empowerment and inclusion.  No judgments. Do what’s right for you while you’re here.”

One popular ad featuring a lesbian couple will be singled out at next week’s LVCVA meeting for being viewed more than 10 million times on YouTube.  

“‘Vegas Moments’ was a response to the growing millennial generation, to the idea of social acceptance and social responsibility  — to a culture of acceptance and embracing differences,” says Vassiliadis.

The LVCVA has been criticized by some who complain the ‘What Happens Here Stays Here’ campaign runs counter to the #MeToo movement, but Vassiliadis says the ads have always been about empowerment.

“Interestingly enough, the very first spot we did I was very concerned.  I didn’t know how women were going to take it. We went to San Francisco to the Financial District and intercepted women.  We showed them the spot of the woman in the limousine. The word from women was ‘I feel empowered. No one tells me what to do.’ I don’t know if I always used the word ‘empowered’ but it was always about freedom. Empowerment comes from personal and adult freedom.”  

With nagging questions about the police and security response still under review by Metro and expected to figure in upcoming legal battles, the public relations battle is likely to wage on, making the work a little more challenging for Vassiliadis and company.  

A year after the attack that rocked Las Vegas to its core, Vassiliadis remains cautious and unable to say when the Sin City edge will return to the advertising.

“That’s a good question. I don’t know that I have the answer.”

Dana Gentry
Reporter | Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana is the mother of four adult children, three cats, three dogs and a cockatoo.

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