The Chicago Syndicate: Too Many Mob Museums in Las Vegas?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Too Many Mob Museums in Las Vegas?

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Jim Talbot of South Deerfield, Mass., emerged from the Mob Attraction in the Tropicana Las Vegas to give it a thumbs-up for its blend of information and entertainment.

A few hours later, Carol Fast of Santa Ana, Calif., stepped out of the Mob Museum in downtown Las Vegas and praised it for emphasizing history and going light on the hokum. But both said they had seen enough organized crime for one trip.

"I wouldn't want to go to both," Fast said. "There are so many things to do in Las Vegas, you just have to pick and choose."

Talbot, who had not previously heard of the downtown museum, showed no interest in taking a look. "I am only here for five days, so I don't want to go to two attraction of the same type," he said.

With the official opening of the museum on Feb. 14, followed by the full reopening of the rechristened attraction a couple of weeks later, the city now faces a more subtle form of mob warfare than the days of when business rivals could end up taking a long dirt nap in the desert.

Management at both attractions acknowledge that a only small portion of their audiences are so enthralled with all things Mafia that they will visit both, so snagging that single visit will play a crucial role in meeting the 300,000 annual attendance targets that each has announced.

"I just love mob stuff," said Las Vegas resident Sandra Fulton, the only one of about 20 people interviewed after their tours who said they had seen both. But more typical is Mary Dawn Vandebush of Port St. Lucie, Fla., who noted after going through the museum, "It was worth doing, but now I'm all mobbed out."

A local professor says it's a matter of time. "When people come to Las Vegas, it is not only an issue of getting them to spend money but also a matter of spending time," said University of Nevada, Las Vegas marketing professor Jack Schibrowsky.

Compounding the marketing challenge for each: rampant mistaken identity, considering each has similar attractions and the same first name.

Museum executive director Jonathan Ullman said his people regularly receive phone calls for the attraction.

Earlier this month, attraction marketing director Spence Johnston met patrons who were unhappy that the tickets cost more than advertised. After talking with them, he discovered that they had confused his prices with those of the museum. Last year, Johnston recalled, a TV crew showed up at the attraction's foyer looking for a museum news conference. "Of course, a concern of ours is confusion in the marketplace," Ullman said. "Visitors may know they want to come here but may not know which location it is."

Jay Bloom, who created the predecessor of the Mob Experience but was ousted last year because of its financial problems, frequently depicted an us-versus-them showdown. However, attraction and museum officials now shy away from predicting whether there are enough Mafianados to support both.

The experience, which opened one year ago, quickly buckled under the weight of heavy debt and attendance much lower than expected. For a while, everything but the gift shop and the artifact displays were closed as cost- cutting measures. A Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing came in October. The attraction was brought out of bankruptcy early this year with the help of fresh dollars by a previous investor, concessions by a major contractor and a rewritten lease by Tropicana Las Vegas.

Hollywood's enduring romance with the mob, plus the success of television series such as "The Sopranos" and "Boardwalk Empire" create what they consider a proven market.

Layered on that is the grip that the real thing, not a nostalgic re-creation, exercised for more than three decades over many of the city's casinos and hotels starting in the 1940s. Even today, longtime residents or visitors speak wistfully about the indulgent service and naughtiness of the Old Vegas under mob control compared with the bottom-line image of today's corporate, Securities and Exchange Commission-registered management. Of course, former Mayor Oscar Goodman, the museum's chief sponsor, made his reputation as a mob lawyer and frequently regales audiences with tales about his clients.

Then there's the tourist base: 40 million visitors to Las Vegas each year.

"Las Vegas is the place that could support both if any place could," said Tom Zaller, president of Imagine Exhibitions Inc., who played a major role in rebuilding the experience into the attraction once it emerged from bankruptcy proceedings.

For example, he noted that audiences have been large enough to support several magic acts and multiple Cirque du Soleil productions on the Strip.

Then again, he recalled there were several competitors to the "Bodies" exhibition on human anatomy that his company helped to create, which helped determine where the show would be booked. "When we saw one of the other versions in a city, we dropped consideration of it right away," he said.

The Mob Attraction and the museum, officially titled the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, have taken divergent paths in trying to create distinct identities and get people in the door.

Museum officials often use the word "quality" to describe their approach, from the historic status of the restored federal courthouse to the attempt to cover a broad range of organized crime history with dozens of descriptive panels that explain a topic in three paragraphs or less. For example, the museum in March touted the Internal Revenue Service's donation of a rare photo of the agents who worked on the tax evasion case that sent legendary Chicago gangster Al Capone to prison.

The museum also has lower ticket prices, particularly for locals, and is pushing individual and corporate memberships -- a standard cash-generating tool for museums -- along with events for several groups they hope will sway visitors. In March, for example, the museum hosted cab drivers, letting them tour the building with refreshments in hand, while handing out mementos such as logoed air fresheners to hang in their cars.

To land customers, Schibrowsky said, "The (hotel) concierges are crucial."

The museum has been far more active on that front, said Doug Ward, the current president of the Southern Nevada Hotel Concierge Association. While receptions for concierges may put the museum in the "forefront" of a concierge's mind, "A lot of factors come into play when we assist our guests," he said.

Johnston said the attraction has focused on other forms of marketing, but plans to work more with concierges in the future. Further, it will start to woo meeting and party planners to book the 5,000-square-foot space that the attraction created when it eliminated some of the prebankruptcy exhibits.

The attraction has also been placing discount coupons in tourist-oriented publications to help bring its admission price closer to that of the museum. And it's selling tickets through Tix4Tonight discount booths.

Inside, the attraction promotes its artifacts as coming directly from descendents of prominent mobsters, such as handwritten letters by Meyer Lansky. But its signature is the front part of the attraction, where visitors pass through sets and play a game with character actors that determines whether or not they get "whacked" at the end.

Perhaps most important, the attraction is in one of the busiest parts of the Strip, albeit in the back of the Tropicana Las Vegas.

"Let's face it, the attraction has a better location," Schibrowsky said. "You really have to look for the Mob Museum," a couple of blocks north of the Fremont Street canopy.

Veteran marketing executive Tom Letizia expects advertising to play a critical role in the struggle for supremacy. "The one that has the best ads, and you will be able to feel it just by seeing it, they will do the best overall," he said.

Without predicting which might best the other, Schibrowsky concluded, "I suspect they are competing, but they don't offer the same experiences. I would say that people would go to the attraction more for entertainment, while people going to the museum are looking more for historic accuracy."

But Sandra Fulton, the rare person to visit both and understand they are separate entities, came away with a different conclusion. "I would say they are both pretty much the same, pretty much equal," she said.

Thanks to Tim O'Reiley

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