Obama Rolls the Dice on Vegas Fundraiser Trip

President to attend fundraiser but residents still steamed over Vegas comments.

May 26, 2009, 2:48 PM

May 26, 2009— -- The cards may not be stacked in President Obama's favor as he arrives in Las Vegas tonight for a fundraiser with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev..

More than three months after the president's comments suggesting executives avoid using taxpayer money to fund trips like junkets to Vegas, Obama could receive a lukewarm reception Tuesday at Caesar's Palace.

In a city that thrives largely on tourism, some people are still steamed, including Republican Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons. Gibbons turned down an offer to shake hands with the president today, saying he wanted more than a "momentary" greeting given the president's February remarks. Locals with signs saying "Vegas Means Business" may greet the president as he arrives in town.

"Apparently our money is good enough for the president, but our tourism, jobs and economic future are not," said Gov. Gibbons.

"I would suggest that, if the governor wants -- has a specific point that he'd like to make to the president of the United States, he's landing in a few hours in Las Vegas and apparently has been invited to make that case," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said today.

As is the case in other destinations dependant on tourism, times are tough in Vegas during the recession -- whether or not it's the president's fault.

According to statistics compiled by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, overall visitor volume fell 6.5 percent in March 2009 compared to March 2008. Convention attendance in particular was down 30 percent during that time period, with 19.6 percent fewer conventions and meetings held this March than last.

"The meetings industry has just been hammered," Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, told ABCNews.com, adding that companies are reluctant to pay for business travel because they are "very concerned about their public image."

But if there's a silver lining in the midst of recession, it's that travelers can get some very affordable deals on casinos, shows and restaurants, whether visiting for business or pleasure.

"There's great deals out there," VEGAS.com president and CEO Howard Lefkowitz told ABCNews.com. "The rates are as low as I've seen them, ever, really."

For business travelers in particular, Lefkowitz stressed that "face-to-face meetings still matter," and added that Vegas is the perfect place to cultivate those relationships.

"It's great to see the president coming here to do business -- presidential business," Lefkowitz said. "The party rages on."

Obama and Biden Irk Travel and Tourism Industries

Obama ruffled feathers in Vegas in early February while discussing the economic crisis at a town hall meeting in Indiana.

"You are not going to be able to give out these big bonuses until you pay taxpayers back," Obama said. "You can't get corporate jets. You can't go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayers' dime. There's got to be some accountability and some responsibility."

Reid quickly scurried to smooth the waters, saying Obama's comments were specifically aimed at funding junkets as opposed to a swipe at the broader industry.

"We gave a lot of money to the banks and they shouldn't use that money for junkets whether it is to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, or New York," Reid said.

Still, Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman quickly said Las Vegas deserved an apology.

In a two-page follow-up letter, Goodman said, "The assumption that all meetings, event and incentive travel are wasteful is wrong."

"Now more than ever, we need businesses to ravel and hold meetings and events," Goodman wrote. "As we move forward, I would caution all federally elected officials to use temperance in their comments. Failure to deed the principles will damage an entire industry, and select cities, causing people to lose their jobs and homes."

At a Senate panel examining "tourism in troubled times" earlier this month, Sam Gilliland, CEO of Travelocity's parent company Sabre Holdings, said improving energy policy and modernizing air traffic control are among several factors that would boost tourism.

"We must also give corporations the confidence that they can once again hold business meetings and conventions in order to achieve their corporate objectives," Gilliland added.

Indeed, the president's comments weren't the only ones that have angered the travel and tourism industry in recent months. Vice president Joe Biden also got an earful from the travel industry when he veered off message on swine flu concerns, saying he'd advise his own family not to take public transit.

In Las Vegas, particularly, Mitchell today said people are understandably still irked by the president's remarks this winter.

"It's hard not to be because it's cost a lot of business and a lot of jobs," he said. "I think they're still smarting from it, but I also think the president has paid attention to the concerns of the industry."

"We think that the president's comments were off-the-cuff and potentially misdirected and potentially even misunderstood," Lefkowitz said. "But we believe that Vegas is a great place to do business."

Singers Bette Midler and Sheryl Crow are also expected on stage tonight for Reid's fundraiser at the Coloseum at Caesar's Palace.

ABC News Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller contributed to this report.

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