NBA All-Star Weekend Makes Las Vegas Debut

The National Basketball Association is making travel agents' jobs much easier by holding its annual All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas the weekend of February 16-18. The event will combine sports, gambling and entertainment—not a difficult package to sell to prospective clients. Book clients in a casino-hotel this February, or pitch a package

The game will mark the first time that the All-Star game is held in a city without a professional basketball team, and is a bold move by a league that shuns gambling within its own ranks. This year's game will be held at the Thomas & MackCenter, near the Vegas Strip and its myriad lodging options.

With more than 130,000 hotel rooms, occupancy rates are sure to reach maximum levels. Monthly hotel occupancy levels already top 90 percent in Las Vegas, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which will serve as the host organization for the event. Vince Alberta, LVCVA's vice president of public affairs, conservatively expects the event to draw more than 25,000 visitors, generating close to 43,000 room nights. "Vegas in February is going to be the place to be," Alberta says. "It's another opportunity to showcase what the destination has to offer."

However, room availability will be a concern, as will corralling tickets. It is the charge of sports tour operators to seamlessly arrange event travel, making certain customers have all their needs covered and event tickets in hand. For the NBA All-Star Game, tickets are the most pressing detail. "Getting tickets is the toughest part," says Annbrit Stengele, owner and president of Chicago-based Sports Traveler (888-654-7755, www.sportstraveler.net). Stengele says she has already received a considerable amount of interest for All-Star packages and surmises that demand is appreciating because the event is being held this year in Las Vegas. "It is easier to sell because people are not just going for the game," she says. "I have never seen such high demand for an All-Star Game. The crowd is exactly the Vegas market."

Also aiding sales is the tone that an All-Star weekend sets: hip and trendy—the perfect complement to a city such as Las Vegas. Sports Traveler's packages begin at $2,115 per person if you choose to stay at the Wynn Casino & Resort, Sports Traveler's featured hotel for the weekend. Amenities include two-nights of accommodations, a game ticket, car service to and from the game site and souvenirs. An add-on, such as a ticket to the much-ballyhooed NBA Slam Dunk Contest, will run an extra $850. Sports Traveler is also touting other packages that include the Luxor Hotel, the MGM Grand and the Monte Carlo.

Many travel agents rely on sports tour operators when their clients are looking to book a sports-event-centered trip. Sports Traveler, for instance, gains a great deal of business from travel agents and kicks back commissions between 5 percent and 10 percent. Sandra Boring is one such agent, who relies on sports tour operators when her clients' interest in a sporting event is piqued. Boring, owner of Vegas-based YOUnique Travel, doesn't handle sporting events, but when making those arrangements for a client, she contacts Lakewood, CA-based Sports Empire, which specializes in selling travel packages for major U.S. sporting events. "They have total packages for events such as the All-Star Weekend," Boring says, adding that typical commissions for using Sports Empire's services are 10 percent or higher for groups.

Susanne Slavitter is the vice president and co-owner of Sports Empire (562-920-3395, www.sports-empire.com), doubling as chair of the ASTA Tour Operator Program. The company has been doing business for 21 years, and unlike many sports tour operators, it only sells to travel professionals, not directly to the public. Echoing Sports Traveler's Stengele, Slavitter says that the NBA All-Star Weekend is generating a lot of buzz because the event is taking place in a destination city that is usually filled to capacity, even when an event of this magnitude isn't in town. "Our call volume for this event is very high," she says, "maybe higher than usual because the event is in Las Vegas."

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