Gambling on getting shoppers to mall fast

Helicopter service takes customers from Las Vegas to stores

July 25, 1999|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

LAS VEGAS -- In a town where visitors and their cash part easily and often, $99 might seem a small price to pay to get to the mall fast and in style.

For less than the cost of an unlucky night at blackjack, a tourist can leave behind Las Vegas' surreal strip of one-armed bandits, shrimp buffets and re-created European landmarks, hop a helicopter and land in the parking lot of the area's newest upscale mall, Fashion Outlet Las Vegas. The "shopper-chopper" takes visitors to the Primm, Nev., mall in half the time it would take to drive the 41 miles.

But saving time isn't everything, especially for those with an adventurous streak. Operators of the mall, along a dusty stretch of Interstate 15 near the California border, are betting that the novelty of the flight will lure visitors out over the Mojave Desert, to be deposited in what must seem an oasis to brand-name bargain hunters.

Fashion Outlet started offering the flights last winter. The mall has teamed with Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopter, a 35-year-old Grand Canyon tour operator that shuttles visitors from any hotel on the strip to the Las Vegas Executive Air Terminal on Tropicana Boulevard to pick up a flight.

The unusual service just might be another sign that Vegas is going upscale. With a chameleon-like ability to transform itself, the Vegas of feather-clad showgirls, Rat Pack overindulgence and family entertainment is selling itself as a destination for fine art (with Monets and Renoirs in the new Bellagio hotel), fine dining and upscale shopping. In dreaming up the chopper idea, Kevin E. Streit, Fashion Outlet's director of tourism, took inspiration from TV's "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."

The year-old Fashion Outlet touts itself as the "world's most upscale outlet shopping." Shoppers stroll themed streetscapes populated by 100 off-price versions of retailers such as Neiman Marcus, Guess? and Benetton. Plastered with 130 colorful signs advertising the likes of Polo, Williams Sonomo and Kenneth Cole, the mall's exterior boasts the largest billboard display west of Times Square. It's easy to spot from the road and by air.

Still, the mall has a tough job pulling the Las Vegas visitor so far off course. It's unlikely that tourists would stumble on their own into Primm, little more than the mall and three casino hotels, each with its own following. The Primm Valley Resort and Casino has a convention center and golf course and draws an older crowd. Buffalo Bill's has a roller coaster and water rides and appeals to families. At Whiskey Pete's, the sign out front says, "Truckers are VIPs at Whiskey Pete's."

Hotel guests and motorists going to and from California supply a good bit of traffic to the mall, which has drawn about 3 million shoppers since opening last July, said Michaline J. Todd, director of marketing. But mall marketers knew they needed a way to bring in shoppers from Las Vegas.

"Being 30 minutes away, we had to come up with a hook," said Streit, the tourism director, who used to be sales and marketing director for a helicopter company. "There's so much to do in Las Vegas proper, and all the major casinos and hotels are putting in shopping components. There's a lot of competition."

Since it opened, the mall has offered a shuttle bus three times a day from the New York New York hotel on Las Vegas Boulevard, charging $10 round-trip. The mall has added a second bus per trip and has a standing reservation from Japan Travel Bureau for about 60 seats a day. Streit thought a chopper tour also would appeal to tour package groups.

On a cloudy Monday morning, pilot Bill Darnell prepared one of Papillon's six-seat choppers for a 10 a.m. liftoff from the air terminal helipad. He handed out headphones to two passengers (who had been weighed in back at the terminal) and piped in classical music to drown out noisy, whirring blades. Through a microphone, Darnell talked with passengers, easing jitters about flying by joking that he had never flown before.

"But I read a great book last night on how these things are supposed to work," Darnell said.

The chopper lifted off. It circled over the Mandalay Bay hotel with its gold-tinted windows, over the black pyramid that is the Luxor hotel and over red-roofed houses with backyard pools, framed by mountains in the distance.

The scenery faded into pure desert marked by dry lake beds and yucca plants. A few cars followed a winding road below. Soon, seemingly out of nowhere, the cluster of Primm hotels appeared, and then the sprawling Fashion Outlet mall.

As an incentive to fly, the mall offers its chopper shoppers coupons for store discounts and can combine the trip with a lunch or dinner at the Hard Rock Hotel before or after the flight. Shoppers can return via a free shuttle bus or book a round-trip flight for $229. The tour is scheduled on request.

About 100 people have taken the tour, including members of groups from Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom, Streit said.

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