Visitors and locals identify Carson City as a historic area with lots of gambling and government. It's the Old West and the gateway to Reno and Tahoe.
A national tourism expert said this marketing message needs to change if the community wants to attract more visitors.
To distinguish the capital city from Reno's resort attractions and Lake Tahoe's pristine environment, tourism officials have marketed the city for the last decade as a historical destination.
"We're hitting the main historical sites," said Carrie Coney, of Winnemucca, who was touring the Nevada State Museum with an elementary school class. "The Capitol, the state museum, the railroad museum. We don't have any of this kind of stuff in Winnemucca."
Kathleen Armstrong, a waitress at Mo & Sluggo's Bar & Grill in downtown Carson City, said people come because of the Capitol, but that doesn't really interest her.
"I really don't know why anybody would visit this town," she said.
Everybody may have history, but Carson City has focused on a few points of interest, said Candy Duncan, who is executive director of the Carson City Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"The hook is still our history," she said.
Many try to promote a city's unique feature with a witty line and mass marketing, but few achieve recognition that lures thousands of tourists and prosperity for all, said tourism specialist Roger Brooks, who spoke at a tourism conference here this week.
He said a city in search of more tourism revenue needs a lure. That's the thing that brings people to town and encourages them to stay and spend money that keeps local cash registers ringing.
A catchy slogan attracts tourists to the lure, which brings in the people for the local diversions, such as shopping and dining. The whole package is known as the brand, and so far, Carson City doesn't have much of one.
For a good example, look to the south, Brooks said. Las Vegas' brand as America's adult playground has made it the second-most-visited city in the country. It attracts 37 million visitors a year, second only to Orlando, he said. Vegas' lure: adult-orientated entertainment. And its slogan captures that: What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
Its diversions are similar to what's offered by every other city in the union, but those shopping centers, parks and restaurants in Vegas prosper.
According to Brooks' research, visitors spend only four to six hours at the primary attraction. They'll spend another eight to 10 hours at other diversions, and spend up to 90 percent of their vacation money at these places.
It's this kind of prosperity that Carson City businesses want, using what the area has to offer, Duncan said. Carson City has its own attributes that people want, she said.
South of Reno, east of Tahoe
Carson City's location is perfect, said Scott Doerr, owner of B'Sghetti's restaurant.
"I feel it's centrally located and has easy access to Tahoe, Reno and Yosemite," he said.
Doerr said tourists may want to stop at Carson City's downtown on the way to, or coming back from, the larger tourist attractions.
That was the case for Sara Akerlund, 25, and Lindsey Votava, 26, snowboarders from Seattle, Wash. But they didn't stop here by choice - their bus stopped near the Carson Nugget while on the way to Mammoth Lakes, which is about three hours south of Carson City.
"This is not where the mountains are and we go to places where there are mountains," Votava said. "This isn't a place we'd come."
Steve Rose, a 25-year-old financial planner, picked this slogan for Carson City: "Come visit us, we're close to Tahoe and Reno."
This kind of tourism brand reinforces the fact that tourists come to your city to get to someplace else, said Brooks.
He used the example of Round Rock, Texas. Brooks summed up their brand as "Next to Austin but different." The tourism expert helped the city to profit off something it already had in abundance, sports arenas and fields. Its brand became the sport capital of Texas. Brooks said the result of this marketing campaign was an annual economic income of $20 million from sports tournaments.
A historic capital
Tourists are lured to Carson City by events that celebrate Nevada's history, such as Nevada Day and Kit Carson Days, said Mike Stewart, an owner of Stew's Sportatorium at the Lucky Spur.
"It's the history, the train museum and the state museum," he said. "The state capital is what people come here for."
Duncan said the tourism bureau has made Carson City different from other historic towns by playing up the Wild West, for example, the Kit Carson Trail, the walking tour of historic homes and places and the Ghost Walk.
The Old West attracts a certain type of tourist, such as Arthur and Judith Siwinski, of Baltimore. He's retired, she's working in hotel sales. They both are interested in the Pony Express Trail, which runs through Carson City and ends on their side of the country.
Carson City does need something, Judith Siwinski said, more public relations.
"For us this was a destination, but I think a lot of people need to hear what Carson City has to offer. In order to bring them here you need to tell them, otherwise they don't know."
And it is the role of the community, rather than the leaders, to determine the city's brand, Brooks said. Otherwise, he cautioned, it will fail.
If you don't have it Ð build it
If you don't have a primary lure - create one, recommends Brooks. Find a primary lure, something deserving of a day trip from Reno, and then promote that.
By 2010, Carson City should have that lure.
"When the Virginia & Truckee Railway connects between Carson City and Virginia City, shops will build up around it and that will all attract more tourists," said Janesa Cramer, owner of Mom & Pop's Diner.
The 18-mile V&T tourist track is being reconstructed along the right-of-way of the historic Comstock railroad. Carson City enacted an one-eighth cent sales tax increase this month to pay for part of the construction, which could cost up to $40 million. It's expected to attract 160,000 visitors and draw $18 million annually.
"When the train is completed that will be the lure," said Duncan, the tourism director. "So what do we do until then? We can't let it drop until we have the train. We have to be getting ready for it."
The tourism bureau is considering hiring Destination Development, Brooks' company from Olympia, Wash., to do a community assessment. This would lead to a discussion on branding and the choice of a logo and slogan.
Carson Valley recently completed its community assessment with Brooks. Its assessment cost about $8,000. The written report is due back this week.
Duncan said this report will show the city what it has and how to put that into a compelling package for tourists.
• Contact reporter Becky Bosshart at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1212.
What does Carson City have to offer tourists?
"It has lots of museums and our governor lives here."
Benjamin Leader, 9, Winnemucca
What does Carson City need to attract more tourists?
"You have a fantastic history and a great location next to mountains. There's a danger of having too much. What you have now is unique and special. Throwing in a few theme parks would just compromise what you already have."
Graham Hand, aerospace industry consultant, Cardiff, U.K.
What does Carson City need to do to attract tourism?
"More PR. For us this was a destination, but I think a lot of people need to know what Carson City has to offer."
Judith Siwinski, hotel sales, Baltimore
What is Carson City's identity?
"Small-town appeal. It's not so big, but not so tiny that there aren't things to do."
Cindy Moranz, student and mother of two, Carson City
What tourism slogan would you give to Carson City?
"Come visit us, we're close to Tahoe and Reno."
Steve Rose, financial planner, Reno