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All business and fun

Since February, President Obama’s comments about bailout banks going on junkets to Las Vegas have shined a new light on the city’s convention business. Civic leaders such as Mayor Oscar Goodman have acted as if going to a convention here is like a trip to a dull government office, while detractors have argued that Vegas means a pure pleasure romp.

The truth is that the big trade shows work like most things here -- mixing business and pleasure, celebrity and money, with plenty of VIP exclusivity.

The shows are a side of night life rarely open to tourists or locals, even though they are legion. According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, about 22,000 meetings, conventions and trade shows take place in the city annually, and of the 200 largest shows in North America last year, Vegas hosted 49, the most of any city. (Of course, the economy this year has caused some shows to cancel or see a drop in attendance -- even the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo in January had fewer attendees and exhibitors.)

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But that doesn’t make them boring -- in fact, they often make for some topsy-turvy juxtapositions.

At a men’s apparel convention several years ago, superstar Eminem put on a private concert in a tiny room for the owners and distributors of stores that carry his clothing line -- even though the room was packed with many people who looked more like the parents of the rapper’s fans. Nevertheless, they loved him.

The latest example happened at the end of May, when Christina Aguilera appeared at Tao restaurant and nightclub at the Venetian. In the ads, the successful artist received second billing -- to one Stephen Webster, a jewelry designer.

The idea was to celebrate the launch of Webster’s 2009 collections, but the main event was Aguilera’s private dinner with about 20 top buyers and jewelry industry insiders who were in town for the JCK jewelry trade show. (It was expected to bring 31,000 people to Vegas.)

The ploy worked too -- Aguilera’s presence brought coverage in the national as well as local media usually not afforded convention parties.

“I am not part of the design; I am merely the face,” Aguilera said. As she sat next to Webster, she was decked out entirely in jewelry from his new jewelry lines. She wore a black and white diamond necklace and cuff from his Vortex Collection, as well as a white diamond and onyx ring from his Fly by Night Collection. So dedicated to staying on her marketing message was the songstress that she removed her Webster-designed wedding ring to keep her look focused on the lines.

The two said they collaborate -- in a sense.

“What actually happens is that I give him the direction I am going with my next album,” Aguilera said. “My last album had a vintage, retro, glam appeal. And this next album, which I am almost finished with and am about to release, has a very modern sense about it.”

“A year ago, I was at Christina’s house, and she was showing me her mood boards for her new album; this was before any recording was done,” Webster added. “I am quite good at looking at a mood board and understanding what the vibe is going to be about. I then go off and do my jewelry design and she goes off and does her album. But what you have is the same starting point. So, it works.”

But moments like the meal at Tao are Aguilera’s real contribution to the product line.

As with most things Vegas, when it comes to trade shows, ignore the politicians: The mixture of business and partying here is inseparable.

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Santana blooms

Tonight, Carlos Santana will finish the opening run of his two-year residency as the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino’s first musical headliner. Unlike shows by acts such as Celine Dion, Elton John and Cher, “Supernatural Santana: A Trip Through the Hits” has virtually no production trickery (no dancers or blow-up doll of Pamela Anderson), relying instead on musicianship. But Santana has learned his usual marathon concerts do not work here.

“We had to crystallize everything to make it a lot more concise and precise,” said Santana, who will return for his next set of shows in September. “We usually play 2 1/2 to three hours. Now we are doing 90 minutes.”

That means the concert, which opened to generally positive reviews, requires a greater focus than his usual shows. “What I found out is that when you come to a concert, it is like going to a garden where each flower is perfect,” he said, by way of somewhat-florid explanation. “Each song must be a perfect bloom. There is nothing wasted.”

As for the Woodstock veteran playing a casino, Santana could care less.

“To me, where I am playing is no different: a parking lot or Istanbul or Woodstock. Las Vegas to me is where I am offering my heart. There is so much negativity out there. When you go to see a Santana concert, it is happy music.”

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Film festival

The 11th annual CineVegas film festival at the Palms is finishing up with some of its biggest events. Today features the 1982 film “The Loveless,” preceded by a conversation with star Willem Dafoe, who is being given the Vanguard actor award. Monday’s screening is Wim Wenders’ “Palermo Shooting,” starring festival chairman Dennis Hopper. And, perhaps showiest of all, there will be a replicated drive-in theater in downtown Las Vegas on Monday presenting the cult classic “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.”

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calendar@latimes.com

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latimes.com/movablebuffet

For more Vegas coverage, visit the Movable Buffet blog.


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