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NFR’s trusty sidekick Cowboy Christmas returns to Las Vegas this week

The National Finals Rodeo is returning to Las Vegas after a yearlong hiatus, and along with it, the Cowboy Christmas show.

The annual Western-themed gift show has been a rodeo tradition since 1986, just a year after NFR first came to Las Vegas.

Cowboy Christmas starts Wednesday and runs through Dec. 11 at the Las Vegas Convention Center’s South Hall, and to say it has grown over the years is an understatement.

Demand high for show

This year, the show will include more than 350 exhibitors from across the country, a far cry from the 52 exhibitors in 1986. Attendance has skyrocketed from 31,433 attendees in that first year to 250,000 people in 2019, and show spokesman Michael Mack said demand “has never been higher” for this year’s show.

Pat Christenson, president of host company Las Vegas Events, said he’s glad the show is back after a year without the show.

People have to attend Cowboy Christmas to fully appreciate the experience, he said. “Nothing in the world blends sports and entertainment, shopping — blends everything — like Cowboy Christmas,” Christenson said.

The show opens a day earlier this year with a tree-lighting ceremony and live music starting at 5 p.m. Wednesday, rather than its traditional Thursday start. More than 60 concerts will take place around the show, and a one-way shuttle service will connect Cowboy Christmas at the convention center with the rodeo events at Thomas & Mack Center.

‘Like a shopping museum’

The show maintains its popularity because of the volume and diversity of cowboy and country items, Christenson said. “It’s like a shopping museum” of bronze statues, custom carvings, jewelry, clothes, trinkets and odds and ends, he noted.

Cowboy Christmas adds about 20 vendors each year and has a waitlist of more than 700 companies, Christenson said. Vendors this year will sell saddles, bead art, custom knives, horse barns, belt buckles, boots, confections and more.

“You can’t help but be overly impressed with all of the diverse items,” he said. “How creative they are. How unique they are. The artistry that goes into ‘em. Being able to talk directly to the people that created them.”

Multigenerational following

Larry and Mariane Sasak have watched their customers grow up over the 35 years that at least one of them has traveled to Las Vegas to sell their goods at Cowboy Christmas.

The couple owns Steamboat Ranchwear based out of Steamboat Springs in northern Colorado. Larry Sasak was there when Cowboy Christmas launched at Tropicana Las Vegas in 1986, moved to Cashman Center in 1988 and eventually to the Las Vegas Convention Center in 1998. Mariane Sasak has made the trip the last 18 years, she said.

“You see kids that came in when they were 3 and 4, and their parents brought (all of) their kids. The whole family would get a new pair of boots at Cowboy Christmas,” Mariane Sasak said. “And now those kids are old enough to work for me.”

Some do, she added.

Mariane Sasak, 62, said she’s “out of practice” after skipping the Texas show last year and recovering from multiple surgeries. With no Cowboy Christmas, she and Larry Sasak got a rare opportunity to eat Thanksgiving leftovers rather than pack and prepare for the show. They spent Larry’s 65th birthday at home, his first since the show began in 1986.

Now, she said she’s ready to take on this year’s show with “a new hip and a new back.” The couple will spend Larry’s 66th birthday on Dec. 2 working at booth 341.

She said Steamboat Ranchwear has evolved from its manufacturing and catalogue company origins, going to shows, adding a store, selling the store, and now exclusively selling at shows like Cowboy Christmas. The retail industry has changed, too, she added. People travel to Las Vegas specifically to shop at Cowboy Christmas, sometimes forgoing attending rodeo competitions altogether.

“Everything was cheap” in Las Vegas when Cowboy Christmas began, she said, because December was the city’s slow season. The show’s vendors had to compete with gambling during its first two years at Tropicana, she said. Exhibitors grew anxious when the show moved to Cashman Center, fearing people wouldn’t make the drive.

“It was huge. It was spectacular,” she said. “And because there was no gambling anywhere near it, people really spent money.”

That hasn’t changed, Mariane Sasak said. People come with a budget to gamble, shop or both. Win or lose on the casino floor, people will swing by Cowboy Christmas to fulfill their holiday shopping lists, she said.

Exhibitors again felt anxious when the show “outgrew” the North Hall at the Las Vegas Convention Center and moved to the South Hall in 2015, said Peter Hughes, owner of Los Angeles-based The Cowboy Shop. Customers and vendors alike are accustomed to familiar show floors, layouts and booth locations.

But the move has worked out for the better because there’s more room for displays, entertainment and vendors, he said. Hughes, 69, also has been a show regular since its inception in 1986.

Exhibitors such as Hughes and the Sasaks say ranching and Western living are ways of life.

Hughes sells hats, wagon wheels, lanterns and other vintage cowboy and Western wares. His customers are cowboys or ranchers themselves, he said.

“I used to come in with felt hats and a line of straw hats, and people used to laugh at me,” Hughes said. “It’s like, ‘Hey guy, what do you do with straw hats?’ Well, what happens? Now, a lot of the hat dealers carry those straw hats and the felt hats.”

Cowboys come in and shop for the whole year, buying up a few pairs of Wrangler jeans, some shirts and then straw hats for the summertime, Hughes said.

Hughes will be at booth 3319 this year. His booth is usually recognizable by the featured photographs of fictional cowboy Hopalong Cassidy and Western actor and singer Roy Rogers, and a little sign that says “Western wear is not a fad or a fashion. It is your heritage. You should be proud and wear it.”

Contact Mike Shoro at mshoro@reviewjournal.com. Follow @mike_shoro on Twitter.

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