Shaolin monks play Las Vegas

Imagine the character in Kung Fu (that other '70s show) in his monk's robe with others of his kind wandering a neon-lit Las Vegas strip.

Client: 'Masters of Shaolin' (Deng Feng, China)
PR Team: Kirvin Communications Group (Las Vegas)
Campaign: Promotion of two-week engagement at MGM Grand
Time Frame: January to February 2000
Budget: Under $20,000

Imagine the character in Kung Fu (that other '70s show) in his monk's robe with others of his kind wandering a neon-lit Las Vegas strip.

In December, Las Vegas firm Kirvin Communications Group was contacted by a Swiss production company that had lined up an engagement at the MGM Grand for its client - a group of Buddhist monks from China.

The Shaolin monks are not professional performers. In fact, they rarely leave their monastery in central China. But the monks needed money to repair the monastery. And they needed Kirvin - and PR - to hype their arrival to assure high ticket sales for their shows, from February 11 to 23.

Account manager Nicole Maffeo's research showed that the members of the 1,500-year-old sect were not merely masters - they had invented kung fu.

Over the centuries, kung fu became a form of daily religious observance.

It was also visually fetching - as the monks, in their brightly colored robes, battled gracefully hopping on one foot, and entered a state of higher consciousness that allowed them to break bricks over their heads or painlessly climb stairs made of knives.

The monks are revered in China but unknown in the West. Maffeo's challenge was to introduce the 20 monks as holy men, China's 'treasured jewels,' while promoting the excitement of their performance.

She planned a media tour in Los Angeles - the main feeder market to Las Vegas - and cooked up ways to keep the monks in the public eye once they arrived in the desert gambling mecca.

After posting a release on PR Newswire in early January, Maffeo followed up with every national and local TV outlet in both cities, by phoning them and mailing background material and slides. Since no one had heard of the holy men, the firm cut a three-minute b-roll of their performance.

While ushering the monks around LA from February 1 to 3, she lined up interviews with Las Vegas daily newspapers, Chinese publications and top tourist and entertainment media. Each day, Maffeo 'leaked' monks-in-LA stories to the Las Vegas gossip columnists. ('Pretty women,' the Las Vegas Sun reported the monks exclaiming when they saw a group of transvestites in a TV studio's green room. When advised of their mistake, they corrected themselves: 'Pretty men.')

In all communications, Kirvin emphasized the fact that the Shaolin monks are a Chinese national treasure. Once in Las Vegas, the agency arranged a public welcome ceremony in which the mayors of Las Vegas and Deng Feng (the monks' hometown) exchanged keys to their cities. This event, scheduled to coincide with the Chinese New Year, 'was to show the people of Las Vegas how special it was that the Shaolin monks were here,' Maffeo says.

Maffeo fanned the publicity flames with a VIP/media performance for 500 media members, in addition to Wesley Snipes and Chuck Norris, in attendance.

Plus, she talked up anecdotes, like the monks' joy at their first roller coaster ride.

To create buzz at the grass roots, she gave away tickets on local radio and TV, and raffled off hundreds to taxi drivers and concierges.

In LA, the monks were featured in three- to four-minute segments on The Martin Short Show, The Roseanne Show, The Craig Kilborn Show and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. They landed in Las Vegas to cover stories, with photos, in Show Biz, What's On and the Review Journal. The Las Vegas Chinese Times had a cover story on February 10. An Associated Press story hit toward the end of the gig, which all the nation's major dailies picked up.

In total, there were 40 media placements in newspapers and television.

Maffeo says she didn't track impressions because the monks don't understand that concept.

Most importantly, the show nearly sold out every night and the Shaolin monks earned enough money to renovate their monastery (Maffeo declined to reveal numbers).

The monks are signed up to tour the West Coast late this summer and then to do a show in New York.

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