In the three decades after World War II, hotel publicists played a critical role in promoting Las Vegas as an appealing tourist destination. One of the most successful was Herbert "Herb" McDonald, who gained renown not only for his work as a publicist, but also as a civic leader.
Born in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1919, McDonald attended Pasadena Junior College and Stanford University prior to serving three years as a Navy pilot during World War II. After the war, he became promotion and publicity manager for Music Corporation of America in Beverly Hills, California. In that position he booked acts for Las Vegas resorts. When he booked Peggy Lee for an engagement at the El Rancho Vegas in January 1946, she invited him to the opening, and when the owner offered him a position as entertainment director, Las Vegas became his lifelong home.
McDonald worked at a number of Strip properties besides the El Rancho: the Club Bingo, Silver Slipper and Last Frontier Village, and the Sahara, where he remained for over two decades. His work brought him into contact with some of the biggest names to visit Las Vegas. He played gin rummy with Bugsy Siegel when the mobster stayed at the El Rancho Vegas while contemplating his takeover of Billy Wilkerson's development of the Flamingo Hotel and Casino, picked up Howard Hughes at the airport when the famed aviator visited Las Vegas in the late 1940s, and hosted the Beatles at the Sahara when they performed in Las Vegas in 1964.
McDonald's efforts as a publicist contributed to the city's development as well that of the properties that employed him. For example, he quickly developed and maintained good relationships with the major entertainment and gossip columnists of the day—Earl Wilson, Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper, and Erskine Johnson. These nationally syndicated columnists were critical for Las Vegas publicists in disseminating news about events at their hotels. During his years at the El Rancho Vegas, McDonald also established what quickly became a big draw for tourists in Las Vegas—the inexpensive buffet. A fine athlete, McDonald also was instrumental in attracting significant sporting events to the area, including hydroplane racing at nearby Lake Mead and Professional Golfers' Association tournaments like the Sahara Pro-Am.
As did all publicists, McDonald struggled to attract business to Las Vegas in the traditionally slow month of December. His first effort was to establish the International Airlines Party, which was a promotion to thank the many employees of the various airlines serving Las Vegas, but also to transform them into ambassadors for the city. As Dick Odessky, a fellow publicist explained, "When they got back to work, thousands of airlines employees would spread the word on Las Vegas to millions of travelers every year." McDonald's biggest success, however, was helping attract the National Finals Rodeo to Las Vegas in 1984, an event that annually attracts thousands of tourists and millions of dollars to the city in December.
For three years beginning in 1954, McDonald was managing director of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce. In that position, he toured the country in 1955 to counter the negative publicity in the nation's press about the closing of three Strip hotels. McDonald also worked with other city leaders in establishing a convention center for the city. Besides his work for Las Vegas, he assumed important statewide tourism responsibilities as chairman of both the Bureau of State Development and the Nevada Chamber of Commerce Executives Association. After he joined the Sahara Hotel as director of public relations and promotions, McDonald continued to spread the word about Las Vegas, notably as part of a 1958 contingent that included Governor Charles H. Russell that went to Mexico City to publicize the attractions of Nevada.
McDonald eventually became a senior vice president of Del Webb International, which purchased the Sahara Hotel, and he formed his own company, Herb McDonald Consultants, to produce golf tournaments.
Perhaps Herb McDonald's most lasting contribution was his development of a new generation of publicists. He developed a large publicity department at the Sahara and hired many college graduates and served as a valuable mentor to them as they developed their craft as Las Vegas publicists.