Vegas casinos still California dreaming

Apr 18, 2006 1:11 AM

Because of recent traffic jams on Interstate 15 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, the governor of Nevada has suggested weekend gamblers from California begin their trek a day earlier.

After all, gridlock often stretches for miles, usually on the California side, where much of I-15 narrows to only two lanes in each direction.

Of course, California transportation officials don’t want to make it easier for the state’s residents to take their money across the state line.

Southern Californians spent $9.5 billion in Las Vegas last year, more than a quarter of all visitor spending, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

The LVCVA further estimates that Southern Californians made up 29 percent of the 38.5 million people who visited Las Vegas last year, up from 27 percent in 2004.

With the Southern California pipeline still flowing freely, it appears tribal gaming — which is expected to reach a record $8 billion this year in California — has so far failed to cut into Vegas’ casino action.

There are several theories as to why Indian casinos haven’t deterred California customers from flocking to Las Vegas.

First, tribal casinos could actually be helping Las Vegas by introducing gambling to a segment of the population who had never tried it before.

"A few of them decide they like it as a form of entertainment and go directly to Las Vegas or make it a part of planning their next trip," said I. Nelson Rose, gaming industry consultant and Whittier Law School professor.

But most Las Vegas casino officials discount the notion that Southern California tribal casinos are a minor league farm system for gamblers aspiring to the big leagues of Las Vegas.

Instead, it’s been Las Vegas’ knack for constantly reinventing itself and introducing an endless variety of entertainment options that have kept customers coming back, they say.

"The city is more than a box of slot machines," said David Strow, publicity director for Harrah’s Entertainment. "It’s an experience that’s unique in the world."

Indeed, only one person in 25 actually says that he goes to Las Vegas primarily to gamble, according to the LVCVA’s latest visitor profile, even though most of them still find their way to a casino sometime during their trip.

Strow added that the industry’s commitment to constantly expand casinos in Las Vegas further reinforces the idea that the city remains a top resort destination.

"I think the strongest sign of Las Vegas is the investment," Strow said. "No one is scared away or slowing down as a result of what’s being built elsewhere."

In the past three months, Strow said, Harrah’s, MGM and Boyd Gaming have all announced multi-billion dollar resort plans.

Nevertheless, the spiraling growth of tribal gaming in California (and elsewhere) did force Las Vegas to re-evaluate its offerings, said Alan Feldman, senior vice president of public affairs at MGM Mirage.

As a result, casinos and hotels are bigger, glitzier and just as likely to profit from restaurants, health spas, nightclubs, shopping centers and upscale suites as from the casino floors, Feldman said.

If there is a time when Las Vegas casinos should fear a drop-off from its California connection, it would be when the Southern California gaming market finally matures, meaning there won’t be many first-time gamblers, said Professor Rose.

If there is a time when Las Vegas casinos should fear a drop-off from its California connection, it would be when the Southern California gaming market finally matures, meaning there won’t be many first-time gamblers, said Professor Rose.