Vegas set for Year of the Rat

Feb 5, 2008 5:46 AM

Las Vegas casinos this week will be draped with Asian silk screens, and Chinese dragon dancers will entertain visitors in celebration of Chinese New Year, which kicks off a 15-day run on Thursday.

Chinese New Year, set by a lunar calendar and usually falling in early February, has become one of the city’s most profitable events, drawing thousands of Asian and Asian-American visitors and hundreds of millions of their dollars each year.

The Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority does not keep statistics on the event’s economic impact, but executives with Las Vegas Sands Inc., which owns the Venetian and Palazzo, say more money is bet during the two-week period than at any other time during the year.

MGM Mirage officials add that the first weekend of Chinese New Year is often the second-biggest betting weekend of the year, ahead of the Super Bowl and behind only the conventional New Year’s holiday.

Revenue figures from Nevada’s Gaming Control Board back up those claims. Last year, Chinese New Year helped fuel the most lucrative February in the state’s history with more than $1.05 billion in gaming revenue.

Baccarat tables — a favorite game of high-rolling Asian gamblers — raked in more than $117 million, a 47 percent increase over the previous February.

"The first quarter of the year is traditionally the strongest quarter in Las Vegas," said an executive at the Venetian. "Certainly one of the things that fuels that is the Chinese New Year celebration."

To ring in the Chinese New Year — the year of the rat — casinos drape enormous banners with New Year’s greetings in Chinese across their porte-cocheres and add tables for baccarat and pai gow poker, two games favored by Asian gamblers.

They also hold parties where managers hand invited guests red envelopes stuffed with money or special gambling chips adorned with the animal symbol of the year.

Most Chinese restaurants on the Strip stay open longer and add traditional New Year’s dishes or rename some regular ones with lucky or upbeat phrases. It is not unusual for a family to spend more than $20,000 for a Chinese New Year dinner, according to a restaurant manager at Wynn Las Vegas, which has been known to import abalone at $2,226 a pound and bird’s nests at $1,600 a pound for the festivities.

At the Bellagio, the theme of the 14,000-square-foot Conservatory is changed only five times a year, and Chinese New Year is one of those times. The current display features live tangerine trees, a 45-foot-tall pagoda, and a statue of a rat, a symbol of bounty and plenty in the Asian culture.

While the notion of traveling to Las Vegas for a major cultural event historically known as a time for family gatherings may seem sacrilegious, tour operators say the trend reflects a newfound desire among younger, upwardly mobile Asians and Asian-Americans to travel while maintaining an important tradition of the holiday — gambling.

Indeed, the celebration draws the casinos’ biggest players. Table limits are often raised to five- and six-figures, while deposits and credit lines run into the millions of dollars.

For some of the biggest gamblers, chartered jumbo jets, personal limousines, 5,000-square-foot suites and 24-hour butlers are part of their invitation-only packages.

But the Chinese New Year celebration isn’t restricted to high-stakes gamblers. Casinos such as Palace Station, which has a solid base of Asian gamblers, will celebrate with Chinese-themed entertainment and tableside dining in "Pit 8," its popular Asian table games area.

"We want to give our current and new Pit 8 guests an authentic Asian cultural experience when they come to Palace Station," said Pat Kearns, Palace Station’s senior vice president of operations. "Chinese New Year is a great time to spotlight what we have done at Palace Station to cater to our Asian table games guests."

Traditional dragon dancers will entertain at Palace Station on Saturday beginning at 6:15 p.m. The dancers will perform throughout the casino floor and finish in Sound Trax, a showroom and lounge, where they will perform a two-hour show.

Guests will also enjoy traditional Chinese New Year cuisine in the restaurants, as well as tableside in Pit 8. The tableside menu is available from 6 p.m. to midnight to all qualified Boarding Pass members.

Travel industry statistics reveal that 90 percent of all Chinese visitors to the United States spend some part of their trip in Nevada. Last year, that figure was about half a million travelers, and experts estimate the numbers increase 25 percent to 30 percent a year.

Casino executives believe the numbers will add up to an even more profitable Chinese New Year in 2008.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that "8" is the luckiest of numbers in Chinese culture, equivalent to lucky "7" in America.