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Holiday crowd fuels hope for casinos in '09

Jan 6, 2009 5:10 PM
by David Stratton |

By all accounts, the New Year’s holiday weekend was a big one in Las Vegas, attracting nearly 300,000 visitors who filled the city’s hotel rooms and crowded the casino floors.

The turnout was actually greater than last year’s 284,000 people, but slightly less than the 305,000 who flocked here in 2006.

Nevertheless, casino operators were pleased with the sight of people parked at slot machines and hunkering down over their table games.

On New Year’s Day, casinos stretching from Boulder Station to Arizona Charlie’s Decatur reported shoulder-to-shoulder gamblers, with virtually all seats in the pit filled and nearly every machine in action.

Could this be a sign the economic downturn in Las Vegas may have bottomed out and players are once again emerging from the woodwork?

Not necessarily, according to operators who have weathered economic storms in the past.

"The week following Christmas and continuing through New Year’s is traditionally one of the biggest weeks of the year," said a casino shift supervisor at a Strip resort, who asked that his name be withheld. "While there were plenty of people in town, we had to cut room rates to get them here, and they probably didn’t spend as much in the casino as they did in the past."

Although spending might be down, optimism is on the rise. Philip Shalala, head of marketing at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, said his hotel had its best December ever – up 6 percent over last year.

Some of that could be attributed to creative marketing, something many Vegas operators are now tapping in order to stay ahead of the curve.

For instance, the Hard Rock had a holiday party, offering two hours of free wine and beer. "It keeps up the energy of the place, Shalala said, "and it’s good for employee morale." People who came in for drinks, Shalala added, stayed to eat and gamble, resulting in the hotel beating its forecast take by 10 percent.

But the player who once spent $10,000 or $15,000 at the tables might now spend only $5,000. And other customers are shopping around. "They know they can get a deal," Shalala said. "They used to call up, asking for a table at a club, not caring what it cost. These days they’re saying ‘Well, I can get a table at another hotel for $1,000.’"

Though Shalala said the Hard Rock hasn’t dramatically cut rates to attract customers, he admits the hotel will throw in extras such as free concert tickets, promotional gambling chips or discounts in the retail shops.

Other high-end properties on the Las Vegas Strip are also using innovative marketing and discounted rooms to bring back customers.

For instance, while some hotels are offering free rooms to visitors who gamble as little as $100 at the tables, Scott Berman of PricewaterhouseCoopers said the bigger resorts are doing relatively well, at least on the weekends. "It’s a segmented market," Berman said. "What’s happening in one casino isn’t happening next door."

Though optimism for 2009 is guarded at best, the opening of Steve Wynn’s Encore two weeks ago pumped some needed energy into the city.

Multiply that effect several fold over the next few months with the opening of CityCenter, the Fontainebleau and the M Resort and you have a Vegas brand that’s still fundamentally strong.

"There’s a resilience to Las Vegas that’s unlike anything else you see in the country," said Dick Rizzo, vice chairman of Perini Building Company, the city’s largest construction firm.