Casinos seek return of Asian gamblers

Feb 12, 2002 8:19 AM

The Chinese New Year Celebration kicks off Tuesday, February 12, and Las Vegas casino operators hope the Year of the Horse brings better luck than the Year of the Snake.

So far the signs are encouraging, according to casino representatives, who report that hotel bookings were strong heading into the lunar new year ”” a holiday known for attracting ethnic Chinese from North America and Asia.

The stakes are especially high for some of the city’s marquee casinos, like Bellagio, Caesars Palace and MGM Grand, that cater to high rollers and rely on Asian bettors for a big part of that business.

“We’re looking at Chinese New Year this year as being very close to, if not at, normalized levels,” said Alan Feldman, spokesman for MGM Mirage, owner of the MGM Grand, Bellagio, New York-New York and Mirage casinos. “Our ”¦ reservations are right about where we would expect them to be at this point.”

Down the street, Park Place Entertainment Inc., whose properties include Caesars Palace, Bally’s and Paris Las Vegas, also is optimistic going into the lunar new year, said spokeswoman Debbie Munch.

“We’re pleased with the early reservations we have from Hong Kong and Taiwan for Chinese New Year, but it’s premature to predict” what the final turnout will be, she said.

Specific data is scarce, but industry watchers report that the volume of overseas Asians ”” who account for as much as 3 percent of annual visitors ”” in Las Vegas dropped to a trickle after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

But, while U.S. leisure travel to the city has rebounded strongly and convention business is also on the mend in recent weeks, business from Asia has been slower to rebound.

It didn’t help when Japanese flagship carrier Japan Airlines suspended its five weekly non-stop flights from Tokyo to Las Vegas shortly after September 11. It has yet to resume service, although flights could resume as soon as March, according to some observers.

The loss of the flights ”” the only scheduled non-stop service from Asia to Las Vegas ”” is a significant symbol. Japan provided an estimated 511,000 visitors to Las Vegas in 2000 ”” the highest count for any individual Asian nation, according to the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority.

“Generally speaking, we saw quite a big drop-off from Asian markets after September 11,” said convention authority spokesman Rob Powers. “One of the reasons was that Japan Airlines suspended service. It’s no secret that Asians, and Japanese in particular, are very sensitive to traveler safety.”

To lure back some of those Asian patrons, Park Place embarked on an aggressive marketing campaign late last year, said Munch.

Return of the whales?

While overall Asian business has been down in the months since September 11, the loss of Asian “whales” or high rollers has been particularly keen for casinos that cater to high-end players.

“In the immediate aftermath of September 11, we were off 75 to 80 percent” in Asian high roller business, said Feldman of MGM Mirage, the industry’s biggest marketer to high rollers. “But that’s rebounded very nicely ”” even a little faster than we expected.”

Reflecting the absence, revenues for baccarat ”” a high-end game favored by Asian players ”” are down about 25 percent since September 11, compared with last year, said Bear Stearns analyst Jason Ader.

Not all Strip operators are breaking their neck to lure Asian business. Harrah’s and Mandalay Resorts prefer to focus their efforts on the domestic market.

“The Strip is essentially an All American experience,” said Glenn Schaeffer, president and CEO of Mandalay Resort Group Inc. He added that cultivating the overseas customer is costly, and that when a whale is landed, the profit margin might be so thin as to render the catch unprofitable.

“Historically, the margins are very low with high-end players,” he said.