Beverage service at hospitality venues could see challenges as trends point to patrons imbibing less alcohol

Just the other day, I was killing some time in a large Las Vegas casino, tapping away methodically on the max bet button of a newer slot title I wanted to try out. And that’s when it happened. I heard the familiar sound over the din of electronic slot bells and whistles … a woman’s voice behind me chimed just one word: “Cocktails?”

My mind instantly flashed to a couple of recent articles I’ve worked on for this magazine that produced some interesting findings. It seems there has been a new trend toward people drinking less alcohol for a variety of reasons. I hadn’t given it much thought until I heard the free cocktail siren behind me as I played. Knowing that a busy Las Vegas casino floor on a Saturday night was the best place to test that theory, I quickly cashed out, left the machine I was playing and spent the next 10 minutes or so just watching. What I saw amazed me.

Free cocktails on Las Vegas gaming floors are a trend that dates back as far as I can remember. Waitresses take orders from gamblers, retrieve the drinks and bring them back gratis - with the expectation of a tip, of course. It used to be that so many people took advantage of the free drinks that one might have to wait 15 minutes or more for their free drink to come. Orders would back up. However, that simply wasn’t the case with what I observed recently. In this jam-packed casino where people were waiting for machines to open up, the waitress I watched meandered through a sea of people and was only able to generate what appeared to be three orders. I watched a second waitress who fared even worse.

Are people really drinking less? In conducting interviews for two recent articles (one in this issue - see “When to say when” on page 60), several people have pointed to an increased awareness of stricter drinking and driving laws in many states that have patrons cutting back on consumption. Others have noted that more emphasis on healthy living has also been a factor.

Now, I certainly don’t drink as much as I used to, though I had thought it was just a sign of getting older. The days of gathering with a large group of friends on a Friday night and drinking well into the next morning are long gone. A lot of my friends have stopped drinking altogether. But while I’m in my 30s, I have a lot of friends and acquaintances in the 21- to 28-year-old group that has always been considered more “socially active.” And they, too, just aren’t drinking as much.

I spent some time at the Nightclub and Bar show held at the Las Vegas Convention Center in late February, so I posed the question to a number of people on the exhibit floor - if anyone would have the skinny on this subject, I’d find it there. The answers, though mixed, overwhelmingly pointed to the trends I was seeing and hearing about. People are indeed drinking less. In fact, the show was dominated not by alcohol makers and distributors, but by new energy drinks, soda brands, vitamin waters, sports drinks and other nonalcoholic beverages. One sales team member of a popular vodka company told me, “with all of these nonalcoholic drinks and mixers out there, there’s a real sense of pressure on us to produce [an alcoholic] drink that will be a big seller.”

Sure, there’s still plenty of demand for alcoholic beverages, but I have to wonder how this new trend might reshape beverage operations and service in gaming resorts. What about all those trendy new nightclubs and ultralounges with high-end bottle service? Will that take a hit? Will we see fewer bars in resort properties? It wasn’t all that long ago that drinks were considered a loss leader for gaming properties. Over the past 10 years, alcohol has developed into a revenue producer. But if this trend keeps up, we might see profits plateau and eventually start to teeter off. It might behoove operators to start studying up on patrons’ new preferences.