It seems that gambling may no longer be the backbone of the Las Vegas economy. While current tourism figures are healthy, visitors are spending less overall and fewer punters are hitting the casinos. According to the Las Vegas Review Journal, Las Vegas hotel occupancy in July 2013 stood at 90.6 percent—a new record. However, Nevada gambling revenue in 2013 has fallen by $500 million since a $15.3 billion peak in 2007.
These figures are even more striking when placed in context with Sin City’s historical peak. Gambling911 reports that the casino market accounted for 59 percent of Nevada state revenues during the boom years of the mid-eighties, compared to 34 percent in 2013. Evidently, Vegas the tourist destination is still drawing the crowds, while Vegas the gambling hot spot is floundering.
Last year, LiveRoulette.co.uk conducted two surveys, in which it asked 1,000 UK respondents and 500 Americans, “What would be your main reason for you to visit Las Vegas?” The results indicated that gambling ranked below other activities overall in terms of priority. Among British respondents, only 21.2 percent of those surveyed chose this category as their main reason to visit Las Vegas, second to family holiday. For Americans, gambling came in third with 21.9 percent, behind general entertainment (e.g. shows and concerts) at 29.2 percent and family holiday at 22.1 percent.
Experts on the Las Vegas leisure industry corroborate with these findings and propose some explanations for the current state of affairs in Vegas. Stephen P. A. Brown, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada, offers the following view:
“Gaming went down more than total visitor spending (in 2012), by a greater percentage [because] the visitors who come, come for clubs and shopping. They’re buying swimsuits to go to the day clubs and evening clothes to go to the nightclubs.”
While clubbing did not represent the most popular category for the LiveRoulette.co respondents overall, it topped the results tables for young people—both British and American respondents between the ages of 18 and 24. The relatively even distribution of age and gender groups suggests that the composition of the tourist population in Vegas might be diversifying. The traditional core demographic for Vegas’ casinos (men between the ages of 25 and 44) continued to rank gambling highly in their priority list, but the number of people from this demographic who took part in the survey was proportionally smaller than expected.
As the fiscal year approaches, with gambling revenue on the slide and competing gambling destinations cropping up both domestically and internationally, we are witnessing an undeniable change in the way Vegas is perceived by the public.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF TOURIST
The interests and spending habits of tourists in Sin City have altered substantially in recent years, as indicated by the LiveRoulette survey results and research conducted by the LVCVA.
The LVCVA carried out a survey of visitors to the Vegas over the course of five years (2008 - 2012), asking what brought them to city. The number of tourists who identified gambling as the primary motivation for their visit dropped from 13 percent in 2008 to 8 percent in 2012, while the vast majority (47 percent) elected to visit Vegas for vacation/pleasure.
LiveRoulette data confirms this trend continued into 2013, with the majority of UK respondents electing family holiday as their primary motivation for a visit to Las Vegas. Americans also ranked this category more highly than gambling, but their number one priority was Las Vegas’ theatrical attractions.
Gambling statistics from the LVCVA support this development. The number of tourists who gambled in Vegas in any capacity (from a nickel slot machine to a multi-grand table wagers) stood at 85 percent in 2008 versus 72 percent in 2012. More detailed data—the number of hours visitors spent gambling, the average number of casinos visited, the proportion of trip budgets set aside for gambling etc.—trumpeted the same message: tourists are gambling less in Las Vegas.
A general downward trend in the gambling market has been measurable since the recession rocked the global economy in 2008. Tourists were left with less disposable income and uncertain job security and the Las Vegas economy (largely propped up by casino tourism) plummeted. Subsequently, the Vegas tourism industry has bounced back somewhat, but casinos are still struggling.
While other attractions—restaurants, clubs, theme parks etc.—are making a resurgence (up 5 percent overall since 2011), the gambling market in Vegas is trailing. Evidently, tourists have returned to Vegas since the recession but they aren’t the same eager punters who flocked to the Strip before the bottom fell out of the economy. Rather, they are increasingly coming to regard the city as an all-round holiday destination.
It is possible that Vegas has become a victim of self-sanitization. Historically, the danger and sleaze of Sin City’s infamous underbelly have been an integral part of the city’s appeal. For decades following its ascendance to international casino dominance in the 1940s, Las Vegas served as a dark fantasy divested from the outwardly pristine suburban ideal of American life. In the 1980s, Vegas began to pursue a more legitimate image, presenting itself as desirable to holidaymakers rather than simply a carnival of vice.
This has, perhaps, worked too well. Efforts to “clean-up” the image of Sin City may well have obscured its once-lucrative casino market with palatial hotels, classy eateries and popular nightclubs. Today, with the casino market proving increasingly frail bedrock on which to rest the economy of Las Vegas, city officials are being forced to diversify and emphasise the appeal of the city’s non-gambling attractions. As yet, a fiscal gap remains that has yet to be entirely filled, despite the improved footfall.
As an alternative solution, some casino managers have been resorting to increasingly sophisticated strategies for tempting in new punters and keeping players at the tables. Everything from artificially-heightened oxygen levels and psychedelic carpets to that fact that leaving a Las Vegas hotel necessitates walking through at least one casino are carefully tailored gambits to inspire and sustain gambling.
These latest indicate that such measures are failing to reverse the trend set in motion in the 1980s and accelerated by the recession. Moreover, Vegas is facing increased competition.
COMPETITION BRANCHES OUT
Las Vegas’ 80-year stranglehold on the worldwide casino tourism industryis beginning to slip as new gambling destinations emerge. The increasing respectability and public acceptance of gambling internationally has resulted in a number of locales getting in on the action.
Ironically, the increased respectability afforded to the gambling industry by Las Vegas has resulted in the emergence of fresh competition from around the globe. Macau has already surpassed Las Vegas in terms of yearly gaming revenue, and a number of other locations in East Asia are seriously competing for Vegas’ number two spot. The comparatively inexpensive Asia-Pacific gambling market is drawing players away from the Vegas strip, while serious card players from Europe and the States are making the long-haul to compete in high-stakes games unavailable in Las Vegas.
As the decade rolls on, it is likely that gambling will account for a more modest chunk of Nevada’s overall revenue. Whether promoting Las Vegas as an all-round holiday destination will plug the gap left by the shrinking casino market remains to be seen. At present, it seems doubtful that Las Vegas will ever reclaim the dizzying fiscal heights of its glory years as the world’s casino heartland.
Sam Miranda is a UK-based journalist, and has been covering the gambling sector for over five years. He contributes to a range of industry publications, including CalvinAyre, iGamingBusiness and Casino International.