The Rise of Chinese New Year

Some people might consider the massive New Year’s Eve celebration—“America’s Party”—the ultimate night for Las Vegas casinos. True, that bash attracts more than 300,000 people each year. But ask the people charged with making money for casinos, and they’ll tell you that the holiday they really look forward to is Chinese New Year.

It is now arguably the second most important holiday in Las Vegas, right behind the “holiday” known as Super Bowl weekend. And it’s just about tailor-made for casinos: Traditionally, it’s considered propitious to gamble at the start of the new year.

Imagine if one of the long-held traditions of American Thanksgiving was to put down a bet on the money line, or if the Fourth of July meant playing some serious video poker to celebrate American independence. Gambling is woven into Chinese culture in ways that American gamblers can’t truly appreciate. It’s a reminder that other cultures approach gambling far differently than the United States, and that the future lies in accommodating them.

Strip casinos have been marking the event since the 1970s, but it really took off with the explosion of high-end Asian baccarat play in the past few years. For Las Vegas, the winter/spring season doesn’t correspond to months on the calendar but to events in the city’s arenas, casinos and convention halls—from NFR to New Year’s Eve to CES to Chinese New Year to the Super Bowl to March Madness.

This year, to celebrate the Year of the Dragon, Caesars Entertainment offers its players a commemorative Total Rewards card with a red lizard over a gold background. The company is also hosting Lion Dances at several of its properties. The cornerstone of the celebration, Hong Kong-based singer Wakin Chau’s two-night stint at the Colosseum, underlines just how deep the Sino-makeover runs. Since the Colosseum opened in 2003, it has been one of the most profitable and dependable pieces of Caesars Palace, and to dedicate a weekend to a performer whose appeal is considerably more niche than Celine Dion speaks volumes to the importance of that niche in the broader scheme of things.

Speaking of marquee attractions getting a Chinese facelift, one of the most iconic spots in Las Vegas, the Conservatory at the Bellagio, has featured a post-holidays Chinese New Year display since 2000. This year, at the suggestion of Bellagio President Randy Morton, the indoor garden space also features live music from 5 to 6 each afternoon.

The extensive display—the six dragons featured each have moving heads and tails and smoke spitting from their nostrils—exemplifies the “too much is never enough” attitude Strip casinos take toward Chinese New Year.

There’s a reason the Conservatory doesn’t put up a generic winter exhibit, or a football-themed display: Those themes might resonate with more visitors, but the dragons and lanterns make the visitors whose dollars (or renminbi) the casino really covets feel more at home.

This year, for the first time, even downtown is getting into the game, with a five-day festival at the Fremont Street Experience. It’s an indication of just how East-facing Las Vegas has become.