A Fresh Study Sheds Light on the Habits of the Vegas Visitor

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority does many things well; one of them is to keep tabs on who is coming to Las Vegas, why they’re coming and what they are doing while they’re here. That kind of knowledge is important, because the average Las Vegas visitor is changing. A comparison of the recently released 2013 Las Vegas Visitor Profile with the 2004 edition gives us a good sense of the city’s trajectory.

The big question is, Why do people come to Las Vegas in the first place? Naturally, there are many reasons, so GLS Research, which compiles the profile, asks subjects for the primary purpose of their most recent visit. Having heard so much about how the Strip is about “more than gambling” these days, the trend is surprising: 15 percent of respondents said they came here primarily to gamble—more than three times the 4 percent who said that in 2004.

With all of the new non-gaming attractions, one would assume that those coming for general vacation fun are growing in number. But that’s not the case: In 2004, 63 percent came mostly to vacation, while only 41 percent did in 2013. Given the resort industry’s increasing investment in non-gaming amenities, that may seem like a disturbing number. Is the Strip heading in the wrong direction? Should the city focus more on gambling?

That’s where it pays to look at what visitors actually did once they got here. Over the past decade, no matter what visitors said they intended to do, fewer of them wound up gambling: In 2004, 87 percent of adult visitors gambled at least a little. In 2013, only 71 percent did.

Those who are gambling, however, are starting to spend more over the course of a trip after tightening their budgets during the Great Recession. The average spent on gambling crested at $652 in 2006 but fell below $450 in 2011. In 2013, it bounced back to $530. Gambling is becoming, it seems, a niche activity in the tourist corridor, with fewer casual gamblers and a core group of serious players.

So it makes perfect sense to build attractions that appeal to non-gamblers. That accounts for what I’ve called the “festivalization of Las Vegas.” In 2004, 2 percent of visitors came for a special event; in 2013, the number more than quadrupled to 9 percent. The continued success of the Electric Daisy Carnival, Downtown’s embrace of Life Is Beautiful and MGM’s rolling the dice on Rock in Rio on the north Strip are all signs of the trend.

Meanwhile, casinos continue to confirm that the path to visitors’ wallets goes through their palates. The average visitor in 2004 spent $238 on food and drink; last year, that number increased to $279. That doesn’t seem like such a big deal—what’s $40 spread out over a whole trip?—but when you multiply that by 40 million visitors, you get an additional $1.6 billion or so spent eating and drinking.

And yes, visitors to Las Vegas really are getting younger. In 2004, 29 percent of those surveyed were under 40. In 2013, 42 percent were—the result of steady gains over the course of the decade. We can expect to see casinos experiment with attracting millennials: New projects and redesigns will look more like the Cosmopolitan, the Cromwell and the Linq.

One pending project speaks to another major trend: Despite the proliferation of casinos around the world, the percentage of international visitors continues to rise—up from 13 percent in 2004 to 20 percent in 2013. So despite the seemingly excessive number of rooms on the Strip, Genting’s planned Resorts World—geared toward international visitors, particularly those from Asia—makes perfect sense.

These numbers show how the motivations and behaviors of Las Vegas visitors have changed over the past decade; they also spotlight the ways local operators have responded to that change. As our visitors’ tastes evolve, we can expect further transformation of our city. After all, this is hospitality—and the customer, as they say, is always right.

David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.