Mentioning that Las Vegas visitors in 2015 are spending less on gambling and more on other things is now about as obvious as saying the upcoming Mayweather-Pacquiao fight will make a few bucks. But what other changes are we seeing in visitation? The 2014 Las Vegas Visitor Profile, issued recently by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, has some answers.
In sum, we see a Las Vegas that is still in transition. Compared with 2007—the last hurrah before the Great Recession—the average 2014 Las Vegas tourist was wealthier, younger, considerably more likely to come from another country and more likely to be non-white. In particular, the percentage of visitors identifying as Asian or Asian-American has more than tripled, from 3 percent in 2007 to 10 percent last year.
Increasing international visitation has long been a goal of the LVCVA, and the numerous investments the agency has made toward that end continue to bear fruit. In 2007, 12 percent of visitors came from abroad; in real numbers, this accounts for about 4.7 million people. Last year, that percentage jumped to 19 percent, which when factoring in increased visitation—we topped 40 million last year—translated into more than 7.8 million international visitors. That’s a two-thirds increase in seven years.
Given that foreign travelers on average stay longer and spend more than domestic visitors, this statistic is a very good thing for Las Vegas. The challenge for 2015 will be ensuring that those who came last year return, and that our stronger dollar doesn’t diminish the value of a Vegas trip.
To be clear: Tourists are still hitting the casinos in Vegas—in fact, slightly more visitors claimed gambling as the primary reason for their trip in 2014 than in 2007. With the overall spike in visitation numbers, that means 800,000 more people came to Las Vegas chiefly to gamble last year than before the recession. Thing is, that number is obscured by the predominant nongaming trend.
The reason why dedicated gamblers are overlooked is that, despite the increase in volume, fewer visitors overall are risking their money. In the seven-year span from 2007-14, the number of tourists who gambled dropped by about 2.3 million. Coupled that with the jump in visitation, and it speaks volumes about the wisdom of (and necessity for) casino operators’ shift to nongambling attractions.
Those who gamble are spending more than they did at the depth of the recession, but still about 5 percent less than before the economic downturn. And it looks like their behavior has fundamentally changed; in 2007, the average gambler spent 3.4 hours in front of a slot machine or table game, but in 2014 that time had dropped to 2.6 hours. That’s 48 minutes, on average, per day—and the average visitor stayed more than four days—spent doing something else.
Judging by the LVCVA’s statistics, that “something else” is most likely tied to eating or shopping (or both). The amount of money spent on food and beverage (a number that also includes the Strip’s burgeoning nightclubs) grew 11 percent from 2007 to 2014, while the average shopping bill jumped by more than 30 percent. Visitors, it seems, are looking for experiences—that uniquely Vegas night on the town—and/or creature comforts to take home. Gambling, while it is still a draw for a substantial minority, is no longer the main attraction.
Where does this shift in behavior leave Las Vegas? In better shape than before the recession, which might seem difficult to believe when looking only at the gaming numbers. Earlier this year, the Nevada Gaming Control Board’s Gaming Abstract revealed that, while gaming numbers have yet to reach their pre-recession highs, Nevada casinos made more money in 2014 from their combined gaming and nongaming offerings than ever before. Similarly, visitors to Las Vegas spent more per trip (excluding lodging) than they ever have—up 5 percent from 2007 (the previous high) and up more than three times that much from the bottom of the recession.
Las Vegas often has a regrettable tendency toward patting itself on the back, but in this case, the congratulations are well-deserved. Five years ago, the city faced a crisis, adapted and not only survived but emerged stronger. And therein lies the best news of all: In proving it can take a devastating economic punch and still win the fight, Las Vegas figures to be ready to deal with the next unexpected uppercut—which is probably coming sooner than we think.
David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.