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"We've been through the worst of it," Smith said. "What we experienced in 2008 and 2009 was something none of us had seen before. It was a very dramatic drop. Not just in visitation, but it was the spend."
Smith said customers didn't have the money to spend on their visits.
"Visitation has rebounded," he said. "We had our second highest visitation ever in 2011, second to only 2007. And customer spend is coming back. We are clearly seeing a recovery."
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitor Authority said 38.9 million visitors generated $9.2 billion in gaming revenue in 2011, compared with 39.1 million, and $10.8 billion in gaming revenue, in 2007.
Authority officials expect 40 million visitors this year.
Smith sat down with the Las Vegas Review-Journal this week to discuss the health of the gaming industry and being the first gaming industry executive named chairman of the board of directors of the Los Angeles branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
"Part of our role as board members ... is to provide advice to what's happening in the economy," he said. "We see hundreds of thousands of customers a month, I would say we are kind of on the ground floor with what the customers are doing. The Fed is interested in those views."
Smith, who was appointed to his position on the board by the Fed's Board of Governors in Washington, D.C., said hosting his first board meeting as chairman was "certainly different than heading a gaming business." He said at meetings the six board members talk about U.S. monetary policy and in some cases global policy, including what is happening abroad in places like Greece and Germany.
"It's a whole different perspective," Smith said. "We have the benefit from hearing from some of the brightest economists."
Smith declined to discuss details of the first of his eight meetings this year. He also pointed out that his views on the economy were not as a member of the board of directors of the Fed branch in Los Angeles, but as CEO of Boyd Gaming.
Smith said the numbers clearly point to a recovery in the region's economy.
"You see it around town whether it's on Super Bowl weekend or New Year's Eve," he said. "Clearly there is a recovery going on in the (gaming) business."
Some months are better than others, there isn't a straight line, he said. But moving forward, Smith said he was "very optimistic," even looking forward to perhaps adding staff as the business continues to grow.
He said changes to the gaming business over the last four years have less to do with the recession and more to do with the evolution of the business. They also have to do with the growth of the nongaming side of the casino business.
"It was less casino-centric and whether you call it resort-centric, people came here for the wonderful show product, the wonderful restaurant product and the wonderful room product," he said. "So people come to experience the nongaming amenities and enjoy the casino also."
Smith said nightclubs are a much bigger part of the business today than they were 10 years ago. The gaming industry will continue to "evolve as this business has over the last 30 to 40 years," he said.
Boyd Gaming's position in the gaming business has evolved over the last the last three decades, since the company was founded in 1975. Today Boyd Gaming operates 17 resorts in Las Vegas, New Jersey, Mississippi, Illinois, Indiana and Louisiana.
Smith, who joined the company in 1990, was named CEO in 2001. About four years ago, Smith was approached by the Fed with a part-time job offer -- a member of its board of directors of the Los Angeles branch of the Federal Reserve.
Smith, who's now in his second three-year term, will serve as chairman for 2012.
"They came to me through Peter Thomas (a former Las Vegas banker) and asked me if I would be interested in serving on the board," he said. "They were looking for representation from Southern Nevada ... from the gaming industry."
Smith said the Federal Reserve realizes gaming is a big part of the economy, not just in Southern Nevada but also in Southern California.
Smith said the Fed is interested in any changes in consumer spending, consumer confidence and its effect on the region's economy.
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