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Benjamin Spillman

Smaller March Madness crowd expected in Vegas

18 March 2009

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- A visit by Tim Taylor won't save the beleaguered Las Vegas economy, no matter how much he manages to lose betting on college basketball.

But Taylor and thousands like him in town this week should at least provide a temporary boost to everything from room rates to tips for dealers, servers and bellhops.

Taylor, 38, of Redlands, Calif., says he's expecting Las Vegas to be livelier than during his last visit in December, based on the cost of rooms.

"I know it is March Madness, but with the economy I expected the rooms to be a little cheaper," he said.

Although Taylor is a regular Las Vegas visitor, this week will be the first time he's come to town for the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Although Taylor had hoped for a cheaper rate, he was well off relative to past years when rooms, on average, were sold out well in advance of the tournament.

Taylor scored a room at the Riviera for $99 per night on the weekend, and he will be joining friends who are staying at the Flamingo Las Vegas and Bellagio.

Had Taylor waited until the last minute, like many guests have done, the Riviera booking would have cost about $106 per night, according to the room-booking site

Comparisons to 2008 are difficult, according to site operator Michael Zaletel. That's because by this time last year most rooms were sold out, but actual demand seemed to wane at the last minute, prompting hotels to drop prices to fill their remaining vacancies.

This year people held off, prompting low prices for early bookings that rose suddenly in the past few days as demand picked up.

"Other years, everything would be sold out right now," Zaletel said.

It's unlikely revelers such as Taylor will worry much about it, though.

"A bunch of people at work said it was a really good time," said Taylor, a teacher, of the opening days of the tournament that feature games from morning until night. "Like Christmas morning for adults."

To get an idea of how important the tournament is for Las Vegas, just look at the gambling numbers.

Last year, basketball betting increased from $116.7 million statewide in February to $238.9 million in March, a 105 percent increase.

This season, the tournament is also further removed from Easter on the calendar and coincides with St. Patrick's Day and spring break for many universities.

Unfortunately, it also coincides with a steep recession that's hitting Las Vegas hard in terms of visitation, gambling revenue and occupancy rates at resorts.

"It is busy, but people don't have as much to spend as they used to," said Mike Nolan, general manager of the El Cortez in downtown Las Vegas.

Even the El Cortez, the oldest, continually operating casino in Las Vegas, has been hit by the recession.

Nolan says employment is down to about 650 people from the approximately 730 it employed as visitation peaked in the past three years.

But he expects that the tournament will at least provide some extra hours that employees will welcome.

Casino workers will host tournament viewing for customers in the El Cortez's Fiesta ballroom.

There will be $2 bratwurst and $1 beers and enough televisions to show every game, Nolan said.

The room will be open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

"We are adding people back to the schedule for that," he said.

At the Hard Rock Hotel workers are putting the finishing touches on a $760 million expansion, despite the lousy national economy.

And Brian Stedeford, senior director of gaming operations, expects March Madness will have the property bustling.

Stedeford says workers are moving televisions and sofas into part of the poker room. The idea is to create a place customers can reserve -- for a fee -- and watch games in comfort.

From there, they'll be able to drift in and out of poker games or the casino floor.

"Combined, the first two weekends of March Madness are bigger than the Super Bowl," said Stedeford, adding Hard Rock's appeal with younger, male customers gives it an advantage over other properties this time of year.

"March Madness really appeals to our demographic," he says.

But whatever surge March Madness creates won't offset broader economic forces that lately have the destination on its heels.

"Sadly, this is the first year supply has exceeded demand for rooms during the NCAA Tournament," said Zaletel. "Historically, these dates sold out well in advance."

Zaletel said on Friday that the site recently had 15 hotels with rates under $60 per night from Thursday through Sunday, the hottest period for Las Vegas.

Another 20 hotels still had room rates under $100 per night for the same span.

On Tuesday there were just eight hotels under $60 and 12 under $100.

Hard Rock was fetching $254 and The Venetian was getting $245. Planet Hollywood was at $189.

Zaletel said it was an indication bookings picked up speed at the last minute.

The lower rates probably helped.

"With the incredible weather Las Vegas is having right now and everything going on and the huge discounts, there really is nowhere else in the country that compares," Zaletel said. "When you combine St. Patrick's Day with spring break and March Madness, there is a lot of demand there."