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Benjamin Spillman

TOURISM: Hoop hype hot, visitation mild

13 April 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada – The NBA All-Star Game attracted widespread media attention in February but Las Vegas saw just a small increase in new visitors to Southern Nevada for the month, visitation figures show.

The number of Las Vegas visitors rose 1.3 percent for the month to about 3 million for a month that included high-profile events such as the All-Star Game and Chinese New Year.

Occupancy in the Las Vegas Valley's more than 133,000 hotel rooms was virtually flat, increasing from 90.2 to 90.3 percent.

The average room price, however, rose nearly 13 percent over the previous year to nearly $136, the largest increase among the statistics released Thursday by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

"We tried to avoid Vegas a little bit because it was really, really tight," said Daniel Shen, president of Lion Tours, a Los Angeles area tour operator that brings Asian tourists to the United States.

Shen said the confluence of Chinese New Year, the All-Star Game and Presidents Day holiday on the same weekend prompted some visitors to conclude Las Vegas would be too chaotic and too expensive to be enjoyable.

The company changed itineraries for some of the 35 or so tours it hosted in February to avoid the busy weekend, he said. Other guests chose to skip Las Vegas altogether in favor of places like Reno or the East Coast, he added.

"Even though I get a room, the rate is going to be sky high," Shen said.

Kevin Bagger, the authority's research director, said he was impressed that for the first time visitation in February topped 3 million people. That the hotels maintained steady occupancy rates despite an additional 1,700 rooms in the market signaled good performance, he said.

Although more people visited Las Vegas in February 2007 than during the same month the previous year, the percentage increase was weaker. The Las Vegas visitor volume in February 2006 was 2.6 percent higher than the same month in 2005, double the percentage increase reported Thursday.

The strong visitation numbers in previous years were the main reason the percentage increase was barely higher than 1 percent, Bagger said.

"We are always our toughest competition," he said. "That is a positive indicator for the destination."

The number of people who flew to Las Vegas on charters and international flights decreased nearly 5 percent in February, the first month-to-month decline since September.

Weekend occupancy rates for the month also decreased but the decline was less than 1 percent.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, whose intense lobbying of the NBA was partly responsible for Southern Nevada becoming the first area without a professional basketball team to land the event, said he wished more people would have visited during the month.

"You hope for a bigger increase," said Goodman. "I'd like to see every single room sold out."

But the self-proclaimed "happiest mayor in the cosmos" said he was still pleased by the turnout.

"I think any increase over the prior year is good for Las Vegas," Gooman said.

Bagger said the All-Star Game and associated events attracted about 85,000 visitors and generated a nongaming economic impact of about $93 million for the Las Vegas economy.

The community of Mesquite actually reversed a downward visitation trend by posting in increase of 6.3 percent over the previous February with more than 134,000 visitors. February visitation to Mesquite in 2006 was a near 3 percent decline from 2005.

The downward slide continued for Laughlin, however. Visitation to the river city decreased almost 14 percent to about 257,000 for the month. Visitation to Laughlin decreased every month in 2006 and January, 2007 as well.

Hotel operators in both Mesquite and Laughlin did manage to get more from each visitor, though. In Mesquite the average daily room rate rose 95 percent to almost $100. In Laughlin room rates increased nearly 8 percent to almost $40.