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Benjamin Spillman

Vegas gearing up for Chinese New Year

26 January 2009

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Its pageantry goes unnoticed in the ubiquitous, cheeky national ad campaigns for Las Vegas.

But in the biggest casinos on the Strip, no detail from dining to decor is overlooked when it comes to Chinese New Year, an event that brings hundreds of millions of dollars to Nevada.

The ancient holiday is a marketing fulcrum for campaigns aimed at several of Las Vegas' most valuable niche markets, from Asian whales to dedicated low-stakes gamblers from Southern California to newly minted middle-class Chinese vacationers.

"You're talking about the ultimate event of the year," said Al Faccinto, president of international marketing for MGM Mirage, the largest gambling resort company in Nevada. "You need to be on top of your game whether there are 10 people coming in or 1,000."

Although the actual holiday occurs Monday, Faccinto and his staff of more than 100 have been going full tilt for weeks.

They've cooked up an elaborate party at Bellagio for nearly 3,000 customers and an ornate display in the casino's conservatory, and they've organized elaborate Chinese lion dances at MGM Grand, Mirage, Mandalay Bay and, of course, Bellagio.

Caesars Palace, which began marketing the holiday as early as 1975, is also decked out and opened two meticulously planned, authentic restaurants with mainland Chinese cuisine in time for the 2009 holiday, which kicks off the Year of the Ox.

The Venetian, Palazzo, Wynn Las Vegas and Encore, the latter of which was designed largely with upscale Asian gamblers in mind, also bang the gong heavily for the event.

Among the best indicators of the rise of Chinese New Year in Las Vegas is baccarat play.

The amount of the baccarat drop during the month of Chinese New Year has increased from $455.6 million in 1996 to more than $1 billion last year.

But like the rise of Las Vegas, the rise of Chinese New Year into an exchange of more than $1 billion between gamblers and Nevada casinos coincided with a global economic bubble that finally burst in 2008.

It's too early to assess the fallout, but it will likely mean less Asian wealth pouring into Las Vegas, at least for now.

"Overall, baccarat's performance has become very important" to the Las Vegas economy, said Jeremy Aguero of the economics research firm Applied Analysis. "Some of that growth was real, some of it probably wasn't real."

There is evidence some cash that supported the gambling boom in the Chinese enclave of Macau came from sources of wealth that evaporated when the bubble burst.

One study by Zeng Zhonglu, a professor at Macau Polytechnic Institute, showed a disturbing trend of Macau high rollers, or whales, ending up dead, imprisoned or broke.

The study, reported this month in an Australian newspaper as well as the New York Times, followed 99 big-time gamblers from mainland China.

It found many were government officials, managers of state-connected companies or cashiers at state businesses.

As such they had ready access to cash during the years-long economic boom and used much of it to gamble in Macau casinos.

The study reported the government officials researchers tracked lost an average of $2.7 million each.

There was also human fallout. At least 15 of the gamblers were executed, several more committed suicide and others were embroiled in scandal.

"It is no different than what Madoff did or what these other (corrupt American) investors did as well," said Timothy Fong, co-director of the gambling studies program at University of California, Los Angeles.

Fong, who didn't contribute to the Macau study, said it is likely some of the Asian whales who helped fuel the Las Vegas baccarat boom will be undone by the global economic crisis.

He described one such gambler he knows who had the means to gamble huge sums of money for years before finally succumbing to losses.

The evaporation of global wealth could hasten the fiscal demise of others, Fong said.

"There probably are a high number of them who fit criteria for pathological gambling, but it is unclear how much harm it has done to their lives," Fong said. "All those years up until then the gambling wasn't causing harm."

Still, Fong acknowledges Chinese New Year was associated with gambling long before Las Vegas casinos caught on to the holiday or developed sophisticated Asian marketing programs.

And he doesn't blame the casinos for cultivating Asian clientele, whether its in mainland China or suburban Southern California.

"I wouldn't call that predatory, I would call that marketing to communities that have demands for their services," Fong said.

Leaders of major Las Vegas casinos are also quick to point out their Chinese New Year -- and other Asian marketing platforms -- cover much more than gambling.

"Las Vegas today compared to 10 years ago has so much credibility as a great restaurant destination, a great entertainment destination," said John Unwin, general manager of Caesars Palace.

Unwin said two new restaurants at Caesars, Beijing Noodle No. 9 and Sea Harbour, are among a small number of restaurants nationally that offer a high level of authentic, mainland Chinese cuisine.

"We spend a fair amount of time in Asia, and China, visiting business partners and customers," Unwin said. "We believe our new offerings are the most authentic in the market and, in fact, some of the most authentic in the country."

The diversity of Asian outreach from Las Vegas and the sheer number of potential new Asian customers means that, despite the current recession, Chinese New Year will remain one of Nevada's most critical business holidays, said Aguero, who believes the local economy will recede to a level of productivity similar to 2004.

"Not only are we dependent on the nation's ups and downs, we are more dependent on the global economy than we ever have been," he said. "That trend is here to stay."