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Gaming Guru

Chris Jones
 

Visitors Coming, But Not Via L.A.

15 November 2005

The summer wind came blowin' in from across the sea. And in the process, it apparently stole some vigor from Las Vegas' otherwise vibrant travel industry.

September visitor data released Monday suggest that Hurricane Katrina and its accompanying fuel-price surge may have deterred some Southern Californians from driving across the desert for a late-summer getaway.

Separately, fewer room nights were used by leisure travelers, mirroring a yearlong Las Vegas trend.

Still, another solid performance from the convention industry helped the city avoid its first monthly drop in citywide visitor volume since January's 6,352-traveler decline.

Nearly 3.2 million visitors came here in September, an increase of 1.5 percent from the same month last year, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority said. Through the first nine months of 2005, visitor volume topped 29 million, up 2.9 percent from last year's record 12-month count of nearly 37.4 million.

Despite solid growth in several key categories, September's drive-in traffic from Southern California dipped by 2.1 percent, the first such decrease since April. Overall, traffic on all highways heading into town increased just 0.7 percent.

"It's possible some of that had to do with the price of gas, but I wouldn't say concretely that's why we saw a decrease in traffic on I-15," said John Piet, the authority's senior research analyst. "Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were all over the news; you had reports from the president, AAA and groups like that saying cut back on driving. All of those could have been factors."

In the days between Katrina's Aug. 29 landfall and Labor Day weekend, which began Sept. 2, one of the country's largest travel organizations encouraged Americans to consider canceling their end-of-summer getaways to conserve fuel; similar requests came from President Bush and several state governors.

AAA's Geoff Sundstrom said such calls to stay home could have factored into decreased highway traffic between Las Vegas and Southern California two months ago. But in recent weeks, gasoline prices have stabilized and the U.S. travel industry appears on track for mild growth through year's end, he said.

"Prices are still high, but I don't think we're going to see the $2.75 and $3 per gallon costs again this year," said Sundstrom, a spokesman at AAA's national headquarters.

Barring any unexpected turns, Sundstrom said, U.S. motorists shouldn't face another fuel-supply crunch until spring, when many refineries slow production as seasonal fuel blends come on or offline.

Another potential concern for Las Vegas is this year's shrinking number of room nights occupied by leisure visitors. Through September, the city's hotels and motels have sold nearly 550,000 fewer room nights to leisure guests than a year ago, despite the addition of new rooms at Wynn Las Vegas, Green Valley Ranch Resort and Caesars Palace, among others.

That decline has been more than offset by the presence of business travelers who have bought nearly 850,000 more room nights than a year ago. Still, Piet said local travel leaders are working to address why leisure stays have dipped in eight of the ninth months measured so far this year.

"I don't want to make it sound like it's not a concern because it is," Piet said. "Obviously gas pricing is one of the issues that we'll look into to see if that's affecting things. In terms of research we've done ... our surveys are telling us that's not the case: folks are not changing their plans, per se, because of gas prices.

"We're positive in terms of the convention market growing. We're excited about that, but at the same time we'll continue to look into why tourist room nights would be down."

Big conventions for the month included the Men's Apparel Guild in California, which drew 101,000 over its four-day run; and the Global Gaming Expo, which drew approximately 25,000. MAGIC Marketplace began Aug. 29, but Piet said its data was included in September's records because the event ended Sept. 1.

Thanks partly to higher rates paid by business travelers, average daily rates for the city's 133,604 guest rooms rose 19 percent to $107.65. Total room nights occupied climbed by 0.7 percent due to diminished leisure business (down 4.1 percent) but growth in convention travel (up 10.5 percent).

Citywide occupancy in September slipped from 90.9 percent to 88.3 percent, though year-over-year that category was up less than 1 percentage point.

Two previous reports heralded the positives of Monday's visitor statistics. On Nov. 2, the Clark County Aviation Department said monthly passenger traffic at McCarran International Airport topped 3.6 million, a 7.4 percent increase from September 2004. And on Thursday, the Nevada Gaming Control Board said September's statewide gaming win climbed 9.6 percent to $1.01 billion.

The news was worse from two outlying Southern Nevada destinations. Laughlin's 298,719 visitors was down 2.4 percent from September 2004, while Mesquite's 113,456 total was a 19.9 percent drop.