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Howard Stutz

Vegas readies for Chinese New Year celebrations

15 February 2010

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- At Bellagio and other Strip resorts, preparation for the potentially lucrative two-week Chinese New Year celebration is a yearlong event.

"We might take a week off when it's all over," said Greg Shulman, vice president of international marketing for Bellagio. "But then we'll start prepping for next year all over again."

The team running the off-Strip Gold Coast understands that idea.

With its proximity to Las Vegas' growing Chinatown district, the 711-room hotel-casino caters to a burgeoning Asian community 12 months a year.

"This has really become a key market segment for us," said Gold Coast general manager Kerrie Burke. "Chinese New Year is an important event, but it's just a small part of what we do."

The Gold Coast is bringing out all the trappings for Year of the Tiger, which starts Sunday based on the lunar calendar. Decorations colored in red, gold and other vibrant hues; silk lanterns; and tangerine trees are prominently displayed inside the West Flamingo Road casino. Actors were scheduling performances of the traditional lion dance. Kao Ling Feng, known as "the Asian Elvis," is performing at the property on Feb. 28.

Gina Farr, the Gold Coast's player development manager, said the casino has embraced the various Chinese New Year traditions and has reached into the neighboring Asian community to give customers an experience similar to what might be found on the Strip.

"We have a diverse melting pot of customers," Farr said.

In Las Vegas, Chinese New Year tends to center on the Strip, where lavish parties, special restaurant menus and high-end baccarat tournaments cater to the big-spending international customers.

The holiday has become a central focus for the casino industry, especially MGM Mirage, Las Vegas Sands Corp. and Wynn Resorts Ltd., which have invested heavily in casino operations in Macau. The companies use the Chinese gaming enclave as a marketing tool to entice big-spending customers to Las Vegas.

Shulman said Asian casino patrons looking for just a short getaway will travel to Macau. Las Vegas attracts longer-staying guests.

"It's a different type of trip-planning for our customers," Shulman said. "Our customers will come in for 10 or 12 days and travel with their families and large groups. So we try to plan out a variety of options for both the customers and their families."

Much of Bellagio's focus is on elaborate decorations offered inside the resort's prominent conservatory and botanical gardens. Aria, CityCenter's centerpiece hotel-casino, will host a 3,000-person VIP celebration for all of MGM Mirage's casinos customers.

Las Vegas-area Chinese residents also celebrate the New Year in a similar fashion as the international customers arriving on the Strip.

Vida Chan Lin, a Las Vegas insurance executive and current president of the Asian Chamber of Commerce, said the tradition is an important holiday for families to get together to celebrate.

And, yes, she said, gambling is part of that celebration because of a belief in luck.

Lin said the Asian chamber hosts an annual New Year's celebration where it honors community leaders.

Alan Chen, whose father was the principal investor in the Las Vegas Chinatown Plaza, said the international visitors usually stick close to the Strip during Chinese New Year. As the local Asian community has grown, many of the celebrations have centered around Chinatown.

The Gold Coast, which was opened by Michael Gaughan in 1986, has been able to gain access into the Asian market almost by circumstance. As the Chinatown district grew south, the casino was somewhat absorbed.

Boyd Gaming Corp., which acquired the Gold Coast in 2003 when the company bought Coast Casinos, has long marketed to Hawaiian customers at its downtown resorts. Burke said tapping into the Asian market was a natural transition.

"We created marketing programs and other promotions with that in mind," Burke said.

The casino has branched out into the Southern California Asian community, mainly in the Los Angeles area, to grow its Asian customer base.

Burke said the Gold Coast strives for a year-round Chinese New Year celebration. Of the casino's 49 table games, 20 are devoted to Asian-style games, including baccarat, pai gow and Asia poker. Burke estimated that out of the 300-plus Gold Coast dealers, about 40 percent are Asian.

The operators of the Ping Pang Pong restaurant opened an Asian-style noodle bar in the casino.

Special menus have been arranged during Chinese New Year.

Last year, a feng shui master advised the operator on moving a hand-carved Buddha statue to a more proper location.

"It was important for us to do it correctly and with respect to tradition," Burke said.