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Liz Benston

Casinos Open Arms for Asians with Open Wallets

25 January 2006

The lunar calendar unleashes the Year of the Dog on Sunday and Las Vegas casinos hope to take a bite out of Asian gamblers' wallets.

Marketing to Asian -- particularly Chinese -- gamblers is Management 101 for casino bosses. Just about anybody who works in a casino knows that many Chinese believe the color red and the number 8 are lucky and that the number 4 is unlucky.

Many Las Vegas Strip properties have decorated their lobbies and casinos with orange trees, red lanterns, gold coins and other Chinese symbols of luck and prosperity.

Caesars Palace's top executive will be on hand Feb. 4 for a traditional "painting of the eye" lion ceremony in front of the property. The Venetian will host a dragon dance, complete with firecrackers and traditional music, in its casino on Saturday. At the MGM Grand Garden Arena, Chinese singer Paula Tsui will perform in Mandarin and Cantonese on Saturday and Sunday.

For non-Chinese, the public displays are an intriguing and colorful nod to an important ethnic group. For Las Vegas casinos, it's a business imperative.

Chinese New Year, also known as Lunar New Year, has grown from a small, private welcome for Asian high rollers to a more mainstream event for middle-income Chinese and Asian-Americans.

It now ranks as one of the biggest gambling events of the year for Las Vegas, vying for second place with the Super Bowl, behind New Year's Eve, experts say. Hotels are expecting 100 percent occupancy this weekend in advance of the celebration, which begins Sunday and lasts for two weeks.

A Chinese propensity to gamble is a long-held truism in Las Vegas that has yet to be documented with any accuracy. But some say there is a cultural basis for gambling during Chinese New Year -- a holiday that is inextricably tied to testing one's luck.

If a person wins a wager, it could bring new luck for the rest of the year, or so the tradition goes. Losing a bet could rid the bettor of bad luck that's accumulated over the past year.

"Chinese New Year is really a time for serious gambling," said Bill Eadington, professor of economics and director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at UNR. "It's really a time to test destiny."

While Las Vegas casinos don't specifically disclose their Chinese New Year business, the holiday is a boon for their baccarat tables -- the game most favored by Asian high rollers.

Gamblers wagered $754 million at Strip baccarat tables in February -- 66 percent higher than January's $453 million and 170 percent above March's $279 million. Last year, Chinese New Year began Feb. 9.

MGM Mirage, Las Vegas' biggest Strip casino operator and owner of at least three hotels -- MGM Grand, Bellagio and Mirage -- that cater to Asians of various incomes has witnessed a steady increase in the number of Asian travelers in town for Chinese New Year.

The event has also boosted business each year at the Venetian, which has cultivated a loyal Asian following and is now marketing the property with a casino it owns in the Chinese enclave of Macau.

"It's a very important time of year for us," Venetian spokesman Ron Reese said. The property will host more than 200 VIP players this year.

MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman said the increase is related in part to a boom in the Asian-American population in the United States.

"It's a growing, thriving community across the country," Feldman said.

The Asian-American population grew from 3.8 percent of the nation's population in 2000 to an estimated 4.3 percent in 2004, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Asians and Asian-Americans accounted for 7 percent of Las Vegas visitors in 2004, up from 4 percent in 2003, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

American Asians aside, analysts say that the burgeoning number of middle-class customers in China -- a relatively untapped population of entrepreneurs willing to spend money -- represent an even bigger business opportunity for Las Vegas casinos.

Capitalizing on that same Chinese market, Macau casinos are expected for the first time this year or next to win more money from gamblers than Las Vegas Strip properties.

Experts say intensifying competition in the casino industry has already resulted in increasing Chinese New Year traffic on the Strip.

Chinese New Year is a clear example of how casinos have become savvier in marketing to specific customer segments as a way to boost overall business, they say. Those segments include Hispanics and Asians as well as nonracial and ethnic groups such as single people and gay couples.

"No longer are Chinese living in just Chinatowns in San Francisco and New York," Las Vegas casino consultant Jeffrey Compton said. "They are dispersed throughout the general population. They can come and celebrate their ethnicity in Las Vegas in a way that they might not be able to do at home."

In spite of a growing number of public events around Chinese New Year, holiday celebrations are primarily centered on private parties for high rollers.

Wynn Las Vegas -- which claims to own the biggest chunk of the Strip's baccarat market -- isn't offering public events, instead hosting a private gala for more than 1,400 people that will include a traditional dragon dance. Other major properties will also host private events.

Chinese New Year still flies "under the radar" for the average Las Vegas visitor, Compton said.

That might change in the future, some experts say.

As a tourism destination, Las Vegas could do a much better job marketing Chinese New Year, which has the potential to become a more profitable event on par with New Year's Eve, said Jonathan Galaviz, a casino consultant specializing in the Asian market.

Rather than sponsoring ad-hoc events, Strip properties could coordinate a much larger, citywide celebration that recognizes the importance of the Lunar New Year, Galaviz said.

"I really think Las Vegas, as a global tourism destination, needs to learn how to sell itself better over Chinese New Year in the coming years," he said. "It may take an organization like the LVCVA to consolidate the marketing of Las Vegas as a global Chinese New Year destination."