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Liz Benston

Gas prices deter California gamblers

9 July 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Southern California gamblers who regularly drive to Las Vegas have cut back their visits by a third because of record gas prices, and those who still come say they've cut their gambling back by 29 percent, a new poll has found.

The findings indicate that gas prices are having a greater impact on tourism than can be gleaned from statistics generated by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. They compile key figures such as the number of visitors who drive or fly to Las Vegas, hotel occupancy and room rates, but don't try to quantify how gas prices affect tourism.

The number of incoming vehicles on Interstate 15 counted by the Nevada Transportation Department at the Southern California border — a figure that inevitably includes locals and other drivers who aren't necessarily Las Vegas tourists — is down 5 percent from January through April compared with the same period in 2007.

The visitors authority says tourist traffic from January through April was flat compared with the same period last year, although gaming revenue on the Strip was down 3 percent.

The new poll was conducted last month by Jim Medick of Precision Opinion, which conducts proprietary marketing research for political campaigns as well as for corporate clients, including casinos and retailers.

Medick said he wasn't attempting to quantify the drop in tourism, but rather to identify why some gamblers have stopped coming and at what point they are priced out of Vegas because of gas prices.

The survey follows one he conducted in 2005 gauging the response of Southern California gamblers to gas prices that had risen to more than $3 a gallon at the time.

About 48 percent of the polled Southern California gamblers in 2005 said gas prices had affected their decision to drive to Las Vegas casinos, but the survey didn't ask motorists to explain what the impact was.

Motorists in the 2005 and 2008 surveys were asked how expensive gas would have to be before they would stop driving to Las Vegas. On average, the motorists in 2005 said they would stop driving to Las Vegas when gas hit $3.51 a gallon. Last month, the average of responses was $5.73. Medick attributed the steep price estimate to responses from hard-core gamblers who said they would not be thwarted, even if gas were as high as $10 a gallon. Also, he noted that motorists have recently broken the psychological barrier of paying more than $4 a gallon for gas — a price that nobody would have believed possible years ago.

Medick said he focused on Southern Californians because it is a "core audience" and could help explain in more detail the forces driving the tourism slowdown in Las Vegas.

Researchers used a random digit dialing method to call thousands of people to accumulate a sample of 599 Southern California gamblers who said they had driven to Las Vegas at some point in the past three years. The survey has a 95 percent level of confidence and a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The research director of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, Kevin Bagger, cautioned that Medick's poll painted an incomplete picture of how the economy is affecting gamblers' decisions to come to Las Vegas.

The effect of high gas prices can be offset by other factors — including consumers who are lured by low room rates and other special offers, Bagger said.

"Volume is down, though not dramatically, and we're seeing that people are spending less. But you can change behavior to save money. Consumers are responding to these offers," Bagger said.

The purest measure of visitor traffic is hotel occupancy, he said. The visitors authority's monthly visitor traffic counts are extrapolated from occupancy rates rather than from car or plane traffic, which may not include tourist traffic, he said.

Las Vegas hotel occupancy is down 2 percent from last year to 89 percent from January through April, though the region has about 3,500 more rooms to fill this year than last, according to the visitors authority.

Factoring in those extra rooms, the number of room nights occupied across Las Vegas is flat with last year through April, with rooms occupied by tourists up 7 percent and rooms occupied by conventiongoers down 10 percent — a significant slowdown, yet hardly a doom and gloom scenario, tourism officials say.

Medick said hotel operators should heed the results of his poll.

"What this says is that people's overall budgets have been so dinged that they just can't afford to come to Las Vegas," he said. "This doesn't bode well" for the Strip, he said.

In the 2005 poll, 47 percent of Southern Californians who visit Las Vegas casinos said they would consider other ways of getting here, mostly by air but some by bus. By comparison, only 10 percent of gamblers in the June poll said they would turn to alternative modes of transportation if gas prices got too high. And this time, more said they'd consider bus travel than flying.

"This would be a good time for casino operators to look into more bus charters," he added.

Las Vegas casinos largely abandoned bus charters several years ago because gamblers were coming without the enticement of cheap travel. Charter buses, with fares subsidized by casino operators, remain a common practice in Atlantic City, a daytrippers market that's only two hours from New York and Philadelphia.

MGM Mirage, the Strip's largest casino operator, says Southern Californians are still coming in large numbers, especially since the company and others began offering summer bargains.

"We haven't seen the direct drop-off in business that is indicated by the survey, but we do have some softness because people who are traveling to Vegas are much more conscientious about their spending and are more budgeted than they have been in the past," spokeswoman Yvette Monet said.

Discount charter flight operators began scaling back their flights to Las Vegas years ago because they couldn't effectively compete with regularly scheduled air service, which rose significantly over the years, said Jeff Eisenhart, vice president of leisure sales and marketing at Mirage.

"If the charter company can make the finances work and bring the planes out here, it would always be something we would welcome. But that's up to the tour operator. We just supply the (rooms)."