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Inside Gaming: Las Vegas? You Can't Drive There From Here

7 February 2005

Three months in treatment at the UCLA Medical Center is giving me a chance to discover Las Vegas the way Californians see it. Just listening, sometimes to everyday Californians, sometimes to insiders and industry titans, makes it clear they see one big threat to Las Vegas. It's not tribal gaming, competition, proliferation or problem gambling lawsuits. It's the traffic, stupid.

One young financial executive, whose mother is in treatment with me, says he and a friend, on a lark, recently took off for a weekend in Las Vegas. They left at quitting time and didn't reach Las Vegas until nearly dawn. Then they started back midafternoon Sunday, and only got home in time for work Monday morning. Never again, he says.

A travel agent told me his Asian customers used to always want to put a first-class road trip to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon on their itineraries while visiting Los Angeles. No more. They say the traffic on the highway rivals downtown Tokyo and rips up their vacation plans.

An old-time entertainment industry wag told me he used to drive to Las Vegas a half dozen times a year. Now, it's history. Has he tried it lately? Nope. He says he sees the traffic every week on the Sunday evening news. That's enough for him.

Ten million people live in Los Angeles, and it seems as if every one of them has a nightmare story to tell about getting to or from Las Vegas. If they haven't done it themselves, they've seen it on television.

I have not heard anyone complain about prices in Las Vegas, not for rooms, not for dining, not for entertainment. Why should they? Everything's twice as expensive in the Southland. But everyone complains about the traffic.

The good news is the demand exists. In bad times, it can be tapped to in-fill sluggish room demand.

The bad news is it it won't generate new visitors, historically the source of increased demand in Las Vegas. And crowding out drive-in visitors warps investments in Las Vegas. Hospitality executives say they won't build for the California crowd if traffic is going to crowd it out.

Every night over the holidays, TV stations in Los Angeles warned that weather and crowds were adding four hours-plus each way to drive time. On ordinary weekends, news reports cover possible problems if there aren't real ones.

Bright lights twinkling slowly down I-15 makes an indelible visual, but very bad public relations. We don't have to convince anyone Las Vegas is a place to visit. We need to prove they can get there and back. And Californians are watching what we do, not just what we say.

For Californians, the traffic is an established fact. The question now is what we do about it.

The Inside Gaming column is compiled by Gaming Wire Editor Rod Smith. You can contact him by phone at 338-9653, fax 387-5243 or e-mail at

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