It is a normal Saturday in Las Vegas, and the front of the Bellagio is crowded with tourists waiting for the iconic fountain show to begin. After, some will explore the gardens off the lobby inside. Others will shop, enjoy restaurants or bars, or head to the luxurious pools and spas of the Strip hotels. Some will get ready to see a show. A few will make their way into a casino.
The Bellagio fountains as seen from the hotel itself.
It’s a stark change from only a couple of decades ago, when the concept of “Sin City” was at its peak. So what has changed? Is Las Vegas still the gambling mecca it once was, or has it become something else? And if so, is that better or worse?
The University of Nevada at Las Vegas Center for Gaming Studies releases annual summaries of income from gambling around the state, separating it out by region. In 1984, the first year of trustworthy statistics, the Las Vegas Strip made just under $1.3B in gambling revenue, accounting for 58% of overall revenue. In 2018, that number had ballooned to $6.3B, but accounted for just 34% of Strip revenues.
The numbers are even starker when compared to Macao, called the Las Vegas of Asia. Taking two properties that exist at both locations, the Wynn and Venetian, one finds that in the Las Vegas locations, gaming accounts for less than 30% of income, whereas in Macao it is more than 80%.
Why the shift? To my mind, it is a spiral of circumstances. Let’s begin with health. Las Vegas casinos still allow smoking at all but poker tables, and even these still get some smoke drifting in. Showrooms, spas, restaurants, and many pool areas are largely smoke free, making them more attractive options for those who are conscious of second-hand smoke.
Second, Las Vegas is no longer one of the only gambling centers in the United States. As Indian casinos become more popular and more prevalent, there is no need to travel extensively to gamble. Those who still choose to visit Las Vegas are hence those who, to a larger extent, want to do more things than simply sit at a table or machine.
Finally, let’s examine the Vegas concept of “comping.” In earlier days, it was fairly common for even a low-level gambler to be gifted with a free meal or show in return for a few hours spent at a blackjack table. Today, unless you are a true high roller, you are highly unlikely to be comped anything. This in turn has led not only to fewer gamblers, but to a rise in more luxurious food and entertainment options as disposable income is being spent in those areas instead.
Mastro’s Ocean Club, a beautiful – and expensive – restaurant for the new version of Vegas high roller.
So today, if one walks into any large Strip property, one is surrounded by luxury shopping, dining featuring celebrity chefs, expensive and astounding shows, and long lines for nightclubs with rather heavy cover charges. Again, with the shift away from gambling as the sole source of entertainment, Las Vegas has adapted to find new ways to separate a tourist from his money, albeit one with smaller overall margins.
The Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace are one of the luxurious shopping options.
This, in turn, leads to higher average room prices, as well as to more space dedicated to activities other than gambling. Taken to its extreme, one sees a new ambitious project being built next to the Las Vegas Convention Center. The Majestic is a nearly $700M non-gaming property coming to the center of Las Vegas. In place of a casino, the resort will feature a 70,000 square foot health club. Again, as demographics move away from gambling as their primary source of disposing their income, Las Vegas is changing with them.
It seems obvious that, while gambling still makes a sizable portion of Las Vegas revenue, it is no longer the primary draw for many, if not most, visitors. So who goes to Vegas and why? The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Association finds that 45% of visitors come for pleasure, as opposed to just 7% to gamble, with the remainder largely visiting family and friends or attending a convention. Those visitors spent an average of $113 per night on lodging, and more than $315 on food and beverages over the course of their trip, along with a further $200 in shopping/shows and $75 in local transportation. And, while three quarters gambled, the overwhelming majority of those did so for fewer than two hours. Nearly 65% of Las Vegas visitors were 49 or under.
The Waldorf Astoria, part of the new wave of ultra luxury hotels on the Strip.
Ok, so what does all this tell us we should expect from a current or future Las Vegas getaway? First off, you can expect a relatively young population, although with 19% age 65 or older, there are certainly those of all ages. You can expect to spend a decent amount of money on lodging and food, and those prices are only increasing, although deals – especially off the Strip – can still be found. Finally, you can expect a Las Vegas that, while it still caters to the gambler, will ever more adapt to those who choose to gamble little or not at all.
Returning to our original question: is Las Vegas still Sin City? For now, yes, as gaming is still a huge source of income, as is the drinking that accompanies it. But this is changing, and changing rapidly. This isn’t to say that Vegas will be a huge family destination any time soon (although a shocking 6% of visitors brought along someone under 21), but wholesome – or wholesome-adjacent – activities will be ever more prevalent with each passing year as Las Vegas struggles to redefine itself in a world in which gambling as a reason for travel becomes a thing of the past.
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