|By Howard Stutz, Las Vegas
Review-JournalMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Feb. 7, 2008 - Beyond the traditional lion dances, decorations and festive events, the 10-day Chinese New Year celebration has a special meaning to Strip resort operators -- big business in the high-end baccarat rooms.
The cash flow begins today.
"Chinese New Year continues to be a significant event on the Strip," Macquarie Research Equities gaming analyst Joel Simkins said. "I don't think anyone is doing anything materially different than they've done in the past. It's just a very important event for Las Vegas."
Last year, more than $1 billion was wagered on baccarat during February, the vast bulk of which analysts attributed to Asian customers gambling in Las Vegas during the Chinese New Year celebration. The casinos' win from those baccarat customers was $116.4 million.
How significant were the baccarat players to the Strip's bottom line? The Gaming Control Board estimated the Strip win would have been off 2.9 percent from the previous year without the baccarat business.
"It's an important part of the first quarter," Deutsche Bank gaming analyst Bill Lerner said. "Chinese New Year is still a pretty big deal on the Strip."
This year, the Strip won't experience the kind of influx of customers casinos enjoyed in 2007 when the NBA All-Star Game rolled into town the same weekend as the start of Chinese New Year. The game brought worldwide attention, marquee athletes, big-name celebrities and a large following. But casino operators said the NBA All-Star Game crowd was more interested in parties than gambling.
"The All-Star Game was a disaster, and you won't have that impact this year," Simkins said.
Despite an ever-growing casino presence in Macau, casino operators are willing to spend large promotional dollars to bring their free spending Asian customers to Strip.
For companies such as Las Vegas Sands Corp., Wynn Resorts Ltd. and MGM Mirage, which have all opened multibillion-dollar hotel-casinos in the Chinese gaming enclave over the past 24 months, Chinese New Year is a way to expand the relationship with their high-end players.
Las Vegas Sands Executive Vice President Brad Stone said the length of Chinese New Year affords an Asian visitor a longer stay in Las Vegas. Despite the company's presence in Macau -- Las Vegas Sands operates the Sands Macau and opened the massive $2.4 billion Venetian Macau in August -- the company wants its Asian clientele to visit Las Vegas.
"As great as we love Macau, what we built helps our properties in Las Vegas," Stone said. "Our customers want to come here, and Chinese New Year is the perfect time for that trip. Our customers in Macau know our facilities and they know they will find the same amenities here."
Simkins said there is enough business to go around.
"Macau has shown there is a significant population of customers," Simkins said. "And Macau has allowed those casino companies to touch more of those customers."
Quietly, Simkins said, the Las Vegas Sands officials would much rather see the big spending during Chinese New Year take place in Las Vegas, where the gaming tax is 6.75 percent, than Macau, where the company pays 39 percent on its gaming revenue.
"They want to get the folks to come over here. That's a pretty big spread," Simkins said.
Signs of Chinese New Year will be evident along the Strip over the next two weeks.
At The Venetian and Palazzo, much of the public areas of the two resorts will be decorated with red and gold color schemes and symbols of luck, such as golden coins, traditional tangerine trees, a wishing tree, silk banners and custom-made lotus lanterns.
The resorts will host an authentic dragon dance this afternoon, complete with firecrackers and costumed dancers. A second dragon dance will take place Saturday.
MGM Mirage will usher in Chinese New Year with the help of one of the company's joint venture partners, Diaoyutai State Guesthouse of Beijing, which will host a culinary festival at the MGM Grand, starting Thursday and running through Tuesday.
The culinary team from Diaoyutai, which has cooked for presidents, prime ministers and other heads of state, will prepare traditional delicacies from the Imperial Court Banquet that will be served at Pearl at MGM Grand.
Lunch will be served from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. with a prix fixe menu priced at $200 to $250. Dinner, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., will have a prix fixe menu priced at $300, $450 or $600.
MGM Mirage will have authentic Chinese cuisine at restaurants inside Mandalay Bay and The Mirage, performances by Chinese singers at the MGM Grand Garden and lion dances scheduled at Mandalay Bay, MGM Grand, the Mirage and Bellagio.
The conservatory at the Bellagio has been decorated to honor Chinese New Year.
YEAR OF THE RAT
The time frame for Chinese New Year changes annually. The celebration begins on the first day of the first moon of the lunar calendar.
2008 is the Year of Rat, the first animal in the sequence of 12 in the Chinese calendar.
The rat symbolizes good luck and wealth and the Chinese consider it an honor to be born in the Year of the Rat.
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