|By Liz Benston, Las Vegas
SunMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Aug. 18, 2011--As one of the nation's most traveled tourist destinations, Las Vegas may appear a melting pot for American tourism, reflecting nearly every age and income bracket.
Over the years, there's only one kind of customer that has mattered most to most of the casinos along the Las Vegas Strip. And they're not 20-somethings partying in nightclubs.
Baby Boomers entering or exiting their peak spending years, including retirees with more time in which to spend their nest eggs, have long defined the growth and entertainment offerings along Strip.
Many Baby Boomers -- who didn't grow up with futuristic forms of stimulation like video games and smartphones -- like to play slot machines.
Corporations tend to view Boomers as an aspirational group of big spenders who benefited financially when the stock market was soaring.
Which is why Caesars Entertainment thinks the company's $500 million Linq attraction -- a streetscape of more than 40 eateries, bars and entertainment venues built along an outdoor corridor between its Flamingo and O'Sheas casinos and anchored by a 550-foot-high observation wheel -- makes a bigger statement about the future of Las Vegas.
Before the recession hit, the company's internal customer surveys revealed an inconvenient truth for Las Vegas and its humming casino-centric economy: Although older customers appreciate what Las Vegas does best, like football field-sized displays of slot machines, high-end restaurants and brand-name shopping, younger customers wanted something different.
In short, they wanted something less stuffy and more low-key.
"They're not looking for another Louis Vuitton store" or casino, said Jan Jones, senior vice president of communications and government relations for Caesars Entertainment. "They want to clubhop and barhop. They want something edgier and hipper."
That's somewhat of an inconvenient truth for Las Vegas, whose attractions have always been built around large, centrally located casinos. That also goes for the two newest resorts in town, which incorporate unusual features aimed at newer generations of Las Vegas visitors.
CityCenter incorporates three condo towers and public displays of modern art into its futuristic design. And the Cosmopolitan next door -- with a collection of hip boutiques and eclectic restaurants -- is the most densely built resort on the Strip, with multiple floors of attractions and nearly 3,000 rooms built on only 8 acres.
Although most revenue on the Strip comes from nongaming sources like hotel rooms, drinks and food, the Strip's expensive megaresorts could not have been built without their massive gambling floors -- big revenue generators with high profit margins that have little parallel in the business world.
And for those casinos to work, they need Baby Boomers' gambling dollars.
But those Baby Boomers are getting old, and that is raising a red flag for Las Vegas casinos. As Boomers retire, they exit their peak spending years. They will be replaced by a smaller population of potential visitors with more money to spend.
In recent years, casinos have diversified their graying customer base and embraced younger generations with elaborate nightclubs and lounges. Such venues, by drawing a newer crowd to its growing club and party scene, have helped remake the long-standing image of Las Vegas as a destination for older folks with more established bank accounts.
By 2015, Caesars estimates that 52 percent of spending in Las Vegas will come from Generation X and Y customers. These 20- to 40-somethings will hopefully frequent Las Vegas 20 years from now, Jones said.
Before the recession made giant resort developments unfeasible, Caesars Entertainment executives were at work on a strategy to lure younger visitors. The strategy, executives decided in 2007, wouldn't involve a casino. Nor would it involve luxury brands that are already two and three deep in Las Vegas.
For inspiration, they looked to established retail and entertainment districts around the country that were already popular with young people, like New York's Meatpacking District and the Grove in Los Angeles. Generation X and Y customers, the company found, didn't want to be cooped up in a fancy mall. Instead, they wanted to wander from one attraction to the next in a more natural and casual outdoor environment -- a large-scale collection of outdoor-facing, nongambling attractions that's common in other big cities but still doesn't exist on the Strip.
The prototypical Linq customer, executives say, isn't a graying slot player but rather, a30-something, middle-class man or woman who wants to meet up with friends for cocktails or beers.
The shopping at Linq, which is expected to offer boutiques that are new to town, also is designed to be a casual experience that's secondary to the district's main function as a meet-up spot for young professionals, executives said.
It sounds like a far cry from the single-minded, and frequently expensive, escape afforded by a slot machine or blackjack table.
The only nod to the reigning profit center of Las Vegas is the name of the Linq's planned observation wheel, dubbed High Roller.
At about $20 a pop for a 30-minute ride, customers won't need a Baby Boomer-sized nest egg to give it a whirl.
CORRECTION: This story was changed to indicate Las Vegas is one of the nation's most traveled tourist destinations, instead of the nation's most traveled destination. -- (August 18, 2011)
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