Every January or February there is a surge in action on the baccarat tables and the Las Vegas Strip turns a festive red, decorated with dragons and Chinese characters.
Looking for a lucky start to the year, Chinese tourists make the pilgrimage to the desert for Chinese New Year to put their fates to the test.
Even this year, with the NBA All-Star game in town and a President’s Day holiday falling on the same weekend, casino executives are keeping their eye on the prize — the hundreds of millions of dollars wagered by Asian players.
“This is our 32nd year of doing Chinese New Years. I’d say the Chinese New Year was more important,” said John Unwin, general manager of Caesars Palace.
The fortunes of large casino operators are increasingly tied to the Chinese consumer and the gambling companies’ developments in the Chinese special administrative region of Macau, which became the most lucrative gambling destination in the world last year.
Las Vegas still gets its share of the action. Last year, the amount Strip casinos won off baccarat — played mostly by Asians — grew 25 percent to $832 million, second only to blackjack at $986 million, according to Nevada regulators.
A year ago when Chinese New Year was celebrated in January, players wagered $827 million on Strip baccarat tables during the month, losing $90.9 million, more than was lost at either blackjack, craps or roulette.
In contrast, the All-Star game is expected to attract 25,000 visitors and generate $26.7 million in non-gambling economic activity, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
“The first quarter is traditionally the strongest quarter in Las Vegas,” said Brad Stone, executive vice president at Las Vegas Sands Corp., which owns The Venetian casino resort and is building seven projects in Macau. “Certainly one of the things that fuels that is the Chinese New Year celebration.”
The Year of the Pig celebration starting Sunday brings to Las Vegas famous Asian performers and dragon dances are scheduled at properties across the Strip.
The two-week celebration also draws the year’s highest rollers, said Caesars Palace vice president of table games, Jimmy Wike. These are players who can bet the maximum of $150,000 per hand, and by casino rules must have deposits or credit lines worth at least $3 million, he said.
“This event caters to the very biggest players in the world,” Wike said.
Two years ago, Las Vegas Sands retrofitted The Venetian with a $50 million luxury upgrade called the Paiza Club, an invitation-only, Chinese-themed gambling salon that is similar to its club at the Sands Macao.
For some of the biggest gamblers, chartered jumbo jets, personal limousine service and a 24-hour butler all come with a complimentary suite. Five of them, the 8,000-square-foot Chairman Suites, were designed with the help of a feng shui master. Las Vegas Sands caters to its important patrons by flying in its top chefs from China to prepare meals, such as shark’s fin or bird’s nest soup.
At Strip properties owned by MGM Mirage Inc., such as Bellagio or The Mirage, service staff and executives stuff their jacket pockets with red envelopes with money inside, sometimes as little as $1 or as much as $100, to give to Chinese guests along with the new year’s greeting: “gung hei fat choi” (Cantonese for “Congratulations and be prosperous”).
“That is just a sign of respect,” said MGM Mirage chief executive Terry Lanni. “It’s important for you to share, at this time, your wealth with others. Everyone carries this. Because if you walk up and someone gives you one and you don’t give them one back, it’s an insult.”
MGM Mirage’s sensitivity to Chinese culture is built into its Las Vegas resorts. Mandalay Bay’s hotel towers go directly from the 39th floor to the 60th to avoid unlucky numbers in the 40s and 50s. There are 31 luxury villas at The Mansion in MGM Grand, but the numbers go from one to 34, bypassing unlucky 8, 18 and 28.
“Seven’s all right. Eight. You don’t want to look at eight. You don’t see eights in any of our villas,” Lanni said.
Executives believe such measures will ensure free-spending Chinese tourists continue making gambling trips from abroad, despite Macau’s growth. Once In Las Vegas, they hope their visitors will gravitate to familiar brands.
Mickey Peng, a 32-year-old fashion company owner from the booming Chinese port of Shenzhen, fits the profile. During the two-week holiday, she’ll hit both coasts — her trip has taken her from Hawaii to Los Angeles to Las Vegas and she’s headed to New York.
Peng is a regular gambler in Macau, where she’s often played baccarat at the Sands Macao. Here, Peng emerged from The Mansion baccarat room at MGM Grand, where the minimum bet is $100 per hand.
“In Macau, only the casinos are good. I don’t see any other things,” she said. “Here there are so many shops, many high-end shops. ... We went to the Grand Canyon yesterday. It was very exciting.”
Ninety percent of all Chinese visitors to the United States spend some part of their trip in Nevada, said Bruce Bommarito, the vice president of international market development for the Travel Industry Association of America. When the number of visitors is calculated from last year, tourism from China is expected to have risen 18 percent from 2005, Bommarito said. In 2005, 405,000 Chinese visited the United States, a 24 percent increase from a year earlier, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.
Peng said when she toured the Strip and noticed Chinese New Year decorations at every hotel-casino, she was surprised.
“Before I came here, I thought people don’t know China well,” she said. “But when I came here I found so many Chinese people work here, and so many Chinese people are gambling here. China is getting more and more important in the world.”