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Casinos serve up bargains to draw visitors back

Fast food is up, fine dining tabs are down and hotel rooms are available for under $50 in Las Vegas, which is calling on recession-weary tourists to come back and play the quarter slot machines.
Casino Bargains
Guests graze the More buffet at the Luxor hotel & casino Friday, May 22, 2009 in Las Vegas. Customers can now purchase an all day pass to the buffet that includes beer and wine for $35. Isaac Brekken / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It's back to the buffet, bargains and customer bonuses for Las Vegas casinos.

Fast food is up, fine dining tabs are down and hotel rooms are available for under $50 in a city that has been calling on recession-weary tourists to come back and play the quarter slot machines.

Value is the hippest thing on Las Vegas Boulevard this year.

At O'Sheas Casino, the president of five Harrah's Entertainment Inc. hotel-casinos on the Las Vegas Strip is poking fun at the economic downturn and the excesses that built Sin City's anything-goes reputation.

Don Marrandino points at a sign pushing $45 bottles of Jack Daniels whiskey or Smirnoff vodka, and says the promotion parodies the not-too-distant past when the gambling resorts marked up liquor by hundreds of dollars a bottle and patrons couldn't empty them fast enough.

And then it all changed.

"I don't get scared too often," said Marrandino, who oversees the Imperial Palace, Flamingo Las Vegas, Harrah's Las Vegas and Bill's Gamblin' Hall & Saloon. "In January, I was scared."

Unwilling to pay premium prices
Across Las Vegas, casinos found consumers unwilling to pay premium prices for just about anything, from meals to hotel rooms, drinks and entertainment. Occupancy citywide dropped to about 72 percent in January, far below the 90 percent-plus normally enjoyed by Las Vegas hotels.

Now a strategy that casino executives laid out earlier this year is taking shape — offering bargains and fighting for visitors without spending much to build the next big attraction.

"Our challenge, like everyone else, is how do you create things without capital?" Marrandino said. "You're dealt a hand, and you gotta play it."

The story is much the same for casinos across the country, which are looking for different ways to get gamblers in the door and keep them and their dollars there.

The Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, for example, offered a one-week-only special for the first time this month that combined a room with a 50-minute spa treatment for $210 per night.

Marrandino explained as he walked his regular route checking his casinos that his employees have had to be more creative to keep customers flowing through the doors.

After brief chats with a waitress at the Flamingo's topless pool and a tattoo shop cashier at O'Sheas, he said he wouldn't have believed predictions in January that occupancy would be above 90 percent at Memorial Day.

Occupancy rates are rising
But as hotel-casinos from one end of the Las Vegas Strip to the other lowered rates, visitors have returned to cash in. By March, occupancy rose to 85.9 percent — and 92.5 percent on weekends.

The average room cost about $92 per night, some 12 percent less than in January and almost a third less than a year earlier.

Executives say changing customer demands affect every hotel-casino, from the $159 per night Wynn Las Vegas to the Imperial Palace, where rooms can be found for $34 per night.

The Imperial Palace is selling a package that includes a one-night stay with all meals at its buffet and a cafe and all drinks at casino and pool bars for $95.

The Luxor has used Twitter to push a $35 one-day pass to its buffet. Other MGM Mirage hotel-casinos offer all-day buffet tickets, and the Luxor's includes beer, wine and champagne.

Even Michelin-starred restaurants where dinner tabs run to $100 per person are offering fine dining at reduced, fixed rates.

"Value comes in all kinds of prices," said Marcus Wooden, chief operating officer of the Wynn Las Vegas. "It's not just about being the cheapest, it's about making sure that you have a level of service of execution and service against that price for people to feel good about."

Another menu for $89
The three-star Joel Robuchon at the MGM Grand is known for its $385 16-course meal and a $225 six-course option. But it recently debuted another menu for $89.

Visitors are more conservative with their cash, but they're demanding the same experiences and quality they always have, said David McIntyre, vice president of food and beverage for MGM Grand.

"It reflects their state of mind as they're constantly being fed a diet of economic information that is less than glowing," McIntyre said. "They'll definitely continue to be conservative as long as that diet exists."

While restaurants are busy, McIntyre said average checks are down. The hotel's sommelier has been asked to replace wines that once sold for $300 or $400 a bottle with others that sell for $100 or $200.

"(Las Vegas) went from bargain to high end really quickly," Marrandino said. "Now it's going back to that middle market."