Las Vegas visitation in December continues upward trend

The number of visitors coming to Las Vegas in December rose 3.7 percent compared to one year earlier, continuing a yearlong pattern of single-digit rate gains.

For the entire year, the total number of visitors went up 2.7 percent to 37.3 million. This only matched the 2004 total, when Las Vegas had 131,500 rooms.

Lodging occupancy went down 1.1 percentage points to 80.4 percent for the year, although average room rates rose 2 percent to $94.91 a night.

Paradoxically, both traffic at McCarran International Airport and on the highways declined in December. This raised questions among some analysts about how the extra people came here.

"Maybe they walked through the desert or hitchhiked," said Robert LaFleur, managing director of gaming, lodging and equity research at Hudson Securities.

Although visitor numbers usually move in sync with traffic counts. Kevin Bagger, the senior marketing director for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, attributed the December anomaly to the way the numbers are compiled. Visitor totals come from hotel reports of how many heads they put in beds, while plane and car traffic counts include locals, he explained.

The 1.4 percent decline in car counts at the California state line marked a reversal from the 2.6 percent increase for the entire year.

Several other December benchmarks portrayed a visitor industry that is gradually regaining its footing, including a 1.1 percent rise in occupancy on the same number of hotel room, an average daily room rate of $91.88 that was 1.2 percent higher and 4.8 percent more room nights sold, implying a slightly longer average stay per visitor.

Perhaps most significant, the number of rooms stayed flat at 148,900 after the addition of more than 16,000 rooms over the past four years. The opening of the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas was offset by the temporary closing of rooms at other properties, such as the Plaza and the former Ritz-Carlton at Lake Las Vegas.

The bundle of statistics, plus better attendance at some of January's big trade shows, led Union Gaming Group principal Bill Lerner to conclude that "all (numbers) are pointing towards recovery on the Strip."

LaFleur, however, cautioned that the report contained only muted good news.

"This is recovery in fits and spurts and by no means robust," he said. "But you have to crawl before you walk, so this is a step in the right direction."

Some of the mixed signals showed up in the convention and meeting totals for the year. Convention attendance for the year dropped 0.4 percent to 4.6 million, but the number of events sank 7.2 percent. The booking patterns, said Bagger, showed that more people have come to the bigger conventions than during the pit of the recession, but numerous smaller and corporate meetings have disappeared.

Some industry experts have spotted the same phenomenon, explaining that some corporations have decided to stage meetings closer to home so employees don't have to deal with flying. Others still avoid resorts after the public relations black eye suffered by companies, such as giant insurer American International Group, that booked events at posh locations even after receiving government bailouts.

Laughlin continued to sink, as room discounts in Las Vegas continued to drain away its customers. The town finished with a 3.4 percent decline in visitors for the year to 2.4 million while rates and room nights declined as well. Convention attendance tumbled 34 percent.

Contact reporter Tim O'Reiley at or 702-387-5290.