Southern Nevada's tourism economy continued its steady march back from recession in December.
The final month of 2011 brought nearly 3 million visitors to the local economy, for a yearly total of 38.9 million visitors, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority reported Thursday. That makes 2011 the city's second-best year ever for visitor volume. The statistic was also just 300,000 people below a record 39.2 million in 2007, and it was up 4.3 percent over 2010's 37.3 million. Authority officials had projected a 2.5 percent gain, said Scott Russell, the authority's senior manager of research.
What's more, the average daily room rate surged in 2011, and industry observers predict record visitor volume in 2012.
"The numbers reflect the strength of our brand as Las Vegas remains top of mind among travelers," Rossi Ralenkotter, president and CEO of the authority, said in a statement. "The commitment of our resort partners to continue to invest in their properties allows Las Vegas to remain the premier travel destination in the world."
Higher trade-show and meeting attendance helped drive the improved figures, as the market drew 8.8 percent more conventioneers in 2011 than it attracted in 2010. Nearly 5 million show attendees came to Las Vegas in 2011.
The average daily room rate jumped 10.7 percent, from $94.91 in 2010 to $105.11 in 2011. The occupancy rate for the city's 150,000 hotel rooms clocked in at 84 percent for the year.
The rise in room rates was an especially positive development, said Jeremy Aguero, a principal in local research firm Applied Analysis.
"The old adage is, in order to attract more visitors, you have to adjust room rates lower," Aguero said. "The fact that we're getting close to record visitor volume and seeing this kind of growth (in room rates) bodes very well for future profitability on the Strip."
Thanks to a better 2011, hotel-casinos are already reinvesting in new personnel and building upgrades, Aguero added.
Since it bottomed out in March 2010, the city's leisure and hospitality sector has added 15,000 jobs. In the same period, hotel-casino operators have spent nearly $1 billion on renovations and upgrades, Aguero said.
"When we're seeing that kind of reinvestment, you realize the hurdles, while always important, are perhaps less important than sustained improvement over time," Aguero said.
One of those remaining hurdles is visitor spending. It's still below pre-recession levels in all categories, though it's bouncing back nicely for restaurants and shopping centers, Aguero noted. At current growth rates, it could take two to three years for nongaming spending to return to pre-downturn rates, he said. Spending on gaming may need another three to four years before it's completely restored.
It won't be that long before visitor volume matches, and even bests, pre-recession numbers, experts agreed.
The authority is forecasting a record 40 million local tourists in 2012.
"From a psychological standpoint, getting back to peak visitor volume will be a big deal," Aguero said.
Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4512.