Is the party really over?

Interesting column in The Economist that I don’t necessarily agree with:

More important, few residents of Las Vegas would any longer agree that their city is either great or happy.

Nevada has America’s highest unemployment rate. In Las Vegas, unemployment has risen more this year even as it has flattened in the rest of the country; it peaked at 15.5% in September. Nevada also has America’s highest foreclosure rate. In Las Vegas more than 70% of homeowners with mortgages owe more to the bank than their houses are worth. This desert valley, which once represented the most extreme pleasures in American consumerism, now has the most severe hangover.

via Las Vegas in crisis: Party over | The Economist.

There’s a lot of truth in this article, but the perspective is just slightly wrong. And that makes all the difference.

For instance, the author says that “Tourists are now returning, but in numbers too small” to help Las Vegas. While it’s true that the average spend per visitor has fallen, visitation actually rose in 2010. This would have been a more accurate article a year ago, but even then I’d insist the real story wasn’t that Vegas visitation had fallen, but that it was so resilient. At the (hopefully) tail end of the worst recession in sixty years, 37 million people still came to Las Vegas this year. Surely, that’s got to count for something.

And I take issue with the idea of an “existential” crisis for Las Vegas. Yes, I do believe that it’s possible that the rapid devaluation of people’s net work over the past three years has probably made them more risk averse, or “gun shy,” as I was quoted as saying. But the fact is, they are still coming to Las Vegas, which means that the city doesn’t have a major crisis of existence.

Even my theory, as logical as it sounds, is just a theory, and will never be a fact. As I explained to the reporter, it’s impossible to falsify a claim like that–you would have to have done measures of risk tolerance among people coming to Las Vegas in, say, 2006, then re-done studies on the same people this year. And since it can’t be falsified, it can’t be “true” in the way that 2+2=4 is. So, as I said, it’s the kind of thing that I’ll bring up at cocktail parties if people ask for a pop psychology explanation of what’s going on, but I can’t really say if that’s the reason for falling table hold percentages (a phenomenon which pre-dates the recession, BTW).

For that matter, I asked the reporter for evidence of this big cultural shift: how can he prove that the “zeitgeist” had shifted? It’s a pretty glib concept that, again, can’t be falsified. I could just as reasonably say that, since people saw the economic system melt down and saw companies insulated from their bad choices via government bailouts, people might have a greater tolerance for risk, or at least a lesser appreciation for its consequences.

It’s particularly galling that the author didn’t acknowledge existing revenue trends that might disprove his argument. Slot handle, which I consider as good a measure for the broad “demand” for Nevada gaming as any, rose for the first time in October.

As I told him, the idea that the zeitgeist has shifted against Las Vegas and gambling is both incredibly glib and not borne out by the facts. According to the best archaeological evidence, humans have been gambling for thousands of years; its short-sighted to say that a recession, even one lasting three years or longer, is going to change that.

Author: Dave

Director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and author of several books, including Roll the Bones: The History of Gaming. Also Gaming and Hospitality editor for Vegas Seven magazine.

2 thoughts on “Is the party really over?”

  1. The author of this article could have included these statistics from 2009 regarding Las Vegas: in 2009 36.3 million tourists visited Las Vegas and $35.2 billion dollars was the amount of money spent in Las Vegas; $6.9 billion dollars of the money went to gambling. Shows, hotels rooms, restaurants, nightclubs and shops accounted for the rest. Divide $35.2 billion dollars into 12 months and it comes out to over $2.9 billion dollars per month was spent in Las Vegas in 2009. Not to shabby in a bad economy in my opinion.

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