Cautious travelers

Consumers' discretionary funds for gambling and even for travel are expected to be tight in the upcoming year, area tourism and gaming authorities say, and that places pressure on northern Nevada casinos to reign in dollars from an ever-shrinking pool.

Jay Thiel, vice president and general manager of the Sands Regency, says a wave of residential foreclosures and rising cost of gasoline means most consumers keep their money close to home.

"Everybody is nervous. So even if they have discretionary income, they don't have much tendency to spend it," Thiel says.

Ellen Oppenheim, president and chief executive officer for the Reno Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority, says hotel occupancy rates could decline by 1.5 percent in 2008 as a result of a wait-and-see attitude by consumers.

"Representatives from basically every industry all seem to be taking a cautious view on 2008," Oppenheim says. "When people are feeling more limited in resources to use for discretionary purposes, then that can causepeople to scale down or limit vacation travel."

Despite the region's growth and the recent addition of some big name attractions, Greater Reno Tahoe has seen little visitor growth over the past five years. Tim Maland, director of the Nevada Commission on Tourism, says the region experienced a decline in visitors from a peak of 5.7 million in 2002 to an expected 5 million for 2007.

But Maland says 2008 could be the last year the area fails to increase its overall visitor numbers.

"A lot of things are happening that will have a positive impact on tourism numbers, lodging receipts, sales tax and gaming revenues," the state's tourism chief says.

The November opening of Cabela's continues to bring hordes of sports enthusiasts to town, and Scheels All Sports at the Sparks Marina is scheduled to open in the third quarter. Carson City will enjoy the opening of a Courtyard by Marriott, and the December opening of the Peppermill Hotel Casino's $400 million Tuscany Tower and massive Tuscany Ballroom should generate new convention customers and consumer interest in Reno.

"We have new things to talk about and attract people, and we will continue to reach out with advertising camps and meeting planning efforts," Oppenheim says.

Other good news on the home front: Safari Club International and more than 10,000 visitors return in January, followed by a fleet of other big conventions. And Reno's air service increased substantially in 2007 with additional service from Midway Air, Southwest, Regent Air and Express Jet.

Maland cautions that it will be critical not to lose existing air service in the coming year as airlines evaluate the profitability of certain routes due to high fuel costs.

Other bad news: The national bowling tournament that usually runs from January through June at the National Bowling Stadium is in the off year of a three-year run. The loss: More than 120,000 bowlers.

A lack of snow in the early season didn't spark skiers' interest in Greater Reno Tahoe, either.

"Weather does play a factor in all of this," Oppenheim says.

Thiel says in lean times many casinos scale back on advertising and marketing campaigns to save money, while others ramp up with specials and other attractions to draw more tourists and locals.

"The leaders will market even harder to try and get a bigger share of a smaller pie," he says. "We really go after it in these times, and we have a substantially higher marketing budget for the upcoming year. It is time to go out and at least make sure you maintain if not get more of it."


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