After riding a winning streak for the better part of two decades, Las Vegas finds itself in the sort of shape normally reserved for the hapless gamblers who leave with empty wallets.
The recession has amounted to one long roll of snake eyes for the city's casino industry, as every measurable tourism indicator - visitation, room occupancy and rates, and gaming revenue - has fallen sharply. Some major projects, such as Echelon, a $4.8 billion casino-resort complex being built on the site of the old Stardust casino-hotel, have been halted.
The silver lining for travelers is that Vegas has once again become something of the bargain it was 15 or 20 years ago.
"If you have been lamenting what had been the loss of 'value city,' " says Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Insider newsletter that focuses on hotel, dining and entertainment bargains, "then you're going to be very happy with what's going on now."
What's going on is deep discounting, especially for hotel rooms, and even for dining and entertainment.
A year ago, room rates at the Strip's luxury hotels were routinely in the range of $200 to $400 per night. But with visitation down more than 10 percent in September and October from the same periods a year ago, room rates have dropped dramatically. The average room rate in September was $112.58, down 21 percent from a year ago; the October average of $115.68 was down 14.3 percent.
While hotel-room rates are always a moving target and climb higher on weekends and holidays, the MGM Grand recently had 13 January nights available for a $70 rate that includes a two-for-one buffet and $10 in free casino play.
A number of hotels, many of them high-end, have been offering a third night free when guests pay for two nights. And casinos are packaging rooms with meals, shows, shopping and spas. Hotels offering the free nights include the MGM Grand Signature condos, Monte Carlo, Luxor, and New York New York.
"The strategy is up-selling," says Terry Jicinsky, senior vice president of marketing for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. "It's getting visitors to experience a hotel that they haven't been able to afford or maybe a restaurant that they haven't been able to afford."
For example, the Venetian, with some of the most sumptuous rooms in Vegas, has been offering a midweek rate of $119 - far below prices of the last few years - and is throwing in a $25 casino credit, two-for-ones for drinks at one of its fancy bars, a gondola ride, and admission to Madame Tussauds' wax museum.
Some hotel promotions are tied in with other companies. MGM Grand guests who book and pay with MasterCard get 30 percent off hotel and dinner bills, the Cirque du Soleil show KÀ, and spa treatments.
The MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay are offering "fly-back" promotions, with guests getting substantial credits on airfare for a return trip to Las Vegas (a stay at the same hotel may be required).
There are conditions on all of these promotions, some more restrictive than others, so visitors who hope to take advantage of these deals need to understand the terms and ask questions. But generally, these all appear to be remarkably favorable deals.
Caesars Palace is taking advantage of its popular Forum Shops mall by offering a room rate starting at $480 for two nights and tossing in a $200 universal gift card that can be used in the mall and two passes to its QUA Baths & Spa.
A promotion at some Harrah's Entertainment casinos, including Harrah's and the Rio, dangled 2-cent rooms on Tuesdays with a two-night stay. Those deals expire soon, but if the Vegas market remains soft, casino companies may have to come up with a new round of giveaways.
Bargains aren't limited to hotels. Tough times are forcing some expensive gourmet restaurants to entice diners with more affordable prices.
Voilà, introducing the tasting menu. Many top-notch eateries are offering three- and five-course menus with a handful of selections in each course category (appetizer, entree, dessert) for a single price far below the a la carte tab. For example, Diego, a AAA three-diamond Mexican restaurant in the MGM Grand, has a three-course tasting menu (sample: black bean soup, braised pork loin, and flan) for $29. Other interesting specials are a four-course tasting menu at Luxor's CatHouse ($40) and a happy hour (5 to 6:30 p.m.) at Mandalay Bay's Fleur de Lys with complimentary snacks and two-for-one signature drinks.
Not surprisingly, showrooms also are having a tough time filling their seats, and that means tickets for many top shows are available at the Tix4Tonight discount booths along the Strip.
A handful of the most popular shows can still avoid discounting - Cirque du Soleil's O and LOVE, Cher, and the Broadway musical Jersey Boys, to name a few - but almost everything else can be seen at a discount if you aren't picky about seat location and specific times. Availability is same-day, so it can be hit-or-miss (recently, Blue Man Group, Cirque's Mystere, and Penn & Teller were among the shows discounted on the Tix4Tonight Web site).
But if you're flexible, you probably won't have to pay full price for good entertainment. Or for anything else in Vegas for a while.
Next week: Travel Deals
Jan. 4: Senior Traveler
Jan. 11: Online Traveler