Prosperity through Persistence in the Year of the Ox

Year of the OxiStockphoto/Olga Weber
2009: Year of the Ox

Hope springs eternal at the start of every new year, whether one follows the Western, Judaic, Mayan, Chinese or any other calendar. With most of those calendars comes the human penchant for explaining the past and forecasting the future. Considering some of the economic and planning issues facing Las Vegas in the year ahead, it’s obvious that some past notions – ideas like “recession-proof economy” and “full-throttle development” – could use a little scrutiny from new perspectives.

This year the Chinese New Year falls on Jan. 26, the day that marks the turn of the Chinese calendar from the year 4706 to the year 4707. As we stand at the crossroads – and in the crosshairs – of our economic development, let’s take a look at the Chinese zodiac and see what guidance it offers us. It might help us see new possibilities and even give us some reason for optimism.

Las Vegas ChinatownPhoto by Eric James Miller
Entrance to Chinatown Las Vegas
on Spring Mountain Road west of
Interstate 15

According to Chinese astrology, we are leaving the Year of the Rat and entering the Year of the Ox. Unlike Western astrology, which divides the year into 12 segments based on the stars, Chinese astrology assigns one zodiac animal to an entire year. That means the traits associated with that animal influence people and events for a full year, not just one month. All fortune-telling methodologies have their skeptics, detractors, curiosity seekers and ardent believers, especially here in Las Vegas, and I am in no way professing one over another. I will simply point out that within the paradigm of the Chinese zodiac we are moving from a year characterized by overambitious selfishness (the Year of the Rat) into a year characterized by hard work and perseverance (the Year of the Ox).

I find this astrological reckoning both apt and reassuring, especially in light of some recent high-profile news items.

Year of the OxPhoto by Eric James Miller
World-wide headquarters of
Harrah’s Casinos & Resorts

Item No. 1: Missing tourists
Recent reports of a dramatic decrease in Vegas tourist numbers have panicked many people in gaming and tourism circles. The truth is that Harrah’s and MGM Mirage cut their own throats in a grab for profits and hype on Wall Street. Over the last several years, the two mega-casino operations have become the McDonald’s and Burger King of the Strip, buying up almost every single property between the two of them. By assigning an army of MBAs, accountants and managers to enforce near-uniform operating procedures across all the properties, Harrah’s and MGM Mirage seriously distanced themselves from their individual customer bases. The result is that the once-wildly-eclectic Strip now operates generically and has started to look uniformly overpriced and impersonal to the out-of-town visitor.

These management decisions have driven Harrah’s and MGM Mirage right down a rat hole. Determined to make separate profit centers out of every single revenue stream on the Strip – food, lodging, gaming, shows, nightlife and even transportation – they seriously curtailed the practice of “comping” customers – i.e., distributing incentives to encourage play. In doing so, they lost sight of what made their customers return year after year: the chance to live large even while losing big. When floor and pit managers lost the ability to liberally comp rooms and meals and entertainment, their patrons no longer went home bragging about free prime rib dinners, free shows or free rooms. Instead, they complained about $4 cups of coffee, $30 buffets, inflated room prices and every dollar they lost at slots or on the tables.

Now consider this: Even though Las Vegas saw a sharp decline in third-quarter travel and occupancy rates (due mostly to last summer’s spike in fuel prices), 2008 tourism numbers through November were down less than 4 percent from 2007 overall. In fact in November, Orbitz reported that McCarran Airport would see more travelers than any other domestic airport over the 2008 Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

In other words, tourists still came to Vegas in large numbers in 2008, but they were no longer patronizing properties controlled by Harrah’s and MGM Mirage in the numbers they once did. They found alternatives to those high prices and impersonal experience at more customer-friendly, off-Strip casinos like South Point, the Palms, the Orleans and Red Rock, where freer comp policies helped people forget about their losses and return to lose again another day.

Fortune cookie:
“The Ox, stubbornly sticking to what’s tried and true, will bring prosperity in the New Year.”

Item No. 2: Full-throttle development
In late 2008, MGM Mirage agreed to sell Treasure Island for an infusion of cash and surrender more Project City Center ownership to Dubai World; at the same time, Harrah’s laid off 20 percent of its staff in some departments. Both their stocks tanked anyway, along with the stock of Sands Corp. All these corporations spent themselves into a corner by taking on larger and larger expansion projects – all in an effort to bolster their quarterly stock reports with aggressive expansion plans.

I guess in an economy of double-digit growth even fools look good. I mean, think about it: Expanding into Mississippi riverboat gambling just means that fewer tourists from cities along the Mississippi will come to Vegas to gamble. Ditto Biloxi, Connecticut, Colorado, Chicago and Detroit. Rats are notoriously short-sighted, of course, but it seems to me that curtailing some of these expansion plans – and those in Las Vegas, too, even though it hurts the local construction economy – would allow demand to catch up with supply. Oh, and it would also curb those executive cash bonuses that are tied to the inflated stock-price gains.

Consolidating business will actually preserve jobs and prevent large properties like Caesar’s and the MGM Grand from running at inefficient capacities. It’s encouraging to read that Phil Ruffin, who cashed out in 2007 by selling the New Frontier Casino to a group of property developers, may now take over Treasure Island. Such a sale would support a competitive trend toward the single-entity model of running a packed casino, a model used very successfully by the Maloof brothers at the Palms.

Fortune cookie:
“The Ox, moving through the field of opportunity slowly and steadily, ensures the long-term harvest.”

Item No. 3: Wacky infrastructure projects
The boondoggle of not building the monorail all the way to the airport is already making that enterprise bankrupt, and now Jim Gibbons, our pad-my-pockets-first governor, is proposing that an equally stupid, unproven maglev train be built between Las Vegas and Anaheim. Anyone smell a rat in this one? No one from L.A. or San Diego is going to drive to Anaheim – or to the ill-considered alternate Victorville, for that matter – in order to take a train to Vegas. The best part of driving to Vegas comes after getting past those two blights of congestion on the map.

Common sense also needs to prevail in recently proposed coal-mining initiatives (wind and solar, duh!) and in the ongoing debate about locating a national nuclear waste facility at Yucca Mountain, so close to a heavily populated tourist destination.

If these projects ever come up for a public vote, we need to think of the ox and remember that the road to prosperity is not always through innovation, but through hard work, persistence and common sense.

Fortune cookie:
“The Ox, stolid, resolute and not as stupid as he looks, is not easily driven over the cliffs of insanity.”

So in a few days, say goodbye to the Year of the Rat and bid welcome to the Year of the Ox. May it bring a good harvest from our endeavors and good fortune to us all!


9 responses on “Prosperity through Persistence in the Year of the Ox

  1. President Obama also mentioned much needed hard work – from everyone! How interesting that our new president is taking office so near to the beginning of this New Year of the Ox. Your words at the end add to my hopefulness, “May it bring a good harvest from our endeavors and good fortune to us all!” I have already typed out excerpts from your article and put it up next to my computer as a personal daily reminder to work hard at the things that will bring the most positive and most needed changes. I came to work with a different attitude. You reminded me that it needed a little adjusting today… Thank you!

  2. Thanks Judy!

    I really do believe that 2009 brings us a lot of potential, but it’s not going to be about waiting for a jackpot to hit. Rewards will come from clear intent and self-determination to create the life we can imagine for ourselves.

  3. Eric,

    Can you find out where the Year of the Ox festival performances will be and post them here so we can go and enjoy the start of this new period of “persistence….”



  4. For anyone interested, the Chinese American Chamber of Commerce is going to be throwing a Year of the Ox celebration on Sunday February 8 here in Las Vegas at the Las Vegas Chinatown Plaza at 4255 Spring Mtn Road. (just west of Valley View)

    They’re going to have dancing, acrobats and martial arts demonstrations along with Chinese fortune tellers and a pan-Asian food festival. Admission is only $3 for aduts and $1 for children!

    For more information, go to:

  5. President Obama was born in the Year of the OX, Aug. 4, 1961. Should be a good year for us all. Not to mention me too because I am also an Ox :)!

  6. Hey, Eric —

    Interesting analysis of the Vegas economy. You must have an MBA around to help you with it.

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