River town Laughlin stays afloat during pandemic as visitors seek respite

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Wade Vandervort

Laughlin’s Edgewater Casino, Aquarius Casino and Riverside Casino are reflected in the Colorado River, Friday, Dec. 4, 2020.

Sun, Dec 13, 2020 (2 a.m.)

LAUGHLIN — Janice Husom was enjoying a glass of wine and the cool breeze outside her RV on a recent afternoon at the Riverside resort.

Snowbirds from Minnesota, Husom and her husband, Wayne, have been coming to Laughlin every winter for more than two decades.

For the 7,400 residents of this desert oasis about 90 miles southeast of Las Vegas, temperatures in the 60s might feel chilly. But it’s nothing compared to the bone-chilling winter weather in the Twin Cities.

“It doesn’t snow here,” Janice Husom said. “We’ll leave before it gets hot again. It can get up to 125 degrees in Laughlin. That’s too hot for me.”

The Husoms are typically joined by a small crew of friends in Laughlin each winter, but this year has been different because of the coronavirus pandemic.

There are noticeably fewer people around and fewer entertainment options, said Mark Koenig, a member of the crew from Kansas.

There is a certain tranquil quality to Laughlin, a casino town on the banks of the Colorado River, just across from Bullhead City, Arizona.

“I lived in Las Vegas for a year and I hated it,” Koenig said. “Here in Laughlin, this is nice. They also have great garage sales over in Bullhead City. This is like the fifth year I’ve been coming here, and I’ll be here until April.”

In October, just under 111,000 people visited Laughlin, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. That was down 25% from October 2019.

But it could be worse. In Las Vegas, visitation in October was down 49% compared to the same month in 2019.

“There’s definitely been a decline,” said Sean Hammond, general manager of Golden Entertainment’s three Laughlin resorts — the Aquarius, Colorado Belle and Edgewater.

“Part of our customer base, they’re not very concerned about travel. But another part of that base is holding off right now, especially some of our older clientele,” Hammond said.

Hammond, also a member of the Laughlin Tourism Commission, said this time of year is when many snowbirds — temporary visitors from cold northern climates — take over the town.

In the spring, that will start to flip when families from Southern California, Las Vegas and Phoenix start arriving to take advantage of the many outdoor recreation opportunities, he said.

Over the summer and into the fall, the area was busy with visitors looking to escape quarantine-type conditions at home for some safe outdoor fun, said Jackie Mazzeo, president and CEO of the Laughlin Chamber of Commerce.

“We killed it this summer, especially with the late summer temperatures that we saw into October,” Mazzeo said. “We had 80-degree weather all the way through October, which lends itself to some amazing water sports.”

“The agencies that rent out motorcycles, boats, jet-skis, paddleboards, they’ve had some of the best years they’ve ever had,” Mazzeo said.

As the weather has turned cooler, there are fewer people outside in Laughlin, but the casinos seemed to be busy this day.

In the early afternoon, there was a line of more than a dozen people waiting to check in at the Riverside. Two security guards were making sure people were wearing masks and properly socially distanced.

Matt Laughlin, grandson of 89-year-old Don Laughlin — the town’s namesake who opened Riverside with 12 slot machines and two gaming tables in 1966 — said business has been up and down this year.

“Considering current events, most of the time I think we have the right amount of people visiting,” said Matt Laughlin, chief operating officer. “You don’t want it too busy these days. Our most noteworthy change in our visiting demographic is that it’s a slightly younger crowd, which makes sense.”

He said the town has “always been a great little getaway for people in Las Vegas and Henderson.” He said he hopes folks in the Las Vegas area remember that it can be a nice last-minute holiday vacation.

Not all of Laughlin’s 10 resorts have reopened from the casino closures earlier this year, but most have.

Golden’s riverboat-themed Colorado Belle resort remains closed.

Laughlin had about 8,800 available hotel rooms as of the end of October, according to the LVCVA. The average occupancy for October was about 59%, only 8% off from the same month in 2019.

For comparison, the October weekend hotel room occupancy rate in Las Vegas was down 34% from October 2019.

On the gaming side in Laughlin, March, April and May were disastrous because of the state-mandated shutdown, but revenues have picked up since then.

In September, Laughlin casinos recorded a gaming win of just under $39 million, according to the state Gaming Control Board. That’s only about $1 million less than September 2019.

October gaming revenue also came in at about $39 million, $5 million less than October 2019 and about $8 million less than October 2018.

While walking the casino floor at the Aquarius, Hammond said some employees’ sole duties now are to wipe down and sanitize high-touch areas.

Mostly, Hammond said, customers have been good about the state’s mask mandate. Sometimes, gamblers will be wearing their mask incorrectly or will have it off, so employees have to remind them to comply.

Hammond said Golden’s resorts in Laughlin have seen an uptick in stays for young families in recent months, partly because neighboring Arizona has more relaxed rules for youth sporting events than states like California and Nevada.

Hammond said he is awaiting the eventual widespread rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. In the meantime, he’s looking forward to what is shaping up to be a good conclusion to the holiday season in Laughlin, he said.

The highlights of the month will be the Rockets over the River fireworks shows on Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

“New Year’s Eve is working in our favor this year because it’s on a Thursday, so the holiday being on a Friday gives us that extended weekend,” Hammond said. “We’re also seeing more restrictions in California now. What we saw when that happened over the summer was more people from California coming out here because they wanted to get away.”

At the Laughlin/Bullhead International Airport, about 104,000 passengers arrived in October, about half the number in October 2019.

Kellen Shireman, assistant director of the airport, said a good day now is when a plane comes in that is half full. The drop in air travel is consistent with what has been seen across the country during the pandemic.

Caesars Entertainment, which owns Harrah’s Laughlin and the Tropicana Laughlin, is still operating its Caesars Rewards Air charter program in and out of town.

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