More people visited the Reno-Sparks area for the first time in 2003 than the year before and more of them flew in, according to a visitor profile.
But fewer came by car and their median age increased, contrary to the market's tradition as a drive-in destination from Northern California and marketers' preference for a younger crowd.
The statistics come from a survey conducted by Reno-based InfoSearch International for the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority.
Deanna Ashby, the authority's executive director of marketing, said the increase in first-time visitors from 15 percent in 2002 to 22 percent in 2003 indicates the economy has improved and people are traveling again.
The study based on 2,645 interviews of 2003 visitors cost the authority $60,000, Ashby said.
Respondents had to have been in the Reno-Sparks area for at least four hours. They were interviewed at hotel-casinos and asked to take part in a telephone follow up upon returning home.
"It gives us some indicators relative to the change in strategy that we're trying to implement for this region," said Jeff Beckelman, RSCVA president and chief executive. "We know visitation has been dropping, but the study would indicate it's stabilizing. And we know now that, this spring, it is increasing dramatically."
While more people flew to Reno, the number of visitors arriving by car dropped from 70 percent in 2002 to 60 percent in 2003.
"It's definitely worrisome for us," said Jack Fisher, general manager of the Boomtown Casino and Hotel in Verdi, two miles east of the state line on Interstate-80.
"That's the part where we get hit the hardest, with the day trippers. Air traffic is very, very minimal for our business here."
In 2002, 59 percent of visitors were from California. In 2003, Californians made up 44 percent of those surveyed. The percentage of Bay Area visitors slipped from 27 percent in 2002 to 17 percent in last year.
The survey reports 29 percent of Reno-Sparks visitors arrived by plane in 2003, compared with 21 percent in 2002.
"We are really working together with the ski industry, with the RSCVA, with the Regional Marketing Committee, and marketing in areas we never marketed before," airport Executive Director Krys Bart said. "We are stimulating new passengers."