[toc]The theme of this year’s East Coast Gaming Congress & iGaming Institute held May 25-26 at the Conference Center at Harrah’s Resort, Atlantic City was “Shaping the Future.”
In Las Vegas and casino resorts coast to coast, many more young people are visiting, soaking up the hospitality, and spending their money freely at these properties than 30 years ago. This new generation of casino goers, the much-talked-about millennials, comprise individuals in the 18-35 age bracket.
Some in that range are too young to gamble legally; the majority, even though they are old enough, generally do very little gambling. They are still spending money, but largely on other activities. They come to the casinos to eat, drink, socialize, dance and be entertained. If they do spend any time on the casino floor at all, it is as an afterthought rather than the primary purpose of their visit.
How today’s casino hotels are different from yesterday’s
Meanwhile, the casinos have been moving full speed ahead to ensure their properties are millennial-friendly. Restaurants, clubs, shopping malls and other non-gambling attractions are proliferating.
Nowadays, if you want to use the pool at a casino hotel for its original purpose, swimming, you need to be an early riser. If you wait until the mid-afternoon, forget it, as the area has already turned into party central. At some resorts, like the Pool After Dark at Harrah’s Resort in Atlantic City, Drai’s Nightclub at the Cromwell and Wet Republic at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, the party continues through most of the night.
In addition, little by little at some properties, more radically at others, the casinos themselves are changing. The layout, choice of games and betting options are all different. And instead of restaurants, bars and lounges all being located separately, they are now incorporated into the casino floor. Now you can have not just beverages, but sandwiches, brought to you at the poker table. Or, as an alternative to having your beverage brought to your slot machine where you are playing alone, you can be sitting at a bar with others and still play your favorite slots. Or play blackjack outside overlooking the water while a live band entertains.
This is not your grandma’s casino!
Out with the old and in with the new
Look what has happened to the Vegas Strip
If you’re old enough to have played in casinos in the 1980s and ’90s and are still playing today, you are probably aware of the many changes.
For starters, many of the casino properties that were open in those days no longer exist. On the Vegas Strip alone, the long list of notable implosions includes the Dunes, Hacienda, Sands, Desert Inn, Aladdin and Boardwalk (replaced respectively by the Bellagio, Mandalay Bay, Venetian, Wynn, Planet Hollywood, and City Center).
More recent implosions include old school casino hotels in the northern part of the Strip that were unable to keep up with the newer, glitzier competition, and so went the Frontier, Stardust, Sahara, and Riviera. The structures that will ultimately replace them will be geared to a younger market.
Another major trend along the Vegas Strip has been the increasing dominance of two major players, Caesars Entertainment and MGM Resorts International, both of which own multiple properties with shared players rewards programs. Players can combine the rewards earned at different participating casinos and redeem them at any participating casino.
During the last few years, both of these casino industry giants made big, bold moves, which seem to be paying off handsomely:
- Caesars Entertainment spent half a billion dollars to give the aging Imperial Palace a major facelift and turned it into the LINQ, with the added attraction of LINQ Plaza and the High Roller Observation Wheel. Caesars also transformed the former Bill’s Gambling Hall into a luxury boutique hotel called The Cromwell. Both new casino hotels reopened in 2014, and both are enormously successful.
- But not to be outdone, April 2016 marked the highly anticipated grand opening of The Park by MGM Resorts. The Park is a walkway and gathering place between the Monte Carlo and New York-New York, featuring restaurants, shops and free entertainment, and also connecting to the brand new 20,000-seat T Mobile Entertainment Arena.
Major changes in Atlantic City, too
In Atlantic City, while the Sands was demolished in 2007 and no new property has been built to take its place, most closed casinos have stood intact, with their fate varying thereafter. The Claridge, under new ownership, is now a non-casino boutique hotel, while the original Trump Castle and later Trump Marina are now the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino.
The original Golden Nugget, located on the southern end of the Boardwalk, changed both its name and ownership multiple times before becoming the Atlantic Club. That struggling casino was the first of four in Atlantic City to close in 2014. The building is currently unoccupied.
Meanwhile, the Revel, another 2014 casualty, which in its short, two-year existence, never turned a profit, is scheduled to reopen. If it is to succeed this time, it will have to do a lot of things very differently (perhaps an esports lounge in the casino?) because the property arguably was mismanaged from day one.
Even the games are different
The casino environment is not the only noticeable difference between the casinos of the 1980s and today. Many of the games are different too.
- New, more interactive slot games are being introduced, which often include multiple bonus rounds where the player is required to make decisions that could affect the outcome.
- There is an increasing emphasis on offering players the total experience. This means not only gigantic slot machines that grab your attention instantly at a glance, but games with cinematic quality graphics, a soundtrack and instantly recognizable themes.
- New slot games appear inspired by currently popular TV shows, movies and celebrities from the entertainment world.
Casinos to watch
The Pechanga Hotel and Casino located in Temecula, Calif., (between San Diego and Los Angeles) is a prime example of a property specifically targeting millennials and seems to be doing everything right. The Pechanga offers more than 3,800 slot and video poker machines and more than 140 table games, along with a separate poker room, bingo room and high roller room.
It is also one of the first casinos in the country to get some of the newest, and already most popular, slots like Buffalo Stampede, Batman, Sphinx 3D, Walking Dead and Walking Dead II, and Cash Explosion. There are numerous change-making and ATM kiosks throughout the casino floor.
Night after night, the hotel is operating at 100 percent capacity, but the owners feel they can do even better. A $285 million project, expected to be completed in late 2017, is now underway to add a 568-room hotel wing, spa, fitness center, two more restaurants (bringing its total to 13) and other amenities. According to Tribal Chairman Mark Macarro, the project is designed to better meet the needs of those who come to the casino for the recreation, not just the gambling. Victor Rocha, owner and editor of Pechanga.net echoes those sentiments and says, “What customers want, give it to them.”
Meanwhile, one of the hottest new places to play table games in Las Vegas is the Encore Players Club at the Wynn. This 5,000-square-foot area of the casino, open nightly from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m., offers blackjack, roulette, craps and sports betting in a luxurious lounge setting, along with interactive tables where a variety of games can be played either for free or real money. There are also tables for pool and shuffleboard and plenty of comfortable seats for watching sports on any of 23 56” HDTVs. There is live DJ entertainment as well.
According to Sean Christie, vice president of operations at Wynn Las Vegas, while the Encore Players Club was initially targeted at millennials, it is not intended exclusively for that group, but is being offered in the hope it will appeal to players of any age.
Looking ahead to 2020
One of the important topics discussed at the East Coast Gaming Congress was the Casino Floor of Tomorrow. Compared to the wide divergence of opinion on the pros and cons of having more casinos, this topic generated little controversy. The various panelists were all in agreement about the kinds of changes that are needed and what can probably be expected.
On the one hand, the experts readily acknowledge that casinos need to be more responsive to the shift in priorities of their youngest demographic (the millennials) as compared to those of older visitors. On the other hand, a cautionary approach is uniformly recommended.
According to Joe Emanuele, senior vice president of design and construction at Hard Rock International, rather than exclusively focus on one subgroup of visitors, it is necessary to look at the bigger picture. Even though 15 percent of the customers on the casino floor may be millennials (and that percentage will no doubt increase), they only account for 7 percent of the profit. Casinos don’t want to alienate those who contribute more to the bottom line.
Thus, at the Hard Rock Casinos, 30 percent of the casino floor consists of leased games. This allows any that are not working to be readily changed. Blaine Graboyes, CEO of GameCo said that casinos need to appeal not just to millennials, but older players too. Brad Friedmutter, founder of the Friedmutter Group, which provides architecture, design and branding for hospitality and gaming projects all over the world, stated that casinos need to appeal to as broad a spectrum as possible. He indicated that in Las Vegas, casinos offering both gaming and non-gaming amenities perform better than facilities offering exclusively gaming or no gaming.
Another point where the panelists were in agreement: Rather than be too hasty to add lots of new games, the latest technology should be incorporated into existing games. The rationale would be to give the tech savvy younger players an experience similar to the online and video games they grew up on. However, Matthew R. Brown, director of business development at Iverson Gaming Systems, Inc. cautioned against simply duplicating the online games that can be played at home for free. He would like to see more exciting, challenging games that involve an element of skill.
Another concern is that it is much easier to introduce a new game online than on the casino floor. Furthermore, what works online may or may not work in a brick and mortar context. For example, slots from IGT, an early entrant in online gambling and leader in instantly recognizable themed games, are very popular both online and on the casino floor, while NetEnt slots are very popular online but less so on the casino floor.
Brown and Emanuele would also like to see more emphasis on social gaming, provided it ties in with the property. Among the suggested changes, which many casinos are already implementing and should be even more evident in the casinos of the future, are more retail outlets integrated into the casino floor. Graboyes suggests more leaderboard competitions. Those who are in striking distance of the leader will be highly motivated to keep coming to the casino to try and unseat that person and overtake the top spot.
Lastly, all the panelists see the expanded legalization of sports betting as a much needed change that would not only draw in more gamblers of all ages, but offer a tremendous opportunity for the casino industry. It is conservatively estimated that legalized sports betting throughout the country would generate at least $8 billion in additional casino revenue.