Wednesday, January 24, 2018

What we can learn from the closing of two casinos

It’s not always location.

Those of us who spend too much time thinking about, reading about and talking about Las Vegas, when we’re not enjoying its excesses, know that many of the prominent Sin City casinos no longer rely upon gambling revenue to turn a profit from year to year. It’s well known that with increasing competition nationwide for the gambling dollar, Vegas casinos need to make money many different ways in order to turn a profit.

Two interesting casino developments of the past month have made me wonder if we’re at the point where it’s hard to make meaningful money off of gambling.

When Lucky Dragon closed its casino, (temporarily, it is claimed,) it was seen as a failure for a variety of reasons. The Dragon had opened its brand new, shiny, boutique casino/hotel barely a year earlier, and its casino traffic has been so bad that it could no longer afford to offer gaming.

The reasons most touted: The location was horrible, the gaming was unspectacular and the enticements were missing.

I’d agree.

The location makes Lucky Dragon a tough sell right now, and for the foreseeable future. It’s just off the strip, on the north end, where there’s little of excitement. Yeah, it’s close to the Stratosphere, but it’s a destination casino that doesn’t have the benefit of foot traffic like you would get at Cromwell or Casino Royale. If you want people to go out of their way to visit your boutique hotel, you had better give them something worth going out of their way for.

The fact that the property was designed to target Asian gamblers didn’t seem to help.

And it’s that gambling demographic that resulted in the mix of gaming offered by the casino. I have never set foot in the place, but it was touted as having appeal to the Asian gamblers of the world because it featured plenty of baccarat, and put less emphasis on other table games. Space is limited, and you can’t offer everything for everybody, but you need to have a niche if you’re going to put asses in the seats, especially when you don’t have 1,000+ hotel rooms feeding into your casino floor. And baccarat wasn’t the right niche, evidently.

I never paid much attention to any promotions or enticements that the Dragon was offering, but I never heard much talk about them, either. There were some simple free play or match play promotions, but if you want people to play your games in a casino that’s not convenient, and not in the most glamourous part of the city, give them some incentive, like a lower house edge. Perhaps single-zero roulette wouldn’t have made much of a difference, but offer low-minimum tables with a single zero and you’ll be the talk of the town. If couldn’t have made things worse, could it?

Better promotions and gaming odds would have drawn more people to the casino, but perhaps it wouldn’t have been enough. Perhaps the small casino/hotel couldn’t afford the volatility that a lower house edge exposes. (There’s evidence to suggest that.)

Wouldn’t it have been nice to know?

The one thing the Dragon couldn’t change is its location. Its out-of-the-way location is seen as a major detriment to its success. For any small casino to succeed in that location, it had better attract a significant percentage of its target market, or draw a lot of people looking for an alternative to the stinginess of the big players on the strip. And those people exist, without a doubt.

So, with or without more favorable gambling conditions for the player, if you could just plop the Dragon in a more prominent location near the heart of the strip, it would have a fighting chance of succeeding, right?

Not so fast.

This month has also included the closing of the Westin Las Vegas casino. All gambling was removed from the property, making way for a new restaurant, and meeting space, or something like that.

Yeah, that’s what’s missing, a restaurant in a hotel three minutes from the hustle and bustle of the strip.

The spin seems to be that this is some sort of evolution, some sort of plan, that phasing out gambling was a good thing. The latter seems to be true, but I’m skeptical its demise is by design.

When I first went to Vegas 21 years ago, my first day in town brought me to a cheap, if not free, afternoon magic show at the Maxim. The Maxim was a modest casino/hotel just off the strip, tiny in comparison to MGM, where I stayed on that first trip.

The Maxim had a bustling crowd that Thursday afternoon in early January. Who would have guessed that it was 21 years away from disappearing? Not me.

The Maxim eventually became the Westin. I’m not sure whose guidance drove off the gambling crowd, but I was in that joint a decade ago, after the Maxim name was scrubbed from the property.

I have no special insight. I don’t know why the gambling crowd deserted the property. Was it because it was poorly run, and people stopped coming, or did people stop coming because of the fickle nature of business, and the property failed to react.

A vibrant casino, just a couple of minutes from the heart of the strip, could no longer make a go of it. Is the competition from the major strip casinos too difficult to overcome? Perhaps, but close to the former Maxim is a smaller, less spectacular property known as Ellis Island. It is doing better than ever, despite having less to work with. Its casino isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

Moral of the story: Location is important, and gambling is a tougher business than ever. It remains a viable business for the smaller, secondary casinos in Vegas, but it’s tougher than ever to succeed, and is far from foolproof. We lost the Maxim, and Lucky Dragon is dying on the vine. Casino properties in the tourist districts had better offer a lot of things for a lot of people, or they face a tough battle for survival.

Friday, January 12, 2018

#VegasHalloween (day 6 and 7): A quiet ending

Unlike those who like to go out with a bang, I tend not to overdo it during my last day or so in Vegas.

I'd rather not drink all night and head to the airport hung over and tired. I'm old. I'm boring.

I had hoped to meet up with Karla for breakfast on Friday, Nov. 3. She flew into town two nights earlier from Minnesota, missing all the Halloween fun, and was heading home on Friday night. She had flown to Vegas, along with her heterosexual life partner, to gather with a few other Prince fans for two nights that really had nothing to do with Prince, the little purple musician from Minnesota who died less than two years ago.

Karla couldn't shake free of her conclave to meet up for breakfast, even though I was willing to drive down to Mandalay Bay to meet up with her for an hour. So instead I had another egg breakfast in our Tahiti Village unit and drove over to Orleans for a couple of hours of cards. My girlfriend wanted to take it easy and read a book, and we had decided we weren't going to spend our afternoon at the pool. It was still sunny and pleasant, but it was a bit windy, and not as warm as it had been at the beginning of the week. Oh well. We still have a great week by the pool, something we weren't going to get in Minnesota.

I drove over to Orleans and found, much to my disappointment, that they weren't dealing $5 double deck blackjack, again. I played Ultimate Texas Hold 'Em and didn't have much luck. A guy sat down next to me and was betting big right from the start, and he hit big hands quickly. I think he raked in about $1,000 while he was there, betting a lot of $25 hands. I couldn't get a decent payoff to save my soul for about 30 minutes. I eventually made a few decent hands to start to reverse the trend, but that didn't last long enough for me to break even. I finished my session down $145. Not a huge loss for the day, but combined with my losses the previous night, I was in the hole with 24 hours to go. Not by much, and that's fine. I'm  happy if I can break even for my week.

I picked up burgers and fries from Jack in the Box for lunch. There was a location south of Mandalay Bay that was easy to hit up on my way back to Tahiti Village. I don't normally dine at Jack in the Box when in Vegas, but it was easy, quick and not something I get here in Minnesota. We didn't love it, but it was fine.

Our afternoon started with a trek over to the Pinball Hall of Fame. That's the one place I get to during every trip to Vegas, at least once, no matter what. I'm a bit disappointed I didn't spend more than a couple of hours there during my six-night stay, but time is a precious commodity.

I won't say much about the HOF. I have long intended to write about it, although it has been featured in hundreds of blogs and Vegas tourist websites. It's not a secret at this point. Here are a few pictures from this visit.

This game is often hard to photograph. It's called "Pinball Circus" and this is a prototype machine that's more than 20 years old. It was from the early '90s, and is unique in that it's a pinball machine built within the confines of an arcade video game cabinet. The project was shelved, and this prototype was eventually donated to the Pinball Hall of Fame years later. It's the only one you can play here in the United States, and perhaps the world. I'm still not clear about where any other prototypes are, and opinions differ as to how many were produced. Some say two, others say four.

This long, silly, old baseball game involves rolling an object (puck, if I recall correctly) into the playfield, sort of like Skee Ball. It's silly, it's old-fashioned fun, and you likely won't ever find this old game anywhere in the United States

This machine has a very old-fashioned playfield, but it was produced in 2015. It's very creative and cheesy, and a little suggestive, obviously. It's not the most exciting game to play, but somebody decided there's a market for new retro pinball gaming, and this is the end result of that. 

Nothing special about this old, simple pinball machine, but you will find dozens of old machines like this, and many more from the past 40 years, at the Hall of Fame.

Here's another classic machine that is impressive to see. I always play several games. It's a poker game where balls bounce into a 25-hole board that represent playing cards. You get to "discard" the cards you don't want for a second chance at making a better hand. It's pretty neat to see how well this machine works, given it was created long before arcade games have any sort of "computer" components within them. It's one of several old relics you won't find on display in many places. I have seen this game on display at some roadside attraction video I watched on YouTube once, but I've never seen it for myself anywhere else, and I'm quite sure I never will. This game likely dates back to 1959, based upon my Internet searches. 
We left the HOF and made the long, slow trek to downtown about 5 p.m., taking Maryland Parkway much of the way there. Damn, Friday afternoon traffic is a slow, tedious exercise.

We parked in the California's ramp, which didn't have many spaces to spare, and used a Las Vegas Advisor coupon for two-for-one dinner in the cafe. We both had the prime rib meal, which is decent and offers you plenty to eat for, including a salad bar, for about $10. I expected it to take 30 minutes to get a table, it always seems to at dinnertime, and yet we were able to get a seat without having to wait. So weird!

After dinner we went to Main Street Station. My girlfriend likes their microbrew, so we always end up having a couple of beers at the Boar's Head Bar. This time, however, I left her behind and trekked down to El Cortez, expressly for redeeming my free play coupon from the Las Vegas Advisor coupon book. I'm not militant about using every free play, but I always make a point to visit El Cortez, and my girlfriend didn't want to walk back and forth.

I ran $10 through video poker and won a few bucks more than that. Rather than chase a big payoff, I took my modest cash payout and headed back toward Main Street Station. During our stay there I did play a little $5 double deck blackjack. I didn't win much, but I got a beer out of the deal.

After Main Street Station we popped in and out of a few casinos, turning in a couple of match plays and free plays. We eventually went to the Fremont, where I played more $5 double deck blackjack, with no luck. I was about $30 down by the end of our night, which ended a bit early for a Friday. We weren't going to stay out and booze it up until 1 a.m.

We drove back to Tahiti Village and enjoyed one last late night session in the hot tub. The tub was a bit crowded as a bunch of folks who were in town for the annual SEMA show and were soaking up the warm water. I listened as several people traded stories about how many time share weeks they own, how great of a deal they got for the second week they purchased, all the ways the time share property try to upsell people who already own a week, etc.

Nobody asked if we were owners, so I didn't have to tell them I bought a week of time share at Tahiti Village through the resale market for less than these folks pay for their annual maintenance fees. Entertaining stuff.

After the hot tub we called it a night, as we had to pack up and be out by 10 a.m. on Saturday.

Our final morning was uneventful and we had a late first meal back at Ellis Island. I had another two-for-one cafe coupon, so we had lunch. I ordered the ridiculously sinful half-and-half burger. The patty is half ground beef, half bacon. I'm sure my blood pressure went through the roof following that meal.

We had an early afternoon departure, so Ellis Island was our last stop. While waiting for a table in the cafe, I played a few $5 blackjack hands. I was down $29 to start the morning, and won $15 before lunch. I figured if I could break even it would be a huge victory, despite my lousy luck the previous 24 hours.

I had but a few minutes left after lunch before it was time to head to the car rental center. I played $5 hands at third base, and lost seven in a row, including a double down hand. And I made a couple of decent hands during those seven, yet would be beat by the dealer every time. Disgusted with the seventh consecutive loss, I grabbed my remaining chips and cashed out. Had I not sat down after lunch, I'd have been down $14 for the week, and that includes at least $14 in table chips that had been used as tips.

Instead I lost my final seven hands and left Vegas down $54. Not a bad week by any gambler's standards, but so damn annoying as I'm about to leave town. Such is life in Sin City.