Don Marrandino is Eastern Division president for Las Vegas-based Harrah’s Entertainment, responsible for the company’s four Atlantic City casino hotels - Harrah’s, Showboat, Bally’s and Caesars - and Harrah’s Chester in southeastern Pennsylvania. Since returning to his home town last year he has taken on his new responsibilities with his trademark energy and gusto, as he outlines here in a wide-ranging discussion with well-known gaming attorney and Casino Journal columnist Lloyd D. Levenson.
Tell us a little bit about your background. All of a sudden you appear in Atlantic City.
Marrandino: I was born in Atlantic City. I started working as a $5-an-hour front desk clerk, worked my way up in the Hotel Division at Bally’s and helped open Trump Plaza, where I was front office manager. I ended up going to Las Vegas in 1988, culminating in a move to Harrah’s in 2003. Then [Harrah’s Chairman and CEO] Gary Loveman asked that I come back to where I was born.
What was your initial reaction to the move from Las Vegas to Atlantic City?
Marrandino: Even though I thought I had the best life in the world in Las Vegas I came here because I thought there was an opportunity to be part of something that could be great. I know the competition is tough, and the economic times are not good, but I wanted to be really aggressive to try to re-brand these properties. I never met an event or a show I didn’t like in the casino, and I would put our current entertainment schedule up against anybody’s.
Did you take a look and say, “There’s room for improvement”?
Marrandino: Yes. There were only 10 or 11 really good shows last year at Caesars. This year we’re going to triple that. We are looking for more entertainment concepts and are willing to take a big chance with our new summer show at Harrah’s.
You’re going to feature a show that will run the whole summer?
Marrandino: Yes. I think it will be a sensation. We took a chance with Donny and Marie in Las Vegas, but it turned out to be the city’s biggest show. Donny and Marie have been contacted about coming here in the summer. In addition, we hope to have a concert on the beach on July Fourth, and we expect 3,000 to 5,000 people.
Speaking of branding, in a relatively short period of time, Atlantic City’s casinos have become a mecca for big-name restaurants. How important is this to the future of Atlantic City?
Marrandino: That’s one area where Atlantic City was behind but is now really catching up. Brands really work well here, and we have to continue to do that. The restaurants at Borgata are amazing with their celebrity chefs. … In another area, we are going to make more aggressive use of Boardwalk Hall this summer. People say, “Do more,” and that’s just what we’re going to do. We need to appreciate the economic impact of a concertgoer. I’m a big music fan, and when I go to see a show it’s not just the show, but it’s eating out at a nice restaurant, going to the closest good bar, and having a good room available.
This brings up your belief that making the city a better place to visit helps everybody.
Marrandino: I definitely think so. I don’t know why everybody would not say, “Let’s all get in this and make sure this town is busy, because the busier it is the more money everybody makes.” I think the biggest economic stimulus package this city could have would be to get everyone working together.
There has been talk in town that when the Revel project opens it will put a few other casinos out of business. What’s your opinion of Revel, especially since you run a casino [Showboat Atlantic City] right next to it?
Marrandino: Having been in Las Vegas for the whole boom and having watched all of the new casinos being built out there, I know that when something was spectacular and different it stimulated the whole market. The old places in Las Vegas that didn’t reinvest or keep up with the times had implosion parties. I think that Revel is great for the city. The money they are investing here will create jobs, stimulate the economy and bring new people into the market. There hasn’t been a casino opening in about seven years. Before that there was only one opening in 13 years. So this has to happen. We have to market Atlantic City and not just the properties that we are responsible for.
There are going to be two casinos in Philadelphia, and one may be managed by Steve Wynn. How does Atlantic City compete?
Marrandino: revenues were gaming revenues and only about 10 percent were non-gaming. In Las Vegas you see, in some cases, 70 percent non-gaming revenues and 30 percent gaming. Some people still don’t understand that we need to shift our business equation. At Harrah’s we’ve been very active in changing our business models to reflect the new environment. Atlantic City doesn’t have a monopoly on legalized gambling in this area anymore, so you can’t just sit there and count your gaming revenue at the end of the day.
If you had the power, what would you do to improve the city?
Marrandino: Convenient, inexpensive parking is a key. If people can park here there’s a good chance they will spend a few dollars here. There’s always a lot of talk about improving parking and cleaning up the city but not that much action. Inactivity frustrates me to no end. You can talk about stuff, but you have to start doing it. You have to have the intestinal fortitude to say, “We’re going to do it.” And, you know what, if you move quickly you are going to make some mistakes. But there has to be more action and less talk about action.
What about Bader Field [Atlantic City Municipal Airport]? There’s been talk over the years that it could accommodate one to four casinos.
Marrandino: I think that we need to focus on the core. There are non-gaming amenities that could go into Bader Field to improve the city. We need to have good destinations, not new casinos, at Bader Field.
Anything else you would like to add?
Marrandino: In a nutshell, we have to work together. We have to create a destination. Most of all, we have to make it fun. We need to look at the competition. Pennsylvania has location, location, location. But it’s a casual gaming experience. You’re not going to want to stay there. We have to continue to work on a new business model that’s not centered only on gaming. We’re trying to do that with advertising that’s sexy, luxurious, fun and emphasizes that Atlantic City can be a romantic getaway. My mantra is, there’s already lots of good stuff here. We are already cool and fun, but we have to get our story out.
Marrandino Bio: Don Marrandino joined Harrah’s in 2003, initially working in Lake Tahoe, and rose to become manager of five of the company’s Las Vegas Strip resorts: Harrah’s, Bally’s, the Flamingo, Paris and the Imperial Palace. He began his career at Bally’s Atlantic City, working in the hotel and advancing into management. He moved to Las Vegas in 1989, worked under Tony Marnell at the Rio, then moved to Station Casinos. He served briefly under Peter Morton as chief operating officer of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and also worked on the development of Wynn Las Vegas. He is best-known for his successes on the entertainment side, scoring the Rolling Stones for a concert at the Hard Rock, bringing Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar and Grill to Harrah’s Las Vegas and securing Donny and Marie Osmond for the Flamingo.