Forgive southern gaming operators if they felt somewhat picked upon until recently.

Between destructive hurricanes, oil spills, economic recession, slow recovery and increased regional competition, the last decade has been anything but smooth sailing for the Gulf Coast region and its casino resort industry. Indeed, since 2007, it has been reported the Mississippi alone saw its gaming revenues decline by 27.5 percent.

But for the casino operators that have weathered this stretch of inclement economic weather, it appears better days are finally ahead. According to gaming statistics compiled by RubinBrown Gaming Services Group, the southern commercial casino market (Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi) generated $5.28 billion in combined gaming revenue in 2015, a 4.7 percent increase over its 2014 performance, making it the fastest growing U.S. gaming region last year. Thanks to new casino openings in Lake Charles marketplace, Louisiana paced this commercial market resurgence, generating $2.65 billion in 2015, a 7.1 percent uptick over 2014. Meanwhile, Mississippi commercial gaming operations produced $2.1 billion in combined revenue last year, a 1.4 percent year-over-year gain.

Delving deeper into Mississippi numbers, RubinBrown reports that the costal markets performed particularly well in 2015; with Biloxi generating $856 million in revenue, a 3.3 percent increase over 2014, while Bay St. Louis/Gulfport properties produced $291.5 million, a whopping 17 percent increase over the prior year.

One of the properties that benefitted from this gain in Gulf Coast gaming fortunes was Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Biloxi, a Twin River Management Group-owned facility that expanded just in time to take advantage of this increase in consumer casino spend. Under the leadership of General Manager Todd Raziano, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Biloxi continues to make the physical and the entertainment amenity improvements necessary to thrive in this growing but also increasingly competitive gaming marketplace. Recently, Raziano took some time to field some market and property questions from Casino Journal Editor Paul Doocey. Below are some excerpts from his answers:

How would you describe the overall Biloxi market in terms of revenue and visitation over the last year or so? Is it up, down or steady? What are some of the reasons for this performance?

Raziano: In 2015 the Gulf Coast casinos had over 10 million out-of-state visitors which was down about 4 percent, however revenues were up 6.5 percent from 2014.  Although visitation was down slightly, the positive performance of the gaming market can be largely attributed to several capital investment projects and successful tourism related events such as Cruisin’ the Coast.  During 2015, Beau Rivage, the state and the city of Biloxi teamed up to construct MGM Park, a 6,000 seat AA-Minor League baseball stadium; Silver Slipper opened a new 129-room hotel;  and Island View reconstructed a 400-room hotel tower that had been shut down since Hurricane Katrina.

The Scarlett Pearl opened recently in D’Iberville, the first major new casino resort along the Mississippi Gulf Coast in quite some time. What impact would you say it has had on the marketplace?

Raziano: As its only been a few months since the December 2015 opening of Scarlet Pearl, it is a bit early to fully assess the impact it has had. The publicity surrounding the opening had a positive impact on the market overall, however.

Is there room for more new ground-up casino resort development on the Gulf Coast? 

Raziano: The Gulf Coast gaming market is currently made up of 12 high-quality casino hotel resorts, owned and operated by many of the largest, most successful companies in the industry.  Whether there is room for another ground-up casino development depends largely upon increasing visitation to the Gulf Coast.  Doing so will require more reasons to visit than just gaming, such as effective tourism initiatives and improvements to the transportation methods by which visitors arrive.

The pace of infrastructure entertainment development appears to have quickened with the opening of MGM Ball Park as most recent example. How important are such developments to you and the other operators in Biloxi? 

Raziano: Very important.  The Gulf Coast has established itself as a premier gaming destination.  In order to generate continued growth, it is very important to supplement the gaming experience with other activities that are appealing.  Substantial investments such as MGM Park, additional hotel rooms and restaurants drive more visitors which in turn inspire new developments.  Success breeds success.

It’s been more than 10 years since Hurricane Katrina. Would you say the market has recovered from that blow or is it still an ongoing process? What needs to happen for the market to be considered fully recovered?

Raziano: Hurricane Katrina was a historically significant event and from many perspectives full recovery will likely never be achieved.  However, the gaming market on the Gulf Coast is performing very well as the quality of casino hotel properties is better as is the infrastructure that supports the market.

There has been movement to legalize casinos in Georgia and Texas and add additional casinos in Florida. What impact would any of these expansions have on the Mississippi Gulf Coast gaming scene and how can you prepare for them? 

Raziano: Expansion of gaming in surrounding states seems inevitable. Since many of our visitors originate in these states, it is more important than ever for the properties, cities and state to invest in the market so it is fortified and strong as it can be to withstand an increase in competition.

How would you say Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Biloxi has performed over the past year? Are you satisfied with the results?

Raziano: 2015 was a very good year for Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Biloxi. Over the past two years, our ownership, Twin River Management Group, has invested heavily with the addition of a new 154-room hotel tower, the addition of multiple restaurants and an ongoing hotel suite remodel. These enhancements together with our marketing programs have been well received by our guests.

What is the property doing to stay ahead in an increasingly competitive local and regional gaming marketplace? Are you making any changes to your casino floor?

Raziano: At Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Biloxi, we are constantly optimizing our layouts and adding new products to our gaming floor. In the last year, we added a VIP lounge just off our high limit room, which has been a great addition for our VIP guests to enjoy complimentary food and beverages, along with access to our large deck overlooking the pool and water—there is no better place to watch a sunset on the Coast!

What new non-gaming amenities are you adding to the property? What do you hope to accomplish with these additions?

Raziano: Non-gaming amenities are a big part of the Hard Rock experience and we have added several new dining options in the last year. Tequila’s on the Gulf, our poolside restaurant, opened last spring and has been a great success. It also hosts a fantastic pool party every Sunday—which you don’t want to miss! Additionally, we opened a Half Shell Oyster House just off our gaming floor, offering authentic coastal cuisine and local seafood which has been a welcomed addition to our portfolio. Last fall we also opened Pie Five Pizza Co., for a more casual dining experience, where you can create a custom, personal pizza with quality ingredients in only five minutes.

We also recently renovated our nightclub LIVE #REMIX and we are in the process of renovating several of our suites this year to ensure we are providing the very best amenities for our guests.

We have created additional meeting space as well, using air walls to create three flexible meeting spaces so we are able to grow that segment of our B2B business.

All of these upgrades provide our guests with more options during their stay with us and ensure when they are visiting the Hard Rock, we provide them with authentic experiences that ROCK.

There is a lot of talk in the industry about land-based gaming resorts needing to do a better job attracting Millennials and younger clientele to the property. What is Hard Rock doing to bring these people in? Are you adding any amenities especially geared toward them?

Raziano: Millennials are a focus for all gaming resorts and Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Biloxi is constantly looking for opportunities to capture this audience. This summer, we have partnered with famous mixologist Richard Gomez, a USBG member and Diageo World Class U.S. Ambassador, who will bring his unique passion to Hard Rock with custom cocktails, live appearances and more. Mixology and custom cocktails that you can’t get anywhere else is a hot trend for the younger clientele—they want custom. They want unique. They want to be the trend setter.  Additionally, we are booking headline entertainment that appeals to the younger generations, such as Halestorm and Hunter Hayes.

Starting June 2, we will showcase a brand new, live, theatrical stage production titled SHOW RISQUÉ, presented exclusively at Hard Rock Live every Thursday through September 1. This sexy, sassy, fun, flirtatious variety show will be great entertainment for all ages, not just the typical casino-goer.

On the gaming side, we offer blackjack tournaments and mass promotions to win cars, flat screens, trips and similar items that that appeal to a younger demographic. We communicate with this audience primarily with social media, which allows us to have a two-way conversation with them and lets us actively insert ourselves where they already are consuming media and spending their time.

No doubt Hard Rock is synonymous with a certain type of entertainment experience. What role does entertainment play in the Hard Rock enterprise and what does Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Biloxi have in store to meet these expectations?

Raziano: Music is at the core of everything we do here at Hard Rock. From the second you enter our property, we provide an experience, unique to anything else you will find on the Gulf Coast. Hard Rock Live can accommodate over 2,000 guests for headline entertainment in our 9,000-square-foot theater. We also have nine bars, two dance clubs, and three live music venues. We have some very exciting headline entertainment planned in 2016, with acts like Halestorm and Foreigner in the spring, and coming later this year; Tracey Lawrence, 38 Special, Hunter Hayes, Weird Al Yankovich, Candlebox, Skid Row and America… Hard Rock is always rockin’.

How important is customer service to the overall success of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Biloxi? What steps have you taken to augment or improve customer service at your facility?

Raziano: Customer Service is a huge priority for Hard Rock. Our motto is to “LOVE ALL. SERVE ALL.”  We have extensive guest service training in place to ensure we deliver on that promise. When you are competing for business with 12 other casinos in the market, you have to have a differentiator. Ours is music as well as the best service on the Coast. The relationships that we build with our guests are the single most important thing we do in a day. We hope that their experience with us will be so impactful that they will not only return, but recommend Hard Rock to friends and family.