I’d like to begin this column with a little personal history—when I first started in trade journalism, I cut my teeth on magazines covering the shopping center industry. For that reason, I have always had a soft spot for the business, and keep track of it as best I can through print and online media sources.
Unfortunately, much of the news involving the mall business has been anything but great of late. Changing customer shopping tastes combined with the continued growth of online retailing have economically gutted the traditional department store business, leading to multiple store closings by firms such as Macy’s and JC Penney. In turn, this has put many mall developers and management firms in something of a bind since their properties rely heavily on big box department store anchor tenants. A recent Bloomberg News article revealed just how bad the situation has become…some Wall Street hedge fund companies have begun “shorting” the securities of some mall and shopping center owners and operators, essentially betting they will default on loans and, in doing so, make them money. According to Bloomberg, this is a similar strategy to the one followed by Michael Burry and Steve Eisman during the last housing crisis that made them millions of dollars and was the subject of the recent hit movie The Big Short.
Bloomberg cited a January report from one of the firms shorting mall securities that succinctly stated its case for this strategy: “These malls are dying, and we see very limited prospect of a turnaround in performance. We expect 2017 to be a tipping point.”
This got me to thinking… could land-based casino gaming resorts eventually follow this disastrous path? After all, on the surface at least, both enterprises do have a number of startling similarities: large scale, reliance on a specific anchor business (department stores/casinos), challenges from a growing disruptive technology (online retail/online gaming), the need to adapt to changing customer spending habits, and seeming disdain from the next big generation of consumers, the Millennials.
Sure, shorting casino owners and operators seems farfetched today, but I’m sure the shopping center business thought the same thing just 10 short years ago.
Of course, it is always a mistake to delve solely into the dark side of an issue, because rarely is a situation totally negative or positive. Even as some look to take advantage of a declining shopping center industry, certain developers and properties continue to do well. Indeed, those retail facilities that diversified, invested in entertainment, lodging and other non-retail elements that attract a wider swath of consumers, still generate substantial revenue.
Fortunately, a large number of gaming properties are already on this path, with gaming resorts both large and small looking to integrate non-gaming elements into the enterprise—everything from hotels and spas to unique entertainment elements and dining options. Forward thinking resorts realize the need to diversify offerings beyond the core casino, in order to attract both a larger and younger customer base to brick-and-mortar facilities now and in the future.
Diversification has often been considered the best hedge against business obsolescence and economic decay. If the casino industry was shopping around for a solution; it seems to have stumbled onto the best one.