For the last four years or so, people whose job it is to understand consumer behavior have been pointing to the phenomenon of consumers using discretionary dollars to accumulate life experiences while winding down purchases of stuff.
Travel is in and he who dies with the most toys just dies with a lot of toys that his children sell for pennies on the dollar, if they can sell them at all.
A couple of things seem to be happening, besides the obvious technology angle. Educated younger people are mostly attracted to cities, which have become almost uniformly unaffordable when it comes to home ownership. So they rent, and that’s not cheap either. Older folks, for their part, have not only run out of room for their stuff, they’ve basically been told by their kids to stuff their stuff because, for one thing, they’re not interested and, for another, they have no place to put it.
Investors who are interested in consumer-facing brick-and-mortar businesses are catching on, which benefits the casino industry. “There’s this investment theme right now of experiences over things; whether it’s taking a cruise with your family or going to a casino and having a night out,” said Brad Boyer of Stifel Nicolaus, leisure entertainment analysts speaking at the AGS GameON conference last month. “Seems like the consumer today, whether it’s Baby Boomers, Gen X’ers or Millennials, are all rethinking the way they prioritize their spending and you’re seeing a shift out of hard good purchases and into experiences and it’s benefitting the group of businesses that I follow.”
The realization has dovetailed with the search for “Amazon-resistant” stocks, and many investors who might have once shied away from the casino business now see it as a steady and reliable performer.
Explaining the run-up in stocks in 2016 and 2017, a two-year period when the average gaming company saw its share price grow 80 to 100 percent, Chad Benyon, analyst with Macquarie Capital, said, “part of it was attributable to move-out of money from businesses that were under attack from Amazon. A lot of our investors were starting to realize that casinos were safer than they thought.”
If you’re in my little corner of the American casino industry, Felix Rappaport was either at or near the top of your list of favorite executives. Smart, quotable, accessible, wise, humble and genuinely good; he was very special. Felix, as you know by now, passed away last month at the too early age of 65. He was president and CEO of Foxwoods Resort Casino, where he worked after many years of high-profile jobs on the commercial side of the industry after starting out in the hotel business with the Hershey Corporation in his hometown of Philadelphia. Announcing his death, Mashantucket Pequot Chairman Rodney Butler said, “We have suffered a major loss.” You knew what he meant.
Simply put, Felix was a great human being who was great at his job, and you had the sense that he really cared more about the former. I have a recording of a speech he gave at Raving’s Indian Gaming Marketing Conference last year and I went back to it because I remembered it not being the standard executive presentation. Here is some of what he said:
On his life in gaming: “I think if I got a reputation for having any skill whatsoever, it was that I was often sent to properties that needed to be revitalized. New York New York for example opened in 1997 and I believe it did $127 million in EBITDA and by the time I got there for a variety of reasons it had fallen to about $97 million. And by the time I left that property our team had gotten that number up to $150 million. I think if I have any kind of a skill, it’s repurposing, helping a property to evolve and perhaps move on in a new direction.”
On character:“Milton Hershey said: One is only happy in proportion as he makes others feel happy. I know I was raised by a single mother and I’m from urban Philadelphia and I know my mother always raised us to make time for everybody.”
On going from commercial to tribal gaming:“People have asked if the transition from publicly-held gaming companies to Indian gaming was difficult for me. Listen, for me, people are people, It hasn’t been that phenomenally difficult a transition, these are wonderful people. My approach is total transparency; I probably tell them more than they need or want to know, but I want them to know everything that we’re doing. Every day we get up and do everything we can to make that property and our contribution to the tribal nation better.”