COVID is a near-term challenge with long-term impacts for casinos
Reopenings are in full swing and, no surprise, a lot of customers are jumping at the chance to get out of the house and back to the casino.
To take one example, Mississippi’s coast casinos actually beat last year’s Memorial Day weekend revenue figures and that was with slots and table games limited to 50 percent capacity, social distancing rules and the leading property in the market, Beau Rivage, still closed.
So we have liftoff; the demand for brick-and-mortar gaming is at least COVID-19-resistant, but the virus isn’t going away anytime soon and the winners will be those who best navigate the pandemic, and post-pandemic, waters.
When will this chapter end? Listening to, “Gaming in the Time of Coronavirus: Managing the Uncertainty Ahead,” presented early last month by CDC Gaming Seminars, the consensus was not anytime soon. Az Husain, CEO, Casino Science led a discussion that included Conrad Granito, general manager, Muckleshoot Casino, Auburn, Wash.; Steve Neely, general manager, Rolling Hills Casino, Corning, Calif.; and Dirk Whitebreast, general manager, Meskwaki Bingo Casino Hotel, Tama, Iowa. Husain first asked attendees how long they expect to implement social distancing measures. Most people answered, “Until there is a vaccine,” with the second-most popular response being 6-12 months.
“We’re looking at either the vaccine or a therapy that reduces the problem to the level of the flu,” agreed Granito. “The other problem we have is many of our guests fit the demographic that is the number one or two most susceptible to COVID-19. That’s a large part of our player base that are either elderly or have pre-existing conditions or immunity issues. We know there’s a group that won’t come back until they feel comfortable and that could be when there’s a vaccine that is both available and administered.”
At Rolling Hills, the new normal is 100 percent temperature checks for employees, guests, vendors; whoever comes on the property. Masks are required on the property. The number of entrances has been reduced. Summer entertainment has been re-booked for next year whenever possible. Meskwaki is deciding how to offer social distancing in a bingo hall. They’ve also canceled their events calendar for the year and are considering whether to participate in the Iowa State Fair, assuming that it takes place.
Masks are a big issue. Muckleshoot is requiring masks for all, including guests. “Not everyone is doing that,” said Granito, of his fellow Washington casino operators. Rolling Hills is taking a similar approach.
“When we first open we have to commit to our tribal council that we’ll have certain safeguards for people,” said Neely. “It’s up to us to enforce it and to live by it, otherwise it’s an empty promise. Certainly the last thing I want to do is have my security guards walk through the property being mask police. But to a certain degree that’s what we all have to do, at least in the short term. Once we get to a certain level we can relax that, but in the beginning, our customers have an expectation that we’ll provide a safe environment for them and one of the things the experts have told us is that of that is social distancing. Not every customer is going to appreciate it and not every employee is going to like it. But it is what it has to be for now.”
COVID-19’s most lasting impact could well be on the technology front. Rolling Hills has worked with Acres to implement a new slot dispatch system that alerts housekeeping whenever someone takes a card or ticket out of a game that the game is no longer occupied and they can come clean it. The casino has also invested heavily in UV virus containment technology, with UV lights mounted at the cage and when someone puts their hands down into the light it will automatically disinfect; it’s using the same technology with ATMs, kiosks and hotel rooms.
Then there’s the count room. “Money is probably the dirtiest thing in the building,” said Neely. “We aggressively went out and found technology to keep that room disinfected and safe while the team is in there. If you don’t have a count team, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to stay open for long.”
Granito thinks the time is ripe to push for regulatory change on payment processes: “The technology is there for card readers or tap-and-pay on every machine. Think about the efficiencies you could gain without having to use cash. When you add it up it’s a lot.”
Factoring in 9/11 and the Great Recession of 2008-10, this is the third major shock in a generation. Past crises have taught Neely the value of togetherness stating at the top: “The cohesiveness of the executive team and the desire to learn more about what the other people are doing is important because every dollar counts now. There’s no room for ego or agenda; everything has to become much more efficient.”
But let’s not be too hard on ourselves—or each other—counseled Whitebreast.
“As far as I know, this is our first pandemic,” he said. “So one message that I would like to share with our fellow industry leaders is, for one, remain humble. It’s important to understand that is something new for all of us and we’re all handling it as best as we probably can. The other part of it is, take care of yourself. And I don’t mean just wear a mask when you go to the grocery store. I’m taking about mental health, because this puts a strain on us. It’s a great challenge, and I feel fortunate to be part of this industry in addressing it, but there are times where we are going to need breaks for ourselves. When we take care of ourselves that makes it easier to perform the tasks at hand.”