Not all casinos have performed equally upon reopening and there are reasons for that—some obvious, others less so. Understanding the results of the past summer is important, not least because the conditions that gave rise to them, namely a pandemic that shows no signs of abating as we head into the winter months, are expected to continue for the foreseeable future.

That was the idea behind a webinar last month entitled “Key Insights into the Pandemic and the Casino Industry’s Reopening,” presented by Spectrum Gaming Group and Management Science Associates (MSA), partners in Spectrumetrix, a commercial casino data and analytical resource whose data formed the basis of the presentation.  

Noting that as of mid-September 890 casinos have reopened and 103 were closed, Joe Weinert, executive vice president of Spectrum Gaming Group, said the limitations that have generally impacted top-line performance—capacity reductions, smoking restrictions, table games player limits and other restrictions that have generally made casinos less free-and-easy for patrons to visit and utilize—probably aren’t going away anytime soon.

“While we all hope that life will return to normal soon, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, cautioned recently that it may not be until late 2021 we as a country begin to experience ‘normal’ again,” said Weinert.

Location, COVID-19 infection rates and promotional spending have all played a key role in reopening results, said Dr. Geoff Atkinson, senior data analyst for MSA. He also looked at internet gaming in New Jersey and how it has performed since brick-and-mortar casinos reopened; an issue of importance to jurisdictions enacting online gaming legislation as a hedge against further COVID-related disruptions. A summary of his findings follows.

 

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

There are quantifiable factors influencing the success of reopening such as when did the casino reopen; how much have they been spending on promotion; and how much slot, table and online gaming revenue they have been generating. Other important factors are less easy to quantify, such as how clean the casino is and if players feel safe and comfortable. However, there is one constant: location matters. 

“There has been a big difference between casinos catering to travelling players—players coming in from all across the country and all around the world—versus casinos focused on catering to their local region and players can get to in an hour or two in their car,” said Atkinson. “This is most clearly seen if you look at the data from Nevada. The biggest destination market in the U.S. is Las Vegas; the Las Vegas Strip in particular.”

Looking at data through July, the Las Vegas Strip casinos were hitting about two-thirds of the revenue they were collectively generating this time last year. Meanwhile, Lake Tahoe is up at 80 percent of previous business. Other parts of Nevada are hitting 90 percent or even 100 percent of where they were a year ago. 

“This speaks to a public nervousness about travel and air travel in particular,” said Atkinson. “That’s probably not going to get cleared up right away. It’s not necessarily something that casinos themselves have control over, but it is an important factor for the players and influencing how quickly and how enthusiastically they’re coming back to different casinos.”  

Another important factor related to location is how quickly the coronavirus has been spreading in different parts of the country. Atkinson looked at a cluster of contiguous states (Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio), and how the number of cases grew at the time of reopening in each individual state. “If a state experienced a big jump in COVID cases as businesses started to reopen, then people probably felt more nervous, less willing to go out and mingle in big crowds,” said Atkinson. “If the number of COVID cases stayed pretty low or flat, then that probably boosts people’s confidence—they don’t think of it as of big a risk to go back to the casino and do this kind of activity that they enjoy.” 

Of the four states Atkinson examined, Kentucky stood out. “It is one of the smaller states in terms of population, and they had fewer cases overall and fewer cases per 100,000 residents,” said Atkinson. “And that is reflected in the fact that they had a stronger reopening than the other three states and were actually generating more money in July 2020 than in July 2019.” 

A third factor tied to location is proximity to other states: Not only are casinos impacted by their own state’s rules and regulations, but by those governing competitors in other states close by. The impact was clearly seen by comparing results in three Ohio markets—Toledo, Cincinnati and Columbus. Columbus is right in the center of Ohio. Their competition is other in-state casinos, so casinos there are the least impacted by what’s going on in other states. 

“You can see that Columbus casino recovery in June, July and August, is pretty close to the average for all of Ohio,” said Atkinson. “Meanwhile, Cincinnati-based casinos are near competitors based in Kentucky and Indiana, which were able to reopen a week or two ahead of the Ohio casinos.

That means the Cincinnati casino had just a little bit more of a hurdle to overcome. They had to work just a little bit harder to get people to come back to their casino. They’re bouncing back to close to 2019 numbers, but they’re a little bit below the average for Ohio as a whole.” 

Toledo experienced the opposite effect. “Their closest competitors are in Detroit, right across the border, and Detroit casinos didn’t reopen until early August,” said Atkinson. “So the casino in Toledo got to operate for about a month-and-a-half while their closest competitors were closed. That worked out, as you might expect, very well for them. They saw good numbers in July—it was reported that it was their best month ever. They were still performing strongly in August because even when the Detroit casinos reopened, they were under a different capacity restriction compared with the Ohio casinos. 

“As an aside, I’m not in any way trying to criticize the response of any state and how they handled putting restrictions on casinos and reopening casinos. I’m merely observing how things played out differently in two neighboring states.” 

Atkinson also assessed the impact of different capacity restrictions in different states. Ohio set the limitation at 50 percent of capacity. Michigan is one of the lower ones, with 15 percent capacity. Other states have set capacity between 25-33 percent. 

“I think one of the positives that has come out of recent  revenue numbers is that many of the casinos operating at 50 percent capacity—after they’ve got through that initial phase of getting up and running again—are performing pretty close to what their numbers were in the previous year,” said Atkinson. “So, just because you’ve cut your capacity to 50 percent, doesn’t mean you cut your revenues by 50 percent. The lower-capacity restrictions seem to have been a little more limiting. I just saw some numbers from Massachusetts; they’re operating at one-third capacity and their numbers for August were about 80 percent compared with the previous year. So, again, one-third capacity doesn’t mean one-third revenue.”

 

PROMOTIONAL SPENDING

Casinos have alternatively pursued aggressive and cautious approaches to promotional spending upon re-opening, with initially differing results that have tended to even out with time. For instance, Hollywood Toledo’s promotional spending was significantly higher year-to-year in July and August. “I look at this as sort of a two-piece puzzle: They had an opportunity for potential gains when they re-opened before their competitors in Detroit,” said Atkinson. “They appear to have pursued this pretty aggressively, and that has turned the potential into actual gains and very good numbers compared with the previous year. That’s a good success story.” 

Turning to West Virginia, Atkinson analyzed spending at four of the five casinos there. Of the four, Mountaineer Park and Hollywood Charlestown quickly got back to about 80 percent of their promotional spending relative to the previous year. Hollywood Charlestown boosted promotional spend around the Fourth of July holiday to draw in more players, but they quickly returned to close to 2019 levels in promotional spending. Wheeling Island and Mardi Gras took a more cautious approach. Mardi Gras slowly approached the level of the top two promotional spenders through the end of June and into July. Wheeling Island has been the most cautious of the four; even by the end of August they were significantly below 2019 promotional spending levels. 

As for the impact this promotional spending had on slot revenues: “The casinos that were spending more at the very beginning got a good boost over the first couple of weeks after reopening,” said Atkinson. “They were actually beating their 2019 numbers in terms of slot revenue. I believe that means they were capturing the potential of all those people who were sort of chomping at the bit to get back and play their favorite games. It definitely gave them an advantage through June over casinos that were spending their promotional dollars more cautiously. As Mardi Gras’ promotional spending caught up to Mountaineer Park and Hollywood Charlestown, their revenues levels also came back together again through the middle of July and into August. Even Wheeling Island, which has been the lowest in terms of promotional spending, caught up close, but not all the way.” 

Atkinson said there are a couple of different lessons to be learned from what happened in West Virginia: “It seems like we have a couple of examples where more promotional spending leads to more revenue; but before you start throwing buckets of money at this problem, keep in mind that not all promotional spending is equal,” he cautioned. “You want to do this cleverly and efficiently and you want to get the right sorts of offers to the right kinds of players. And I believe that the right kinds of offers and the right kinds of players are different in 2020 than they were in 2019.” 

It comes down to having a good analytics team at your casino that can solve the problem of figuring out which players to target. “It’s easy to assume that you spend more on promotions and you’re going to see more gaming revenue,” said Atkinson. “It may be in some cases that casinos have set a certain reinvestment policy; we’re going to take 10 or 12 or 15 percent of revenue and put it back into promotions. So there may be cases where more revenue is creating more promotional spend. Promotional spending plays an important role in the successful reopening of a casino, but you want to think about it carefully as you craft a strategy for your own casino.”

 

INTERNET GAMING

In New Jersey, the internet was the only place to gamble starting in March and running through the end of June, and unsurprisingly, the results showed it. After all, numerous operators in New Jersey had previously made significant investments and inroads in an industry that was seven years old at the time of the shutdown of brick-and-mortar casinos. One question that arose from this online gaming success: would these customers return to the land-based casino environment post COVID restrictions?

“Do all of the people get up from their computers and go back into the casino when they have that option or have the properties attracted new online players that decide they like gambling online and they’re just going to keep doing that?” asked Atkinson. “Also, how does the strength of online gambling offerings affect the success of casino reopenings?”

While online revenues increased when all of the brick-and-mortar casinos shut down, it was not spread evenly over every online casino in the market. For example, Golden Nugget, which was already one of the top Atlantic City casinos in terms of online gaming revenues, saw a big jump—almost $8 million per month—during that period when all the casinos were closed. There are a couple of other casinos that had a higher percentage gain, Hard Rock and Tropicana for example, but the big percentage gain for them was in part because they started from a lower number at the beginning of the year compared to Golden Nugget. That reflects the fact that Golden Nugget was emphasizing building the infrastructure and making sure that online gaming was important to them before all the physical casinos shut down. 

What happened when casinos reopened? “It’s different stories in different places and the gains are not shared equally by everyone,” said Atkinson.

“Some casinos continued to enjoy an increase in online slots and table games—Borgata did particularly well in that area. And then you had the casinos that posted online gains when land-based gaming properties were closed, but didn’t really increase online business when the casinos reopened. It depends on how much focus each casino is putting on online gaming.” 

The last big question tied to online gaming is how it affected the reopening of the physical casinos—did the casinos that were doing well in online gaming reopen stronger, or is that taking some resources away from operating the physical casino?  “In trying to tease out a connection between online presence and retail success, the correlation is very slight at best,” said Atkinson. “I think this reflects what many of the online gaming companies have been saying: Online gamblers are one pool of players, people who come into the casino building are a different pool of players, and they don’t cannibalize from each other very much. Your casino could be good at one or both of those things without having a huge impact on the other.” 

Which, it could be said, should come as reassuring to states looking to advance online gaming legislation as a hedge against future disruptions to the brick-and-mortar business.