Nevada casinos anxious to see whether winter will divert visitors

Region likely to lose many day-trippers to California tribal resorts

Oregonians Dale and Lois Lamkin, who have vacationed in the Reno area for three decades, understand how snow can bite into casino fortunes.

It’s kept them away in the past.

Now, the coming winter bares a second fang: the new Thunder Valley Casino outside Sacramento, offering a gambling alternative when the Lamkins and thousands like them see storm clouds over the Sierra.

Dale Lamkin, 70, insists he and his wife would forge on – with one catch.

“Keep the special events coming. The key to your success is activities,” he said as the Tillamook couple soaked up last weekend’s Street Vibrations event in Reno.

Nervous casino operators say that’s the secret to survival. Still, the prospect of snow-scared tourists veering off Interstate 80 into Thunder Valley and other tribal-owned casinos only sharpens their collective angst.

“I’m very high anxiety,” said Jack Fisher, general manager at Boomtown in Verdi west of Reno. “It’s going to be a tough seven, eight months of a road to hoe. I’m not looking forward to winter, but we’ll battle it.”

Northern Nevada casino operators acknowledge they’ll lose so-called “day-trippers” looking only to gamble for a few hours with no loyalty to any one property.

“There’s no reason to drive four or five hours to pull a handle anymore,” said Chuck Bluth, owner of the Cal Neva Resort on the north shore of Lake Tahoe.

But the battle is on to lure those seeking a broader experience beyond the casino floor. Many properties say they’re advertising more aggressively in anticipation of the winter ahead.

“We have our work cut out for us,” said Gary Carano, general manager of the Silver Legacy Resort Casino in downtown Reno. “The $64 question was what would happen with the opening of Thunder Valley. Now the $64 question is what will happen when the snow flies.

Do we think it’s another hit? We expect that will happen this winter. But the hit we’ve taken so far is not as bad as everyone predicted.”

‘People will still come’

Even so, the early returns aren’t encouraging. Washoe County casinos’ gross revenue fell 5.6 percent in July, the first full month of operation for Thunder Valley.

Observers say it shows the casino, with 1,906 slot machines and 100 card tables, and others in Northern California are diverting business away from Nevada.

That trend only will accelerate this winter, believes Ken Adams, a Reno gaming analyst.

“When it snowed in the past, it only meant a pent-up demand,” Adams said. “Now it appears … we’ve lost that dollar forever. You can literally be on your way to Nevada and say, ‘Let’s just go to Thunder Valley.’ ”

Even so, Silver State operators say, those gamblers won’t get the full experience Northern Nevada offers with dining, outdoor activities, such entertainment as downtown concerts and – Carano insists – more generous slots and tables.

“We hope the day-trippers will come back after they get their heads bashed in from those tight casinos,” he said. “They won’t win the money they’ll win in Reno.”

Others are positioning themselves based on their strengths, and some even downplay the gambling aspect.

“It’s a matter of a better product,” said Barney Ng, owner of the Siena Hotel Spa & Casino in downtown Reno. “Our product is seen as better – a boutique hotel for business clients, with our spa and food and beverage.

“What we’re seeing is those people will still come. Gaming is something that takes time to establish.”

At North Lake Tahoe, the Cal Neva Resort also trumpets its amenities.

“I refocused eight years ago, I cut gaming back,” Bluth said. “I don’t anticipate being impacted. We don’t go after the traditional casino business anymore.”

On the south shore, Harrah’s Lake Tahoe and sister property Harveys Resort Casino are banking on a vast corporate database of patrons and the Total Rewards program based on casino play, with prizes ranging from free meals to free vacations, to bolster business.

“It’s the backbone of our marketing efforts,” said General Manager Joe Hasson. “We plan to take advantage of all that in the same manner we always have.”

At the Golden Phoenix Hotel Casino and Resort, the newest major property in downtown Reno, officials believe the sheer layout of their gaming floor will make a difference.

“You can see everything,” said General Manager Barry Joannides. “At typical casinos, you have nooks and crannies and you lose people.

“We can consolidate and operate … with fewer employees … more efficiently in winter.”

Winter conventions ‘a concern’

Properties that profit from Reno-Sparks’ special events-heavy summer months are banking on a strong convention schedule to help pull them through the cold season ahead.

“We had some good special events, and we’re hoping it helps carry us forward,” said Beth Cooney, executive director of marketing at John Ascuaga’s Nugget in Sparks.

Conventions are crucial at the Atlantis Casino Resort in south Reno, across the street from the Reno-Sparks Convention Center.

“This winter depends very much on how many conventions we have,” said John Farahi, CEO of the Atlantis’ parent company, Monarch Casino & Resort Inc. “That’s why it’s so imperative that we book business here. We have become more aggressive in filling rooms.”

But winter is not typically a strong convention period, said Deanna Ashby, executive director of marketing at the Reno-Sparks Convention & Business Authority.

“Winter is obviously a concern,” she said. “We’re looking for every piece of business we can.”

So far, said Rob Enriquez, RSCVA executive director of sales, the RSCVA and hotel community expect an increase of more than 100,000 room nights for the coming winter compared with last year. A room night is one room occupied for one night.

Make it more than gaming

The key to survival against Indian casinos is offering tourists more options to come to Nevada, said Ferenc Szony, CEO of The Sands Regent, owner of the Sands Regency in downtown Reno.

“We can’t use gaming as a reason to come here,” Szony said. “If someone simply wants to get away to play, we’ll lose them even when it’s not snowing. We have to keep our properties fresh.”

The Lamkins say they don’t come to Reno just to gamble. They believe the area’s attractions away from the casinos are just as big of a draw.

“I don’t care what these Indian casinos do. They’re not Reno,” said Lois Lamkin. “There’s no other place like it. The convenience, you don’t need a bus to get around.”

Play up the activities, Dale Lamkin said. Sure, the summer months are loaded with special events, but there’s tourism gold to be mined in the winter, too.

“Can’t you have some kind of national figure skating championships here?” he asked.

Look for the tribal casinos to take notes on how Nevada responds, others warn, portending even tougher competition ahead.

“Two and a half years ago, Indian casinos were a nice place to gamble, but they weren’t the same as Nevada casinos,” said Bill Henderson, sales and marketing director at the Carson Valley Inn in Minden. “Now, the slots are the same, the signage the same, the sounds are the same. The whole feel, it’s like being in one of our casinos.

“Now we look at everything and say it’s no longer OK to say it’s always worked in the past. It keeps the creative juices flowing, and that’s what this business is all about.”

Much depends on California’s uncertain economy, Adams said, and how the state resolves its $38 billion budget deficit and a first-ever gubernatorial recall election.

“This winter is more worrisome to me than any we’ve faced,” he said. “At least we’ll know the reality of Thunder Valley. We’ll probably begin to see it with the first snowfall.”

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