The biggest question facing Colorado’s casinos isn’t when they’ll reopen, It’s how customers will respond when they do.
That second part is the bigger problem and something politicians and gaming companies alike have to consider. There is talk among politicians that the state’s businesses, including casinos, might reopen in mid-to-late May, with the argument that the economy can’t stand a longer delay.
And, to be fair, there is an argument to be made. For some of the companies, we’re talking significant dollars. Century Casinos estimated that if they didn’t shut down, the company’s Colorado operations would have generated “9 to 11 percent of the company’s 2020 net operating revenue.” Even for a company with a multi-national portfolio, losing even 2 percent of that will sting.
Then there are the towns like Black Hawk, Cripple Creek, and Central City which are built around the casinos. Already we’ve seen businesses in some of these towns shutting down, as they couldn’t afford to stay open without the casino. It’s just a fact that keeping the casinos closed also shuts down the main driver for the economy in these areas.
But it’s not enough to just open the doors and tell people to come back. You can’t force people to start back up like nothing happened and promising to constantly sanitize the place isn’t enough. Tourism doesn’t work that way. And if the state’s casinos try to relaunch without any adjustments, they could prolong the return to normalcy.
Tourists Need Confidence
Everybody wants to feel safe and secure on vacation. Nobody plans a trip to a place with a high death rate and nobody wants to be the first one to venture out right after a pandemic.
According to an April 14 Gallup poll, only 20 percent of Americans say they would go on vacation right now. A total of 71 percent want to see what happens with the virus and the final 9 percent would wait indefinitely. That causes a few problems. Before the virus hit, the casino experience sold itself. Now you’ll have to convince 80 percent of would-be customers that it’s safe to return to Colorado’s casinos and out of that number, 10 percent might never return.
Those numbers have to be taken into account, experts say, and Colorado’s casinos will have to make some adjustments.
“Anyone who asks if the casinos will be able to just reopen, I don’t see where that’s going to be possible,” said gaming industry expert Dr. Richard McGowan. The Boston College professor has written three books on the industry and said any customers will want some reassurance before they come back.
“The very thing casinos do, packing people in together to play games, that’s what will be difficult,” McGowan said. “People will want more separation. Until people feel comfortable again being close to each other, the typical way a casino is setup just isn’t going to work.”
Colorado’s Casinos Need Changes
It’s hard to be comfortable when you see a virus death toll approaching 500 in Colorado. So if casinos are determined to reopen soon, McGowan says, they’ll need to make changes. What does that mean? Well to begin, casinos will need fewer games on the floor.
“Slot machines will have to be way more separated than they are now,” McGowan said. “Some of the table games like roulette or craps, I don’t know how you run them right now. How are you going to have a blackjack table with people standing six feet apart?”
Basically, McGowan said, it will mean a completely redone casino layout. And that goes beyond just the games. This virus will likely force Colorado casinos to make two changes many gambling operations across the country are also considering. The first is to grow their online presence in order to attract younger gamers. The second is to expand entertainment options.
As betting shifts primarily to online platforms, casinos have to offer something extra in order to bring in customers. Penn National Gaming said in January their average casino customer is in their 50’s. Instead, you need to draw families. That means more entertainment, more options, more of a full vacation experience. But at the same time, they have to provide space so customers don’t feel crowded.
“They have to entice people to come in and at the same time, not pack themselves in, which is what casinos have traditionally lived off of,” McGowan said. “They’re going to have to come up with a different way of entertaining people. They will need to offer more of a vacation, with a swimming pool available or something like that. The gambling part would still be there, but especially right now, you can’t expect people to spend as much time on the floor.”