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Casino prompts innovative thinking

Susan Wood

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE – Since last June, the emergence of Thunder Valley Casino in Lincoln, Calif., has created a firestorm of reaction from Placer County to Northern Nevada.

Lake Tahoe and Reno casino and business executives are watching the United Auburn Indian Community gaming establishment run by Station Casinos of Las Vegas. Some executives fear gambling customers will be intercepted on their drive east off Interstate 80.

Some estimates of business siphoned off the North Shore and Reno are one-quarter of Northern Nevada profits.

“I think it’s already impacted the amount of discretionary income they bring up here,” said Tahoe Douglas Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kathy Farrell. “Marketing the scenic value of where we live has never been more important. As they say, you can game anywhere.”

The threat became closer to reality when an advertising campaign by the casino took aim at one of Lake Tahoe’s vulnerabilities: access to gaming without having to put on snow chains.

“Of course they’re going after our customer. They’re a proven gambler,” Farrell said, adding she thinks the campaign “is extremely clever.”

Bay area visitors shy away from driving in the snow. Some, according to South Lake Tahoe Mayor Tom Davis, don’t even know about chain installers.

“It’s easy to use Indian casinos as an excuse for an inability for Reno and neighboring casinos to reinvent themselves. But I do think they have made an attempt to reinvent themselves,” tribal spokesman Doug Elmets said.

Many casinos have come up with programs for guests wanting more than a slot machine or blackjack table.

For example, Caesars Tahoe’s Gateway program is an activities concierge of sorts, which takes visitors on adventures during the day with the hopes of bringing them back for other, evening activities.

Beyond beefing up its marketing efforts in the Sacramento region, Harrah’s Lake Tahoe has focused on performance acts. It’s committed to returning big-name acts to the Harveys back lot for its summer outdoor concert series. While this year’s series bands have not been announced, last year’s lineup included Melissa Etheridge and ZZ Top.

Harrah’s South Shore Room will bring Seal, Dave Mason and Johnny Winter to town.

Thunder Valley had Ronnie Milsap Sunday night.

Harrah’s and Harveys Lake Tahoe General Manager Don Marrandino stressed there comes a time when a business “can’t worry about what others are doing and (must) reinvent themselves.”

Along those lines, Harrah’s expects to have 90 percent coinless slots by summer.

Marrandino is counting on strength in numbers to bring people to South Lake Tahoe, with cooperation coming from the city, ski resorts and other recreation outlets.

Of the Indian casinos, Marrandino said, “Do I wish they were there? Heck no. It’s definitely impacted the visitation, but we’re trying to do things to promote ourselves as a destination.” He worked for Station Casinos from 1995 to 2001.

This reaction to the competition is precisely what American Gaming Association Chief Executive Officer Frank Fahrenkoff recommends.

“What they’ve got to do is come up with the marketing means to combine the lake with gaming,” he said.

The casinos at the lake may have an easier time of it than Reno, but those casinos aren’t out of the game. The Biggest Little City recently underwent a major move to attract the recreation traveler when it installed a whitewater kayak course on the Truckee River through downtown.

The gaming authority believes Northern Nevada casinos should take the “no chains required” campaign with a grain of salt.

“It’s a lot easier to put together a ski package (with gambling),” Fahrenkoff said. “People are going to come up to ski. They don’t care about chains. It’s a little harder for Carson City and Reno (to market).”

Placer County charities and businesses are hailing Thunder Valley.

The tribe recently announced plans to give $1 million a year to nonprofit groups in Placer County. Decisions as to who will get the money may come as early as May.

Meanwhile, Auburn Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Bruce Cosgrove said businesses have reacted positively to Thunder Valley.

“Overall, the general opinion is that Thunder Valley coming into the region has been good for business,” he said.

Cosgrove has heard the business community likes the idea the casino draws from such a wide geographic area. In particular, gas stations and motels have experienced a trickle-down benefit.

The chamber executive added he believes the effect on the traffic headed to the North Shore and Reno has been limited.

Contact Susan Wood at (530) 542-8009 or swood@tahoedailytribune.com.