PROGRESS: Casinos make improvements while keeping eye on future |

PROGRESS: Casinos make improvements while keeping eye on future

Brian Duggan

Carson City casinos say it’s been a year of change for the gaming industry in Nevada. Faced with falling revenues and cutbacks in discretionary spending, local casinos are trying out new methods to attract customers.

The Casino Fandango added a fresh coat of paint while installing new slot machines, said General Manager Court Cardinal.

“We had a good year and we’re holding our own, but it wasn’t a fantastic year for anyone in gaming,” Cardinal said. “It caused the operation to make sure they were operating as efficiently as possible.”

At the Carson Nugget, new additions include Le Nougat, a French-styled bakery that opened in December, as well as expanding its steakhouse wine pairing dinners.

“What we’ve done in 2009 is take a look at where we need to be versus where we are and what we need to do to get there,” said Star Anderson, general manager of the Carson Nugget, adding no employee benefits were cut this year. Instead, they were offered a new benefit: one free meal per day.

The Nugget also installed new carpet and replaced 6,328 light bulbs with energy-saving LED lights that will ultimately save the hotel-casino about 395,000 kilowatt hours of electricity annually, equivalent to the energy required to power 43 homes for a year, reducing its annual equivalent carbon dioxide emissions by 296 tons.

Kristy Servati, marketing director at the Horseshoe Club Casino on North Carson Street, said the casino has experienced plenty of changes in 2009, including a new air filtration system, higher ceilings and refurbished bars. The casino also opened a new restaurant, Juan’s Grill.

“I’m expecting things to pick up slowly next year. I think everybody was just trying to muddle through this last year,” Servati said.

Still, 2009 brought a new reality to Carson City casinos, given state furloughs and higher unemployment.

“We’ve had to learn how to operate more efficiently and effectively,” Anderson said. “How to give the guest what they want and still be profitable, how to dangle something out there that just catches their eye.”

Mike Benjamin, president of the Pioneer Crossing casinos in Dayton and Fernley, also said 2009 forced his business to look for ways to run more efficiently. He said, for example, the casinos saved thousands of dollars just by adjusting the restrooms’ automatic dispensers to release shorter paper towels.

“When things are really good I think a business has a tendency of not counting the pennies or paying attention to some of the details,” Benjamin said. “And when the economy is tight it causes you to stop and look at those things, which only makes your business healthier.”

The downturn in gaming revenue is the continuation of a trend that started in the 1990s and worsened in the current recession, said William Eadington, professor of economics and director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Carson City’s gaming industry is more protected than casinos in Reno or Lake Tahoe because it’s not as dependent on tourism, Eadington said.

“The gaming industry is going to reach some kind of plateau and remain and stabilize,” Eadington said. “But we don’t know how much smaller it will be from the current situation.”

Steve Neighbors, vice president of the Carson Nugget, said with revenue in its current state, the gaming industry will have to look for ways to reinvest into the community.

“I think the gaming industry is going through some of the pain that other industries had to go though in the ’80s,” Neighbors said. “Gaming has been sheltered for some time.”

For the Carson Nugget, which Neighbors said has no debt burden, that means extending business into the community, such as partnering with the city to help construct a new library and business incubator downtown.

Cardinal said 2010 could be another volatile year for the industry: “I think the jury is out on that, there’s mixed reviews if there’s going to be a second wave of the housing dilemma or if we’re on the rebound.”

Looking to 2010, Pioneer Crossing’s Benjamin said, “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel and we’re pretty sure it’s not a train coming our way.”