I want to play at casinos again; do they still want me? By Mark Gruetze, CDC Gaming Reports March 4, 2021 at 8:31 pm It’s been 12 months since my last casino visit, by far the longest stretch since becoming obsessed with Las Vegas and blackjack 40-some years ago. I’m eager to return as soon as I feel safe in a crowd, whether for an evening at my home casino in Pennsylvania or on an excursion to a gambling hub. But a question nags at me: How much do casinos want me back? Will they still welcome low- to mid-rollers looking for that ever-more-elusive “good gamble?” People who appreciate value in food, lodging, and entertainment, but play table games and slots for hours at a time? People who anticipate a few comped drinks and meals as part of the experience? The gambler in me wants to shout, “Yes, of course!” The realist in me has doubts. Like entertainment venues everywhere, casinos have endured mind-boggling losses from the COVID-19 pandemic. Every casino in America was closed for weeks last year, with some reopening only to shut down again as cases spiked. Commercial casino revenue in 2020 dropped by almost a third from the year before, according to the American Gaming Association. Even after reopening, casinos have had fewer visitors because of social-distancing restrictions, lack of disposable income, a general reluctance to go out, and a raft of other reasons. Hopes for a smooth return to normal activity are rising with the availability of vaccinations and increased understanding of the disease. Still, I can’t help but wonder whether the casino offerings that beckoned me for decades will be part of it. The physical buildings will be there, of course. What about their magic, their allure? While most people go to casinos to gamble, the attraction involves much more than the latest slot machine, the flip of the next card, or the rush from a good win. At their best, casinos offer an immersive experience no other entertainment can match. That is at risk. One trend scares me: Many casinos’ win-per-customer is higher now than it was pre-pandemic, even though total win remains far lower. Experts cite various reasons, including higher average bets and more hands per hour at table games because of reduced capacity. I worry that the bump in win-per-customer and a rush to cover last year’s losses will tempt casinos to act like a poker player who repeatedly bets big on gutshot straight draws after getting lucky once. That guarantees big losses long-term. Some post-pandemic casino changes are inevitable. For example, many buffets will not reopen, much to my disappointment. However, casinos that corrupt the fundamental player experience will chase away old and new customers alike. For gamblers, less is not more. Casinos must avoid reducing customer service, further tightening the games, and indiscriminately raising bet minimums. In 2019, which seems like ages ago, commercial casinos set an all-time gaming revenue record, while posting their fifth consecutive year of revenue growth. Tribal casinos also set a revenue record in fiscal 2019 and continued an even longer stretch of revenue growth. Keeping the good player experience alive will require a quick return to full staffing to provide the service customers expect. Give people more reasons to visit. Welcome them back with free play, comps, and discounts to encourage return trips. Eliminate resort and parking fees. Offer games and rules that give players a reasonable shot at winning: no 6-5 blackjack, no triple-zero roulette. Pennsylvania, the number-three state in gaming revenue in 2019, knows the wisdom of that; it continues to mandate some of the best blackjack rules in the country for all betting levels in all casinos. Make slots and video poker more appealing with better pay tables. The house still wins in the long run. Care about customers’ and employees’ health, even when COVID-19 is no longer the scourge it has been. That means banning smoking on the casino floor, just as it’s banned in workplaces, theaters, restaurants, and stadiums throughout the country, plus gaming areas in Illinois, Maryland, Ohio, and other states. Many casinos that formerly allowed smoking have banned it while mask mandates are in effect. Making those bans permanent will protect customers and staff from the well-documented dangers of secondhand smoke. After a year without live play, gamblers crave a casino visit that recaptures the thrill they’ve missed for so long. If they don’t find it, they know from experience they can enjoy life without gambling. And they will.