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How Casinos Are Coping With COVID

By Dennis Nessler | September 17, 2020

Casino hotel executives emphasized guest safety above all else when discussing how their properties have proceeded with operations and reopened in the wake of the current pandemic.

The executives shared their strategies during an educational session “How Casino Hotels Are Coping With COVID,” which was part of the BITAC Casino Resorts Connect Virtual 2020 event earlier this week.

Chris O’Connell, vp, hotel operations, Foxwoods Resort Casino, noted, “We have been very methodical in terms of our reopening plans, really analyzing new guest habits and wants and needs,” he said.

He further noted the company recently started opening one of its largest towers from Thursdays to Sundays to accommodate higher demand on weekends.

“There is really no playbook for what we’re dealing with right now; we’re learning as we go. Being a property that is approximately 9 million square feet we’re trying to figure out how do we reopen this building coming out of this. Our number one priority has always been the safety and security of team members and our guests,” he noted.

Michael Bonakdar, general manager, North Star Mohican Casino Resort in Bowler, WI—which reopened in late May—touted the importance of safety as well.

“We feel like we’re one of the safest in this area for sure, and that by itself has helped us gain more momentum within the market. It’s not just about the revenue at this point, we certainly understand that safety is number one,” he commented.

Linda Gandel, corporate executive director of procurement, Twin River Worldwide– which owns and manages roughly a dozen casinos—talked about some of the changes that the pandemic has created in terms of procuring product.

“Watching the supply chain has been a challenge. There have been constant changes to what the DOH [Department Of Health] is requiring, whether it’s wipes or sanitizers, even to the plexiglass requirements and the tables. We’re making sure various state DOH’s approve of the way they’re installed and what the process is. It hasn’t been a one solution for all of our properties, it’s been various solutions depending on state,” she noted.

Dave Garvey, vp, food & beverage, Grand Casino Hinckley in Minnesota—which reopened up in June—noted with only two of its five dining venues currently open the focus has shifted a bit.

“People are reluctant to enjoy themselves, especially eat in the restaurants, so our ‘Grab and Go’ and ‘To Go’ has taken off tremendously. We’re going to continue to make that offer for them, where they can pick up food and take it up to their rooms,” he commented.

The panelists, meanwhile, generally downplayed the impact of some of the necessary safety precautions on the overall gaming experience for guests.

“I think guests and people are adaptable. I think they’ve learned how to enjoy themselves at a table with plexiglass between them. Table gaming is social and that may be the strangest part of it. It’s not as social as it may have been, but I still think people find their way around that and are still able to enjoy the game,” said O’Connell.

Bonakdar agreed pointing out the company has added plexiglass to the slots and table games and is actively looking for additional areas to add it.

“At this point in time plexiglass is definitely something that you can’t go without, but surprisingly at our casino people adapted fairly quickly. It perhaps looks a little more difficult, and more uncomfortable, but at the same time we’re not getting lot of complaints. I think people are coming and playing without any issues,” he said, acknowledging there can be some “minor sound issues” but those can be worked around through hand signals.

Bonakdar did, however, acknowledge that the issues surrounding night life and entertainment at the casinos are anything but minor, particularly when it comes to the property’s event center.

“It’s very disappointing that we can’t do anything right now. There were a lot of large acts we had to reschedule. We are looking at smaller acts as we go forward, more emcees on the casino floor. We started that way without the larger shows just having people that can entertain people on the casino floor and have a nice promotional experience and spin to it,” he said.

Bonakdar added of larger events, “it will take a little more time for us, probably going into 2021 before anything like that happens.”

O’Connell added the company is looking at hosting smaller events like concerts and comedians in October reducing capacity from 4,000 to 1,100 seats. “We’re dipping our toe, we’re being very careful in these types of amenities we’re offering and we’ll see how it goes. We always have a good plan in place and we’ll make sure guests continue to be safe but are able to enjoy different things,” he said.

Garvey, meanwhile, elaborated on how the food & beverage experience has changed noting some positive economic trends despite the reduced seating capacity for social distancing.

“Our check average is up, I think people are spending a little more. They’re willing to buy a better meal,” he said, adding that the company’s capture rate of guests staying at the hotel has actually improved as well.

Garvey also referenced a more simplified approach.

“We’ve also taken advantage of shrinking our menus. We wanted to do that over the course of time and now the guests are more receptive. They’re okay with the offerings versus pre-COVID where they wanted everything under the sun and we tried to deliver,” he noted.

Gandel elaborated on capital expenditures for its portfolio and the increased focus on equipment “more in sanitation realm” and the overall economic impact.

“We’re focused on buying more of different items and we’re looking at things like UV technology for housekeeping…The UV technology has quite a price tag on it. When you’re looking at outfitting a couple of 500-room hotels with UV technology that’s a huge expense,” she said.

Gandel further added, “it’s a shift [of focus], the capital projects we were working on we’re still working on that but they’re not in the forefront.”



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