In the gaming industry, life won’t be going back to the way it was anytime soon.
Two recent announcements make it clear just how different casinos will be post-shutdown. First, the announcement that Golden Entertainment was not planning to reopen the Colorado Belle Casino in Laughlin, Nevada, is a reminder that reopening casinos is not as simple as flipping a switch. With all of the constraints placed on operations – and the reduced demand for travel and casino gaming that seems to be in the immediate future – we likely will be seeing more casinos remaining closed.
Golden Entertainment, which has two other properties in Laughlin, the Edgewater and Aquarius, anticipates “reduced business levels which will last for an unknown period of time,” and is, therefore, reopening with a smaller footprint.
Fewer guests aren’t much comfort to the 400 employees who worked at the Colorado Belle, but it is hard to argue against Golden’s logic in keeping the Belle closed. And other companies that own multiple properties in one market likely will make similar decisions. The casino landscape later this year will be profoundly different from what it was in March, with many properties possibly remaining closed.
The other news is happier. MGM Resorts International made it known that, when it reopens its casinos, self-parking on its Las Vegas Strip resorts will, once again, be free. Paid parking in Las Vegas has a hotly contested history.
MGM moved the Strip to a paid parking model in 2016 when it instituted parking charges at all of its Strip properties except Circus Circus. Caesars Entertainment Corp., Wynn Resorts Ltd. and The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas hopped aboard the paid parking bandwagon. The Las Vegas Sands Corp. (owners of The Venetian and The Palazzo), Tropicana Las Vegas, Treasure Island, as well as Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino, held their ground and parking remained free.
Paid parking on the Strip proved to be monumentally unpopular. Time-consuming and disruptive to the “resort experience,” it was widely viewed as a cash grab, the latest in a series of nickel-and-dime moves that had steadily eroded the value of a Las Vegas vacation. Some of these, like resort fees, predated the recession, but, in general, the period after the recession saw value – or at least the perception of value – on the Strip diminish.
It didn’t take long for casino executives to realize that paying for parking was, for many of their most loyal customers, a deal-breaker. In July 2018, Wynn Resorts abandoned paid parking, first offering free parking for those who spent $50 anywhere in the resort, then removing the gates and eliminating the fees entirely.
MGM’s reversal on paid parking is a watershed moment and a glimpse into what post-shutdown Las Vegas might look like. Though there will be fewer visitors to Las Vegas, we can expect, at least in part, a premium placed on value. Some elements of the customer experience, like the requisite social distancing and mask-wearing, will be outside the control of casino executives. But charging for parking is not, and announcing now that parking will once more be free is one way of communicating that guests can expect to return to a Las Vegas that listens.
If Las Vegas casinos truly wanted to broadcast a new commitment to value, they would consider eliminating resort fees, the other widely despised add-on charge. Resort fees won’t be easy to banish for a variety of reasons – most importantly, how search results are returned on third-party booking sites. But working together to find a way to reestablish a more transparent pricing model industry-wide would generate tremendous goodwill.
The bigger question that everyone seems to be asking is, “How long until we get back to ‘normal’?” These two announcements, which hit the wires without hours of each other, are a reminder that nothing in our near future will be normal.
It’s not a bad question to ask because most of us right now would very much like to return to normal, with jobs, travel, and after two months in shutdown mode, normal, even with paid parking, sounds pretty good.
But the reality is that we all have suffered a loss since the shutdown began. For some, it has been the loss of loved ones, for others, the loss of a job. And our first instinct is to say, “We can fight through this and get back to normal. Things are going to be OK again.”
It’s hard to face the truth that, just like when someone close to you is lost, there is no going back to the way things were before. Yes, you can laugh again and find fulfillment in life, but it’s dishonest to say that you returned to normal. Your life changed, and you went on. It wasn’t about finding your way back to normal. It was about wanting to get out of bed again.
With the American gaming industry more or less closed for two months, as of this writing, it’s obvious that no one working in the business today has faced a crisis like this. Casinos will reopen with significantly different operating procedures. With unemployment higher than it has been in recent memory and the likelihood of continuing restrictions on congregating, to say that the future is uncertain would be an understatement.
By asking when things will be back to normal, and even attempting to set a target date, we are setting ourselves up for frustration. Some casinos won’t be reopening anytime soon. Others will be reopening without buffets or live poker. Some changes will make us smile, like free parking. Others will not. And it won’t be easy on anyone.
We find ourselves in a strange, uncertain world, and that is scary. But there is something positive to come out of all this, a source of strength we can share. That is the fact that, as bad as things are, we can be comforted by knowing that none of us is alone. We all can understand the burdens each of us is struggling to bear.
That’s why, even though we won’t be going back to normal, we might not end up in a bad place. Even if we do, we’ll be there together. And, if worse comes to worst, at least the parking should be free.