In ordinary times, superior meeting and function space, plus built-in high-end service, entertainment, dining, wellness and shopping options, make large-scale integrated gaming resorts a winning bet for groups. And in the pandemic, gaming resorts are parlaying these and stringent health and safety protocols to stay viable.

While at the mercy of some state directives, properties in most markets have the resources to implement and enforce safety measures and the scale to flexibly accommodate adjusted room sets and reconfigure ergonomics such as entrances and exits.

In weather-friendly casino markets like Southern California, Las Vegas and Florida, outdoor events are a ready year-round option, but perhaps the most compelling advantage is gaming’s inherent oversight and regulation layer, which is providing a ready template for rebound and recovery.

In addition to getting customers back and rekindling revenue growth, stringent gaming industry protocols are helping foster operational health and safety. In a time when managing expectations and securing customer trust and confidence is paramount, that perception alone benefits other segments in an integrated resort—meetings and events included.

From Boom to Bust—and Back Again?

In March 2020, two months and change after posting its best year ever on revenues of $43.6 billion, the U.S. commercial gaming sector was shut down by COVID-19. According to the American Gaming Association (AGA), all 989 U.S. commercial and tribal casino properties closed in an 11-day span, crashing revenues by 79% compared to the second quarter of 2019.

By the end of June, 300 casinos were back open, with nearly four times in revenue gain over April and May.By mid-September, 896 casinos were operational again. Despite limited capacities, games and amenities, the year-over-year revenue drop was down to 46%, but some markets actually improved over 2019.

Chartered to protect the public interest, ensure customer safety, enforce compliance and safeguard operational integrity, gaming commissions were prepared for the pandemic.

“The gaming industry has been a leader in implementing rigorous, innovative protocols that have allowed the vast majority of our properties to reopen and stay open,” stated AGA President and CEO Bill Miller in an August release.

[Related: Las Vegas to Increase Capacity Limits for Large Gatherings]

In all markets, protocols are developed in accordance with state officials and federal agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control. Not all outcomes are the same, however, as divergent state regulations can either amplify or diminish the advantage for gaming and meetings.

New Jersey and Pennsylvania Reap the Benefits

While not everybody was happy with the restrictive measures in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, short-term pain is turning into long-term gain.

Hard Rock Hotel & CasinoReopened over a three-week span in July, Atlantic City’s nine casinos played it smart with exacting gaming and state health and safety directives.

(Photo: Hard Rock Hotel & Casino valet entrance; Credit: Meet AC)

Resorts Atlantic City has invested more than $1 million in state-of-the art disinfecting and air purifying technologies throughout the property. The brand-wide “Safe + Sound” reopening plan at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City includes staff training by industry-leading cleaning experts Ecolab, and an independently audited 272-point inspection plan. Borgata Casino, Hotel & Spa waited to open until Melonie Johnson, the property’s new president and first Black woman to run an Atlantic City casino, was confident that it was safe to reopen.

James Plousis, chairman of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission, praised the casinos for their “critical investment” in creating “a safe environment for the return of employees and guests.”

Larry Sieg, who became Meet AC’s new president and CEO this summer, likewise acknowledges both the commission’s and the state’s handling of the crisis.

“Compared to other destinations, New Jersey clearly did something right in containing COVID-19,” he said. “Despite the tight restrictions, our casinos are doing very well as people get comfortable with going out. Small hotel meetings and sporting events are leading our recovery, and we are fortunate to have indoor dining back.”

Characterizing the post-pandemic recovery as a “rebirth,” Sieg is bullish on Atlantic City’s prospects.

“We always talk about clean and safe environments,” he said. “Now we’ve added healthy, which I think will be a mantra for the future.”

In May 2020, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board issued its COVID-19 reopening protocols. Designed to “assure an environment conducive to proper regulatory oversight,” the 10-page document’s exacting requirements include the appointment of a Pandemic Safety Officer.

Developed in accordance with Gov. Tom Wolf’s team and the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the plan has already reversed fortunes at the state’s 12 operating casinos, which returned to form this July, outperforming the same month in 2019.

Groups are also back in the game at Mount Airy Casino Resort and Valley Forge Casino Resort.

Regulations in Massachusetts and Las Vegas

The regulatory path is much narrower in Massachusetts. With the continuing state prohibition of poker, roulette and craps, MGM Springfield has yet to open its hotel. Encore Boston Harbor could easily and safely host small meetings, but designation as a large-scale venue means waiting for Phase 4.

Las Vegas Strip Red Takeover  CREDIT Las Vegas News Bureau
Photo: Las Vegas Strip Red Takeover; Credit: Las Vegas News Bureau

Las Vegas is also feeling the regulatory bite. As of October, virtually all resorts were reopened. Tourists are filtering back. Operating at 50% capacity, the casinos are seeing predominantly local and drive-in business. Following restaurants and bars reopened on September 20.

Earlier this fall, under increasing strain and economic loss, operators got behind a petition asking Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak to move gatherings to the same 50% capacity mark, as they were previously capped at 49 people. The Change.org petition, “Meetings Are Our Business,” warned of competitive loss to cities with less restrictive guidelines.

As of October 1, the governor increased the limit on gatherings in the state to 250 people or 50% of capacity, whichever is less.

[Related: MGM Resorts International Announces Major Vegas Reopenings]

The Multi-Layer Tribal Advantage

At Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun, meetings are back on with a sovereign seal of safety.

John WashkoWe recently spoke with John Washko, vice president, expo and convention sales for Mohegan Sun, who explained how gaming oversight benefits all.

(Photo: John Washko, Vice President, Expo & Convention sales, Mohegan Sun)

Jeff Heilman: Even with protocols in place, isn’t a busy casino floor antithetical to safety?

John Washko: At a time when safe spacing is priority one, having a high volume of day visitors cycling in and out may seem counter-intuitive to, say, your 350-room standalone property with 25,000 square feet of space and standard amenities. The difference, however, is the extra layer of oversight that gaming adds to our multifold health and safety plan.

Jeff: How so?

John: We were safe before COVID-19. As a tribal nation, we ordinarily have more scrutiny on every aspect of our operation. Our health and fire teams constantly walk the floor, restaurants and other spaces. We never take shortcuts.

In terms of those multifold layers of security and protection, our tribal gaming council developed, implemented and reported on our health and safety plans in conjunction with the Connecticut Board of Health and Department of Consumer Protection, and the National Indian Gaming Commission.

The collective result is complete, overarching safety, which is imperative. You cannot be 30%  safe. For meetings, you can have the adjusted room sets, socially distanced registration and plexiglass around your buffet. Without those rigorous casino floor protocols throughout the building, though, these measures are inconsequential.

Mohegan Sun
Photo: Spaced Orientation Set; Credit: Mohegan Sun

Jeff: How is Mohegan Sun resourcing these extra measures?

John: This is where gaming revenue is critical. With our layered protocols in place, our casino volumes are way up. With entertainment suspended for now, that gaming revenue stream, with an accompanying healthy overnight component, sustains other business lines while allowing us to implement and staff essential health and safety protocols.

If you are running under 20%occupancy, your sales team is going to be checking people in. And you probably won’t be able to fund UV lighting on all air handlers for cooling 5.5 million square feet of indoor space. We can do those things—including supporting meetings and events—because of gaming.

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