So it appears that the phrase “pent-up demand” has superseded the phrase “new normal” when it comes to evaluating the current state of the casino industry. I know we’re all sick of the new-normal phrase. Pent-up almost sounds like constipation, but the good kind—if there’s anything like that.
Yes, we all yearned for the reopening and thought the closures went on too long—at least, I did. As a resident of Nevada, which had relatively low Covid-19 numbers compared to other states, I thought Governor Steve Sisolak delayed too long. Remember, gaming tax revenues account for a full 40 percent of the Nevada state budget, with tourism and other tax revenues related to gaming taking up at least another 20 percent. And with more than 300,000 people out of work, which gave Nevada the highest unemployment rate for any state in history—by far—it was frustrating to see gaming people and companies suffer so badly.
And when Arizona reopened a full two weeks before Nevada to packed (within Covid parameters) casinos—all citing “pent-up demand”—it was even more frustrating, and advanced to aggravating.
Around the nation, the story was the same. Customers who had been confined to their houses for more than two months had one thing in mind—let loose and gamble for a while.
Now, this was a surprise to most observers. First, they thought people would be timid and fearful about coming out of the lockdown and gathering around other people. Well, that proved to be wrong. People have missed the camaraderie of gambling and hanging out on the casino floor.
They also expected that because many people took a financial hit, whether it was getting furloughed from their jobs, seeing their 401Ks shrink, or some other fiscal calamity, their desire to return to gambling would be tempered. Again, not necessarily true. A study by Synergy Blue, the innovative arcade-game slot maker, revealed that not much would change in the budget of the gambler, and that’s pretty much turned out to be true. The extra $1,200 that every American got in their pockets wasn’t covered in the survey, but the spend so far seemed to be quite healthy.
Of course, every casino opened with similar procedures in place. They all included a combination of temperature checks, testing for employees, social distancing, capacity limits, Plexiglas dividers, cleanliness patrols, face mask stipulations and more.
Virtually all casino employees were required to wear face masks, which were strongly recommended for casino customers in most jurisdictions, but mandatory in others. Disagreements about how effective they were abounded, particularly when some patrons showed up with old western bandanas covering the bottom part of their faces, but not sealed up. Talk about a nightmare for surveillance.
I strolled through the Bellagio the first day it was open and the casino floor looked like a foreign land. The Plexiglas shields encompassed every blackjack table and bartop slot. Every other slot machine was turned off—a terrible look, by the way. A full craps table meant six players, three on each side.
The conservatory at Bellagio was open and spectacular as usual. But you had to line up and wait until people came out so you could maintain the 6-foot distance.
The lobby bar still included the piano player, but it will be a while before any of the great shows, conventions or public events return to Bellagio.
Those face masks turned into an issue when probably only a quarter of the customers wore them, even though there are boxes of them at the entrances to the casino. In the ensuing days, there was a debate over whether face masks should be required for all who enter the casino, but the gaming board decided to leave it alone.
What did I see during this day 1 of freedom? People having fun, which has been a scarce commodity over the last few months. I saw people who aren’t living in fear, who just want to get on with their lives, which includes enjoying gambling and all that goes with it. And frankly, this surprises me. I’ve had several conversations over the past year about how the fun seemed to have gone out of casino gaming. This experience seemed to reject that contention.
No, we don’t know everything about how casinos will respond after reopening, but providing a place where people can find an escape and have some fun to satisfy their “pent-up demand” isn’t such a bad thing for our business.