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John Koster

Regional President, Caesars Entertainment

John Koster

The Eastern market, particularly Atlantic City, has been a tough one for Caesars Entertainment. Prior to its purchase by Eldorado Resorts two years ago, Caesars had not reinvested in its resorts in the city—Caesars Atlantic City, Harrah’s Resort and the Tropicana—for some time, resulting in lower revenues and fleeing customers. John Koster was appointed president of the region just over a year ago and has overseen a renewed investment in the city. He spoke with GGB Publisher Roger Gros in a suite at Caesars Atlantic City in August. (See video below for complete interview, or listen to the podcast above.)

GGB: When Eldorado bought Caesars Entertainment, they promised regulators it would spend $400 million to upgrade the three Atlantic City properties. How much of that has been completed?

John Koster: When we talked last year, it was a lot of talk from the company and myself but now the rubber has truly hit the road. We have seen a lot of progress. We just opened up Bobby’s Burgers the other day over at Harrah’s. It was a pleasure meeting Bobby Flay, and who knows? There might be future opportunities with him.

Hell’s Kitchen will open up to the general public on September 21. It’s a bilevel, 235 seats, and it is absolutely beautiful. In about a month we’ll be opening up the 185-seat Nobu restaurant. That is coming along beautifully. I’ve dined at the Las Vegas location several times and I must say that Caesars Palace does not have the view that Caesars Atlantic City is going to have of the Boardwalk and the Atlantic Ocean. It’s just fabulous.

We just talked to our partner on the Nobu hotel suites, and we’ve made some minor adjustments there, but that project’s going to begin very shortly. So we’ll have 83 rooms and suites in our Centurion tower on the top floors. And that will round out Caesars, and I think we’ll soon see that we don’t have enough Nobu hotel suites. That will be a future expansion project for sure.

We’ve also opened several more restaurants and outlets at Harrah’s and the Trop, and still have a few to go that will open before next summer.

What else is left?

We haven’t quite finalized the entertainment component. We’re still working with Spiegelworld, the company responsible for Absinthe and the Atomic Saloon shows at Caesars Palace, but Gary Selesner, who is helping us with all of our entertainment and higher-end restaurant concepts and used to be the regional president for the Western properties, will be out here soon, so that deal should be signed very shortly. And once it is, it will be all systems go, and then we will be hoping to get that project open by next July. That will be a unique show here in Atlantic City. And there will be a unique Italian restaurant concept included in that development.

There are lots of celebrity chefs in the Caesars properties in AC, at the same time the Borgata seems to be headed in a different direction. What is the strategy behind a celebrity chef restaurant?

We’ve had very successful relationships with our most recent celebrity chef arrangements. Hell’s Kitchen is on fire, to use a really bad pun, in Tahoe and Rincon—you can’t get in.

The Chef Nobu cache is very, very powerful. He has two restaurants in New York City and then with us having the first Nobu hotel and suites here on the East Coast, that will be very powerful. And added to Gordon, we all know how he does in terms of the celebrity. And then we’ve got Bobby and Guy Fieri. They all carry a lot of national branding all by themselves.

Are buffets dead in Atlantic City?

Caesars Palace has the Bacchanal. That’s the model. But it’s Vegas, right?—45 million people a year walking by with no seasonality.

We’ve had to right-size the whole company, so in terms of buffets there is a direction that the company is going to continue to follow. In Atlantic City, having a variety of quick-service, medium to high-end caliber outlets matched what our customer demographics are. If there’s a better model, we’ll find it.

You have the biggest sportsbook in town at the Wild Wild West. Is it sometimes hard to figure out how to utilize all that space?

I think with our mobile Caesars sportsbook, we’ve got 1.5 million people signed up, which is a massive growth with a huge amount from the New York City area. So we are beginning to see the cross-pollination of the digital and sports customer into brick-and-mortar. Was it too big a footprint to begin with? Probably. But is it going to be something that we can grow into Wild Wild West? I would say yes. Especially now that it’s football season.

Tropicana, by the way, has got a perfectly sized sportsbook. It’s surrounded nicely by gaming. That really is a great model, by the way. Our president and COO, Anthony Carano, came up with that model. The Harrah’s one is nice. It’s a little bit smaller. So you’ve got the three different sizes, if you will.

So with all these great changes at the Caesars Atlantic City properties, how are you going to inform the public?

By the time we get to next summer, everything should be done and open, so stay tuned. We want to make sure that people are aware of what we’ve got here. We really do need to relaunch Caesars in Atlantic City.

I must say our air program is continuing to flourish here in Atlantic City. We’re bringing people in from 49 locations around the country. That’s worked very successfully, bringing them right into the Atlantic City airport. We have the biggest air program here in Atlantic City, and that’s going to continue to grow.

Roger Gros is publisher of Global Gaming Business, the industry's leading gaming trade publication, and all its related publications. Prior to joining Global Gaming Business, Gros was president of Inlet Communications, an independent consulting firm. He was vice president of Casino Journal Publishing Group from 1984-2000, and held virtually every editorial title during his tenure. Gros was editor of Casino Journal, the National Gaming Summary and the Atlantic City Insider, and was the founding editor of Casino Player magazine. He was a co-founder of the American Gaming Summit and the Southern Gaming Summit conferences and trade shows. He is the author of the best-selling book, How to Win at Casino Gambling (Carlton Books, 1995), now in its fourth edition. Gros was named "Businessman of the Year" for 1998 by the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce, and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Gaming Association in 2012.