Ryan Eller

President and CEO, Empire Resorts

The opening of Resorts World Catskills in February was the conclusion of a quest by Empire Resorts to secure a gaming license in the Catskills. While the company operates a VLT slot parlor at nearby Monticello racetrack, the company was committed to building a casino on the site of the fabled Concorde Hotel, one of the great venues during the height of the Catskills popularity in the middle of the 20th century. Ryan Eller spent the last 18 months helping to build and operate the $900 million property. He spoke with GGB Publisher Roger Gros in his offices at RWC in July.

GGB: What was the key to winning one of the four licenses that were available in the Northern Tier of New York?

Eller: Empire Resorts has sought for quite some time a casino license in the Catskills, which has a rich history in the hospitality industry. This was a key part of our strategy to bring back that industry and make this hotel an anchor for hospitality in the region, and use casino gaming as a way to do it. Ultimately, where we prevailed in this process was to adhere to the tenets of the state’s desire: economic development, job creation and community involvement. They were looking for the greatest impact on the community that a casino license would bring to the state of New York. Our proposal was one that would truly transform the industry for the area, bring a massive amount of investment and visitation, and a great deal of job creation, to a county and region in New York that really needed it. And of course, the tax revenues that were coupled with that are a boon for the state, as well.

The hotel and casino are beautiful, but the vision was much larger than that, wasn’t it?

Certainly. The entire development is envisioned as an integrated resort, one that offers experiences that are very diverse and attract a wide variety of people who are seeking a wide variety of experiences. But it’s anchored by casino gaming, which we think is a phenomenal casino product from the casual slot player to the most discerning VIP table game player.

We’ve got 1,700 acres on our resort campus. And just within phase one of our hotel plans, by the middle of next year, we’ll have three different hotels, a championship golf course, and a family water park and resort. The casino resort is already complete with all suites, at least 600 square feet each, built to five-star standards. That includes private plunge pools and a private balcony off the master bedroom. There are some truly unique options for guests to enjoy, unmatched in this area.

We provide a one-stop destination option for entertainment, recreation and fun, be it a business traveler, a tour-and-travel customer or a casino player.

You ran Resorts World New York (RWNY) at Aqueduct racetrack before coming up here. Compare the two experiences and the ownership structure.

We’re quite different up here. For one, Empire Resorts is a public company, separate from the company that owns RWNY—they are two separate, independent public companies. But the chairman of the multibillion-dollar company that owns RWNY is KT Lim, who is our primary shareholder. It gives us access to a great deal of resources, which has enabled us to make this significant investment in this region.

We are not immediately adjacent to the core population like you are with Queens in RWNY; that is truly pure gaming. Now, in the future, they could expand on that by bringing in hotels and meeting space, adding table games and more entertainment options. At RWC, we’re more remote, and as a result we need that critical mass to define this as a destination integrated resort. Therefore, this significant investment with a full casino—not just the electronic games you see at RWNY—that you would find in Las Vegas or Atlantic City is crucial to make this a success. That’s why we and our primary shareholder are so excited about this project.

How has your experience been in attracting these new customers?

In the competitive Northeast market, being able to drive this traffic to a new casino with virtually no player database, and touching the player for the very first time, is challenging for any property opening up in this market. What we’ve seen is that the people who come here absolutely enjoy their experience. We have what we consider a great portfolio of amenities to offer a great experience.

There was some disappointment in your early results. Was that because not everything was open immediately?

Yes. But now, most everything in the casino and the hotel is open. So we’re now rolling out our full marketing program. Building a great database takes time. And as a destination, we are competing for the drive-in market, and give them a great experience to develop a database that will be sustainable. Over time, we measure our success by not only how many people come to visit, but also how likely it is that they will return. We are getting greater traction coupled with the further development of this as a destination and to build a brand that people recognize and want to return to time and time again. And we are the closest luxury casino resort to Manhattan, so that provides us a competitive advantage as well.

What about sports betting here?

We are confident that the New York regulators and legislators will make the decisions to allow us to offer this at RWC. We believe the excitement it will bring and the ability to offer it as an amenity will make a big difference not only for our facility but all four upstate casinos. We’ll be making some important announcements over the next few months about partnerships and efforts to bring sports betting to our casino.

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