Biloxi — In 12 years the Southern Gaming Summit has grown from a local trade show to a regional conference with 50% of those attending coming from outside Mississippi. The Gulf Coast Gaming Association and Ascend Media Gaming Group sponsor the annual event.
Advance registration for this year’s event was 20% more than last year’s summit, and expo space sold out for the third straight year, according to Stephen Gibbs, marketing director for Ascend Media.
“It’s a large economic impact on this community,” he said. “The show is maxed out in the current location. The coliseum expansion will help grow the show and help the economy.”
The summit organizers gave up meeting rooms to have more trade show space for vendors. Gibbs predicts the show will grow 25% larger when the coliseum expansion is complete. He also thinks the merger of the state’s two gaming associations, bringing together members from all over the state, will strengthen the summit.
He says people are coming from all over to attend because the show is more casual and laid back than gaming shows in other locations. “This one is set apart because it’s fun. People enjoy it,” he said. “There’s something to Southern hospitality and you can’t play down the resort location. It’s a combination of things.”
More than 80 top-level executives from the gaming industry and slot machine manufacturers were featured as speakers and panelists in the conference’s 15 seminars that covered a wide range of topics.
Ben Nighthorse Campbell, former U.S. senator and representative and a chief of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, was the opening day keynote speaker. He co-authored the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and introduced legislation to authorize the creation of the National Museum of the American Indian.
Campbell said that gaming is not a new thing in Indian culture, and that the gaming regulatory act restored the right for tribes to game. He said gaming has improved the lives of many Indians and there is the misconception that all tribes have casinos and are getting rich.
“There are some rich tribes, but most are not,” he said. “Indian gaming is helping everyone.”
He said Mississippi’s Choctaw Indians under Chief Phillip Martin have set the model that other tribes try to follow. He praised the Choctaws for diversifying and forming business partnerships.
“Indian tribes everywhere are taking care of their elderly, sending young people to college, preserving their culture and making many contributions to charities,” he said.
Don H. Barden was the keynote speaker on the second day of the summit. He is owner of a Detroit-based international conglomerate that includes Fitzgerald’s Casino in Tunica and three other casinos. Recognized as one of the top black entrepreneurs in the U.S., Barden is the country’s first African American to wholly own a national casino company.
“This summit is a winner because it reflects the vitality of the industry,” he said. “The gaming jurisdictions that are business friendly — Mississippi, New Jersey and Nevada — are huge winners because taxes are not going up when some legislator wants to fill a budget hole.”
He said private reinvestment is vital, and the public-private partnership provides results that mean more jobs and funds for services. Mississippi with its free marketplace operation is an example to other states, he feels.
Noting the consolidation of gaming companies into large corporations, he said, “Companies like myself will be going after new jurisdictions and expanding our existing base of operations, such as in Mississippi, Indiana and other places where we are welcome.”
Asked if he is considering the Coast, Barden answered, “Yes. In fact, I’m going this afternoon to look around.”
Domenic Mezzetta, senior vice president and general manager of Fitzgerald’s Casino in Tunica, said he always attends the gaming summit and brings some of the casino’s 1,100 employees. “It’s an opportunity to see the latest technology and network with my peers in the industry,” he said.
On the trade show floor, vendors, manufacturers and other groups were set up to attract interest from attendees. New slot machines were popular items. The Apprentice, featuring Donald Trump, is a new model, complete with audio of Trump’s famous words, “You’re fired.”
Several new penny slots, including Hot Hot Penny, Fort Knox and Party Time, were on display, reflecting the growing popularity of the smallest coin denomination machines.
Jeff Prusinowski, vice president of gaming operations at Treasure Bay Casino, said approximately 250 games out of 1,000 games at the Biloxi-based casino are penny or multi-denomination bet games. He said a penny doesn’t necessarily represent a penny in the gaming world but a new level of gaming flexibility.
“It has to do with the ability of guests to pick their own comfort level,” he said. “They can select the range of what they want to play on every spin, allowing them to parlay their wager.”
Prusinowski said guests can stay conservative with the number of lines and coins they wager or can go up and down in denomination of a wager with the multi-denomination games.
“Manufacturers see this as the future in slots, and that’s where they are spending their money in research and development,” he added.
Anthony Thrash, a Boomtown Casino employee, comes to the show every year to check out the new slot machines. “I like to look at the new machines and test them to be able to tell our customers about them,” he said.
At Tulane University’s booth, Alan Silver, who directs the school’s gaming management program, said the school is entering an agreement with Pearl River Resort to offer gaming management classes at the Choctaw’s casinos near Philadelphia. Tulane will use the tribe’s state-of-the-art training center to teach the classes.
“We will start out with two live courses and will add Internet classes in the future,” he said. “Education is important to Chief Martin and this will add to the training they already have there.”
Silver said Tulane is also developing a relationship with East Central Community College to offer some basic education classes that can be transferred to Tulane. “The goal is to have students come out with a degree from Tulane University,” he said.
Carolyn Butler, human resources director of Horizon Casino in Vicksburg, attended the gaming summit for the first time. “It’s very informative and meeting my expectations,” she said. “I’m meeting vendors and learning a lot.”
Representatives of Libra Securities of Los Angeles, who were recently involved with raising funds for the Silver Slipper Casino that plans to open later this year in Hancock County, have had a booth for three years. “Mississippi is an exciting, dynamic market that’s poised for growth,” said senior vice president Hal Byer. “We wouldn’t be down here if we didn’t think it was growing.”
Things are going smoothly for another new Gulf Coast casino, the Hard Rock, according to general manager Joe Billhimer, who was touring the trade show with Roy Anderson III, one of the Biloxi casino’s owners. “Everything is on schedule and we’re shooting for a September opening,” he said.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.