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'Tis not the season for gaming

There is a very good chance that the recession will not unduly impact the state’s casino industry this holiday season. That is because historically the period between the Thanksgiving weekend and Christmas is the worst of times for the gaming industry, even when the economy is healthy. There is nowhere to go but up for the industry.

Since gaming came to Mississippi in 1993, December has been the slowest month in terms of casino gross tax revenues five times, and the second-worst five additional times, according to figures from the Mississippi State Tax Commission, which do not include the gaming operations of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians in Philadelphia. Four of those 10 bleak Decembers occurred during the relatively heady economic times of the 1990s.

Last year, December was the second-worst month for casino gross gaming revenues in Mississippi. The state’s casinos brought in approximately $204.3 million, compared to the best month, February, which saw revenues of approximately $253.77 million.

Randy Fine said this is not unique to Mississippi, nor does it have anything to do with the economy. Managing director of The Fine Point Group, a Las Vegas, Nev.-based consulting and management company that specializes in the casino industry, Fine says the issue is time.

“People are busy shopping, traveling, going to parties,” said Fine. “They simply don’t have the time.”

Fine, who is a Harvard University graduate and former officer with Harrah’s Entertainment and Carl Icahn’s casino company, said the holiday season can be broken into two parts in the industry — one great, one not. He said the weekend following Thanksgiving and post-Christmas are two of the best for the gaming industry in Mississippi and across the nation. In a festive spirit, guests spill into casinos to enjoy a little gaming or maybe catch a show.

The rest of December is historically the weakest time for gaming, and leaves casinos little choice but to “batten down the hatches.”

Fine did say casinos can bring in guests with holiday-related events and promotions, and many do. Evelyn Green agrees, and says it is the perfect time for casinos to promote the “other side of the house” — food. entertainment and lodging.

Green, a tourism management instructor at the University of Mississippi with an academic and professional interest in instructional technology and casino resort management, said, “I think people forget what it was like before casinos. Mississippians had limited opportunities for high-end dining and entertainment. We don’t have to drive to, say, New Orleans any more.”

With predictions calling for less travel this holiday season, Green wonders if this may play to the advantage of the state’s casino industry. She sees less discretionary spending and the hassle of flying as an opportunity, and believes casinos should pick up on their marketing efforts, touting their convenience and promotional packages, to bring in more guests during December.

The state’s casinos are, indeed, doing just that. Hollywood Casino Bay St. Louis is giving away a new Volkswagen Beetle convertible, Gold Strike Casino Resort in Bay St. Louis is giving away an IS-250 Lexus while Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Biloxi is offering a free GMC Sierra. To enter these drawings, guests must game and earn points during the month of December.

R. Scott Barber, Regional President, Harrah’s Mid-South Region, “We are offering some great non-gaming options this holiday season at all three of our Tunica properties. Horseshoe’s Bluesville will have the Brian Setzer Orchestra’s 7th Annual Christmas Rocks Extravaganza on Dec. 11. Dec. 18 we have the big grand opening party of the new Tunica Roadhouse Casino and Hotel. Paula Deen is scheduled to make an appearance on Dec. 19 at Harrah’s Tunica. We’ve got great holiday menus and specials at our food and beverage outlets including the Paula Deen Buffet at Harrah’s.”

Casinos are already promoting their New Year’s Eve events, and the industry is hoping it launches better times for the industry. After nearly two years of weathering challenging economic conditions, a recent survey by the American Gaming Association (AGA) shows growing optimism.

Released last month, 47 percent of respondents to the AGA survey said they saw the beginning of improvement, compared to 20 percent who believed the industry was still in decline.

“Without a doubt, the gaming industry faces a long road to recovery,” said AGA president and CEO Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. “However, I consider these results a sign that there is optimism within our industry that we are turning a corner.”

About Wally Northway

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