BILOXI — Forbes says Tilman Fertitta is worth $2.4 billion. He became a wealthy businessman by making smart decisions, being opportunistic and having a business-is-business attitude.
But even when the owner and CEO of Fertitta Entertainment walks into one of his three Golden Nugget casinos, one thing scares him — the changing landscape of the customers.
“One of my scariest things that is young people do not play slot machines,” said Fertitta, who was the keynote speaker kicking off last week’s Southern Gaming Summit in Biloxi. “I go to all these places, it’s not young people playing slot machines.”
The overall industry concern is that Millennials are not as interested in the casino experience as baby boomers, which some see as contributing to the overall flatness in casino revenues.
“I think slot machine companies have done a good job of creating games for young people, but they want to play table games,” said Fertitta. “I can beat you x-number of times a year on table games, but I never get beat on slots. And I think it’s a problem.
“At the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas, in the nine years I’ve owned it, I think of how many of the older players who were huge slot players who have passed on — and that is scary to me.
“It’ll be interesting to see where we are in 20 years. It’ll be interesting to see we’re able to convert this new generation to slot players.”
“It’s still a very good business,” said Joel H. Simkins, a senior gaming analyst with Credit Suisse LLC. “But certain markets are suffering. When I talk to developers, it’s a core baby boomer demographic. We know these people are going to move on or spend less as they get older or develop health care issues.
“The industry needs to broadly think about how to get a younger demographic into the building. Those people are playing social games right now. They’re not really seeing casinos as appealing.”
That trend has also caught the attention of game developers like Gaming Laboratories International, where Patrick Moore is senior director of tech compliance.
“In the last 12 -18 months, we’re starting to see more innovation,” he said. “We don’t know the future, but we know the demographics are changing. If you can’t get the next generation to play slots, it will severely damage the casino properties.”
So, how do you bridge that gap?
“Some may jump to the furtherest extreme, the purely skill-based dexterity style games. We’ve seen that in concept — things like driving a race car and see how you do.
“You’ll see gradual baby steps with games. Today’s younger players don’t like the idea of starting from scratch every time they start a game session. It’s about the experiences. ‘How much have I played this game? What level am I on? What rank am I?’ It’s what driving a lot of social gaming today.
“I think you’ll start to see that with gaming devices. And you’ll hear it called a couple of things like exponential gaming or adaptive gaming. The idea that it’ll recognize who you are and have stored information about your progress in that game. It will allow you to have new content and new experiences through the game and then pushing even further. If you get to a certain level you’re going to get bigger payouts, better odds, bigger prizes.
“Those kind of things that can’t happen today because of the regulatory process. Those are the types of decision points that will come up.
That regulatory process is one that concerns Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the American Gaming Association. And he likes what he sees of that process in Mississippi.
“The question is: how can casino and policymakers work together?” asked Freeman. “How do we diversify? How do we understand our customers needs, and how do policy makers enable us to provide that?
“Is the next generation, with their iPhones and iPads, going to be interested in sitting at a slot machine? Probably not, but that’s what law allows us to provide. That said, are they interested in skill based game? Are they interested in mobile gaming? We have to answer those questions, and then hope we have the partners to get it done.
“In Mississippi, I’m pleased to see policymakers see it as a partnership. They see gaming as one component in their economic development strategy. That’s the way to look at it. We have other communities where they look at it as a necessary evil. We’ll take the dollars but then we’ll tie your hands.”
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