By LISA MONTI
Gamblers eagerly returned to play their favorite games when most Mississippi casinos reopened May 21 after weeks of a mandated shutdown due to the coronavirus. Their enthusiasm carried over through the Memorial Day and July 4th holiday weekends, though new health guidelines and restrictions may have toned things down a bit.
Still, casino operators and tourism officials say they are pleased with what they’ve seen so far in the all important summer season and are hopeful about how the rest of the year plays out.
At Silver Slipper casino in Hancock County, general manager John Ferrucci said he saw pent up demand among guests when the doors reopened May 21.
“People hadn’t been able to come here for nine and a half weeks so they were looking for a chance to get out of the house and come here to see us and they did. Things have leveled off a bit, but he said business is “still very good.” in the casino as well as the hotel which has been full on weekends. That’s in spite of fewer casino games available due to social distancing rules and restrictions on restaurant service.
Silver Slipper owner Full House Resorts said in a press release that even with limitations set out by the Mississippi Gaming Commission, “total casino win increased 12.3 percent despite a 15.9 percent decrease in guest counts.”
Ferrucci saw another positive aspect since the reopening. “We’re seeing a lot of new faces, folks who were coming through this part of the world maybe staying on coast for a few days and had a chance to stop by and see us. So that’s been encouraging,” he said.
Ferrucci said Silver Slipper and the other casinos share one major obstacle during the pandemic and it’s staffing, especially in housekeeping and environmental services.
“We have the same problem everybody else does, that the unemployment benefits are so rich that it’s tough to get people to return to work. But we’re getting by with what we can. We’re outsourcing some of the things we can’t staff personally and we’re getting it done.” Guests, he said, shouldn’t notice.
Ferrucci said he expects business at Silver Slipper during the month of July to “stay strong,” with August continuing to be strong depending on back to school schedules.
Beau Rivage in Biloxi reopened to the public on June 1 and officials say response has been “extremely positive.” Of the casino resort’s more than 1,800 slot machines, 925 are available to guests. Beau Rivage has 82 table games and currently has 50 of those games open.
“We are doing better than projected and numbers demonstrate a pent-up demand, as well as confidence in our health and safety protocols, said Travis Lunn, Beau Rivage president and COO.
In addition to following all health and safety regulations, Beau Rivage implemented MGM Resorts’ Seven-Point Safety Plan, which is a multi-layered set of protocols and procedures designed in conjunction with medical and scientific experts, according to the company.
Following Mississippi Gaming Commission regulations the property is being reopened in phases. “Entertainment and some of the other amenities will lag behind in part because some entertainers themselves have postponed tours until next year,” Lunn said.
In addition to the regional drive market, Beau Rivage flies guests in from all over the country on scheduled charter service. Lunn said Beau Rivage’s charter air service and all-inclusive vacation packages will resume July 19.
Flights are on board a Boeing 737-800 Sun Country Airlines aircraft with what Beau Rivage described as enhanced health and safety protocols.
Last year, Beau Rivage flew in more than 90,000 passengers from 90 markets. Current cities include Clearwater/St. Pete, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Ft. Myers, Sarasota, Detroit, Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Kansas City, St. Louis, Columbus, Green Bay, Dallas, Memphis, Daytona Beach and Oklahoma City.
“We continue to be the second largest carrier at Gulfport-Biloxi Airport,” Lunn said.
In the Tunica market, where the convention business has been halted temporarily, the six casino reopenings have been a bright spot.
Webster Franklin, president and CEO of the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau, said, “We’ve been very pleased not only with the number of visitors to our six casino properties since reopening but also with the average customer spend that has been higher than pre-pandemic spending. That’s a great sign for the Tunica economy and will go a long way in assisting the overall Mississippi economic turnaround.”
The majority of Tunica visitors come from Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri and Alabama, he said. “The largest number of visitors can be attributed to those four states but our market far exceeds these states with visitors having easy access to the market via Interstate 40 and Interstate 55.”
Visitors, he said, are glad to get away from home for two or three days “and enjoy all that we have to offer here in the destination. Our two golf courses have remained open during the pandemic and overall play has been good during this time as well. So we’re very pleased that the casino industry is open for business and our visitors can come back to enjoy all that we have to offer. We’re back open for business but not quite back to normal yet. I’m not sure we’ll ever get back to normal but it’s good to have people back in the area to enjoy what we have here in Northwest Mississippi.”
Franklin said the next big things for his market will be the return of concerts and other live entertainment at local venues and the restart of major league sports.
“Once we get entertainment and sportsbooks reopened, we will begin to see another increase that will be good for the overall market,” he said.
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