Gulf Coast casinos rebound with holiday help

Darren White from Douglas, Ga., helps contribute to the Gulf Coast Casino business by playing blackjack at the Boomtown Casino in New Orleans.
Darren White from Douglas, Ga., helps contribute to the Gulf Coast Casino business by playing blackjack at the Boomtown Casino in New Orleans.Alex Brandon / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The only sign of Christmas on the casino floor is the poker dealer in the Santa hat, and Darren White is glad for that: the subcontractor from Georgia didn't come here to be reminded of the holidays, or anything, for that matter, outside these flashy, noisy walls.

He came for the distraction. And Boomtown Casino in suburban New Orleans, like other casinos along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi, is glad to provide it.

Casinos, some of which emerged from last year's damaging hurricanes as bigger, better properties, are trying a range of tactics not only to draw players in — and make them feel at ease — but also to get an edge in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Heading into what is traditionally one of industry's busiest weeks, halls are decked with decorations, both tasteful and gaudy, holiday music is in rotation and casinos are trumpeting traditional giveaways, dance parties and invitation-only soirees to bring in players.

"It's been a hell of a year," Boomtown's general manager, Dave Williams, said in an interview at the casino in Harvey, La.

This time last year, many of the casinos, particularly in Mississippi, had not yet reopened. Those that had, like Boomtown, had all the business they could handle: construction workers here for the post-hurricane reconstruction played Christmas Day, and folks in line waited, six-wide, to board the riverboat on New Year's Eve, Williams said.

Riverboat gambling revenue in Louisiana hit a post-Katrina peak last December of $177.3 million, up from $124.7 million in December 2004, said Wade Duty, executive director of the Louisiana Casino Association. Since then, and as more casinos have come back online, revenues have dipped nearer to pre-storm levels, he said.

Meanwhile in Mississippi, where there's an all-out effort to market Gulf Coast casinos with hotels and other amenities as tourist destinations, gross revenue is seemingly on pace to top last year, in spite of dips recorded this fall by that state's tax commission. There are also two fewer casinos open now on the Gulf Coast than before the hurricanes, 10 versus 12, said Becky Clark, a staff officer with the Mississippi Gaming Commission.

Casino operators are confident heading into 2007, when further industry expansion is set to help fill what some managers see as an almost insatiable appetite for the kind of escapism — from gambling and shopping to pampering — casinos are peddling. Boomtown is eyeing both a new gambling boat and hotel as part of its proposed, $145 million expansion. One more casino also is set to open on Mississippi's Gulf Coast sometime next year, Clark said.

Casinos hope to draw in crowds this coming week, building from low-key Christmas buffet specials to pull-the-stops New Year's parties, meant as much to hail the industry's rebirth as to draw in new customers with music and drinks and to-be-announced promotions. Some casino hotels are completely booked leading to New Year's Day.

"New Year's Eve sets the tone for your property," said Kerry Andersen, a spokeswoman for southwest Louisiana's L'Auberge Du Lac casino, near the Texas border.

This year, the offerings will include, among other things, an invitation-only show with The Temptations and The Four Tops and a dinner. The night tends to be the casino's biggest of the year, she said.

"You want to have the Golden Ticket," Andersen said, "the party everyone wants to be at."

That's true nationwide, said Andy Holtmann, editor of the Casino Journal, a trade publication. "For a lot of casinos, it's kind of a necessity," he said of a New Year's Eve bash. "You have to take some marketing risks here," and aim to set the casino apart from the competition, he said.

Some Gulf Coast casinos are preparing for an influx of customers as early as Christmas Eve, a traditionally quiet day, and certainly by Christmas Day. Many places are decorated, if not on the playing floor, where Christmas lights would almost surely be dimmed by the flashing lights of slot machines anyway. Visitors to Boomtown are greeted by faux alligators pulling Santa and his sleigh.

For many families, cooped up in close quarters such as a federally issued trailers, "It's almost like a savior thing," said Beverly Martin, executive director of the Mississippi Casino Operators Association. "'The casino's open, let's go down there, because there's a limit on what we can do here.'"