Some credit the rise of foreign currencies like the euro and Chinese yuan. Others say it’s the need for escapism during difficult times. Either way, the casino business is booming.
In Atlantic City, MGM Mirage has finally promised to break ground on the $4 to $5 billion MGM Grand Atlantic City— located directly between the brand spanking new Borgata and the 44-story Harrah’s Atlantic City Waterfront Tower, which just added 960 rooms in March. Las Vegas’ Echelon Place is opening gambling-friendly incarnations of the Mondrian and the Delano directly on the Strip. And the new Venetian Macau—in China’s answer to Las Vegas—is the second-largest building in the world; it’s bigger than the Pentagon, St. Peter’s Basilica and even the Empire State Building.
There’s been a sea change for casino gambling in the past 30 years. The giants, like Las Vegas Sands, realized that there’s just as much money in glitz as in gambling. In an interview with Vegas magazine, LVS president William Weidner noted that “instead of building a casino-centric property, we've become a resort-centric, entertainment-centric, dining-centric company.” Your average Las Vegas casino is just as likely to offer pirate-themed stage shows and simulated lion habitats as they are video slots and pai gow table. And it’s by no means restricted to Las Vegas. Harrah’s now has casinos in New Orleans and Council Bluffs, Iowa; and there’s even a Hard Rock in Biloxi, Mississippi. Even the Israel government legalized gambling in the resort city of Eilat, to lure well-heeled tourists from Europe and beyond.
And it’s more than just the new buildings that are pushing casino gambling into a brave new future. In North America, video slots allow gamblers to play up to 27 paylines simultaneously—at Monopoly, Deal Or No Deal and Wheel of Fortune machines. In many cases, these new games also allow players to participate in group prizes and progressive jackpots. Even poker has changed. In November 2007, the big splash at Las Vegas’ Global Gaming Expo was Poker Tek’s electronic poker tables.
Casinos still make most of their money from gambling, but an increasing percentage comes from dining and entertainment. That’s why branches of high-end Philadelphia restaurants Buddakan and The Continental opened at Caesar’s Pier Shops in Atlantic City and Bally’s in Las Vegas recently turned to offering a $58 “Sterling Brunch” that includes an all-you-can-eat buffet of caviar, broiled Maine lobster and striped sea bass. It may also explain why Genting International and Star Cruises are planning a casino resort in Singapore that includes a full-size Universal Studios theme park, the world’s largest oceanarium and a water park located inside a natural rainforest.
If casinos are the engine that drives Las Vegas, expect a fast ride in 2009. According to casino journalists Richard Abowitz of the Los Angeles Times and Las Vegas Weekly columnist Steve Friess (also of the celebrity-interview podcast "The Strip”), among the most awaited openings in Las Vegas are MGM’s City Center, the Encore Suites at Wynn and the Fontainebleau. Here’s how Freiss puts it: “Encore seems to promise an elevated luxury experience—and Wynn has a track record of delivering successively posh resorts going from the Golden Nugget to the Mirage to Bellagio to Wynn Las Vegas—but it also could be a let-down inasmuch as it looks just like the exterior of its neighbor.”
We’ll err on the side of Wynn’s track record; both the Bellagio and Wynn Las Vegas are easily among the world’s most posh casinos.
Meanwhile, developments are happening in far-off places. Destinations such as New Zealand, St. Maarten and Jeju, South Korea, are boosting their reputations as casino hotspots with properties that could rival any in Monaco or Macau. One thing is for sure: These are good times for card sharks.