Gulf Coast casinos eye expansion

Post-Katrina business back to near normal, and some operators hope to attract new customers. 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, but also to get an edge in an increasingly competitive market.

For what is traditionally one of industry’s busiest weeks, halls are decked with decorations, holiday music is in rotation and casinos are trumpeting traditional giveaways, dance parties and invitation-only soirees. This time last year, many of the casinos had not yet reopened. Those that had, like Boomtown, had all the business they could handle.

Riverboat gambling revenue in Louisiana hit a post-Katrina peak last December of USD 177.3 million, up from USD 124.7 million in December 2004. Since then, revenues have dipped nearer to pre-storm levels.

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. 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 a hotel as part of its proposed USD 145 million expansion. One more casino also is set to open on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast sometime next year.

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. “New Year’s Eve sets the tone for your property,” said Kerry Andersen, a spokeswoman for southwest Louisiana’s L’Auberge Du Lac casino.

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.