View: Closure Gives PA Casinos Time To Reimagine Safety, Guest Experience

Posted on May 7, 2020 - Last Updated on August 24, 2020

There just is not enough of certain things during a pandemic.

Toilet paper. Hand sanitizer. Crystal balls.

No one can offer a circle-your-calendar-in-permanenet-marker date or even narrow it down to a month of when coronavirus will be over and things will go back to what is being dubbed a “new normal.” As a result, no one knows when Pennsylvania’s twelve brick-and-mortar casinos will reopen.

In PA, reopening is determined by region by a color-coded three-phase schedule. On May 824 counties, most of which are in the northwest area of the state and along the New York State border, can move to the yellow phase.

Of the 24 counties, only Erie is home to a casino (Presque Isle). However, casinos are only approved to open during the green phase, not the yellow phase.

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Reservation gambling

In Las Vegas, America’s gambling capital, operators like Wynn are sharing health and safety plans. It includes limited capacity, reconfigured floor layouts, and social distancing.

So far, Wind Creek is the only casino in Pennsylvania that has offered any detailed plan on how they plan to resume operations. Jay Dorris, Wind Creek’s President and CEO, wrote a letter that outlined plans. Like Wynn, it listed sanitation and social distancing measures.

The difference? A new reservation system for visits. Guests can reserve a day and time in advance when the casino reopens. Many casinos, including Wind Creek, are planning to operate at reduced capacity.

I’ve been making dinner, hotel, and flight reservations online for years. I even booked my spot at “Instagram’s first pizza shop.” The idea of reserving a time slot to go to a casino doesn’t seem so far-fetched to me. However, when I floated the idea to regular casino-goers they said it was annoying, but better than not being able to go at all.

If casinos put reservation systems in place that are user-friendly and can handle the demand (no one likes constant error messages from a busy server), making a reservation online beats driving to a casino and waiting in line outside.

Devastation, then re-imagination

This isn’t a pause. It’s not the Blizzard of ’96 or a bathroom break during a marathon game of Monopoly. It’s not going back to the way it was the day that the doors were locked.

March’s revenue numbers indicate a $151 million decrease from February. April’s numbers for land-based slots and table games will be zero since casinos were closed the entire month. It’s a crushing blow to not only the casinos but the Commonwealth which collects taxes.

The economics are devastating to the twelve casinos, the communities where they are located, and the nearly 17,000 employees currently out of work.

But from the mat, through eyes swollen-shut, there is a light. It could be the light which is said to greet some at their death. If retail casinos do not adapt, they will either inch or sprint towards it.

Or it could be a light that sparks the new ideas, new innovation, and new ways of operating that will blaze a trail for the future of the gaming world.

Raising standards

When has there ever been a time in the history of gaming that the industry has been given time to plot a safer future for its employees and guests?

There’s already been a seismic shift about what safety at a casino means. Before coronavirus, it meant security guards and the ever-present eyes in the sky. In the 24/7 world of gaming, when is there time to stop, to step away and look at things differently? During the course of day-to-day operations, there is little time to reimagine what happens in front of you seemingly like clockwork.

Guests’ mindsets and expectations for safety have changed. Those expectations now include sanitation they can see and what they assume goes on behind the scenes. Some casinos have been posting pictures of their cleaning efforts and have promised more “frequent and intense sanitation” upon reopening. They aren’t alone in this, “Hey, look at us and how hard we are scrubbing” message.

It doesn’t give me a warm and fuzzy feeling. Instead, I cringe and think, “Weren’t they cleaning like this before?”

I think back to a visit to a sportsbook during an NFL Sunday when a group sitting across from my own spent the first half at a table enjoying appetizers and beers. When they left, a worker (without gloves) wiped the table for about five seconds with a dry towel before the next guests took their seats. When my group left, a pair jumped right into our seats.

The over/under on the number of times I touch my face per day is 200. I leaned on the rails at the craps table, I touched the dice that everyone else touched. And the chips…

Raising standards for cleanliness is good – and long overdue.

Reach out for feedback

The boiler-plate message from casinos and other non-essential businesses has been “we are working with government and health officials to develop a plan.” Casinos should not only be consulting health and government officials about reopening, they need to be tapping into their own resources.

Internally, they should be soliciting feedback from each department – custodial, slot/table/sportsbooks operations, marketing, public relations, guest services, etc.

What would make employees feel safe enough to come back to work? What can make their job safer for themselves and the guests? What would enhance the guest experience? What big change or big idea do they have but might have been too afraid to share pre-corona. Bring it to the table now, because there is time to listen and seriously consider it.

Casinos have reached out during their closure via email to share updates and recipes. Wind Creek even called some card members just to check in. Now is the time to send out a survey and ask card members what they want their next visit to a casino to look like.

The coronavirus has made everything feel out of whack. By asking “How can we help you?” and “What would you like?” gives a little bit of control back to people who haven’t felt any since early March.

Example survey

1. If a casino required temperature checks for entry I would be more likely/less likely to visit.

2. When casinos get approval to open, if they take proper precautionary measures, I would return in:

  • Within a week
  • Within a month
  • Within six months
  • Not until there is a vaccine

3. I agree/disagree with special hours for elderly or immunocompromised guests at a casino like Monday and Wednesday mornings.

Solutions for PA casinos, patrons

Throughout the closure, Pennsylvanians have had the option to play online. The state is one of only four that offers iGaming and is now home to ten online casinos. Perhaps coronavirus will cause other states to take a longer look at legalization. Even before the closures in early March, a doctor told PlayPennsylvania playing online is a safer option.

For some, the best part of going to a casino is the social interaction and the energy of the gaming floor. Humans are the source of interactions and source of the unique vibe of each casino. When the number of people are limited, those experiences are limited, too.

It’s up to each guest from the penny slot players to the high rollers to decide when they want to return.

Pennsylvania is in a different situation from Las Vegas. No one is flying in to play at Rivers or Parx. Philadelphia is within a day’s drive of 40 percent of the U.S. population. The casinos in PA are day-trip friendly, a selling point that eliminates the new safety worries people have about air travel and overnight hotel stays.

Some tier members get gifts like electronics, Pyrex sets, or kitchen appliances but when casinos reopen, how about a gift for everyone like a “casino care pack.” It could include a mask, hand sanitizer, a travel-pack of disinfecting wipes, and a plastic pointer. Inside of the pack, put a card that lays out all the new safety measures.

There won’t be a crystal ball in there but instead of relying on an orb to tell the future, it will give casinos a chance to start to plan their own.

Katie Kohler Avatar
Written by
Katie Kohler

Katie Kohler is a Philadelphia-area based award-winning journalist. She covers the Pennsylvania gambling industry with an emphasis on sports betting, online casino/poker and the lottery.

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