Editor’s note: This in-depth feature is part of an ongoing series which examines casinos in Pennsylvania and their relationship with the town in which they live. Pennsylvania has experienced a period of great growth and change in terms of gaming. We plan to examine how this growth has impacted the brick-and-mortar operations in the state, what they offer visitors, and how they are doing on an individual level.
Can brick-and-mortar survive the online invasion?
A casino and a mall within two miles of each other might be the best indicator for their respective industries. One is a behemoth. The other is considered quaint. However, both will continue to rely on guest experience to survive, and maybe thrive, in concert with their not-going-anywhere online counterparts.
In 2016, the King of Prussia Mall opened a 155,000 square foot expansion in an age of mall closures. It increased the mall’s size to 2.9 million square feet making it the largest retail space in the United States and the biggest shopping mall on the East Coast. And yes, people still go to the mall. King of Prussia gets about 20 million visitors a year.
Valley Forge Casino Resort has a 40,000 square foot gaming floor but has compensated for its small size in big ways. It dropped its $10 amenity fee, added over 250 slots and partnered with FanDuel to bring a sportsbook to the location.
The major moves by the suburban casino have paid off. From January 2019 to January 2020, Valley Forge Casino Resort’s revenue increased 92%. The rise in revenue is by far the most of any of Pennsylvania’s twelve casinos.
The experience at Valley Forge Casino
Zerfing pointed out that Valley Forge Casino is a locals casino where the majority of its clientele visit multiple times a week.
“They are the lifeblood of our property,” Zerfing says of the regulars.
It’s why Valley Forge Casino put an emphasis on the customer experience well before the the addition of iGaming.
“We will always strive to make the experience in the casino one that a customer wants to return. If they don’t like the experience here, they won’t come back. We provide customer interaction and provide a friendly, homely atmosphere that you can’t get from playing online. It’s what our culture is all about.”
The addition of 250 slot machines allowed the casino to put new games on the floor and on busy nights, be able to handle the demand for popular titles. The most popular games, says Zerfing, are Lightening Link by Aristocrat and bar top video poker games.
Since the 55% tax rate in Pennsylvania on slots is high, many casinos try to convert customers from slots to table games (taxes for table games and poker is 16%). However, that’s not necessarily the case at Valley Forge Casino.
“We want the people to play where they want to play. Last year, we added Criss Cross Poker because people wanted to play it and we will continue to offer the games people want to play. We are not just a casino trying to push slot business. We really have a strong table business and it’s good for our overall financial health.”
Valley Forge Casino also houses a lively craps scene. The tables are usually filled with an animated clientele whose excitement reverberates across the gaming floor.
Upon entering Valley Forge Casino, one is greeted with perhaps the most recognizable name in sports betting: FanDuel. The physical sportsbook is small, only 1,800 square-feet. But the impact of the name is huge.
FanDuel has the highest handle and revenue of online sportsbooks in Pennsylvania. It took the top spot in August 2019 and has held the lead since. FanDuel online sportsbook finished January taking in wagers of $153 million which makes the retail location’s $2.9 million look miniscule. However, there is more to it than the numbers suggest.
“We definitely get ancillary play. It’s different than a Las Vegas market. Our players are local. They’ll come in, make their bet, then play table games or slot machines. We have that cross-play. It’s a big reason we put the sportsbook where it is, so you don’t have to look for it. The table games are right next to it. It also helps our restaurants and bars. We see that ancillary spend across the property.”
As President & CEO of the Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board, Mike Bowman promotes the casino to visitors. An effervescent advocate of the area, Bowman was not a fan of seeing people go to New Jersey to place bets.
“It bummed me out. You knew it was coming one day, and you saw the results in New Jersey. The numbers are incredible. It’s not just sports betting, it’s the sports betting experience. We were jealous but now it’s happening here. It’s phenomenal and it’s only going to get bigger.”
Revenue growth for Valley Forge Casino
For an idea of how much the additional slots and dropping the amenity fee helped, in 2016 slot revenue ranged between $6-6.5 million per month.
From January 2019 to January 2020, Valley Forge Casino’s revenue increased 92% to $21,686,544.
Here’s how VF’s growth broke down:
- Slot machine revenue: $8,602,456
- Table games: $2,914,950
- Internet gaming: $2,081,252
- Retail sportsbook: $391,012
- Online sportsbook: $7,696,874
History of Valley Forge Casino
After overcoming court opposition from Parx, Valley Forge Casino Resort, located in Upper Merion Township, opened on March 31, 2012. At the time, it was Pennsylvania’s eleventh casino and the first to be granted a Category 3 license by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. A Category 3 license comes with a number of stipulations including:
- Requires anyone who visits the casino to spend $10 at the property or purchase a membership
- Limits the number of slots and tables
In October 2017, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed major gaming reform which contained a provision that allowed the state’s Category 3 casinos to eliminate the mandated amenity fee requirement for a one-time payment of $1 million. Valley Forge wrote the state a check for $1 million faster than a dealer shuffling a deck of cards.
Then-President and CEO Eric Pearson said at the time:
“Since opening five years ago, we have been constrained by the amenities requirements and membership fees which have confused and frustrated our guests. We are thrilled to be able to welcome our guests to our casino in the same manner as the other Pennsylvania casinos. Lifting this special requirement for guests to enter the casino allows us to better serve our existing guests, and puts us in a better position to attract new visitors to our property.”
In 2018, Boyd Gaming purchased the property for $281 million. Boyd then added 250 slot machines, upping the total number to 850.
David Zerfing, Valley Forge Casino Resort general manager said of the FanDuel sportsbook:
“Adding that amenity to the property has been big. It’s an amenity our existing casino customers really like and has brought a whole new demographic of new customers to the property. Two weeks after the sportsbook opened, it felt like it was there since the day the casino was built. It fits perfectly where it is and with the whole flow of the property. People recognize FanFuel. With the size of our property and the size of our sportsbook, what our retail sportsbook does compared to others, we get way more than what our marketshare should get.”
Valley Forge Casino Resort is located about twenty-five minutes outside of Philadelphia. With the Radisson Hotel Valley Forge, Casino Tower and a conference center, it’s the region’s only full-amenity gaming resort. For now. When Live! Hotel & Casino Philadelphia opens in December 2020, it will also have a hotel.
Valley Forge Casino Resort plays host to weddings, banquets, conventions, and a calendar full of events such as sport’s card shows and home shows. It plays a big role in Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board’s mission to attract visitors to Montgomery County. The VFTCB gets a portion of its funding from a tax imposed on hotel rooms in the county (the Radisson and the Casino Tower have a combined 400 guest rooms), so the addition of the casino to the hotel property was a more than welcome addition.
“It does a lot for tourism. The economic impact for tourism is a perfect marriage. We’re lucky to have Valley Forge Casino. It’s not just a casino. It’s the whole package. We love it because you can have a few weddings in there in a weekend.”
Weddings are great for tourism since they have turned into weekend affairs. Come into town on Friday. Have dinner. Golf. Shop. Having a wedding with a casino on site is a built-in thing to do for guests.
“At the end of day, it’s about the experience. At Valley Forge Casino, their service is great. You can go hear some live music, and get a steak and a martini in the restaurant. It’s experiential.”
In the summer of 2016, the King of Prussia Town Center opened less than a half mile from the casino. It’s a blend of residential, restaurants, and retail. Despite the near constant sight of Amazon Prime delivery vans, more brick-and-mortar shopping came to King of Prussia.
Tom Sebastian, senior vice president of development for the JBG Companies, the King of Prussia Town Center’s commercial real estate developer, told the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Pushing to be known as more than a mall, Upper Merion Township also experienced an influx of businesses moving to the area and a boom in residential development.
Valley Forge Casino and its town
The taxes collected from Valley Forge Casino Resort casino goes directly into Upper Merion Township’s general fund. Sports betting (online and retail) and slots are subject to a local share assessment of 2%. In addition to creating about 1,000 jobs, Valley Forge Casino added an entertainment and nightlife option.
Eric Goldstein, Executive Director of the King of Prussia Business Improvement District said:
“It brought a lot of life to the township in terms of just being a great entertainment venue.”
In a suburb like Upper Merion, the options for nightlife are local restaurant bars, the movies, or Netflix.
“The Valley Forge Casino is performing incredibly well relative to its peers in the region. The King of Prussia mall performs extraordinarily well. It’s amongst the best malls in the country. I don’t think the online impact has been that great on those two facilities. What we see, from my perspective, is that the future is moving toward a blend. An entertainment venue like a casino, which has non-gaming options, and a mall that is able to find a balance between online and in-store. People do both. I think thats the secret for success for both of those different entities.”
Five things you didn’t know about Valley Forge Casino
- Zerfing says by the end of the year, Valley Forge Casino will be rolled into the Boyd’s B Connected loyalty and rewards program.
- Your Valley Forge casino offers are carefully calculated.
“Our marketing offers are based on a customers’ play. With customers coming here often we’re able to easily see what the offer should be based upon recent play. We are able to change offers and are continually competitive with this. Over the last two years we’ve been able to grow our slot and table market because we are giving offers commiserate with people’s play. We are constantly making changes.”
- Full-service dining at Valley Forge Casino is limited to Revolution Chop House and Valley Tavern. There are many other better dining choices nearby including The Capital Grille, J. Alexanders, and Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Less pricier choices include Bar Taco, North Italia, and Shake Shack.
- The closest thing you will find to a beach in Upper Merion is Valley Beach at Valley Forge Casino Resort. It opens in late May and is open throughout the summer. The pool is surrounded by a “sandy beach,” private cabanas, and an outdoor bar. After dark, bands or DJ’s take the stage.
- If you’re not a “beach person,” Valley Forge Casino hosts Dueling Pianos every Friday night in The Vault.
Regardless of what you’re looking for, Valley Forge Casino has made sure that there’s truly something for everyone in King of Prussia.