Gaming expo backers see glint of hope

After nearly two years of sliding profits, stalled projects and staff reductions, the gaming industry could probably use a good laugh.

That's partly why comedian and Strip mainstay Rita Rudner was booked as keynote speaker for this year's Global Gaming Expo, which opens this week at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

The casino industry's leading trade show, where the newest slot machines, management systems and other gaming-related technologies are shown to casino operators, runs Tuesday through Thursday. The meeting and convention portion begins Monday with daylong workshops and ends Thursday.

G2E is closed to the public.

Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., president and chief executive officer of the American Gaming Association, the casino industry's chief lobbying group, said the show's organizers are upbeat with better-than-expected advance bookings and the possible stabilization in nationwide gaming revenues.

"If you're in this industry, this is the place to be," said Fahrenkopf, whose group co-organizes the expo. "You're going to look to the future, make your own plans, whether or not you're talking about if your company's going to expand and buy some more machines."

Many casino owners put refreshing their casino floors on hold while they struggled with big debt and declining revenues. Exhibitors at this year's expo are hopeful that capital spending is about to return with casinos ready to reinvest in new technology and updated machines.

"We know many, many, many companies haven't had the capital to refresh their floors," Fahrenkopf said. "So this is their opportunity to present the newest and best in their technology to hope when the purchases start again business is going to be good for them."

Julie Brown, marketing director for International Game Technology, the world's largest slot machine manufacturer, said her company has heard encouraging things from casino companies.

"We're keeping our fingers crossed and hoping that is definitely true," Brown said of Fahrenkopf's statement. "We're very focused on everything we can do to provide value and performance to our customers now. We're working like never before to make sure that we can provide our operators (return on investment) today."

Beyond the state of technology, Fahrenkopf said other major G2E discussion topics will include Internet gaming and the growth of racinos, especially into possible new markets such as Ohio and New York.

Although organizers are upbeat about tomorrow, the current realities of the casino industry and the economy still weigh heavily over the expo. Some of the show's panels and workshops will reflect this, such as "Gaming Bankruptcy and Reorganization: Issues and Strategies"; "Managing Employee Benefits in Today's Economy"; and "Shaping Your Casino to Succeed in Today's Economy."

"There's a session in human resources about managing morale," Fahrenkopf said. "What do you do with layoffs, cost-cutting? Those are important questions at the present time to operate under these circumstances."

G2E attendance is expected to be down again. Nearly 25,000 attendees are expected this year, down 5.7 percent from 26,500 attendees last year. Nearly 31,000 attended in 2007.

On a brighter note, though, Fahrenkopf said, there has been a sharp increase in attendee reservations in the weeks leading into the show.

Fewer exhibitors have reserved space for the second straight year. Nearly 570 exhibitor companies had reserved space by Nov. 2, down 21.3 percent from 724 exhibitors in 2008.

With fewer exhibitors, the show's floor space has shrunk 22.9 percent to 258,600 square feet this year from 335,480 square feet last year.

Many smaller exhibitors that attended G2E in the past can't afford to come this year, Fahrenkopf said, or have gone out of business.

"It is going to be a very forward-thinking conference," Fahrenkopf said. "The people I've talked to are upbeat. They think hopefully that the worst is behind us."

Contact reporter Arnold M. Knightly at aknightly or 702-477-3893.